Sam Harris: Waking Up
Sam Harris is the author of several bestselling books and winner of the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. He is a cofounder and the CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. But don’t let all those credentials scare you; he’s also an awesome guy.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam’s newest book, is part seeker’s memoir, part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality. No other book marries contemplative wisdom and modern science in this way, and no author other than Sam Harris—a scientist, philosopher, and famous skeptic—could write it.
Sam was kind enough to discuss Waking Up and mindfulness with me for our readers. After you read the interview, please take a moment to thank Sam on Twitter for taking the time to share his insight at The Minimalists.
Joshua’s Conversation with Sam Harris
Joshua: At its onset, Waking Up introduces a common dilemma: “How can someone’s happiness increase when all material sources of pleasure and distraction have been removed?” The thesis of my books is similar: namely, we are focused on the wrong things, or perhaps we’re not focused at all. Your solution: change the quality of your mind. Is this what you mean by “waking up”?
Sam: That’s part of it. It’s certainly true that our minds largely determine the quality of our lives. I’m not saying that outward circumstances don’t matter—you and I can both be very grateful that we aren’t living in Syria at this moment—but once a person has his basic needs met, how he uses his attention in every moment will spell the difference between happiness and misery. In particular, the habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts happen to be. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell. Focus is one aspect of this: One discovers that being concentrated—on anything—is intrinsically pleasurable. But there is more to meditation that just being focused.
Joshua: Up until recently, I found much value in single-task meditative experiences (walking, yoga, rock-climbing), but never turned to actual meditation until two books changed my view: Waking Up and another book you recommended, Dan Harris’s (no relation) 10% Happier. I interviewed Dan recently about why he turned to meditation to calm the voice in his head, and his experience resonated because he was able to remove the Eckhart Tolle–esque woo-woo that had always kept me from considering meditation as an answer to mental clutter. Your book, however, reverberated for a different reason: while Dan’s book was a practical guide, Waking Up takes a deeper dive, an investigative, scientific approach to meditation, in which all assertions can be tested in the “laboratory of the mind.” Can you expand on the differences between meditation and meditative experience? And, from a neuroscientist’s point of view, why is meditation important for everyone?
Sam: I loved Dan’s book, and I also interviewed him on my blog. Of course, there are different levels at which one can engage a practice like “mindfulness” (which Dan and I both discuss in our books). For many people, it will be like an executive stress ball—a tool for feeling a little better and improving one’s performance. However, if one becomes deeply involved in the practice, it becomes more like the Large Hadron Collider—a means of discovering something fundamental, in this case about the nature of our minds. Perhaps the most important thing one can discover through the practice of meditation is that the “self”—the conventional sense of being a subject, a thinker, an experiencer living inside one’s head—is an illusion.
And this is where meditative insight actually makes contact with science: because we know that the self is not what it seems to be. There is no place in the brain for a soul or an ego to be hiding. And it is possible to examine this illusory self closely enough to have the feeling that we call “I” disappear. As it happens, this comes as quite a relief.
Joshua: Your writing—your books and your blog—beautifully combines humor, pathos, and intellectual prowess and has the rare ability to shift my perspective on a variety of topics such as drugs, gun control, violence, and morality. Compared to the rest of your body of work, how is Waking Up different?
Sam: It is definitely a more personal book. In terms of its scientific and philosophical message, it is also unconventional. I’ve come to these questions by a strange route. I dropped out of college and spent my twenties deeply immersed in the study of meditation and its associated literature. I then returned to school and got a degree in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience. After September 11th, 2001, I spent a decade doing my best to call attention to the conflict between science and faith-based religion. This background allows me to approach the topic of spirituality from an unusual angle.
Most scientists and philosophers reject introspection as an intellectual tool, and most long-term meditators have little understanding of science. When you do find the rare scientist who has a serious meditation practice, he or she is unlikely to be especially aware of the problem of religion—hence many become boosters for Western Buddhism, or for the supposed underlying unity of all faiths. In Waking Up, I do my best to cut a new path through this wilderness. The self really is an illusion—and realizing this is the basis of spiritual life. But there is nothing that need be accepted on faith to accomplish this. We can have our cake (reason, skepticism, intellectual honesty) and eat it too.
Joshua: Approaching spirituality without religion can be confusing to believers and non-believers alike. In our culture, spirituality seems to be synonymous with faith, so much so that it’s hard to untangle the term and use it in any other context. And yet you do so masterfully, taking a rational approach to spiritual life, though it requires a considerable amount of unpacking to navigate the landscape around pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science. So: why not use a nomenclature with fewer limitations? In the book’s endnotes, you mention Christopher Hitchen’s use of the term numinous, which sounds equally as appropriate—and beautiful—but without the contextual baggage.
Sam: This was one of those rare instances in which the right words simply don’t exist in English. Many of my fellow scientists object to the term “spirituality”—because it has been so often associated with a belief in immaterial souls or spirits, magic, and so forth. They insist that I should confine myself to terms like “awe,” “love,” and “happiness.” The problem, however, is that these words don’t cover the same terrain. Almost everyone knows what it is like to feel awe at the beauty of the night sky, to love their kids, or to feel genuinely happy (if only for a short time). But these states of mind are not the same as self-transcendence. Nor do they indicate how subtle and transformative the investigation of one’s own mind can be. Unfortunately, “numinous” doesn’t do the job either (nor was Hitch talking about the kinds of insights and experiences I describe in my book). I’m certainly not happy with “spiritual”—and I do my best to strip it of its embarrassing associations early in the book. I also use the term “contemplative,” which more clearly indicates that all of this has to be put into practice. But if one wants to quickly name the project of becoming like the Buddha, or Jesus, or some other celebrated yogi or sage—that is, recapitulating their first-person insights in a 21st century context without believing any bullshit—“spirituality” seems unavoidable, provided you make it clear that you’re not talking about the power of crystals.
Joshua: Much of Waking Up is laced with your personal life lessons, from experimenting with psychedelic drugs to spending years traveling Asia learning meditation with Buddhist and Hindu teachers. You discuss how we spend our lives in a “neurotic trance,” one in which we “shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave,” as well as how often we fail to appreciate what we have until we’ve lost it: “We crave experiences, objects, relationships, only to grow bored with them. And yet the cravings persist.” Why is this our default setting, and how does it keep us from being truly happy?
Sam: There are many levels on which to answer that question. In evolutionary terms, we’re probably lucky that we’re not more miserable than we are. After all, our genes haven’t been sculpted with our subjective well-being in mind. And the natural world surely wasn’t created for our enjoyment. We’ve evolved to survive and spawn—to just barely equip our progeny to do the same. All the other good things in life appear to be lucky accidents.
In large part, our problems are due to the immense power of language. We live in a world that is almost entirely defined by words—our relationships, fears, interests, cultural institutions, the very objects around us are all the product of concepts that depend upon language. And this is no less true of our inner lives. Thinking is so useful that we are probably wired to do it continuously. Unfortunately, much of what we think about makes us miserable.
To take a very simple example: Most people are very concerned about their social status, a preoccupation we share with our primate cousins. Unlike baboons, however, we can truly brood about our failures, projecting them into a recollected past and an imagined future. What’s more, we can do this in an ever-widening context of social knowledge. If you’re a baboon, at least you can seize the alpha male by the throat and try your luck. But when you’re on the Internet, contemplating the splendor of others—”Oh, Gwenyth Paltrow is spending Christmas on St. Barts, how nice….”—the odds are against your feeling fully satisfied with your place in the world. Millions of years of hominid evolution have not prepared us for Instagram.
Joshua: Once I understood the importance of mindfulness in my own life, your guided meditations helped me better understand how to meditate effectively. Your wife, Annaka, has successfully taught mindfulness practice to children as young as six. Is it harder for a 33-year-old guy like myself to “wake up,” compared to, say, an elementary-school child? Should parents encourage their children to meditate?
Sam: Mindfulness is an extremely useful tool for kids—just teaching them to be aware of their emotions is an important step toward basic sanity. But it probably requires an adult mind to discover the true power of the practice. So I think we’ve got an edge over the kids.
Joshua: The benefits of awareness are extraordinary. I believe your book, and mindfulness in general, will help people, as you say, “escape the usual tides of psychological suffering”—namely, the crippling fear and anger and shame that ruin our present moment—by illuminating everyone’s ability to be free in the midst of whatever is happening. While this appears to be the primary benefit of spirituality, what other benefits have you experienced from mindfulness?
Sam: There have been at least four or five occasions on which I’ve managed not to send a tweet…
Joshua: I’ll see you at your Waking Up with Sam Harris Lecture Series in September. After embarking on a 100-city book tour this year myself, I now understand the benefits of face-to-face interaction with readers. What do you hope to accomplish with these live events that can’t be achieved by just reading your book?
Sam: A proper conversation. This is one of the true frustrations of being a writer: Your words get absorbed in your absence—often to unintended effect. At these events, I’ll make my case for a rational spirituality for an hour and then spend another hour cleaning up the mess in a Q&A. Then we’ll all start drinking. So wish me luck.
Joshua: Good luck. And thank you for your time. Any final words of wisdom?
Sam: Your mind is all you truly have. So it makes sense to train it.