Apotheosis—The Hero's Journey Leads to Nirvana

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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What is the goal of meditation? Can meditation be practiced, and its goal achieved, outside of religion?

Sam Harris explains that seeking transcendental states of mind has historically been the domain of religion. But, he argues, the contemplative aspects of faith traditions can be practiced in a secular context. Thus, the contentment that results can be enjoyed by anyone.

Continue reading to learn what meditation and spiritual enlightenment look like from Harris’s secular worldview.

What Is the Goal of Meditation?

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. What is the goal of meditation? Harris says that, ultimately, it’s enlightenment. He explores 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. 

(Shortform note: More recent studies than the ones referenced by Harris reveal a middle ground between mental wandering and focused meditation. This third path is daydreaming—which can also be described as “thinking for fun”—and new research shows that like meditation, it’s a skill that can be learned. Engaging in daydreaming can stave off mental boredom and boost physical wellness. Proponents of daydreaming tout it as a positive mental workout that allows you to regulate thoughts and emotions in much the same way as meditation.) 

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. 

(Shortform note: Harris writes as if having a running inner monologue is a universal human experience, and, while it may be largely true, there are people whose inner thoughts take the form of abstractions instead of spoken language. There are also variations in the degree of mental chatter people experience. In The Introvert Advantage, Marti Olsen Laney cites research that introverts use longer neural pathways to access information than extroverts, leading to more active and vocal inner monologues.)

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. 

(Shortform note: In a broad sense, to be enlightened simply means “to gain an understanding,” whether that’s of science, a personal truth, or the fact that tacos are delicious. Though Harris frames spiritual enlightenment as one specific realization, others pose it differently. In The Fifth Agreement, don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz equate enlightenment with the realization that all of your experiences are subjective. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle states that enlightenment comes from living fully in the present moment. According to the Taoist text Tao Te Ching, an enlightened person sees through their subjective illusions to face the objective world as it actually exists.)

To be clear, the goal of meditation and, ultimately, 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. 

(Shortform note: This goal speaks against the advice of self-help gurus who suggest using your thoughts for positive gain. In As a Man Thinketh, James Allen writes that by mastering your thoughts, you find purpose in life, while in The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, Joseph Murphy says that conscious thought can retrain your subconscious and improve your state of mind. The ultimate example of self-identification with your thoughts and feelings may be the practice of “manifesting” espoused by authors Rhonda Byrne and Napoleon Hill, who suggest that directing your thoughts and emotions can bring material wealth and success, which mindfulness proponents such as Harris argue will keep you trapped in a cycle of misery.)

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 says that meditation doesn’t “make your mind better”—it reveals a state of tranquility that was there for you to access all along.

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.

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.

What Is the Goal of Meditation? Sam Harris on Enlightenment

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  • Why those who reject religion are missing out on something crucial
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  • What science and theology have to say about the soul and the mind

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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