Waking Up
February 15, 2018


So, I just finished Sam Harris’s book Waking Up. I don’t know that this post will be a review as much as it’ll be my attempt to jot down some thoughts about the book. In fact, I feel inadequate to the task of reviewing it simply because I’m not yet sure I can evaluate Harris’s claims. In other words, I’m not sure that I yet understand exactly what it is he’s saying, so I don’t feel fully able to critique it. But here, in any case, is my best attempt to summarize the argument he’s making. To be clear, the following paragraphs (with the exceptions of the final two paragraphs) represent Harris’s thoughts (or my attempts to recreate his thoughts), not necessarily my thoughts.

Religion is mistaken and confused in most of its metaphysical claims, but Buddhism in particular has—almost accidentally, given the foibles of the religious mindset—produced something useful to humans: meditation. Meditation, if done properly, can alleviate much of the suffering of human existence. A successful meditator learns to recognize that the self is an illusion, and this allows her to see that the contents of her consciousness are mere ephemera parading in a constant stream before the eye of consciousness, and therefore that such transiences are separable from consciousness. This, according to Harris, represents the “waking up” of the meditator.

Our conscious experience is composed of many parts: memory, language, sensation, sense of self, and so on. These parts—including sense of self—can be selectively distorted or disabled by damage, surgery, or chemicals. By “self,” Harris means that sense that “I” am actually a little driver sitting in the “cockpit” of my skull, looking out through the “windows” of my eyes. It is this “self” that is illusory; instead, there is only consciousness and its contents. Even if we don’t picture ourselves as little drivers of our bodies, we nevertheless behave in ways that reveal our subscription to something akin to that view. Harris uses the following thought experiment to illustrate the point. Imagine that you’re at home, getting ready to leave to go to the store. When it’s time to go, you can’t find your keys. You look all around the house, growing increasingly frustrated. When you finally find them, you exclaim aloud, “Well, there they are!” I suspect that most of us act this way. But when we do, to whom are we speaking? Talking to ourselves in this way seems to illustrate that we believe that there’s someone or something inside of us that needs to be informed about the finding of the keys. But there is no such something or someone. That’s not to say that most of us don’t imagine another part of ourselves. But it’s this imagined part that’s, well, imagined. Here’s another thought experiment. Imagine that you’re driving down the road and some jerk cuts you off. If nothing else significant happens to you in the near future, then the odds are pretty high that you’ll continue fuming about that incident for quite a while—minutes, hours, even days in some cases. But suppose that, seconds after the jerk cut you off, a child runs out into the road. Your entire mental landscape changes radically and immediately. Where once you had been feeling rage, now you feel alarm and fear. Supposing you manage not to hit the child, then you might afterwards feel horror, sadness, and disgust at the thought of what might’ve happened. In the first case (without the child), you went on stewing over the jerk for a long time; but in the second case, your mental experience jumped completely from one state to another. And here’s the relevant question, then: why did you need the child to derail your anger? The anger no longer held sway on your mental state once the child appeared. But why was the child necessary? Couldn’t you have simply recognized the transience and potential powerlessness of the event to cause anger in the first place? But you didn’t recognize it. You let it have power of you, and you perpetuated its influence by continuing to ponder it.

But why did you do this? Why did you allow its effect to linger long past the time when the anger was useful? (Anger, which is an evolution-generated life-saving tool, can be useful sometimes. It could potentially save your life while driving near jerks. But the anger continued long after you arrived at your destination, at which point it was no longer helpful or desirable.) The point is not that you should not have been angry. The point is that your anger outlived its usefulness. And it did this because you were striving to please some inner self, some inner watcher—the very same one that you thought was listening to your announcement about the keys. But, since such an inner watcher is illusory, there is no need to continue suffering from the anger.

The point of meditation, then, is not so much to think about breathing, or to think about nothing, or to think about anything particular at all. Instead, it’s a way of re-experiencing the fact that the self (the little driver, the little watcher) is an illusion. By quieting the mind and fixing our attention on one point of experience (such as the sensations of breathing), by noticing thoughts arising and distracting us, and by redirecting our attention back again to that central point of experience, we become aware (again, or for the first time) that thoughts and sensations are transient and that they come into the light of consciousness from some other part of the brain. After all, our brain does much more than we’re consciously aware of. And because thoughts and sensations come from outside—i.e., happen to our conscious selves—we can choose to entertain them, to focus on them, to remember and ruminate on them, or to let them pass. We are able to let them pass because there is no little watcher inside that needs to be informed about them; we are already informed about them when they enter our consciousness. And now that we have the information, we can choose to act appropriately and not to be coerced into excessive rumination by the imagined needs of an imagined self. And when we are able to let thoughts and sensations pass, when we prevent them from outliving their usefulness, our lives become much happier. In fact—and this is basically how he opens the book—all of our suffering is mental. We might have all of the relevant prerequisites for happiness—friends, family, food, water, a home, money, etc.—but still be unhappy if our mental state is consumed with negativity. Therefore, recognizing the illusion of the self allows us to let go of negativity and therefore generally to improve our lives. This is the goal of all spirituality. (And Harris doesn’t hesitate to use that word, though he takes time to remind us that he doesn’t accept any of the metaphysical baggage that comes with the word and that he means it in a purely materialistic sense.)

So, that’s my summary of what I think Harris is claiming. I could be quite mistaken in this analysis, especially because it was honestly quite a difficult book to understand. I mean, not difficult in terms of grammar, syntax, or vocabulary; difficult in terms of the concepts; difficult because I could tell that Harris was trying to explain an experience to the uninitiate, which is presumably quite as difficult as describing the color red to a blind person. For those reasons, I’m not quite sure how to evaluate the book. Every once in a while during meditation or while thinking about the book, I think I catch brief glimpses of the kind of enlightenment he describes...but it always collapses back into normal experience after a couple of seconds. Fortunately, Harris says that he suffers from this collapse as well, which is why meditation is something that ought to be continually practiced. In other words, enlightenment—waking up, recognizing the illusion of the self—doesn’t happen all in one moment (or even if it does, then we still typically revert back to our unenlightened selves pretty quickly); it’s a process, a continual reacquaintance with facts that counter intuition, in the hopes that intuition will eventually change.

If nothing else, Harris reminds us that the benefits of meditation are numerous, significant, and scientifically verified, which is reason enough to give it a try. In the past, I’ve dabbled in meditation, but I suppose that I need to make it a habit in order to acquire the benefits. Anyway, thanks for reading along! Let me know if you have any thoughts about all of this!