Sam Harris’s book Waking Up argues convincingly and eloquently that the potential benefits of meditation are legion. Harris has deep experience with meditation and a non-trivial amount of experience with psychoactive drugs. Both have shaped his view that altered states of awareness are achievable and desirable. He strongly recommends meditation as the preferred route to get you there cautioning that drugs very will might land you in a world of hurt.
Harris is extremely rational and spins taut arguments with copious supporting information. He draws upon his Neuroscience background during the science portions. He is not a cheerleader and his writing is not generally warm or cozy, but I believe he’s extremely well qualified to deliver the important message he bears.
This book was instrumental in the inception of my own meditation practice. I’ve enjoyed many benefits from meditation. I hope that this review and the full book are useful to you as well.
Chapter 1: Spirituality
Harris starts the book by recounting a long retreat he went on as a teenager. It culminated in a three day solo excursion which was, he makes humorously clear, completely wasted on him at the time. Harris spent most of the three days fantasizing about the cheeseburgers and milkshakes he would consume upon return to civilization.
This is a great opener to make it clear Harris didn’t always have the wisdom he espouses throughout the book. In fact elsewhere I’ve heard Harris distance himself from his younger self calling the 25 year old version of him “a walking bundle of impulses”.
As for the retreat Harris writes “the nature of my own mind did not interest me” and “I was utterly oblivious to how different life would be if the quality of my mind were to change.” The now 40-something Harris continues:
Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.
Harris explains what really matters is how we feel right now at the present moment:
How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.
However Harris’s background is not strictly related to meditation. Some years after the retreat Harris took MDMA (Ecstasy) with a good friend. Sitting on a couch engaged in quiet conversation the drug kicked in:
In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.
Harris emphasizes this was a moment of “absolute sobriety” and “moral and emotional clarity” and describes his state of mind:
It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward. I was simply talking to my friend—about what, I don’t recall—and realized that I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.
Harris is a very vocal and visible “new athiest” so him writing a book about spirituality must have raised some eyebrows. He explains colorfully, “I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.”
He feels strongly that scientists and “contemplatives” can each learn something from the other: “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.” He introduces a central theme of the book, the illusory nature of the self:
That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished.
Harris says “deliberate use of attention” through meditation, yoga and prayer can transform one’s perception of the world. He writes about our dissatisfaction with the world:
Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.
Then he speculates there is a deeper form of happiness available to us:
Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain? Is there a happiness that does not depend upon having one’s favorite foods available, or friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or good books to read, or something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?
Harris spent years of his life practicing meditation up to 18 hours day. He’s gone on silent retreats for weeks or months at a time. He’s done an unspecified but non-trivial amount psychoactive drugs. He claims to be an expert on altered states of mind and I for one believe he does speak from a position of authority.
He has been through all of these experiences, but he comes to us with absolutely intact rationality. Many proponents of meditation are so awestruck by what they’ve experienced that they cannot relay anything with precision or detail. Harris on the other hand is almost Spock-like in his thinking. He says we too can achieve these alternate, and superior, states of mind. It won’t be easy, but he tells us what mindset is necessary:
Many things require extraordinary effort to accomplish, and some of us learn to enjoy the struggle. Any athlete knows that certain kinds of pain can be exquisitely pleasurable. The burn of lifting weights, for instance, would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness. But because it is associated with health and fitness, most people find it enjoyable. Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.
A key aspect of meditation is controlling your attention. Often you cannot change what is happening, but you can change your reaction to it. Harris says, “There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”
Harris singles out Buddhism as being the best guide to meditation and mindfulness, but he is not a Buddhist and believes it contains falsehoods and pitfalls like anything religion.
However he writes “The teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are best viewed as lab manuals and explorers’ logs detailing the results of empirical research on the nature of human consciousness.” Buddhism teaches us mindfulness, it tells us “the reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating.” Harris continues, “I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.” He writes:
[Mindfulness] is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness
Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant. One of the great strengths of this technique of meditation, from a secular point of view, is that it does not require us to adopt any cultural affectations or unjustified beliefs. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment
Harris includes specific instructions on how to meditate which I will not repeat here. These are very generic steps and every book on meditation contains roughly the same instructions. In one sentence the task is simply to focus on your breath. Harris’s contribution is explaining in detail why someone should meditate. He isn’t particularly novel or insightful explaining exactly how to do it. The book Mindfulness in Plain English at the end of the page is best for that.
Sometimes you hear the phrase “life is suffering” ascribed to Buddhism. This sounds rather depressing. However Harris explains that is partly a trick of translation. One could just as easily translate it as “life is unsatisfactoriness” which sounds less brutal than “suffering”. Although it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.
Either way it’s not meant to be depressing, simply factual. Imagine looking out your window and seeing pure light, zero darkness or shadow. You couldn’t make anything out. This is what Buddhism means. For there to be anything good there must be something less good. There is no way around it. You simply can’t have pure undifferentiated bliss all the time, there must be a downside to compare it with.
Harris discusses “enlightenment” which is sometimes thought of as “the goal” of meditation. He concludes:
In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.
Chapter 2: The Mystery of Consciousness
Harris has PhD in Neuroscience and I have to imagine him pounding out this chapter with a smile on his face. He explains what we know about consciousness from a scientific point of view, which in some ways is not a lot.
Harris says when we are through our tour “we will see that spirituality is not just important for living a good life; it is actually essential for understanding the human mind.”
He starts with Thomas Nagel’s famous thought experiment “what is it like to be a bat”. For an animal to be conscious, one would hope there is something it is like to be that animal. If being that animal were like nothing, like living in a void, then how can we say the animal is conscious?
Harris writes, “Arranging atoms in certain ways appears to bring about an experience of being that very collection of atoms. This is undoubtedly one of the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.” Harris also intones, “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.”
Harris digs back into the history of consciousness studies from vitalism to binocular rivalry to the “Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics” and finally a long discourse on the ever popular “split brain” experiments. These spooky experiments show how the two halves a person’s brain seemingly function independent of each other in strange and surprising ways.
Harris shows that all the scientific attempts come up short. He writes:
But the reality of consciousness appears irreducible. Only consciousness can know itself—and directly, through first-person experience. It follows, therefore, that rigorous introspection—“spirituality” in the widest sense of the term—is an indispensable part of understanding the nature of the mind.
Even stranger the split brain experiments suggest there may be more than one conscious point of view in our brains even in a healthy person.
Harris writes, “The point of view from which you are consciously reading these words may not be the only conscious point of view to be found in your brain.” He continues, “A person’s experience of the world, while apparently unified in a normal brain, can be physically divided.” And finally, “Each of us may live, even now, in a fluid state of split and overlapping subjectivity. Whether or not this seems plausible to you may not be the point. Another part of your brain may see the matter differently.”
I find this notion of multiple subjective viewpoints within a single brain one of the most fascinating discussions in the book. Harris doesn’t bring it up, but think of “dissociative identity disorder” which used to be called “multiple personality disorder”. Where else could the brain be storing these completely separate personalities except intermixed together using the same hardware?
I believe we all do have many different subjective points of view (personalities) within us, and that functioning normally in the world requires that we expertly blend their various contributions. Often we come up short.
While he cannot explain consciousness, Harris nonetheless articulates its importance, “Despite the obvious importance of the unconscious mind, consciousness is what matters to us—not just for the purpose of spiritual practice but in every aspect of our lives." He continues, “We don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks (on the assumption that they are not conscious), but we do have such obligations toward any creature that can suffer or be deprived of happiness.”
Harris notes every moral judgement about right or wrong or good or bad depends on “some change in the experience of conscious creatures.” And then at length:
Why would it be wrong to murder a billion human beings? Because so much pain and suffering would result. Why would it be wrong to painlessly kill every man, woman, and child in their sleep? Because of all the possibilities for future happiness that would be foreclosed. If you think such actions are wrong primarily because they would anger God or would lead to your punishment after death, you are still worried about perturbations of consciousness—albeit ones that stand a good chance of being wholly imaginary. I take it to be axiomatic, therefore, that our notions of meaning, morality, and value presuppose the actuality of consciousness (or its loss) somewhere. If anyone has a conception of meaning, morality, and value that has nothing to do with the experience of conscious beings, in this world or in a world to come, I have yet to hear of it.
He concludes the chapter, “Many truths about ourselves will be discovered in consciousness directly or not discovered at all.”
Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Self
Harris starts by recounting an experience where he was able to lose his sense of self while visiting Christian holy land near the Sea of Galilee:
As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
This is the sort of first hand account that people who have not experienced something similar might discount or disbelieve. However I know that an experience like this is possible and I believe Harris is relaying it accurately. He explains that meditation was behind his experience:
I’ve spent many years practicing meditation, the purpose of which is to cut through the illusion of the self. My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.
He suggests everyone can do this for themselves:
Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation. Once again, I am suggesting an experiment that you must conduct for yourself, in the laboratory of your own mind, by paying attention to your experience in a new way.
Finally in detail:
And yet, we are all seeking fulfillment while living at the mercy of changing experience. Whatever we acquire in life gets dispersed. Our bodies age. Our relationships fall away. Even the most intense pleasures last only a few moments. And every morning, we are chased out of bed by our thoughts. In this chapter, I will invoke a variety of concepts that have yet to do much useful work in our study of the natural world, or even of the brain, but do very heavy lifting throughout the course of our lives: concepts such as self and ego and I. Admittedly, these terms appear less than scientific, but we have no new words with which to name, and subsequently study, one of the most striking features of our existence: Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self—not to our bodies precisely but to a center of consciousness that exists somehow interior to the body, behind the eyes, inside the head. The feeling that we call “I” seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will. And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished. Such transformations run the gamut from run-of-the-mill psychosis to spiritual epiphany
Harris discusses a famous series of thought experiments by Derek Parfit related to “teleporters”. The conclusion is the moment to moment continuity of identity we experience is an illusion. Parfit wriggles his way out of various identity paradoxes only by admitting we don’t have an special attachment to our former self. Harris writes, “Ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and replicated.”
Harkening back to the split brain Harris writes, “The question of whether I would land in the left hemisphere or the right doesn’t make sense—being based, as it is, on the illusion that there is a self bobbing on the stream of consciousness like a boat on the water.”
Related to self Harris concludes that dispelling the illusion “can take a lot of work” and adds saucily, “Unfortunately, it is not work that the Western intellectual tradition knows much about.”
Harris moves on to “thought” and describes an experience I’ve often noticed in myself: when you first wake up in the morning, just for a few moments, your mind is clear. Then it gets “loaded up” with thoughts:
Something bad has happened in your life—a person has died, a relationship has ended, you have lost your job—but there is a brief interval after awakening before memory imposes its stranglehold. It often takes a moment or two for one’s reasons for being unhappy to come online. Having spent years observing my mind in meditation, I find such sudden transitions from happiness to suffering both fascinating and rather funny—and merely witnessing them goes a long way toward restoring my equanimity. My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.
As for meditation Harris writes, “While I can’t promise that meditation will keep you from ever again becoming angry, you can learn not to stay angry for very long. And when talking about the consequences of anger, the difference between moments and hours—or days—is impossible to exaggerate.”
I agree with him in spades. It is impossible to exaggerate the benefit of being able to let go of negative thoughts and emotions even moderately quicker. While I still become angry or have anxiety I’m able to see it from a distance and it mellows much sooner. I credit meditation for the change.
Chapter 4: Meditation
Harris says that subjects in a research study were found to be “lost in thought” 47 percent of the time. The study used the catch phrase “stimulus-independent thought”. So maybe being lost in thought is a good thing? Harris says, “As unreliable as such self-reports must be, this study found that people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant.”
Harris explains mindfulness decreases activity in “the default mode network” and prevents the brain from turning in on itself. He writes:
A review of the psychological literature suggests that mindfulness in particular fosters many components of physical and mental health: It improves immune function, blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also leads to greater behavioral regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice is associated with increased subjective well-being.
He explains, “In the broadest sense, however, meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?”
Harris does not believe meditation is only about transcendental experiences or deep encounters with the illusion of the self. He explains:
The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.
Harris endorses a “gradual ascent” such as that specified by Theravada Buddhism. He doesn’t advocate the meditator count on a “sudden realization”.
He relates some of his experience studying meditation, although never stooping to a full resume. He studied at several retreats under Sayadaw U Pandita each one ore two months long. There he meditated up to 18 hours a day. This was a very “goal oriented” practice that didn’t entirely agree with Harris.
He later studied with H. W. L. Poonja in India. This had a deeper impact on Harris although he believed Poonja-ji was fooled into sending unqualified students off to be gurus. Harris’s most successful experience was with a teacher in Nepal named Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Harris visited him several times over a five year period to study Dzogchen, a practice where the teacher “seeks to impart the experience of self-transcendence directly to a student.”
I’m leaving out many details about Harris specific path. My main take-away was just to appreciate how much time and effort Harris has put into studying meditation. It’s not as extensive as someone who has studied in India for 20 years, but it’s substantial. It made me trust his insights even more. What he learned was the illusory natures of self:
We’ve all had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly noticing our own reflection in the glass. At that moment we have a choice: to use the window as a window and see the world beyond, or to use it as a mirror. It is extraordinarily easy to shift back and forth between these two views but impossible to truly focus on both simultaneously. This shift offers a very good analogy both for what it is like to recognize the illusoriness of the self for the first time and for why it can take so long to do it.
He concludes the chapter with a word of caution and how to truly obtain wisdom and lasting change:
And yet it is true that meditation requires total acceptance of what is given in the present moment. If you are injured and in pain, the path to mental peace can be traversed in a single step: Simply accept the pain as it arises, while doing whatever you need to do to help your body heal. If you are anxious before giving a speech, become willing to feel the anxiety fully, so that it becomes a meaningless pattern of energy in your mind and body. Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy—while covertly hoping that they will go away—and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness. Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change. The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.
Chapter 5: Gurus, Death, Durgs and other Puzzles
The first half of this chapter is one long warning about false teachers. He explains why spiritual teachers are different from others:
But on spiritual matters, foolishness and fraudulence can be especially difficult to detect. Unfortunately, this is a natural consequence of the subject matter. When learning to play a sport like golf, you can immediately establish the abilities of the teacher, and the teacher can, in turn, evaluate your progress without leaving anything to the imagination. All the relevant facts are in plain view. If you can’t consistently hit the little white ball where you want it to go, you have something to learn from anybody who can. The difference between an expert and a novice is no less stark when it comes to recognizing the illusion of the self. But the qualifications of a teacher and the progress of a student are more difficult to assess.
Harris really digs into every possible type of fraud you might encounter, from physical and sexual abuse to getting mixed up with those who believe in alien spacecraft. This is a refreshingly honest “tell all” about “the enlightenment business” from someone who has deep respect for meditation. He explains the reason abuse is rampant:
Apart from parenthood, probably no human relationship offers greater scope for benevolence or abuse than that of guru to disciple. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the ethical failures of the men and women who assume this role can be spectacular and constitute some of the greatest examples of hypocrisy and betrayal to be found anywhere.
Harris gives several several specific examples of abuse and then veers into an account of a near-death experience by a Neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander. He wrote a popular book Proof of Heaven which Harris dismantles at length. The section seemed very out of place as Alexander is not a guru but an American author. Perhaps this was a stand-alone essay that Harris simply included. Still it was instructive as an illustration of how deluded a seemingly intelligent person could become.
The chapter shifts gears with Harris relating his experience with psychoactive drugs including LSD and MDMA. Harris contrasts drugs with meditation:
However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.
Harris’s main message about drugs is that you cannot control the result. It could be sublime but it could easily be horrific. Harris has experienced both outcomes and notably today he continues meditation, but avoids the durgs. He writes:
Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going, and, depending on the compound and one’s “set and setting,” certain trajectories are more likely than others. But however methodically one prepares for the voyage, one can still be hurled into states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis.
His worst trips ominously resulted in a “continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words.” In comparison to the “rocket” of drugs he says meditation is like “gently raising a sail”. This second mechanism appeals to my personal risk tolerance.
Harris concludes the book with his thesis that “a middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all.” He says the “cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes” but that directly experiencing what the universe has to offer “is the true beginning of spiritual life.”
Harris’s book is filled with logic and reason and wisdom. It’s impossible to disentangle my opinion of his book with my opinion of meditation itself, which has been life-changing for me. If you are at all curious about meditation I’d highly recommend his book, or one by an author you personally find inspirational.
The truths about meditation and mindfulness are known to many authors and teachers. No one has special inside information unavailable to others. In fact you can discover it all yourself with a disciplined meditation practice. However you proceed the journey will be deeply rewarding.
Other books on mindfulness and meditation:
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill
The author has a PhD in molecular biology, but became a Buddhist monk and spent decades practicing mindfulness and meditation. Only has a few small instructional bits about meditation between the chapters, but is a fantastic book on many of the ideas you might run into while practicing meditation.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
Like Happiness this only contains short exercises about meditation. The bulk of the book is dealing with subjects and ideas you might encounter while meditating. A great book however.
Mindfulness in Plain English
This was my bible. I read it three times and I essentially never re-read books. You have to really want to practice mindfulness or meditation to find this book interesting, but it walks you through everything in fantastic detail and contains a lot of motivational thoughts to keep you going.
The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science
This is a much more in depth guide than “Plain English”. I was amazed after reading “Plain English” several times to find this author had fresh insights. I would not recommend this until you have been doing sitting meditation for a while. I’ve only finished half the book so far!