Waking_Up_Cover_SmallI still remember my excitement on encountering, in Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, the suggestion that it would be possible to enjoy many of the benefits which people had traditionally sought from religion without the need to embrace religion itself.  Buddhist meditiation was one of the practices Harris mentioned as a specific example of wisdom that could be extracted from its religious context.  “I wonder if anybody is actually doing anything like that?” I remember asking myself. The result was a search that led me first to MBSR, and then to Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs. In a very real way, Sam Harris is responsible for guiding my feet to the path, and for the transformations I have experienced while traveling it.

If Harris had published a book back then with the subtitle, “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” I would have grabbed it eagerly.  I suspect that many people in a similar situation today will rush to read Waking Up.  However, while the book contains much that will interest those who wish to explore the dimensions of a non-faith-based spiritual practice, I’m afraid many readers will be disappointed.    Aside from a few brief meditation instructions, Waking Up is less of an actual guide to seeking peace, wisdom, transcendence and a ground of ethical behavior outside of religion than it is an argument that such a practice is rationally acceptable and, therefore, a good thing.  In many sections of the book, rather than guiding us to the path, Harris seems principally concerned with convincing the skeptical that a Buddhist-inflected search for awakening is not just more religious delusion.

Perhaps this theme mirrors a conversation Harris must have had with himself many times over the years he spent training with various sayadaws, yogis and rimpoches.  Harris portrays himself as deeply immersed in traditional Buddhism, and even in Advaita Vedanta.  He was also, apparently, an avid consumer of hallucinogens, at least until the bad trips started outnumbering the good.  Harris recounts times at which he had to remind himself that the strange and marvelous experiences he was having were not evidence for the veracity of the religious doctrine he was surrounded by, nor proof of a supernatural realm.  Consequently, he seems to assume readers will resist the idea that spiritual practice need not be enmeshed in religious belief, and he piles the evidence so high that there’s not much room left to discuss how the secular seeker should actually proceed.

That evidence makes an interesting and entertaining read, although much of it will not be new to those who already follow the philosophy and neuroscience of human consciousness.   The spiritual principles Harris expounds will also be recognizable as Buddhism 101, albiet with few words of Pali or Sanskrit.  Still, Waking Up is valuable as a comprehensive argument for secular spirituality.

First  off, he has to defend the use of that highly charged term:

Whenever I use the word, as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice,” I hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grevious error . . . I do not share their semantic concerns.  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 nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

We note at the outset that Harris views spiritual practice as being principally about experiences, specifically induced changes in consciousness.  He makes this clear throughout the book:

Investigating the nature of consciousness itself–and transforming its contents through deliberate training–is the basis of spiritual life.

If inducing changes in consciousness is what Harris’s spirituality is all about, it is clear that not any old wisdom tradition will do the trick, and he is quite clear about his prejudices in this regard:

Although the experience of self-transcendence is, in principle, available to everyone, this possibility is only weakly attested to in the religious and philosophical literature of the West.  Only Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta . . .have been absolutely clear in asserting that spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.’

It should come as no surprise,  then that the nature of our spiritual condition and the prescription for it sounds a lot like a secular form of Buddhism.  Our problem is that our pleasures are fleeting and unreliable, and a thousand forms of suffering appear to arise in every moment.  As a result, we are continually pushed and pulled about by our desires and fears,  the chief manifestation of which is the constant chatter of thoughts that crowds our conscious mind, to the point where we mistake those thoughts, and the subject of those thoughts, as the reality of who we are.  If we pay careful attention to the contents of consciousness, however, the mind stills, we recognize that we are not our thoughts, and if we persist we will see that there really isn’t any thinker to begin with.  For Harris, observing the illusory nature of the self is the key to freedom.  To help us along, he offers a very basic breath meditation exercise.

Those who have embarked on a meditation practice will recall that beginners have a lot of questions.  How long and often should I practice?  How can I stick to it?  How do I know I’m doing it right or making any progress? How do I handle boredom, distraction, sleepyness, difficult emotions? How do I integrate my meditative insights into my everyday life? Unfortunately, this is pretty much where Harris’s spiritual guidance ends.

Instead, he launches into an analysis of what science does and doesn’t know about human consciousness.  He begins by rehearsing the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, and agrees with the philosophers who hold that the arising of consciousness from unconscious processes is an insoluable mystery.  His discussion of such phenomena as divided consciousness in surgically split brains and unconscious information processing in the brain seems intended to provide scientific support for the meditative insight that the self we experience as a unified homunculus riding around in our head is an illusion.

Harris then moves to an examination of what it is we think we mean by the self, considering such elements as personal agency, self continuity, the inner dialog of thought, and the mental structures that enable us to form a ‘theory of mind’ regarding other people.  If we examine any of these elements carefully,  singlulary or in combination, whether scientifically, philosophically, or in our own experience, we will observe that the illusion of self does not survive our search for it. Harris goes on to argue in support of meditation as being the tool for the introspective examination of the self.

The final chapter is a grab-bag of related ideas: Harris’ thoughts about gurus (while it is necessary to study with an “expert”, the master/student relationship is fraught with danger: buyer beware), near-death experiences (bunk), and hallucinogenic drugs (they demonstrate the capacity of the mind but for transformative insight, but can be dangerous and may be uneccessary).  We come to the book’s end having heard a very interesting discussion about spiritual life, but having received very little guidance about how to live it.

If Harris’s depiction of his own spiritual awakening is intended to be guidance by example, it is a problematic one.  After teaching the reader a simple vipassana practice and extoling the scientific evidence for the efficacy of vipassana-based mindfulness mediation,  he relates that his own three years on silent vipassana retreat were essentially a dry hole.   It is not until he discovers Advaita Vedanta, which guides students to experience the non-dual awareness of pure consciousness devoid of self, that he begins to feel he is making progress.  This in turn leads him to Nepal to study with the Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rimpoche, who imparts the “pointing instruction” empowerment to him. “I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, ” he writes, “and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.”

In retrospect, Harris concludes that vipassana practice is an ineffective way to achieve the goal of spirituality, at least in comparison to non-dual practices such as Advaita or Dzogchen.  Dualistic practices, like meditating on the breath, actually perpetuate the illusion they are trying to dispell:

[T]here are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the 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.

There’s a hitch, however.  Authentic Dzogchen teachings are traditionally secret, transmitted personally from master to student.  Tulku Urgyen was an exceptionally talented teacher, Harris says, but he is dead, and not all Dzogchen masters are as good, although Urgyen’s sons teach in his style.   The clear implication is that meaningful spiritual experience can only be obtained at the feet of the rare Dzogchen master who is talented enough to impart the pointing instruction effectively.  Even so, we are told, “One can never be sure how much Buddhist religiosity one will be asked to imbibe along the way.”

Surely Harris’s view is unnecessarily parochial. To begin with, is eliminating the perception of self really the ultimate goal of spiritual practice?  What about joy, equanimity, kindness, compassion, ethical guidance and moral courage? I believe that all of these goals are best advanced when we loosen our grip on the ego and cultivate our perception of connectedness rather than our illusion of isolation and alienation.  But the insight of non-self alone is not spiritual practice, let alone a spiritual life.

Secondly, Dzogchen practice is scarcely the only way such insights can be achieved.  Insight Meditation teachers have been blending traditional vipassana with methods from Advaita and Vajrayana for years now. Other than quoting the research done on MBSR and other mindfulness based therapies, Harris ignores these practices entirely.  If he had explored them, he might have learned that they also blend mindful examination of experience with the teaching of non-striving and resting in open awareness.  These approaches are not antithetical, but can in fact be complimentary.  And to learn them, one need neither travel to Nepal nor imbibe Buddhist religiosity.

While his advocacy of a non-religious spirituality is revolutionary, Waking Up reveals Harris’s view of spirituality itself to be bound by traditional Asian notions of spiritual practice.  Rather than providing the spiritual guidance promised by the subtitle of his book, Harris presents us with an intimidating view of practice and sends us off in hopes that we can find a guru who isn’t a fraud.  He touches not at all on Secular Buddhism, Spiritual Naturalism, the mindfulness-based interventions, or any of the other current non-religious spiritual communities. Harris’s book would have been  more successful if it could point to these examples of non-religious spirituality that already exist to be explored.

I hope Waking Up succeeds in encouraging skeptical people to consider the possibility that contemplative practice can ease their suffering and open transformative vistas in their lives.  But if we admit that spiritual traditions can teach us truths about human experience that we can benefit from without the need to embrace supernatural belief, we must accept that those truths are not confined within one religious tradition, let alone one meditation technique.  There is no reason to believe that secular spirituality may not reflect as great a  variety of human aspirations and experiences as the religious versions do, or that it must limit itself in its capacity to draw from our spiritual heritage.  In the end, the dharma is not a set of teachings, practices or philosophies.  It is the wisdom of embodied human experience, and I believe building a secular spirituality starts with understanding that that wisdom is already available to each of us.

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  1. mufi on September 22, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Mark: I’ve already alluded in this forum comment to my own opinion of Harris’ book, which is somewhat more positive than yours.

    But, rather than directly expound on that, I prefer to point out the internal tension that I sense within your last paragraph above, where you refer on the one hand to an imperative to “accept that those truths [about human experience] are not confined within one religious tradition” and your choice to label any and all examples of “wisdom of embodied human experience” as “the dharma.”

    Both naturally and politically, you’re free to label such wisdom however you like, but I suspect that Harris’ choice of more universal, secular, and non-denominational language is of greater significance than you acknowledge here (at least explicitly), insofar as he parts ways with Secular Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor in rejecting a Buddhist identity…not just for himself, but for the “truths” themselves, as he stated some years ago his blog:

    Needless to say, any truths uncovered about the human mind through meditation cannot be “Buddhist”. And if meditation ever becomes widely adopted as a tool of science, it will be quickly stripped of its Buddhist roots. There are, after all, very good reasons we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra”. Physics and algebra are genuine domains of human inquiry, and as such, they transcend the cultural conditions out of which they arose. Today, anyone emphasizing the religious roots of these intellectual disciplines would stand convicted of not understanding them at all. In the same way, if we ever develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that will have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

    Simply put, Harris does not aim to teach “the dharma”, nor should he, IMO.

    • Linda on September 22, 2014 at 3:00 pm

      You are defining “the dharma” as Buddhist, mufi? I would not. I would say “dharma” is, as Mark says above, “not a set of teachings, practices or philosophies. It is the wisdom of embodied human experience,” and it isn’t something just Sam Harris should aim to spread around, but all of us who have benefited from it should.

      • Raymond Barrett on September 23, 2014 at 10:25 am

        I think the problem with all of this religion stuff, and labels, is that once you have a “religion” you have already codified an answer to the spiritual quest. You’ve already made up your mind about “what this all means.” And you can point others in that direction.

        But if we treat spirituality more as science, there is no end result. There is only, “this is what we have good reason to believe is true, at this point in time” – but tomorrow may be different.

        A spiritual science also has no tradition, only historical practices that are constantly altered and refined in order to test both the methods and the results.

        The point of spiritual practice, from my perspective, is to learn – to condition ourselves – to see more and more clearly everyday. To see more of what is true.

        And we can certainly learn to express what we’re doing without being tied down to the language of non-Western cultures.

  2. Ron Stillman on September 22, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I haven’t read the book yet I’d like to comment on Sam’s blog conversation with Dan Harris about his book “10 Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story”.

    Among other things, the conversation covers the difference between Mindfulness meditation as self-help (reduce stress) and Mindfulness meditation as observation and knowledge of not-self. There is a difference, imho.


  3. Mark Knickelbine on September 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    mufi, if Harris’s goal is to universalize, he does a really poor job of it in Waking Up. The reader is clearly told that Buddhism (and to a lesser extent Advaita) are the only spiritual traditions that have anything important to say about the goal of spiritual life, dispelling the illusion of self. And he strongly suggests that only by studying with a Vajrayana master can we come to the highest spiritual practice. My issue with Waking Up is not that it isn’t Buddhist enough, but that it expresses a view of spirituality that is too narrowly focused on one goal and one set of practices to achieve it. If you accept my definition of the dharma — the human capacity for awakening to the true nature of conditioned experience — then that is exactly what Harris thinks he’s teaching. Finally, I really enjoyed the book. It is very engaging and entertaining. It just isn’t “A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.”

    • Linda on September 22, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      It sounds as though Harris is very narrowly defining “what works” in spirituality as what he himself has experienced; like he doesn’t recognize that maybe different folks find different strokes will get them to the same place he’s heading for?

      • Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 7:57 am

        Linda, that’s undoubtedly part of it. I think another part is he does not want to stray away from what he can support with scientific evidence. He can point to the research support for meditation and the non-unitary nature of what we take for self, and he spends most of the book doing that. So if he is doing Dzogchen, at least no one can accuse him of chasing a delusion. Also, he spent many years engaged in traditional Buddhist practice, studying with Theravadin and Vajrayana masters, so it isn’t a surprise that he sees spirituality as a search for the experience of meditative insight.

    • mufi on September 23, 2014 at 4:50 am

      Mark, what other spiritual traditions would you add to Harris’ list of sources (to which I would add, btw, the shamanistic traditions that he cites as predecessors to more recent experiments with psychedelic drugs).

      After all, it comes as no surprise by now that Harris has little or nothing nice to say about the Abrahamic religions. I find it interesting that he has nicer things to say about Asian religions, but only as sources, not as destinations, in which one loses oneself in uncritical obedience to authority figures (thus that rather scathing section on gurus).

      • Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 8:06 am

        Harris admits that there have been contemplatives in the Christian and Muslim traditions whose experience sounds very much like Buddhist awakening. But he uses the fact that most of these got in trouble with the orthodox institutions of their religious traditions as an excuse to dismiss them. I think figures like Rumi and St. Theresa of Avila were true bodhisattvas of compassion who speak to our hearts in a way that few Buddhists do, and to dispense with them just because they identified with religions we reject would be to impoverish our spiritual lives. We reject traditional religious Buddhism, too, but that doesn’t keep us from learning from its truths.

        • Raymond Barrett on September 23, 2014 at 10:02 am

          I think the point of mentioning mystics not being accepted by their own religious traditions is to show that any insight they achieved was not because of their native traditions, but in spite of them.

          Islam (or one of the others) becomes the language through which an experience is conveyed, but the core of the language is superstition and delusion. I would say anyone coming from that who achieves any insight did so only to the extent that they were able to leave their “religion” behind (thus becoming heretics).

          What “truths” would you derive from a Sufi that are not hopelessly entangled with Islam, or that could not be learned through the dharmic religions? What can they teach us that is not bound up in superstition and delusion? I’ve done some reading in Islam and Sufism (and Traditionalism) in the past, and nothing comes to mind.

          • Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 11:29 am

            Raymond, one could just as easily say that any Vajrayana practitioner who achieved insight did so despite Tibetan shamanism or latent Hinduism. As far as what truths one could salvage from a Sufi mystic, I will only note that the single most recited poem in MBSR classes is Rumi’s “The Guest House.” In my own humble opinion, the great Sufi poets all express the liberation of surrendering to the transformative power of love — a message that often gets lost in the Abhidharmic technocracy of Theravada, for instance.

        • mufi on September 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

          Mark: I find it curious that a spokesperson for a nominally Buddhist organization like yourself would quibble with the idea that, while Buddhism – like all old-time religions – freights plenty of baggage, nonetheless has more to recommend it, from a secular/pragmatic/naturalistic standpoint, than its counterparts.

          As I alluded earlier, Harris doesn’t even go so far as to embrace a Buddhist identity or (as you did) to apply Buddhist jargon like “the dharma” to characterize wisdom (all of which, as far as I know, is rooted in “embodied human experience”, btw). He simply judges Buddhism (and Advaita Vedanta) to be less problematic than other religions as a whole. If I seriously disagreed with him on this point, then I seriously doubt that I would have indulged the concept of Secular Buddhism as long as I have (although I admit to slowly losing interest in it).

          Otherwise, what Raymond said, above and below.

          • Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 11:37 am

            mufi — seeing the phrase “spokesman for a nominally Buddhist organization” sends a strange thrill up my spine. At any rate, while I certainly believe that the ideas that originated in Buddhism seem the most straightforward kind from which to launch a secular spiritual practice, they can quickly become a straightjacket if we cling to them. Harris doesn’t want to call himself a Buddhist, but in the book he dissects the human condition in plainly Buddhist terms, talks about the years he spent practicing Buddhism, and specifies Buddhist meditation techniques (not even mentioning meditation techniques that are un-Buddhist, such as the MBIs). He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Otherwise, what I said to Raymond.

          • mufi on September 23, 2014 at 12:40 pm

            …seeing the phrase “spokesman for a nominally Buddhist organization” sends a strange thrill up my spine.

            I live to serve. 🙂

            So Harris enjoys cake, while renouncing the “Cake-Lover” label. So what?

            After all, cake-love comes in a variety of degrees and forms, some of which are healthier than others. With this caveat in mind, the costs of a wholesale endorsement of and personal identification with cake-love tend to outweigh whatever benefits it brings.

          • mufi on September 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm

            On a more serious note, the MBI’s are clinical treatment programs, which is not exactly the sort of framing or context that Harris is after in this book. That they also happen to also be secular and Buddhism-inspired makes them at least somewhat relevant to his thesis – particularly when it comes to citing research on the neuroscience of meditation – but treating them as examples of secular spiritual practice is hardly de rigueur.

          • Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 2:29 pm

            mufi, the MBIs are methods of training the mind through directing awareness with the purpose of aleviating suffering. They may be presented in a clinical setting (although not always), but they are life practices. Given that they are explicitly non-religious in presentation, you would think they would be exactly the sort of thing Harris would be interested in. It would be one thing to raise the MBIs and briefly dismiss them for whatever reason, but he doesn’t discuss them at all.

  4. Robert Schenck on September 22, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Why the competitive spirit here? It sounds like envy, jealousy. Sam Harris learned from Buddhism and Advaita, Mark Knickelbine learned from MBSR. What’s the problem? Harris has posted elsewhere meditation guidance almost identical to Knickelbine’s. At the simplest level, they are both teaching patience and forbearance. “Seeing” or “realizing” the illusion of self may very well be the most wonderful revelation accessible to the human mind, but anyone familiar with Harris must wonder how this knowledge can be reconciled with his practice in mixed martial arts, target practice with powerful handguns, and war with Islam and its medieval penalties for apostasy. As I write, the US and supposedly allied nations are bombing ISIS sites in Syria and Iraq, innocents are dying of ebola at exponential rates in Africa, to mention only two of the horrors which threaten civilization. I doubt that victims and soldiers will be sitting on cushions and speculating about the reality of I and me. I fondly remember the days when I thought meditation was a significant advance over prayer. Now i’m not so sure. Both comfort the doer. Is there any other practical difference? The famines and wars and horrors go on, and the Christians and Buddhists and MBSRs all seem equally ineffectual in the social and political realm. Both Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama were asked years ago how we could stop the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both had the same answer: “I don’t know.” As I age, I feel more and more like Buddhism, secular or otherwise, works only in the Theravadin way—it ends or can end the suffering of the practitioner. This is no small matter! But in the international political realm, it, like praying to a supernatural being with magical powers, is helpless.


    • mufi on September 23, 2014 at 5:01 am

      Robert: Perhaps Steven Pinker’s thesis on the reduced rates of global violence in modern history offers some consolation here about the political situation. Of course, statistical arguments are cold comforts in the face of mass suffering (i.e. in absolute, rather than proportional, numbers), but at the very least they serve to counterbalance some of the hoary and catastrophic claims of the “hell in a hand basket” kind (to which I am sometimes drawn myself).

  5. Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 7:49 am

    Robert, it was not my intention to say “MBSR good, Advaita bad.” But when Sam Harris publishes a book that purports to define secular spirituality, that becomes an important statement in the ongoing conversation about what a non-religious secular practice might be. I feel that Harris has defined it too narrowly and in a way that is still too beholden to the Asian monastic traditions. For example, sitting and observing the inherent emptiness of consciousness doesn’t seem to hold much promise in the social and political realm. However, from my own experience at least, I am convinced that contemplative practice, when it is specifically and intentionally applied to our lives off the cushion, is an invaluable aid in developing the wisdom, equanimity and courage one needs to take effective political action. I wish Harris had spent less space on the scientific evidence for the lack of a unitary self, and more time talking about how secular spirituality can be relevant to our moral and ethical lives.

  6. Robert Schenck on September 23, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Yes, Mark, by all means let us allow the give and take of conversation about these matters to continue. I do wonder, though, about your sense that Harris is “too beholden” to the Asian monastic traditions, given the fact that so many of your own posts on meditation and awareness cite chapter and verse in the Pali canon and demonstrate your own deep interest in and knowledge of Buddhism. To me, as an observer here at SBA, you yourself seem pretty “beholden” to Buddhist monasticism, and, from what I know of your teacher Kabat Zinn, it seems he, too, is similarly beholden. But I don’t say this as criticism—far from it. I share your hope, and Harris’s, that the practice can change our world for the better. We know that it can change our personal reactions to it. Whether it can do more than that remains to be seen. The histories of nations that have or have had Buddhist majorities do not inspire much hope or confidence that practice can arrest world famine and world war. Thanks, Mark.


    • Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 11:18 am

      Robert, I guess to the extent that monastics preserved the texts for us, everyone who cares about Buddhism is beholden to the monastic tradition. But part of the reason Buddhism seems to have had so little positive impact is that its monastics largely retreat from the world and focus on achieving their own spiritual perfection. My hope is that moving the focus of contemplative practice out of the monastery and into the daily lives of average people will make its benefits more available to lay people and to society at large. If we insist on long retreats, esoteric practices and complete realization, we limit who will be able to take part, unnecessarily I think.

  7. Michael Finley on September 23, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Robert is right to warn us not to get “competitive” here. Seems to me that if Batchelor can be questioned about selling new wine in old bottles, Harris is offering old wine in new bottles. Both approaches are probably useful in the effort to integrate science and spirituality (the difficulty manifest even in the problematic nature of these twp words), and both not without serious pitfalls.

    You don’t have to call yourself a Buddhist to see that clinging to forms — or names — is not useful here. For my part (as I’ve earlier written in discussions here), I regard myself as a Buddhist in the same way an historically aware biologist might sometimes call herself a Darwinist. It’s a label that makes sense in some contexts, but not others, and certainly doesn’t mean accepting anything “upon tradition.”

    If I have any real problem with Harris, it is that the old wine he bottles is of a rather specific vintage, and one that can go bad. I hope I am wrong in suspecting that he is close to falling into what’s been called “the transcendence trap.” A focus on the transcendent, aka mystical, experience that can follow from loss of sense of self risks, I think, addiction to pursuit of the experience itself. Alan Watts was one who fell into the trap; I hope Sam Harris avoids it.

  8. Mark Knickelbine on September 23, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you, everybody, for the comments. I suppose I need to clarify. I agree with nearly everything Harris says in Waking Up, and I certainly do not intend to knock him down for the purpose of building something else up. His book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of how to promote human flourishing without recourse to religion, and if you are a newcomer to this concept I think you will find the book quite useful. Even if you’re not, it is a good read and well worthwhile. I did feel the need to express my opinion that the book is not really the guide to spiritual practice that the cover promises, and that Harris’s conception of non-religious spirituality seems to me unnecessarily restrictive. That is important, not because something else is better and therefore should “win”, but because people who might otherwise gain value from secular spirituality but who are not disposed to study with a Dzogchen master may be dissuaded by such an approach.

  9. mufi on September 23, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Mark: It would be one thing to raise the MBIs and briefly dismiss them for whatever reason, but he doesn’t discuss them at all.

    He does, actually (e.g. see Location 1656 in the Kindle edition), but I guess his endorsement wasn’t strong enough for your liking. That’s OK, there’s no accounting for taste. 🙂

    • Mark Knickelbine on September 24, 2014 at 9:58 am

      mufi, that’s a discussion? As I indicated in the review, he does refer to the research that’s been done on the positive effects of meditation, and that most of this research has been done on vipassana-based practices. But neither here nor anywhere else in the book does he describe them or mention them by name. In fact, since he essentially says that vipassana, as a dualistic meditation process, “reinforces the chains of one’s apparent bondage,” I am not sure he would endorse the MBIs if he had bothered to mention them.

      • mufi on September 24, 2014 at 12:29 pm

        How exactly does his reference to “an eight-week program of mindfulness meditation” not qualify as a mention of an MBI? And how long would this portion of the book (which is several pages in my reader) have to be to meet your criteria for “a discussion”?

        Now, if all you mean to say is that Harris seems more enthusiastic about Dzogchen, or that he prefers a non-clinical framing of his thesis, then I largely agree with you.

        But so what? It’s his “guide to spirituality without religion.” Were I to write my own guide, I might have more to say about MBI’s (having been through a MBSR program), but even I would aim to break out of the clinical framing, according to which these interventions were designed and adapted. Why? I suppose it has something to do with its natural association with mental or physical disorder, which might only speak to a narrow subset of secular spirituality seekers.

        • Mark Knickelbine on September 24, 2014 at 2:44 pm

          mufi, come on. It is the barest, briefest, most nondescript mention you could make. It is an oblique reference, certainly not a “discussion.” If you didn’t know what the MBIs were you would not only not learn from that “mention”, you wouldn’t even know where to look. Certainly Mr. Harris has the right to put whatever he wants to into his book. But when you put “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” on the front cover, you have created certain expectations. You might anticipate the question, “Where can I go to practice meditation in a non-religious setting?” There are more and better answers to that question than “Go find a Tibetan rimpoche and close your ears when he starts talking about the bardo.” I would think providing answers to that and other questions a secular seeker would logically ask would be more of a “guide” than, say, debunking near death experiences or chewing over the hard problem of consciousness. One purpose of my review is to let potential readers know that the book may not be what they expect it to be.

          • mufi on September 24, 2014 at 3:15 pm

            Mark: Define your terms however you like, but I will insist that “discussion” is an apt term for Harris’ treatment of mindfulness meditation. Yes, it falls within in a research-heavy context, but it’s research that bears on the efficacy and benefits of such practices, leading up to the conclusive question, “How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?” Clearly Harris sees this work as relevant to his topic, otherwise why include it at all?

            But, again, I wouldn’t choose an eight-week clinical treatment program as my model of secular spirituality and nor does Harris, so perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree on the wisdom of that decision.

          • Mark Knickelbine on September 25, 2014 at 7:20 am

            It is because the MBIs have emerged from their eight-week formats and practice communities are forming around them that anyone concerned with secular spiritual practice needs to be aware of them. Despite their origin and original setting, the MBIs are life practices that encourage people to engage in the same kind of investigation of consciousness that Harris defines as spirituality. I am glad the MBIs don’t need Harris to promote them, but his book would have been more to the ostensible point if he had addressed this phenomenon.

          • Ron Stillman on September 25, 2014 at 8:01 am

            Right on Mark. Would that we could make the shift from “spirituality without religion” to the real psychological foundation on which Gotama spoke. Let us not forget that stress IS dukkha and concentrate on the alleviation of stress. That’s a word that EVERYBODY is familiar with, isn’t it?

          • mufi on September 25, 2014 at 7:34 pm

            Mark, you can end the sale pitch for the MBI’s. Like Harris, I endorse them. Unlike Harris (as far as I can tell), I’m a former beneficiary of one (MBSR).

            That said, the ‘I’ in “MBI” (for “intervention”) is enough to inform even the least curious among spirituality seekers of its clinical context. To use such language in the sublime context of spirituality would just be a bad marketing practice, which Harris was wise enough to avoid, even as he availed himself of the related research.

          • Mark Knickelbine on September 26, 2014 at 7:14 am

            The MBIs certainly don’t need a sales pitch from me, mufi, nor am I arrogant enough to think I could do an adequate job of it here. I’m merely pointing out that a non-religious spiritual practice and community, as Harris would define them, already exists and is thriving and available to people, and Harris’s book would have been stronger and more useful had he not ignored it.

  10. Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Mark, essentially, when he describes vipassana as a dualistic meditation process that “reinforces the chains of one’s apparent bondage”, he has dismissed anything to do with Mindfulness practice or what Gotama taught about Dependent Arising as a breaking of the chain of “one’s apparent bondage”. It appears to me that he has judged it as something unworthy to practice. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

    • Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 11:27 am

      Let me restate what I said about Mindfulness as a dualistic meditation. It actually says nothing about Dependent Arising. To me, this is where Sam is coming from.

      In a fairly recent conversation with Dan Harris, Sam says:
      “However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.”

      Aha! What’s missing is an explainable down to earth understanding of Dependent Origination, imho.

      So, my above statement that suggests Sam disagreeing with Mindfulness practice AND Dependent Arising is mistaken. Sam may or may not know about DA unless that’s taught in Dzogchen. I, myself, have very little knowledge of that practice.

      Point being, Mindfulness with an understanding of Dependent Arising as Gotama taught it, would be what’s needed now.

  11. Mark Knickelbine on September 24, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Well, he does include vipassana meditation instructions but makes a comment about the style being good for “beginners”. He also says many people’s minds are too scattered to start Dzogchen and they need some preliminary practice before they are ready. So he doesn’t dismiss vipassana entirely but it’s clearly relegated to second-class status.

    • Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 11:48 am

      lol! I think my comment before yours fits better with what you just said so here it is again.

      In a fairly recent conversation with Dan Harris, Sam says:
      “However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.”

      Aha! What’s missing in Mindfulness practice is an explainable down to earth understanding of Dependent Origination, imho, and that can be given with everyday human experiences. Buddhadasa included them in his book, Linda suggested them in her book, Prayudh Payutto included them in his understanding of DA and jos has given his own first hand experiences. What more could we want? My answer…more personal experiences of DA by anyone willing to share them.

      So, my above statement that suggests Sam disagreeing with Mindfulness practice AND Dependent Arising is mistaken. Sam may or may not know about DA as Gotama really taught it unless that’s taught in Dzogchen.

      Point being, Mindfulness WITH understanding of Dependent Arising as Gotama taught it, would be what’s needed now, imho. Sam calls that non-dual practice. I believe I understand his point of view, if I’m not mistaken. 😉

      • Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 11:57 am

        If I might add, sharing personal experiences is all about vulnerability and coming from the heart instead of the head.

        • Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm

          Not unimportantly, it means we’re willing to show we may have a weekness. How many folks want to do that! 😉

          • Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm

            weakness…sorry about that. A Freudian slip? 🙂

  12. Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    What’s really, really interesting is that this thread is all about the cycle of Dependent Arising, imho. Look what happens when “eye consciousness” happens…feeling (unpleasant), craving, clinging, becoming, birth, Dukkha (stress).

  13. Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    I just learned that Djogchen is “teachings described in the four noble truths in terms of dependent origination”.

    • Ron Stillman on September 24, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Dependent Arising is simply a deeper insight into the four “ennobling” truths. Moreover, it can be entirely secular in nature. It would be much more difficult to convince someone, knowing very little about Buddhism, that the FNT’s are secular. They belong to just about every Buddhist religion I can think of.

  14. Robert Schenck on October 29, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    At this link Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein discuss in a two-hour audio the practice of meditation and the relative merits of vipassana and dzogchen:


    I didn’t learn much new, but t thought Goldstein’s account of his finding the way was interesting, and in the last hour of the dialogue it was amusing to hear the two meditators fussing over the differences of mental states and practices.



    • Mark Knickelbine on October 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Robert, thanks for the link. I’ll have to try and listen during a long car drive this weekend!

  15. Robert Schenck on October 30, 2014 at 7:27 am

    I look forward to your response, Mark.

    • Mark Knickelbine on October 31, 2014 at 9:53 am

      So I listened to the whole thing yesterday. Two things jump out at me. Notice how Harris uses Goldstein’s “how I started meditating” story to set him up for his dzogchen vs vipassana criticism later on. Second, the way Goldstein keeps sending these “why are we having this silly argument” signals. As I mentioned in the review, Harris is very focused on the specific experience of altered self consciousness as the be-all and end-all of meditation. The second half of this conversation is all about parsing the nuances of this experience, which is why Goldstein keeps telling him that mindfulness can’t be reduced to just one kind of experience everybody is supposed to have. IMHO, chasing any kind of experience, even non-dualistic selflessness, is another variety of grasping. Especially if you can’t have that experience without the help of the right kind of Tibetan master, and then only on a 10-day retreat. There are many ways to come to an awareness of the Three Characteristics, and many nuances to how that awareness plays out in one’s daily experience. Not a lot of talk here about compassion or kindness as a practice goal, for example. Even metta is treated as another concentration practice.

      • Mark Knickelbine on October 31, 2014 at 9:59 am

        I think he does have a point, however, about vipassana in the Mahasi Sayadaw style, with all the mental noting and the specific observations one is supposed to be making with one’s concentrated mind. It does seem like a lot of work and very goal oriented, which sets up opportunities for conceptual thinking and self-judgment.

        • Robert Schenck on October 31, 2014 at 10:55 am

          Thanks, Mark, I found the parsing of mental states irrelevant to my own practice. Personally I have more interest in how any practice manifests as ethical conduct. I would like to hear Harris describe how he gets from the realization of no self to his training in handguns and martial arts.


          • mufi on November 1, 2014 at 8:21 am

            Good points, Robert.

            Given Harris’ militant stance against religion – Islam, in particular – I was already aware (i.e. prior to reading Waking Up) of certain limitations in how I far I can relate to his brand of secular spirituality. Given the diversity of human experience, this is hardly surprising, however. What would be surprising is if secular spirituality were monolithic.

            So my recommendation of Waking Up, alluded to above, should be read with that caveat in mind.

  16. Ron Stillman on November 2, 2014 at 11:15 am

    To me, Harris is arguing for a shortcut to a special mind state called emptiness where cause and effect cease to exist. At least that’s my understanding of Dzogchen. One believes in a place where cause and effect ceases and that’s called enlightenment? I take this to mean that it is a mind state in which a person can reside while still alive in a world where cause and effect exist. Can this be called secular in nature? Not for me. I’ll continue to follow the path as elucidated by the pragmatic Mr. Gotama, even though it be seemingly a long one for most people. And so far, I can say it has helped “me” to be a happier, friendlier, and more compassionate human being.

  17. Robert Schenck on November 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    I long long ago wore out utterly on discussions parsing mental states. Have the Buddhists had any effect on world famine or world war? Oh, I know, that’s a crude, dull razor of Occam, but I still return to it again and again when people like Harris and Goldstein praise their attainments. I’m glad your practice has made you happier, friendlier, kinder, Ron. I feel likewise about mine. But the eternal famine and the eternal war go on and on with little if any diminution despite the billions of disciples of the Buddha and the Christ. The failures of Zen in Japan are now well-documented, Tibet has been conquered, its teachers have fled to the decadent west, and Buddhists in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia also have totally failed in the modern political realm of hell and horror. Like you, I’m guessing, I just keep sitting, walking, practicing. It comforts me. The torment of political consciousness recedes. It’s good medicine. More and more I think that Theravada is the Way that keeps its promise, Mahayana not so much. In my next life—no, I don’t really think I’ll have one, just joshing—I’ll be a Jain and go the whole pacifist hog and do my damnedest not to hurt a fly. Seriously, the modern industrial megadeath is disrupting my samadhi. But maybe smart drones and surgical strike carpet bombing enemies on the other side of the earth will help. Damn it! There I go again! And I have renounced irony! Sigh—


  18. Robert Schenck on November 5, 2014 at 9:53 am

    At the link below is a wonderful talk by Sam Harris on meditation, mind, and self. I especially like Harris’s description of the ceaseless circular repetitions of self-chatter: “It’s like I’ve been kidnapped by the most boring person on earth.”


    I’ll post this link on the other Sam Harris thread, too. Looking forward to comments on it —


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