Sam Harris Talks Spirituality

Waking_Up_Cover_SmallSam Harris’s new book Waking Up has a lot to recommend it. Harris is a gifted writer, always clear and engaging, who never seems to talk down to the reader. This is not an easy task when dealing with abstruse topics. Harris picks out salient examples and tells interesting stories that continually bring his points to life. I have no doubt that this book will prove popular and convincing to many readers.

This is a good thing, since Harris’s aim is to propound what he terms “Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions” (p. 27), which is a good shorthand for what those of us in the Secular Buddhist community are trying to do. Harris’s book is a full-throated argument for a secular form of spirituality or spiritual journey, based on introspection and scientific understanding rather than obscure superstition.

To make his case, Harris has to defend himself on two flanks: first against those skeptics, atheists, and secularists who deny any role for something termed “spirituality” at all, and second against more traditional forms of religiosity. Against the former, Harris adverts to both Christopher Hitchens’s and Carl Sagan’s own defense of secular spirituality, making clear that even two of the leading lights of the secular movement have seen a role for something more than simply the dry understanding of the facts. Against the latter, Harris is at his old form in trashing Mormonism and Theosophy, among others.

His book proceeds first by staking out a contemporary role for secular spirituality, which he sees as “self-transcendence”, or “cutting through the illusion of the self” (p. 14) through “rigorous introspection” (p. 60). Harris then spends awhile dealing with consciousness, showing how it is a “hard problem” in the contemporary philosophical understanding. That is, it is not obvious how physical things can produce consciousness, hence one cannot, for Harris, study consciousness by studying physical things, nor by looking at the objective behaviors of objects in the world. The proper role for consciousness study is subjective, from the inside, through the first person. Harris also deals with the weirdness of split-brain patients who seem to have dual consciousnesses warring in the same skull, and he fleetingly entertains the possibility of multiple consciousnesses even within an undivided brain (p. 70ff).

This leads Harris on to a more focused chapter about personal identity and the nature of the self, which he believes is an illusion, in the vein of such luminaries in the Western tradition as philosophers David Hume and Derek Parfit, the latter himself in overt agreement with Buddhist notions of anatta.

Having staked out the terrain, Harris goes on to discuss various teachers of meditation that he became involved with, starting with Sayadaw U Pandita in the Theravāda mindfulness tradition, then onto the Avaita Vedanta teaching of H.W.L. Poonja (“arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the twentieth century” (p. 118)), and finally to Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (“generally thought to be one of the greatest living Dzogchen masters” (p. 122)). As he says, “It is considered bad form in most spiritual circles, especially among Buddhists, to make claims about one’s own realization. However, I think this taboo comes at a high price … So I will describe my experience plainly.” (p. 126). He finds what he is looking for in Dzogchen, and in Tulku Urgyen’s personal teaching to him about how to achieve the “non-dual awareness” of self and object, which Harris believes is key to the spiritual path of understanding the illusory nature of the self.

In his last chapter, Harris deals with the pitfalls of guru worship. This is particularly pressing for him since in the Tibetan tradition, close work with a guru is considered absolutely necessary to making any kind of real spiritual progress. He then finishes with a welcome takedown of some recent claims about near death experiences, showing that they are not good reason for belief in an afterlife; and lastly some thoughts about the role of pharmacology in the spiritual quest.

If this makes you want to read the book, then I would suggest you do so. For all its flaws, it is a good book, a relatively quick read, and worth attention.

Now on to some of my reactions to Harris’s project.

Anatta and Consciousness

For Harris the spiritual quest is defined by the notion of self-transcendence (p. 14), which he understands as the experiential realization “moment to moment” that the conventional self is an illusion (p. 78). “[T]he deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of self”. (p. 115) From this axiom, the rest of Harris’s project follows: spirituality becomes a kind of gnostic quest to experience anatta. The way there is by long excursion into the nature of consciousness, through meditation. As he says, “[S]elflessness is not a “deep” feature of consciousness. It is right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it.” (p. 135)

Harris seems to be following the Buddha’s famous instructions to Bāhiya, one of the most concise descriptions of practice:

Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of [dukkha] (Udāna 1.10).

It’s an elegant and profound teaching, but not easy to unpack. For why should it be that “in reference to the heard, only the heard” implies “there is no you”? And how does “there is no you” lead to the end of dukkha? There isn’t much meat on these bones. (Though I think it is interesting to note that the Buddha does not make reference to consciousness).

Harris focuses on the meditative experience of consciousness as key to the whole practice, for it is there that he says we realize anatta first hand:

The goal is to realize those qualities that are intrinsic to consciousness in every present moment, no matter what arises to be noticed.

When you are able to rest naturally, merely witnessing the totality of experience, and thoughts themselves are left to arise and vanish as they will, you can recognize that consciousness is intrinsically undivided. In the moment of such an insight, you will be completely relieved of the feeling that you call “I.” You will still see this book, of course, but it will be an appearance in consciousness, inseparable from consciousness itself—and there will be no sense that you are behind your eyes, doing the reading. (p. 130)

This is problematic, in several ways that I will attempt to explain. First there is the question as to whether there are any qualities intrinsic to consciousness in every present moment. Surely Harris will say that this is an empirical question, and that he has found such a quality: in particular, that consciousness is “intrinsically undivided”. It is non-dual.

In the Canon, the Buddha does not describe consciousness as “intrinsically undivided”. Indeed, the Buddha does not talk of consciousness as such, virtually at all. Instead he talks of six kinds of consciousness, one for each sense modality: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, mind consciousness. And as he says, all are always “impermanent, changing, becoming otherwise.” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 25.3).

Elsewhere Harris describes consciousness as “never truly confined by what it knows” (p. 127), and “free, no matter what arises to be noticed” (p. 129). He says that “If you shut your eyes at this moment, the contents of your consciousness change quite drastically, but your consciousness (arguably) does not” (p. 60). For Harris, consciousness appears to be a separate kind of faculty that stands apart from its contents, unconditioned by dependence upon worldly events which themselves arise and pass away. At least in Harris’s description this sounds like a permanent ground of awareness of the kind that the Buddha decried when the Sāti the Fisherman’s Son claimed the same of it. (Majjhima Nikāya 38).

Now, I expect that Harris would consider this a strange appraisal of his views, so unfortunately we must get into issues of history. Harris is following a tradition influenced strongly by the Mahāyānist Yogācāra school that views consciousness as just such a ground of being. It is described as “empty” or selfless to be sure, but whether in fact it qualifies as such has been a matter of long debate. Historically the Yogācāra school began around the fourth century CE, many centuries after the Buddha’s demise, as a response to certain doctrines of the earlier Mādhyamaka school.

Yogācāra authors like Asaṅgha and Vasubandhu believed that the Mādhyamaka had gone too far in their assertion that all things lacked intrinsic nature. Meditative insight, they believed, revealed an experiential ground of being. That ground was “empty” but not without intrinsic nature. It was “anatta” or “empty” only in being “non-dual”. As Paul Williams puts it in his Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (2nd ed.):

Thus it seems we have here a reinterpretation of the notion of emptiness, which has ceased to mean ‘absence of intrinsic nature’ … Our new opposition is emptiness versus subject-object duality.

This nondual consciousness which has irreducible intrinsic nature, and hence has one of the fullest types of existence permissible in the Buddhist philosophical framework, is also stated to be the same actual ‘thing’ as the dependent nature (p. 93).

Whether this sort of move is finally just a reformulation of the Mādhyamaka, much less a reformulation of the Buddha’s own views, is a matter of debate to say the least. Williams believes that it is something different (pp. 95-6). That is, it appears that the concept of “non-dual” consciousness arises around the fourth century CE, in response to a philosophical dispute about ontology.

I suspect that Harris would say none of this matters. He says the differences between Buddhist schools are “generally a matter of emphasis, semantics, and (irrelevant) metaphysics — and too esoteric to be of interest to the general reader” (p. 196). Perhaps so, but the only way to free ourselves from outdated modes of thought is to be aware of the influence of history.

Another reason for assuming that Harris’s understanding of Buddhism comes through the Yogācāra is his claim early on that,

[The Eastern tradition’s] highest teachings — found within the various schools of Buddhism and the nominally Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta — explicitly transcend dualism. By their lights, consciousness itself is identical to the very reality that one might otherwise mistake for God (p. 25).

His assertion about “the various schools of Buddhism” implies incorrectly that all Buddhist schools claim this. In fact, the earliest schools, typified by the dhamma found in the Canon, as well as contemporary schools of Theravāda Buddhism, explicitly do not “transcend dualism”, as Bhikkhu Bodhi has very cogently argued.

They also do not assert the existence of a consciousness identical to some kind of ground of reality, “that one might otherwise mistake for God”. That is exclusive to Yogācāra teaching, and other, later schools of Buddhist thought influenced by the Yogācāra, such as Zen and various Tibetan schools (including, apparently, Dzogchen, of which more below).

Part of the reason Canonical schools do not assert this is that it seems similar to one sort of “false view” as found in the Brahmajāla Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 1), namely it seems a form of eternalism based on consciousness as ground of reality. Note that it would be equally problematic if this ‘ground of reality’ persisted only for a single lifetime, since the main thrust of the Buddha’s teaching is that all experience is relentlessly anicca; indeed, this for the Buddha is what it means to be non-self: all experience reveals only change. There is no unchanging or pure ground of being. That is the earliest experiential teaching.

I fear however that we may have run into a clash of intuitions. Harris may well say that his experience is of an “intrinsically undivided” consciousness “in every present moment”, while the Buddha’s was of six forms of consciousness that were always changing, dependent upon worldly conditions.

It’s not clear how these different descriptions might be reconciled, however a clue might be found in Harris’s own book. For although when meditating he describes consciousness as “intrinsically undivided”, when discussing the scientific data we find instead from experiments involving split brain patients that “consciousness is divisible” (pp. 69, 188). This is a conundrum. Is consciousness intrinsically undivided, or is it divisible? Is there one form of consciousness, or are there six?

Wilfrid Sellars coined the phrase “the myth of the given” to describe the claim that there is some way to get at experience entirely without preconceptions, so as to describe its features objectively, viz., as “non-dual” or “intrinsically undivided”. Two people try to do that, and end up with different “givens”. There is always some prior theory that gets in the way, so our only escape is to be aware of that theory, and be sure it comes from somewhere credible. In the case of split-brain patients, our theory is credible owing to its objectivity, not its subjective character, since I suspect that none of us is ourselves a split-brain patient. We know by experiment that a split-brain patient has a divided consciousness. We know we ourselves have two lobes of the brain. So we know by analogy that we ourselves must retain some measure of divided consciousness, even though this is very hard, perhaps impossible, to gain hold of by direct experience.

(Indeed, Harris trips himself up when discussing this possibility: distinguishing between “whether or not [multiple subjectivities in one mind] seems plausible to you” versus “Another part of your brain” (p. 72). As (my) latter italics make clear, if these are both really you, then why call the former “you” and the latter “your brain”?)

My point is that we should remain skeptical about what is claimed to be given to us in experience, even when that experience seems particularly vivid; even if it happens in deepest samādhi.

Self as Motte and Bailey

Harris may say that all he has got hold of in his non-dual awareness is the nonexistence of a self; that he makes no assertions as to the separability of consciousness, much less any metaphysics of a ground of being. And anatta is, safe to say, something that is verifiable objectively, by the kinds of scientific experiments and knowledge of the brain that he outlines in his book.

What is verifiable in experience is the nonexistence of an illusion. Harris describes the illusion this way: “the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle” (p. 87). Now, this is undoubtedly a normal feeling, but it’s probably not particularly credible to most of us who grew up knowing something about the neuroscience, and who do not subscribe to the notion of an eternal soul as separate from the body. “Of course there is no such thing!” we are prone to say. This is a reaction we will return to, below.

The problem with making anatta into the central component of the spiritual quest is that it is likely to cause confusion of a particular sort. For some already in the secular community, it is likely to seem what’s termed a “Motte and Bailey doctrine”.

Nicholas Shackel coined the phrase “Motte and Bailey doctrine” to refer to a certain sort of argumentative move, whereby one starts with a surprising but ill-defended position, and when pressed on it, one moves to a different, less sexy but more defensible one. The analogy he uses is that of a medieval castle, which had a large, open, attractive “motte” surrounded by a low wall, that everyone wished to inhabit if they could, but when the enemy pressed they would all crowd into the thick-walled “bailey” to wait out the hordes. When the hordes left, they would all re-inhabit the motte.

In Buddhism, anatta often comes across as just such a doctrine. It is put forward as the claim “there is no self”, a claim which is patently absurd, and which the Buddha himself rejected. When pressed upon its absurdity, Buddhists will then retreat to the more defensible claim that what is being denied is not “the self”, but rather “the feeling that there is an inner subject, behind our eyes, thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experience” (pp. 97-8). In other words, what’s being denied is something like Daniel Dennett’s “Cartesian Theater”: the notion of the self as a kind of homunculus behind our eyes that is doing the mental work, in some sort of inner room.

This is a denial that should be entirely unsurprising. But its very unsurprising character is what often leads otherwise intelligent readers to misinterpret the claim being made. So for example we have Center for Inquiry Board Chair Edward Tabash (someone as familiar with this naturalist claim as anyone) asking in a review of Harris’s book, “If the notion that we are separate selves is false, how could we ever tell Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris apart?”

I have no doubt that Harris himself understands what is going on here. However his usage of phrases like “cutting through the illusion of the self” (p. 14) could cause confusion. A banal claim such as that the Cartesian Theater is illusory does not seem a particularly promising end of a life’s spiritual journey. So the draw will unfortunately always be to the motte (“there is no self”), which cannot be defended.

This raises the question as to the appropriate scope of a spiritual journey such as the one Harris proposes.

On Efforting

Harris seems not to have enjoyed the time he spent meditating with U Pandita. Indeed, more than not having enjoyed himself, he seems to have felt positively misled:

[T]he deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of self – and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment (p. 115)

I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. …

Dualistic mindfulness — paying attention to the breath, for instance — generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion: One feels that one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath or some other object of awareness because of all the good it will do. (p. 117)

The problem Harris points to is one sometimes termed “efforting“. In order to make an effort, one at times will reify a strong sense of self. This can be a problem in meditation, where one’s attachment to personal success itself can get in the way of making progress. Harris’s response is to go for a less effortful solution through the Tibetan Dzogchen. Tibet is known for its “Vajrayāna” or “thunderbolt vehicle” tradition, so-called because it claims to be the quickest way to gain meditative insight, and opposed (among other things) to the “gradual training” one finds in the early Buddhist teachings.

One problem with Dzogchen and much of Vajrayāna is that it is at least partially secret, as Harris recognizes. He mentions this in the context we discussed above, namely that it can seem pretty banal to find out that one lacks an inner homunculus:

It is, in fact, very difficult to deal with this “So what?” That is why certain traditions, like Dzogchen, consider teachings about the intrinsic nonduality of consciousness to be secret, reserving them for students who have spent considerable time practicing other forms of meditation. (p. 137).

The Vajrayāna keeps other practices secret as well, including some unsavory ones that would get one kicked out of a Theravādin saṅgha. In general one wonders about any tradition that keeps its teachings secret. It is not the mark of a particularly credible teaching that it be held above examination. It is a kind of offense against secular practice. It also goes against the Buddha’s famous claim to have taught with an “open hand”.

Another problem however is that if we reject the role of effort, we end up with an impoverished notion of a spiritual quest. Indeed, the Eightfold Path contains as a necessary component “Right Effort”, which I dealt with in a prior blog post on practice:

Here a bhikkhu awakens zeal for the non-arising of unarisen evil unwholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. He awakens zeal for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states … He awakens zeal for the arising of unarisen wholesome states … He awakens zeal for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and fulfillment by development of arisen wholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge” (Majjhima Nikāya 77.16).

At first this may seem another difference in intuitions: Harris thinks that effort “reinforces the chains of bondage”, while the Buddha does not. But Harris is not consistent on this matter. For example, he tells us elsewhere that scientific study has shown one can improve one’s outlook on life by practicing gratitude (pp. 90-91). On a broader scale he says, “Investigating the nature of consciousness itself — and transforming its contents through deliberate training — is the basis of spiritual life” (p. 51). Practice and “deliberate training” require effort. The question is how best to direct that effort, but the effort itself is essential.

Harris’s Axiom

Perhaps the central problem with Harris’s approach lies in its axiom: “[T]he deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of self”. This leads him to claim that enlightenment itself is seen only in terms of anatta:

“Gautama was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self” (p. 33)

“… a truly enlightened man or woman … [is] one who has fully and permanently unraveled the conventional sense of self …” (p. 144)

I wonder to what extent Harris considers himself enlightened, since he claims awareness of these very things. At any rate, this does not correspond very closely with the canonical understanding of enlightenment, which is in terms of extinguishing the three taints: kamāsava, bhavāsava, and avijjāsava. The first is the taint of “sensual craving” which includes both greed and aversion, the second is the taint of “craving for existence” which includes both wanting immortality and wanting to cease existing, and the root taint of ignorance, in particular ignorance of the Four Noble Truths themselves. (E.g., MN 27.25-26).

It seems to me that whatever spirituality is, its deepest goal has to be something more than the realization of some existence claim or other. Realizing that there is no Cartesian Theater may be an important step in whatever path one takes, indeed it may be a critical step in overcoming greed, aversion, and the desire for existence, but it cannot be the culmination of that path, or if it is, it’s only so because of a whole lot of work that went before.

Although our main defect may be ignorance, our main existential problem is dukkha. And dealing with dukkha means first and foremost developing a mind of non attachment: non attachment to self, for certain, but non attachment to all things. Consciousness is only one of what the Buddha called the “five aggregates of clinging”. A meditative program that only focuses on consciousness is thereby impoverished by four fifths. For we do retain attachment to our bodies, to our senses, to our wills, to our likes and dislikes. I don’t believe it really helps moderate our attachment to consciousness to be told that it in some sense grounds the mystery of our being, that it is not fully captured in objective inquiry, that it is “free” and “never truly confined”, as Harris describes it. That’s not to say these claims are necessarily false – perhaps they are, perhaps they are not – but rather that they should probably not be structured as central to one’s spiritual quest.

What then are we to do with Harris’s “self-transcendence”? If we think of spirituality as encompassing a broader endeavor, one aimed at moral as well as meditative betterment, at right speech for example, at right effort as well as right mindfulness, we may see clearer where Harris’s approach falls short, at least as outlined in Waking Up. Cultivating a mind of non attachment, which is arguably a real “deep goal” of spirituality, involves more than an awareness of anatta. It involves more — and more effort — than that of looking at consciousness moment to moment, although of course mindfulness will play a central role.

Practices such as the Brahmaviharas, awareness of the body, of the outside world, of volitions, of preferences; practiced renunciation, giving, gratitude, the role of saṅgha; all are essential parts of practice. And through it all, the one constant of impermanence, which Harris tends to leave in the back seat.

The Buddha’s experience of anatta was not that the self dropped away in non-dual awareness, but rather that all awareness, all consciousness, all the mind, all the aggregates, all that we ever experience is ever changing, and the self was something supposed to be unchanging and permanent. So they could not be the same thing.

“Bhikkhus, what do you think: Is feeling … perceptions … formations … consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“No, venerable sir.” (MN 109.15).

Transcendence or Non-attachment?

Sam Harris has written a lucid and engaging treatise on secular spirituality, an energetic defense of spiritual practice as a kind of gnostic enterprise: learning by first person experience that the conventional self is an illusion. This he recommends by careful attention to conscious experience through meditation, in particular under the guidance of a master of Dzogchen.

As an account of a personal journey, apparently successful, one can say nothing against it. Any such journey must depend on the aims of the person actually putting one foot in front of the other. By his own account, Harris has done a lot of walking on this path. He found his master, and realized the non-dual nature of conscious awareness. Now his only problem is bringing this “self-transcendence” to more and more moments of his life.

But what if we started with a different axiom of spirituality? What if instead of claiming self-transcendence as our goal, we were to choose something slightly less grandiose. What if we were to say that the deepest goal of spirituality were simply to live the good life, or become a better person? Or that the goal were to eliminate clinging, and hence dukkha? Or that it were to cultivate a mind of non attachment? As well as being more grounded, I submit these are deeper understandings of the Buddhist path.

This leaves to one side the more difficult undertaking of reaching what Theravādins like U Pandita would call “cessation” (pp. 116-8). Harris notes that attaining such a state involves more work than that of attaining non-dual conscious awareness, but apart from saying that many apparently wise teachers have not attained it, he does not investigate further. What is this state? If it exists, is it worth the effort?

What is the goal we are after? My sense is that the gnostic aim of knowing the self to be an illusion is not really workable as a complete spiritual path. It falls afoul of what Harris termed the “So what?” response. In their full context, of course, Harris lucidly explains features of practice which will play critical roles in any Secular Buddhist enterprise, and for this reason alone his book will make important reading. In particular, they could help reduce conceit, egotism, greed, aversion, and other self-directed emotional responses. But more is required.