On Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up’ Lecture
WRITTEN BY BERKELEY STUDENT FRANCES HUANG WITH MARK KOLSEN, AAI NEWS TEAM
Does it make sense to talk of ‘secular spirituality’? Well-known atheist and author Dr Sam Harris thinks it does. I attended Harris’s San Francisco lecture on 17 September which coincided with the release of his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. The lecture series (also presented in Los Angeles and New York) tried (and mostly succeeded) in getting to the core of human consciousness, mindfulness and secular spirituality.
First, Harris skilfully argued that since the very beginning, suffering has its origins in the illusion of self. This ‘self’ claims to be the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experiences. When we are wandering in our thoughts, those little persons in our heads are the ‘selves’ that we seem to experience. However, as Harris pointed out in both the lecture and the new book, ‘a persistent and unified self’ is merely an illusion since it is the whole brain and the firing of neuronal networks that make us who we are. Our thoughts and our behaviors are wholly caused by our brain, which also changes with time. As Harris argued in his book Free Will (2012), free will, like the sense of self, is also an illusion.
While Harris makes a clear argument, he did not explain the evolutionary purpose of this illusion. Does our sense of self help us cope with reality by separating our own selves from our surroundings? For secularists, does the illusion of the unified self create a meaningful identity, as the belief in God does for the religious? (In his new book, Harris uses a person talking to himself to highlight the similarity between a mental soliloquy and a prayer, as they both allow the person to express his or her thoughts consciously.) During the reception after the lecture, others agreed that Harris should clarify the cause of our illusionary self.
Harris did persuasively argue that diminishing a sense of self – which is always an illusion – can result in an enlightened level of consciousness. However, consciousness is highly subjective and can’t be isolated from our individual experience. In Harris’s words, true value and spirituality only exist in our experience. To illustrate this point, he claimed that even systems built upon the highest level of artificial intelligence would fail to pass the Turing test. He further supposed that we are all “brains in a vat,” and that all of our sensual perceptions are false. “Every emotion has a reason,” said Harris, “If we cannot identify the reasons, we become the slaves of our thoughts.” For example, if we unconsciously wander in our mental past and elicit some unhappy memories, we can immediately feel upset without knowing the causes for such negative moods. In fact, our brain’s tendency to wander – to ‘surrender’ to our consciousness – is ultimately responsible for our mental sufferings.
According to Harris, secular spirituality lies in mindful attention to our ordinary experience, be it our thoughts, our emotions, or the world around us. He presented a particular meditative method, “Vipassana,” as the tool to train our minds, discover our thoughts and seek freedom from the illusion of self. This meditative method seemed to me somewhat generic and unoriginal. He asked us to close our eyes and sit straight in our seats, and then to focus our attention solely on our breath. Whenever our attention shifted to other objects (such as noises in the lecture hall, random thoughts or even changes in temperature) we should gently dispel those thoughts and return our attention back to our breath. Harris said that there was nothing passive about this exercise. He said it can help us better notice how our thoughts arise and thus reach a state of spirituality without believing in anything other than the subjectivity of our experience and the need to pay attention to it. A state of ‘spirituality’ is for Harris a desired outcome: a secular spirituality that does not require believing in any higher power or transcending the world around us. Harris’s desired spirituality does require that we understand the illusionary nature of our ‘self’ and that we can only dissipate this illusion through meditation. So whereas religious spirituality is an allegedly higher level of consciousness that recognizes our oneness with God and the soul, secular spirituality is an allegedly higher level of consciousness that recognizes the brain, interacting with our daily experiences, creates our consciousness (including illusions such as our sense of self).
One could imagine that this meditative method, if practiced regularly, could enable us to gain deeper insights into ourselves during those moments of mental emptiness. But it's questionable if it can reduce mindlessness when meditation is not available. I remember, after the ten-minute exercise, opening my eyes, and feeling that my world had been transformed. Yet it took less than two minutes for my mind to lapse into the vicious cycle of endless and aimless wandering. The problem with Harris's meditation method is that it seems only temporary in effect; that mindfulness, if it is to really be transformative, should help us achieve a more lasting higher level of consciousness. Surely, it should be a skill that allows us to appreciate our surroundings and ourselves at all times.
Harris made it clear, in both the lecture and the book, the three components of secular spirituality: a diminished self, mindfulness and meditation. However, in his future publications, he may still need to shed more insights on the first and third parts.
Picture from http://www.thinkatheist.com