I've read Sam Harris' book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I've written four blog posts about his book (see here, here, here, and here).
So when I learned that Harris was offering a $4.99 video -- an hour of him talking about the message of "Waking Up" plus an hour or so of audience Q&A -- I wondered if it was worth five bucks to me.
Turns out, it was.
I came away with a deeper appreciation for Harris' central theme: the supernatural side of religions is bullshit, but a secular understanding of how human consciousness functions isn't.
Meaning, basically, that we can live a happier and more fulfilling life by being more mindful. Near the start of his talk Harris says this is "a passion for observing what is subjectively real in this moment."
I like that word, subjectively.
This seems key to me, because otherwise mindfulness and meditation can be used to justify religious dogmas that assume it is possible to know the truth about objective reality through higher states of awareness.
Harris doesn't really mean this, though he does say in the video that it is possible to make objective statements about human consciousness. For example, he puts up a photo of Abraham Lincoln and observes that almost certainly nobody in this auditorium was thinking of this man until now.
My overall impression of the video is that Harris does an excellent job explaining important philosophical, scientific, and religious issues in an appealing way.
His extensive experience both as a neuroscientist and long-time student of Buddhist meditation make him well-qualified to tread a middle ground between the extremes of unfounded religious belief and a disregard of the potential to explore what Harris (problematically) calls "spirituality."
Harris' use of that word was questioned by an audience member in the Q&A portion of the video. Harris acknowledged its limitations, but said he couldn't think of a better one.
What he means by "spiritual" is a realization of the selflessness of consciousness. It has nothing to do with supernatural realms, psychic phenomena, the soul, God, or such.
In the video a man tells Harris that, as an avid hiker, he experiences a state of selfless awe and connection with the world when he is in the majesty of the high Sierra mountains. Harris responds that what he means by "spiritual" is something deeper than that.
Well, as I said in my final post about Harris' book, I'm not so sure.
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."
Other audience questions addressed this issue in various ways: if we don't have a separate "self" that is conscious, then why is Harris so big on achieving a mindful state where part of human consciousness is having an experience, and another part is aware of "I'm having this experience."
This was brought out in a Q&A about Harris' movie projector analogy. We can either (1) watch a movie and forget that it is a movie, or (2) be aware of the projector and screen, along with the movie.
In another post I'll talk about another author's knowledgeable perspective on this that makes more sense to me. It's more Taoist than Buddhist, which is Harris' leaning. I prefer to see "immersion" and "detachment" as possibilities open to human consciousness, neither of which being better than the other.
Sometimes it's good to be fully immersed in an experience, forgetting everything else, pretty much. Other times it's good to be aware of what you're aware of, so to speak.
Harris repeatedly says in the video that the sense of "I" is thinking without knowing that you are thinking.
In other words, habitual, scattered, Monkey Mind, rambling thinking. I can resonate with this perspective, since thinking in this way does seem to narrow us into focusing on the content of our own mind, while we lose touch with the outside world. The "I" is enlarged, while everything else is diminished.
However, watching a movie with very minimal awareness that I'm watching a movie -- that seems to me like a great way to watch a movie. Just as dancing without knowing that "I'm dancing" is a great way to dance.
I'll end this post with a countervailing message from Harris that I did completely agree with. A man asked a question about whether doing what Harris advised would lead to a feeling that life is more meaningful.
Harris responded, "When you're immersed in a deeply satisfying experience, you're not worried about what it means."
Meaning is a concept. Experience is, well, experience.
A fulfilling sexual experience doesn't require an extra conceptual topping of meaning to be pleasurable. Harris went on to say something like, "Finding an answer to a question about meaning is less interesting than an interesting present moment."
I've got more notes from my watching of Harris' video scribbled on some scraps of paper. I'll probably share some of them later.
Why is a sense of self a problem? Why would anyone want to be selfless? You're human, you have a sense of yourself. It goes with the territory. Call it "ego", if you like, but why make a problem of it?
Each one of us is a self, and one is either undergoing constant change as new information is processed, or new information is unwelcome and one's self stagnates in a putrid pool of belief.
The problem isn't the sense of self, but the reluctance to change and adapt as old assumptions are upended by new realities.
Posted by: cc | January 27, 2015 at 07:58 PM
Brian, I was on the same wave length as you. I watched it and loved it. Very clear and definitely worth the money which wasn't much considering how articulate Sam Harris can be.
Posted by: david lane | January 28, 2015 at 12:15 AM
""Well, not only through introspection. Extrospection -- diving into the world -- can do this also.
Dance. Run. Ski. Surf. Walk. Gaze. Love. ""
Spirituality on all levels is cyclic
when skilled you can enjoy all at the same time
Individuality switched on/off ; *never destroyed
always TWO to dance,
Posted by: 777 | January 28, 2015 at 05:39 AM
SH "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"
BH ".Well, not only through introspection. Extrospection -- diving into the world -- can also do this."
People tend to default to introspection, so the standard "spiritual" emphasis on introspection is perhaps intended to restore balance,
"Enlightenment" is rare. Cycling between introspection and extraspection is common, so it seems likely that something else, some synthesis, or third way is needed.
Posted by: TheAncientGeek | January 31, 2015 at 08:15 AM
The sense of self is something that needs to be defended. Every time you felt hurt, disrespected, overlooked, insulted, that was unnecessary. Note the two meanings of "ego".
The seaparateness of self is a false belief, and false beliefs have consequences, which are usually negative,
Posted by: TheAncientGeek | January 31, 2015 at 08:22 AM
""seems likely that something else, some synthesis, or third way is needed. - ""
That "else" is The Sound, we all have above our eyes
To be absorbed in It is to be God,
Posted by: 777 | January 31, 2015 at 12:29 PM
" To be absorbed in It is to be God"
Who told you that?
Posted by: TheAncientGeek | February 06, 2015 at 07:40 AM