Sam Harris has included Chapter One of his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, both as a sound file and text, on his blog. I ordered the special edition version of the book & I’m looking forward to reading Sam Harris’s position on spirituality without religion. As you may know, I don’t like the word “spiritual”, but Sam Harris is a persuasive and thoughtful communicator, so I have high hopes that he will change my mind.
You can read/listen to Chapter One here.
More details about Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
The first chapter was an interesting read. What caught my attention was the claim that it’s possible to attain “spiritual” states of consciousness that go beyond “ordinary states of mind— parental love, artistic inspiration, awe at the beauty of the night sky”. Supposedly this heightened consciousness leads to greater happiness and a dissipation of one’s sense of self. I suppose that could all be true.
The problem, from my point of view, is that I don’t really want what Harris is selling. I rather like my sense of self, and I think it’s rooted in something quite real. I also think the pursuit of happiness (and the avoidance of suffering, another of Harris’ apparent obsessions) is overrated in comparison to the pursuit of achievement.
Purely for achievement’s sake and nothing else?
For the sake, I suppose, of being able to look back some day and think my life hasn’t been entirely wasted. The acquisition of knowledge and experience also works pretty well from that perspective.
I think the idea is you do not stay in that state forever. I just finished reading Stroke of Insight about a neuroscientists experience of her stroke, which occurred in her brain’s left hemisphere, which meant she lost her ability to process language, understand where her body begins and ends, and what she calls “brain chatter”, the constant voice in her head that we all have. When this happened, her right hemisphere of her brain became more noticeable. Our brain synergizes how both hemispheres process information at the same time. The right hemisphere lives in the here and now and it is the part of you that sees connection with other things, the universe, etc. It is the anti-self. She said it felt blissful.
There have also been MRIs taken of people during meditation and essentially they do what her stroke did, shut off the chatter of the left side of the brain.
It is a state you cannot stay in (your left hemisphere keeps you doing things you need to survive) but it is a nice place to visit and mindfulness (noticing how your body reacts to sensory data coming through the amygdala – we always feel first because of this – and decided to listen to it or not) is always beneficial.
That’s the thing, though – abandonment of selfhood and immersion in the moment doesn’t strike me as a place that would be particularly nice to visit. I’d rather be chattering away to myself and actively thinking about my surroundings, if I’m going to focus on them at all, as opposed to getting lost in them. I appreciate that transcendence works for a lot of people, but for me it’s the cognitive equivalent of spending the weekend in Las Vegas – fantastic for those who like that sort of thing, but absolutely not my cup of tea. I’ve tried meditation in the past, and I just found it extremely dull.
My first response is to just say NO, but maybe.
I’m just going to stick to alcohol for my altered states… It makes me happy for no good reason.
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