Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reading Sam Harris: Waking Up

There are those who worship consciousness.  For them, the experience of delving into the nature of human consciousness through contemplation and/or cessation of contemplation is special, sacred, essential for "right" living.  Sam Harris classifies himself as an atheist but I would argue he worships the direct experience of consciousness, though not to the degree of many other, more influential, contemplatives, many of whom are mentioned in this post.  I have just had the opportunity and the private time to read and consider his 2014 book Waking Up.  He writes: "Investigating the nature of consciousness itself is the basis of the spiritual life." (page 51) I find this sort of thing inflated even though the benefits of the insights to be gained here are clearly numerous and profound.  Meditation is healthy in a variety of ways.  It is just that, for me, the word 'spirituality' has a broader meaning beyond human consciousness.

The trouble with much of the meditation crowd is that they believe that since meditation leads to certain experiences about consciousness then absolutely, therefore, those experiences are both completely fundamental and connected to all experience and that these insights are privileged as the basis for human living.  For me, this is myopic. What makes the very genuine experience of meditation so exceptional?  It is distinctive, it is undeniably beneficial, but this does not mean this 'it' is the big 'IT.'  For me, spirituality includes other approaches to consciousness (Art, Music, Sex, Language) and some approaches without regard to consciousness at all (evolution, the expansion of intergalactic space, the Earth's weather systems).

You do realize there is more going on than human consciousness don't you?  Those who conflate human consciousness with 'universal consciousness,' (whatever that might be) go too far with their personal experiences.  There is neither a need (there is no self to have this need, see below) nor a basis for anything like a 'universal' consciousness (the term has no known meaning). Many perfectly fine spiritual people confuse 'consciousness' with 'occurrences' in a manner akin to believing that because the tea pot roars in steaming, that steam is connected to the clouds in the sky, or we are all composed of stardust so the stars are closely related to us.  Teapot steam and clouds are as related as the dead stars of two lovers. This is, as Sam Harris argues about religion in general, 'delusional' and I find myself sympathizing with Harris in the use of that term.  Harris strongly advocates the benefits of meditation in his book but, to his credit, he makes no grandiose claims about the metaphysics of human consciousness within meditation, other than it is a basis for 'mindfulness', for 'compassion', and for a sense of 'well-being'.  He does not believe there is more to mediation than the mindful well-being and compassion we can experience.  As he puts it: "One thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it." (page 89)

He contends that meditation reveals this 'well-being' to the practitioner as "intrinsic to the nature of consciousness." (page 48 - a rather 'worshipful' perspective in my opinion) He, in fact, contextualizes: "The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds." (page 124) This certainly echoes the perspective of many other works on meditation I have in my library and the teachings I have encountered in my own meditative experience.

It is sufficient to note that Harris worships consciousness (he and I would likely disagree with my use of the term 'worship' in this sense) yet he remains a self-proclaimed 'agnostic' about the significance of consciousness to the physical world (page 175).  As an atheist, Harris poo-poos much of religious belief.  He does not believe there is an immortal soul nor does he believe in reincarnation, for example.  (Nor do I.)  He thinks the "Abrahamic religions" (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) do more to block well-being than to enhance it.  (Not so sure on this one, this is where his worship of consciousness becomes problematic in my opinion.)  He finds the claims of Hinduism are too otherworldly.  He disagrees with many Buddhist beliefs but, he argues, unlike any other religion, "One can speak of Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions." (page 23)

Harris is a scientist and that puts him in a difficult situation. As a neuroscientist he has to go on for a few pages about what he means by 'spirituality' so that he does not discredit himself as a scientist to his community of peers. He is respected.  As I mentioned, he thinks much of religion is 'delusional.'  He praises the meditative approach to spirituality above any other ritual type practice that he mentions in the book.  But he views 'eastern spirituality' as a whole with a critique. "We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts; in fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world's largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule.  Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery." (page 28)

Harris has written a surprising and level-headed book that I find useful and inspiring. Harris absolutely understands the practical, singular path of meditation when he writes regarding sabbaticals and retreats: "If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one's desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed." (page 13)

'Well-being' is, for Harris, a universal human aspiration and I cannot fault him for that. "Seeking, finding, maintaining, and safeguarding our well-being is the great project to which we are all devoted, whether or not we choose to think in these terms." (page 15) Meditation as a foundation for well-being is understood and accepted without question.  I know meditation's benefits both rationally and from intimate experience.  So, I have to agree with Harris, though there are many paths to well-being and meditation is only one flavor of well-being.

Harris deconstructs the accepted concepts of 'self' and nature of 'consciousness' and finds that the former is an illusion and the latter is a mysterious phenomenon that can be only incompletely explained through science.  Instead, the direct experience of consciousness teaches more about its nature than traditionally scientific methods.  This is a basis for Harris favoring the practice of meditation.  I agree with his perspective.  There is no self and the origin of consciousness is inexplicable.

One of the biggest surprises in the book for me was discovering how much Harris' path is similar to my own.  I don't proclaim, as Harris does, to have spent a total of two years (the sum of various shorter retreats) in silent meditation.  Nor have I met many of the great eastern teachers that Harris has so closely studied under and related with.

But I have spent four months studying yoga and meditation at an ashram in India.  I began my meditative path around 1983 by discovering Chakra meditation before I went to India.  I routinely practiced a couple of hours a day, especially on weekends. While overseas I studied the Hindu Advaitic tradition discussed by Harris in his book.  I spent time at the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who Harris mentions in some detail.  I even spent time meditating in a cave where Maharshi lived for some 17 years. When I returned from India I eventually ventured into a Buddhist style of meditation known as Shambhala.  Harris is well acquainted with this path and devotes several pages to its founder Chogyam Trungpa who I never met though I did eat at a formal lunch with his wife once, and studied this meditative approach for two or three years with several highly trained practitioners, many of whom knew Trungpa Rinpoche personally.

So, as I read this book I was surprised to find how familiar it felt.  The way the book unfolds also peaked my curiosity.  Just when I thought Harris was about to set up some sort of conclusion with the way he carefully constructed his arguments, he veered in a direction I did not expect and for that I thank him.  He articulates in an entertaining and unexpected way something rather simple yet profound and - more often than not - agreeable to my own very free-wheeling, cherry-picking approach to spirituality.

If practiced properly meditation leads the practitioner into contact with the Now.  "It is always now," Harris writes in italics.  Contact with "now" leads to the possibility of the discipline of mindfulness.  "Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience, it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves.  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." (page 36, his emphasis) Harris puts forth the basic meditation tenet  of its non-rational revelation, by direct contact with how we experience.  Accordingly, Harris contends that well-being is "intrinsic to the nature of consciousness." This is an extraordinarily optimistic understanding. It is also questionable in ways Harris has not considered.

Nevertheless, when you combine the power of the mature meditative experience with the equally profound understanding that our sense of "self" is illusionary (no matter what you try you cannot ever touch or feel your sense of self, it is purely a nonphysical experience likely arising from physical processes that remain scientifically mysterious) and the fundamental nature of consciousness is virtually unapproachable from the perspective of neuroscience, you arrive where Harris wants you to arrive.  You wake up to the true nature of living.

Harris goes into some detail on all the advantages of meditation, from physical changes in the brain of long-term practitioners, to finding within your practice the basis for more compassionate and mindful living.  "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 they will go away - and truly accepting 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." (page 149, his emphasis)

I applaud Harris for grounding meditative practice in a very concrete, everyday types of things.  Long-time readers know that I put higher stock in examples of the mundane application of spirituality than I do in the grandiose claims of anyone who is spiritual or, more frequently, religious.  He relates the usefulness of meditation to a plumbing situation in his home, for example.  He and his wife went through a horrible stretch where the old plumbing in the ceiling of their house gradually broke down over a period of weeks. What started as an irritating leak became a periodic series of nightmare leaks throughout the house, flooding as much as 600-square feet at one point. It was stressing their relationship and driving them into an obsessive state.  But his meditative practice allowed him to effectively cope and this is the undeniable advantage of meditation (or yoga or possibly other forms of spiritual practice, in my opinion.)

"Of course, a house is a physical object beholden to the laws of nature - and it won't fix itself. From the moment my wife and I grabbed buckets and salad bowls to catch the falling water, we were responding to the ineluctable tug of physical reality.  But my suffering was entirely the product of my thoughts.  Whatever the needs of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic.  Every moment of the day - indeed every moment throughout one's life - offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily." (page 95)

This is an area I could improve upon in my own life.

He also anticipates the need to address the "So what?" crowd, people who understand meditation has certain effects and still shrug their shoulders. "It is, in fact, very difficult to deal with this 'So what?'...Unless a person has spent some time seeking self-transcendence dualistically, she is unlikely to recognize that the brief glimpse of selflessness is actually an answer to her search. Having then said, 'So what?' in the face of the highest teachings, there is nothing for her to do but persist in her confusion." (page 148)  I don't meditate anymore.  But I know intimately that there is more to it than "so what".  There is an answer to "So what?" in meditation. But it is an experience, like prayer or marksmanship or capitalism. Meditation happens.

Harris spends most of the rest of the book cautiously discussing how meditation can be a misstep and how it can manifest in religious-like ways of devotion and acceptance if we are not careful.  I find the last portion of the book to be very pragmatic.  Harris offers examples on how to meditate but he does not fix on any of these. Rather, as a scientist, he comments on how many people practice incorrectly for years without knowing it and various pitfalls to watch out for.

Of particular value is Harris' discussion of various 'gurus' he has known and the potential trouble with them in general. "Apart from parenthood, probably no human relationship offers greater scope for benevolence or abuse than that of a guru to disciple." (page 153)  Harris mentions a few positive gurus but he takes special care to discuss frauds and neurotics that have purported to bestow wisdom upon their students.  He has little respect for G. I. Gurdjieff, for example, who he refers to as a 'gifted charlatan.'  He is skeptical of Poonja-ji, Ramana Maharshi's greatest disciple who he considers 'deceitful and demeaning.'

In an extended section, Harris discusses an incident involving Chogyam Trungpa, founder of Shambhala Buddhism, who he finds 'morally flawed.'  He details an infamous meeting with his senior students where Trungpa ordered a 60 year-old woman stripped naked and carried around the meditation hall.  When two students protested and left the hall as the others carried out Trungpa's request, the guru ordered the two fugitives back to the hall. Upon refusal, he ordered his personal guards to seize the two students and, after a bloody scuffle, brought them back to the hall.

"Trungpa, who was by then quite drunk, castigated the pair for their egocentricity and demanded they take off their clothes.  When they refused, he ordered his bodyguards to strip them.  By all accounts, (one student) became hysterical and begged someone in the crowd of onlookers to call the police.  One student attempted to physically intervene. Trungpa himself punched this Samaritan in the face and ordered the guards to drag the man from the room." (page 160) Harris finds such shenanigans reprehensible.  "Judging from the effect that Trungpa's wild behavior had both upon himself (he apparently died of alcoholism) and his students, it is very difficult to view it as the product of enlightened wisdom." (page 161)

Further, Trungpa's hand chosen successor, Osel Tendzin, "was bisexual, highly promiscuous, and rather fond of pressuring his straight male devotees to have sex with him as a form of spiritual initiation.  He later contracted HIV but continued to have unprotected sex with more than a hundred men and women without telling them of his condition. Trungpa and several people of the board of his organization knew the regent was ill and did their best to keep it a secret. Once the scandal broke, Tendzin claimed that Trungpa had promised him he would do no harm as long as he continued his spiritual practice.  Apparently, the virus in his blood did not care whether he did his spiritual practice or not.  At least one of his victims later died of AIDS, having spread HIV to others." (pp. 161-162)

Harris contextualizes the Trungpa debacle and other gurus he critiques while accepting their very legitimate 'boundless compassion.' Instead, he shines light upon the alleged 'inerrancy' their authority casts upon their disciples.  "The notion that one is incapable of making mistakes poses obvious ethical concerns, no matter what one's level of realization.  Anyone who has studied the spread of Eastern spirituality in the West knows that these elephants often stumble - even stampede - injuring themselves and many others in the process." (page 163)

I remember knowing of these events at a time early in my marriage with Jennifer where I was struggling with the Shambhala tradition itself anyway.  Trungpa's death due to excessive smoking and alcohol consumption more or less ended my interest in meditation altogether.  From then on I was pretty much just a yoga practitioner.  Still, I recognize the legitimate value of meditation and so does Harris.  What I enjoy most about Waking Up is that it is an attempt at what I would call 'grounded' spirituality.  That is, a form of spirituality without magical claims or grand human hopes, based upon the science of the brain.  Harris wants us all to wake up to the possibilities of mindfulness and well-being within the practice of meditation.  But, he equally wants us to wake up to the potential pitfalls to the meditative path as well.

I am not exactly ready to trade in my Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind for Waking Up, but Harris demonstrates that his writing is informed of serious meditative practice, with its application to well-being within his own life.  It is worthy of reading and considering.  It reveals an application of meditation in the world while remaining agnostic about certain basic tenets with eastern religion regarding meditation.  If nothing else Harris proves that westerners can "get it" when it comes to meditation.

Harris is someone I will continue to observe and possibly study as I continue upon my own spiritual path.  I find far more agreeable than not within Waking Up.  Near the end of the book he writes: "Consciousness is simply the light by which the contours of mind and body are known.  It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret, amusement, and despair.  It can seem to take their shape for a time, but it is possible to recognize that it never quite does.  In fact, we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.

"As we have seen, there is no compelling reason to believe that the mind is independent of the brain. And yet the deflationary attitude toward consciousness taken by many scientists - wherein reality is considered only from outside, in third-person terms - is also unwarranted.  A middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all." (pp. 204-205)

Amen to that.

Late Note:  This article is an excellent example of what I would term an "inflated" (conflated) view of "consciousness." The Akashic Field is nonsense and a misuse of the term "consciousness."  We are made of stardust, of course, but that connection is trivial to human experience. Human consciousness invents natural seeks connection and meaning. That has a high survival value.  So, "quantum consciousness" comes along in the human dialog and suddenly everything is connected, everything is important, we are nested and home and safe as part of the Akashic Field, which levels and equalizes all forms of consciousness. This is pristine BS and bad philosophy. Delusional. I equate the elevation of human consciousness to communion with the cosmos as the worship of consciousness at its most ridiculous. This is another form of what I have termed in the past as "subtle-arrogance." (See my use of term here, here, and here.) We are not that special.

In reality, because we are human, all too human, we invent these connections, we do not discover anything in this regard. The Universe has no consciousness in terms of having a specific direction or goal or awareness.  The Universe has "occurrences" which, though following the laws of physics, are completely haphazard in terms of manifestation.  This sort of feel-good new-age crap is delusional, in my opinion. There is no "home" in the Universe.  Life is enough.

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