Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Waking Up" by Sam Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are the people who are abandoning religion also leaving something crucial behind? Are they throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

The answer is yes, according to Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris. He believes that spiritual experiences, particularly higher states of consciousness, are important for people who are seeking happiness and peace.

Continue reading for an overview of this thought-provoking book.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris

More and more people are turning their backs on religion, adopting a secular lifestyle based on our scientific understanding of the world. These are atheists, agnostics, humanists, and those who prefer no labels at all. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris argues that those who reject the contemplative aspects of religion when they adopt a secular lifestyle are missing out on the peace and contentment that comes from seeking transcendental states of consciousness—experiences we normally associate with the realm of spirituality

According to Harris, science doesn’t invalidate these higher states of consciousness, but because they’ve historically been co-opted by religion, people with a secular worldview unjustly dismiss them out of hand. In Waking Up, published in 2015, Harris lays out a reason-based approach to seeking and enjoying a spiritual lifestyle firmly rooted in what science and human experience teach us about the workings of the mind.

Harris, a philosopher and a scientist, is best known as a pioneer of the New Atheist movement, which encourages skeptics to confront religious beliefs with the same level of intellectual criticism and rational debate that’s applied to scientific models and theories. In his book The End of Faith, published in 2004, Harris calls attention to the negative effects of religious beliefs throughout history. In 2009, Harris earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience for his studies on the neurological roots of doubt and belief within the human brain.

We’ll explore Harris’s nonreligious definition of spirituality, what neuroscience says about the nature of consciousness, and what meditation can teach us about the human mind. We’ll investigate Harris’s argument that consciousness and feelings of individual selfhood are two separate aspects of experience, and, while consciousness is real, your sense of self is an illusion. Finally, we’ll delve into the practical aspects of seeking spiritual enlightenment, what that looks like from a secular worldview, and the implications of seeking self-improvement within such a system of belief.

Secular Spirituality

To talk about spiritual experiences within the realm of a rational, scientific worldview, the first step is to define what “spirituality” means in this context. For Harris, spirituality is the process of exploring your consciousness in a way that dispels the illusion that your existence is defined by your thoughts and feelings. Such explorations can also include achieving states of consciousness outside the realm of normal experience. Harris discusses why such a practice is desirable, how to separate spirituality from the confines of religion, and why out of all the major faiths, Buddhism provides the most practical roadmap to having spiritual experiences without the baggage of superstition and dogma.

Harris starts from a simple foundation—everybody just wants to be happy. Unfortunately, on the “hedonic treadmill” of our materialistic culture, peace and contentment are always somewhere in the future while you try to run away from the pain in your past. Spiritual endeavors, such as prayer and contemplation, are an attempt to break yourself out of this cycle, bringing your awareness into the here and now. This is the practice of mindfulness—the deliberate choice to focus your awareness on the present moment and experience it without judgment. Happiness and tranquility can only be found in the present because the present moment is all you can actually experience.

Practicing mindfulness (in the form of meditation) teaches three simple truths:

  1. Your thoughts shape your subjective experience.
  2. Positive emotions are skills you can train.
  3. Your “sense of self” is an illusion.

According to Harris, it’s the last of these tenets—that selfhood is illusory—that lies at the heart of spirituality. A spiritual experience is the feeling of transcending your limited existence, freeing your awareness from the constant grind of anxiety, longing, sadness, and pain. Throughout history, many people have felt such transcendence, usually in the context of a religion that attributes moments of rapture to divine origin. However, since people of all faiths have had similar transcendent experiences, even between religions that directly contradict each other, then, logically, some factor outside of religion must be the source of the spiritual experience.

The Buddhist Approach

If we discard any supernatural causes, then the common ground shared by anyone who’s had a spiritual experience is the human condition itself—namely, cognition and emotion. This shared human experience is where we find the universal truths that various opposing religions have uncovered. Harris says that while most religions hide the path to these truths behind a maze of superstition, ritual, and dogma, Buddhism approaches spirituality with an almost scientific focus on experiment and observation, which opens a path for nonbelievers to experience a transformation of consciousness without paying heed to any supernatural claims.

To be fair, Buddhism makes supernatural claims just like any other religion, such as the existence of spirits, reincarnation, and that some Buddhist adepts have extranormal powers. Nevertheless, Harris points out that when stripped of its mythological framework, Buddhism has an empirical core—a practical process to bring your awareness into the present moment so that you can realize that your thoughts and emotions don’t define your existence. Instead of asking you to take this idea on faith, Buddhism makes the testable assertion that the more you practice meditation, the more you’ll be able to free yourself from suffering.

The Science of Consciousness

Before delving into how to apply Buddhist practices to a nonreligious life, we’ll explore what neuroscience and psychology have to say about the nature of consciousness and the mind. Unfortunately, modern science is currently at a loss to even define what consciousness is, much less to study it directly. What we can do is examine scientific conjectures about consciousness, what current research can tell us about the complicated nature of cognition, and how studies of certain neurological processes offer tantalizing clues about how your sense of personal identity emerges in the brain.

Biologically, what we can say for certain about consciousness is that it’s a product of the brain, though no medical test or imaging of the brain can point to a specific neurological process that generates consciousness. Rather, consciousness appears to be an emergent property of the nervous system—one that’s dependent on how the brain functions, while independent of any single part of the brain. Because consciousness is a purely subjective experience, Harris doubts that scientific research will ever be able to explain what it is from a neurological perspective, though he admits that science and medicine have answered other supposedly “unsolvable” riddles, such as how the matter that makes up our bodies can heal and reproduce itself.

The things research can explore, says Harris, are the different mental processes that we think of as being pieces of our consciousness, such as language, behavior, and sensory perception, though as individuals we’re completely unconscious of how these neurological processes function. Neural imaging shows that language processing and fine motor skills are controlled by the brain’s left hemisphere, while spatial mapping and emotional processing occur in the right side of the brain. None of these processes define consciousness, though. People who suffer brain injuries may lose one or more of these aspects of consciousness without losing the power of consciousness itself.

One phenomenon that sheds an interesting light on the nature of consciousness is the experience of people who’ve undergone surgery to sever the hemispheres of the brain as a treatment for epilepsy. Once divided, each hemisphere demonstrates different skills, personalities, and even desires, behaving as two separate minds in one body. Harris argues that this division of consciousness shows experimentally that the mind is a property of the physical brain and not a phantasmal “soul” living inside it. After all, to believe in a soul implies that your mind is independent of your body—but how could a mind housed in a soul be divided in two by a medical procedure?

Theory of Mind

In addition to your conscious awareness of your thoughts and feelings, another function of the brain is to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others. Psychologists call this the “theory of mind”—the understanding that other people have a point of view that’s different from your own. On the neurological level, this function of the brain is rooted in mirror neurons, the nerve cells that fire in response to other people’s behavior. In addition to modeling the actions of others, mirror neurons extrapolate the intent behind what other people do. Scientists believe that this process of the brain identifies other people as separate beings and is inextricably linked to your sense of individuality and selfhood.

Harris suggests that there’s an even more basic link between the theory of mind and your feeling of selfhood, which is your understanding that other people are aware of you. The feelings of personal identity we cling to are defined in opposition to the identities of others, whom we recognize as beings separate from ourselves as modeled by our mirror neurons. When other people aren’t there to observe us, we still maintain an inner dialogue as if our identity requires an audience to exist.

Harris argues that your feelings of identity and selfhood are an illusion created by a multitude of interlinked mental processes, and that transcending the illusion of the self through deep contemplation is the core of spirituality as he defines it.

Meditation and the Mind

Since current scientific methodology is insufficient to fully explore the nature of the mind, Harris turns to meditative introspection to investigate the properties of consciousness, identity, and selfhood, as well as what it means to transcend them. Harris describes the fundamentally subjective nature of consciousness, how it can be explored on a personal level, and why consciousness and individual selfhood are two separate aspects of the mind, with the latter being more illusory than you think.

In this context, consciousness is your subjective awareness of your existence and that of the world around you. The limiting factor in examining consciousness is that nothing but consciousness can observe it, and only from a first-person point of view. You can examine your own conscious mind, but you can’t directly observe the minds of others, and no one else can directly observe yours. This has led some thinkers to suggest that consciousness itself is an illusion, but Harris says that argument is silly. If consciousness is an illusion, then the experience of that illusion is proof that consciousness is real.

It’s through spirituality, which Harris defines as deep contemplation of your conscious mind, that you can truly learn about yourself. While psychology has demonstrated the underlying power of the unconscious mind, it’s in your conscious awareness that you subjectively experience life, the universe, and everything in it. Consciousness is where you feel pain and pleasure, as well as where you make moral judgments.

Too often, such moral judgments are seen as the purview of religion, yet even religious practices can shed light on the nature of consciousness. For instance, consider monastic traditions that seek inner peace through contemplation and self-isolation. Harris suggests that, while these monks are attempting to commune with the divine, they’re also conducting a philosophical experiment to determine if psychological health can exist outside the struggle for self-gratification that defines the normal, everyday world. Over the centuries, these experiments have yielded many positive results, including transcendental states of mind, especially when meditative practitioners have learned to silence their own inner monologues.

Separating Consciousness From Selfhood

The crux of Harris’s argument in favor of a “secular spirituality” is that a meditative practice can help you find tranquility by experiencing moments of pure, unfiltered consciousness. This happens when you experience consciousness without thought, when you let your inner voice—as well as the constant churn of emotions that your thoughts inevitably trigger—slide away. Harris says that, if you can experience awareness unburdened by your constant internal chatter, you’ll realize that your consciousness is independent of any feelings of personal identity and selfhood and that your sense of identity is merely an illusion. This is a counterintuitive concept, so some definitions are in order.

When Harris says the “self” is an illusion, what exactly does he mean? The selfhood he’s referring to is the feeling that you’re an incorporeal being sitting inside your head, looking out through your eyes, and steering your body like a vehicle. Harris asserts that this particular feeling is a product of what he calls “psychological continuity,” the constant creation and narration of memories about your physical and cognitive experiences from one moment to the next. This moment-to-moment continuity creates the illusion that the “you” inside your head is the same “you” you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. But is that really the case? Are “you” the same person “you” were five years ago, or when “you” were a child?

However, when meditation interrupts your mental chatter, you experience awareness unclouded by the internal narrative that normally defines your sense of identity. You realize that from a subjective point of view, all that can really be said to exist is your present awareness and the thoughts it contains. Harris isn’t arguing that you don’t exist or that you haven’t experienced the things you remember. What he’s saying is that your sense of selfhood is a construct of your memories and thoughts and that it covers up a deeper reality—that all you really have is your conscious awareness, which isn’t defined by the thoughts, feelings, and memories that routinely impinge upon it.

Practical Enlightenment

All of this contemplation about the mind begs a practical question: In what way does understanding the nature of consciousness benefit you in your day-to-day life? The answer is in the leverage it gives you to control your mind. The central tenet of any meditative practice is that your ability to direct and frame your thoughts and feelings dictates the quality of your experience of life and the world around you. Harris explains the documented benefits of practicing meditation, as well as pitfalls to look out for. He then goes on to explore what “enlightenment” means in a nonreligious context and the underlying paradox of seeking self-improvement if the self is an illusion.

Harris cites psychological studies in which people report that their thoughts wander at least 50% of the time. This mental wandering goes hand-in-hand with increased unhappiness and heightened brain activity, regardless of whether their ruminations are pleasant or unpleasant. On the other hand, studies on focused attention show reduction in stress, improved cognitive functioning, and better emotional regulation.

The trouble is that, for beginners, it’s hard to tell the difference between active meditation and letting your mind wander. The key is in learning to be aware of the present before your thoughts interfere with your perceptions. Without mindfulness, the thoughts that fill your head become an endless inner monologue narrating your life to yourself.

The Path of Mindfulness

To quote Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Taking control of the chatter in your mind requires accepting that your response to any situation—whether it’s suffering, elation, or indifference—is entirely the product of your thoughts. Mindfulness lets you choose your responses consciously instead of giving in to habitual reactions, such as anger or resentment. Harris cautions that he’s not recommending you detach from reality; he’s just stating that you don’t have to let the outside world dictate your emotional responses.

Harris also warns that a fully contemplative approach to life requires a certain intellectual maturity, though mindfulness practices have benefits for people of all ages, such as teaching emotional self-awareness. There are certain psychological and physical conditions that meditation practices could actually make worse. If you suffer from one of those, Harris recommends consulting a physician before launching yourself on a meditative journey.

If you decide to pursue meditation, Harris says it’s important to find a good teacher, someone who can model the calm and sense of presence you’re trying to achieve on your path to enlightenment. However, be wary. The teacher-student relationship is ripe for exploitation, and the role of spiritual guru is especially attractive to frauds. Even teachers who offer good meditative guidance will sometimes make spurious claims about science or medicine as it relates to their field. As in all things, it’s good to maintain a certain level of skepticism, especially if you feel you’re being conned or abused by someone who claims to be a spiritual master.

The Nature of Enlightenment

If you’re still unclear about the end goal of meditation beyond learning to be more present in the moment, you’re not alone. The “enlightenment” that meditative masters speak of is notoriously tricky to define. Harris describes enlightenment as losing your sense of individual selfhood and becoming aware of the world around you without the barrier created by your thoughts. He discusses what a state of enlightenment might feel like, the steps you go through on the way to achieving it, and what enlightenment teaches about the workings of the mind.

Achieving enlightenment does not mean that you suddenly gain mystical powers or that your mind becomes one with the universe. Instead, enlightenment means achieving a state of mental equilibrium in which you’re not shaken by the highs and lows of life—or if you are, you can regain your balance quickly. It doesn’t mean giving up the things you love or turning a blind eye to suffering and injustice. An enlightened mindset simply recognizes that all things are transitory and lets you navigate the good times and the bad with calm and openness.

To be clear, the goal of enlightenment isn’t to stop thinking and feeling. The goal is to stop identifying with your thoughts and emotions because that self-identification lies at the root of all your suffering. Harris says that meditation can break you from the cycle of pain by training you to recognize your thoughts and feelings as objects that exist apart from your consciousness. You can spot them when they appear, examine them as an impartial observer, and let them slip away without dominating your attention.

The Meditation Journey

Of course, meditation is a skill that must be practiced. When you first learn to meditate, you may feel an initial thrill of success. However, as you practice, you may feel more and more distracted during meditation. Harris writes that this is a natural step along the way, and though it feels like you may be getting worse at meditating, it actually means you’re getting better. If you start to feel distracted while meditating, it means you’re getting better at noticing your thoughts—in other words, you’re on the right track. True enlightenment may still be very far away, but you’ll find that the process of getting there makes your mind incrementally healthier.

Eventually, during meditation, you may notice your consciousness as it exists between one thought and the next. When this happens, you can finally understand that you are not your thoughts. Instead, you are the conscious awareness that your transitory thoughts pass through. It’s as if your awareness is a movie screen, and your thoughts are the images projected on it. No matter what those images are, they can’t harm the screen itself.

This is spiritual enlightenment at its core—that consciousness without thought is your true, underlying experience. Harris doubts that anyone can live in this state of awareness all the time, but he does believe that through practice you can glimpse it. Doing so can free you from the suffering triggered by the thoughts projected on the blank screen of your mind. How can you suffer when the “self” that is suffering is just an illusion, a “movie special effect” of the brain?

The Paradox of Enlightenment

Realizing that your sense of selfhood is just a figment of your imagination brings up the following conundrum: Why should you work to improve yourself if your “self” doesn’t really exist? Harris explains how different schools of thought address this riddle, then explores the teachings of Dzogchen Buddhism and how it points toward a healthy approach to accepting life’s pitfalls while striving to be better. Harris says that meditation doesn’t “make your mind better”—it reveals a state of tranquility that was there for you to access all along.

However, since the practice of meditation is a skill that must be mastered and improved, there are two different schools of thought regarding the attainment of enlightenment through seemingly meaningless “self” improvement. Here, Harris turns to Buddhism for guidance, for while he disregards Buddhism’s mystical claims, he embraces its “try this and see” approach toward spiritual understanding.

The approach embodied by Theravada Buddhism ignores the paradox of self-improvement entirely by setting enlightenment as a distant future goal that may never be achieved but should always be worked toward. Harris argues that the problem with this approach is that it intellectualizes the concept of the illusion of the self. After all, if you’re thinking about how your sense of selfhood is an illusion, you’re still thinking instead of experiencing pure awareness. Another approach, Advaita Vedānta, asserts that meditation isn’t a path to enlightenment and that a full understanding of the illusion of selfhood can only come as a flash of insight, one that once seen cannot be unseen, almost like an optical illusion.

Harris adopts a personal approach adhering to the teachings of Dzogchen Buddhism, whose ideas lay somewhere in the middle ground. The point of Dzogchen is to break through the illusion of selfhood and experience pure consciousness at any given moment. This breakthrough isn’t a product of drawn-out meditation but rather takes the form of an instant awareness of the illusion. However, Dzogchen teachers acknowledge that you’re unlikely to have the “flash of insight” you’re trying to achieve without the observational skills developed by practicing meditation. Therefore, in Dzogchen, you meditate to strengthen your awareness so that when your moment of insight comes, you’ll be able to recognize it for what it is.

Harris says that, by following the teachings of Dzogchen Buddhism, he’s able to see through his own illusion of selfhood. He can’t do it all the time, but with practice, he can access an unclouded awareness of the present moment on a regular basis. He finds that this kind of spiritual awareness doesn’t lead to detachment or a lack of motivation to improve himself. Rather, he argues that such an awareness can help you find a place of calm and clarity from which you can accept your life and the world while striving to make things better.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

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  • Why those who reject religion are missing out on something crucial
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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