Well, Sam Harris' new book "Waking Up," a guide to spirituality without religion, was about what I expected. Interesting. Inspiring. Well written. Not hugely enlightening.
Like I said in the second post, there are subtleties in Harris' message that require some pondering -- as would be expected for such ponderable subjects as the nature of consciousness and the self.
Having read a bunch of neuroscience books, I wasn't surprised by reading this.
Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it. The goal, therefore, is to cease to overlook what is already the case.
Meaning, it is virtually certain that nothing like an eternal soul or enduring self exists in (or as) us. So since spirituality is all about realizing this fact, there isn't anything we have to become in order to be spiritual.
Many religions, spiritual paths, and mystic practices place a lot of emphasis on self-transcendence and doing away with ego. But since there is no self to transcend, nor any separate ego, this goal can be checked off by everybody.
Now, back in the long-ago times when Buddhism and HInduism started out in India, modern neuroscience obviously didn't exist. Almost everybody took it for granted that consciousness was separable from the body, and that the feeling of an "I" residing between and behind the eyes reflected something real: a soul or self. The Buddha blew minds by saying otherwise.
So I finished the book wondering if Harris' emphasis on meditation as a way to realize the reality of selflessness was justified. He has done a lot of meditating and spiritual searching in India and elsewhere.
This renowned atheist even speaks approvingly of finding a meditation teacher who can help dissolve the illusion of a dualistic soul or self that is separate from mind/body. Which, for Harris, is close to an indisputable fact.
Although we are only beginning to understand the human mind at the level of the brain, and we know nothing about how consciousness itself comes into being, it isn't too soon to say that the conventional self is an illusion. There is no place for a soul inside your head.
OK. LIke I said, done. I'm convinced, in much the same way I'm convinced that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way around.
When I look at the Sun set or rise, I still have the sensation that it is moving, while the Earth stand still. However, science tells me this is an illusion. I believe science. My mental image is of the Earth orbiting the Sun. It is only my eyes which deceive me.
Likewise, I don't believe that I have a self or soul. I haven't for quite a while. Yet I still feel like I am looking out at the world in the same way as a rider looks out from his position astride a horse: in control, separate from body.
What I'm unsure about is whether it is really necessary to engage in all of the meditative work Harris considers to be necessary to lessen one's feeling of being a self or soul. If this is such a good thing, then why shouldn't I also labor at trying to experience the Earth moving at "sunset" rather than the Sun going down?
Evolution wouldn't have left us with the feeling of being a self if it wasn't good for something. Likely, a lot of something.
That said, I can understand the Buddhist-like perspective Harris shares in his book. It is possible to live life in a more meaningful and happy way if we tinker with how we experience ourselves and the world. Sensations of suffering and lack can't be eliminated, but they can be much reduced.
This is the question. Harris is big on meditation. I think that thinking is another way: understanding the reasons why a self or soul almost certainly doesn't exist can lead to an intuitive experience of selflessness.
Again, after I understand that the Earth revolves around the Sun, I won't look upon a sunrise or sunset in the same way. Eventually that cognitive understanding may morph into an experiential realization of Earth moving and Sun staying still.
Buddhist meditation -- Harris favors the Dzogchen variety -- surely is a proven way of experiencing more fully the reality of no-self. Simply living life with eyes wide open is another way. I doubt that sitting at the feet of a Dzogchen master is necessary to realize there is no self or soul inside my head.
We have long known that how things seem in the world can be misleading, and this is no less true of the mind itself. And yet many people have found that through sustained introspection, how things seem can be brought into closer register with how they are.
Well, not only through introspection. Extrospection -- diving into the world -- can do this also.
Dance. Run. Ski. Surf. Walk. Gaze. Love.
Harris correctly says, "Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious."
The form of transcendence that appears to link directly to ethical behavior and human well-being is that which occurs in the midst of ordinary waking life... The freedom from self that is both the goal and foundation of spiritual life is coincident with normal peception and cognition -- though, as I have already said, this can be difficult to realize.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Here's a 7 minute video featuring Sam Harris talking about consciousness and the self. Pretty good summary of the core theses of his book.