Christmas Day I spent meditating. That’s right. Something I’ve never had use for, and often disdained as a profound waste of time. Of course, I’ve known of its uses to reduce stress, but I’m not prone to anxiety. I’ve simply never had the inclination to sit for long durations, focus on breathing, and empty the mind of thought. Thinking is too rich and fun for that.
Or at least sometimes. In Waking Up, Sam Harris underscores the dark side to thinking. From the moment we get out of bed we’re thinking and talking to ourselves non-stop, and by these self-conversations we engineer our suffering — ranging from our dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of daily existence to relentless, full-blown misery. Thought is the culprit of despair.
I’d never thought of “thought” as being so treacherous, probably because I find the life of the mind exciting, but also since I’m a relatively happy person. I count myself fortunate to have a satisfying career and hobbies I can make time for. But Harris points out that even for people who enjoy life (or think they do), happiness is transitory. The happiness we get comes only by reiterating pleasures — good food and sex, bonding with friends and family, enjoying our hobbies or careers or passions or whatever fulfills us — and the happiness is fleeting. It doesn’t last. Pleasures need to be repeated. In the meantime, we’re held hostage by thoughts: our self-ruminations covering fears and insecurities and worries and doubts.
Waking Up suggests that we can be happy outside of the usual pleasures: before anything happens to make us happy. The exercise involves ceasing thought altogether, which is far more difficult than it sounds, but when successful apparently breaks the illusion of the self and pulls our psyches fully into the present:
“The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world. But we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth — overlooking it, fleeing it, repudiating it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next. As a consequence, we spend our lives being far less content than we might otherwise be.”
Harris recommends meditation techniques derived from eastern religious practices, as the safest path to this liberating “now”. He also entertains the use of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD), though with extreme caution. The results are framed in the context of “spirituality”, and I was initially shocked that an atheist and scientist of Harris’ reputation would want to co-opt this new age buzz word. He anticipates the objection:
“Yes, to walk the aisles of any ‘spiritual’ bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’ — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.”
I concede he’s probably right. By the end of the book, I still couldn’t come up with a better word for these processes.
The meditation techniques come from Buddhism and Hinduism, sans mythology, remolded for secular consumption. The process (click here if you want Harris to talk you through it) involves sitting still, focusing on your breathing, and trying to stop thinking. It’s easy to describe, hard as nails to do. I haven’t succeeded yet.
By the testimony of those who succeed, when you’re able to cease all thought — even if only for a few moments — you can break the illusion of your “I” self, and see things as if in another dimension. Thoughts appear as discrete objects. Sounds can be tasted, sights heard. Emotions are accentuated and untainted, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You are in a state of “clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of your consciousness”. Rather than being “lost in thought”, you are actually seeing thoughts (or hearing them, or feeling them, or smelling them). You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control; the illusion of the self is broken.
If this sounds like a drug-trip, it’s because it is. As a teenager Harris had the following experience on ecstasy with his best friend:
“Unlike other drugs with which we were by then familiar (marijuana and alcohol), MDMA [ecstasy] produced no feeling of distortion in our senses. Our minds seemed completely clear. 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.
“That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance — the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person — seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own.
“And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal [italics mine]. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all.”
Harris urges caution, however. He considers the altered state of consciousness induced by a psychedelic drug “one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience” — if you’re lucky to have the right bio-chemistry for it. Psychedelics can also be ferociously damaging.
I want to cite his full commentary on the subject of drugs, even though it comes almost as a footnote in the book’s final chapter. Everything he says here — on the drug war, use of drugs, and potential dangers — is perfectly stated. If only Americans (especially our politicians and law makers) could “wake up” to these truths, we’d make progress on many levels aside from the spiritual one.
“The ‘war on drugs’ has been lost and should never have been waged. I can think of no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters makes one wonder whether civilization isn’t simply doomed.)
“I have two daughters who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that they choose their drugs wisely, but a life lived entirely without drugs is neither foreseeable nor, I think, desirable. I hope they someday enjoy a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If they drink alcohol as adults, as they probably will, I will encourage them to do it safely. If they choose to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation. Tobacco should be shunned, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer them away from it. Needless to say, if I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or heroin, I might never sleep again. But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.
“This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I took psychedelics myself, and my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early twenties when I found psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring.
“There is no getting around the role of luck here. If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane. While I do not recommend the latter experience, it does increase one’s respect for the tenuous condition of sanity, as well as one’s compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.
“Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain — either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.
“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. This guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.
“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.
“I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could ever have imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of nature itself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be — and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of those deeper possibilities.”
Years ago I had a college floor mate who related similar experiences of profound enlightenment under LSD. If I could know in advance that a psychedelic drug wouldn’t do me harm, I’d try it in a heartbeat, but I’m too paranoid about these things. It’s a choice every adult must make for him or herself, and yes, it should be legal to make that decision.
Obviously Waking Up favors an eastern view of spirituality. Harris judges the Abrahamic religions deficient in this regard. He notes, quite rightly, the way people resist acknowledging differences in religions: Jainism is a religion of peace; Islam is a religion of violence. Buddhism offers a sound approach to understanding the human mind; Christianity impedes such an understanding.
Though to be fair, I don’t know that it’s saying much to define spirituality by eastern standards, and then fault the Abrahamic religions for not being eastern. I agree that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are poorly equipped to help us understand the self, mind, and consciousness. (Islam is decrepit in more virulent ways, but that’s a whole other newsflash.) But exploring states of consciousness isn’t the only way to be spiritual.
Spirituality simply refers to personal transformation in accordance with some set of ideals. The ideals are usually religious, but as Waking Up shows, they can just as easily be secular. From the Buddhist point of view, transformation happens in the present (the “now”) rather than the future (the focus of our tormenting thoughts). The world is an illusion, and while we know this to be absurd, there’s at least some truth to it. Neuroscience shows that our view of the “I” self is an illusion; this is the fundamental premise of Waking Up.
From the Christian point of view, transformation happens in the future, at the apocalypse and resurrection. There is a present (or “realized”) dimension, but it requires the faith-commitment of baptizing into Christ’s death and even being crucified with him (Rom 6). (I’m not sure if any Christians experience an empirical transformation by uniting with their savior in the mystical way Paul describes.) The world is real but marred, and needs to be destroyed and made new before true happiness and peace can be fully realized.
In other words, while Harris is stacking the deck in favor of eastern spirituality, it makes sense to do this from a secular point of view, since eastern spirituality (transformation) doesn’t depend on religious faith, nor on waiting for a new world. I can’t speak to the efficacy of it, as I’ve only begun meditation and never taken a psychedelic drug.
But I have no reason to disbelieve its potentials. There are many new-age quacks; Harris has no truck with them. His bullshit radar is impeccable as always. Breaking the illusion of the self, and experiencing consciousness through a different filter, seems genuinely possible. If it can produce such egoless communion, good will, and unconditional happiness — well, that could be a skill worth honing.