15 February 2015

Book Review: "Waking up. Spirituality without Religion" by Sam Harris

As usually, this is only partly a review and possibly for the larger part an account of the insights the book produced in myself.

What I really liked about the book:

  • the best part was the chapter on split brain experiments and observations. People whose right and left brains are less connected (for instance, due to an accident or surgery) seem to have two different personalities depending on which part of their brain one is interacting with. I found this hugely inspiring in understanding how some people like myself have trouble forming a steady opinion on things or trouble doing things which they have (not so long ago) firmly decided to do. Harris mentions that speech (although probably generated in both halves of the brain) can in most people not function without the left half of the brain. So in experiments, researchers had to use other ways (such as pointing their finger) of communicating with the right half of their subject's brains. This instantly reminded me of how much of my inner wisdom seems to be inaccessible to the verbalized thinking which I use to take decisions and solve problems. Although Harris doesn't mention this aspect of using more of one's inner resources, I still find his descriptions a powerful motivator to listen more to my body and to make more use of images and feelings when thinking about what I want to do or what I need to be happy.
  • another great motivator was his listing of many benefits of meditation (including some I didn't yet know). This is not a big part of the book and there is little advice on how to get those benefits if one doesn't want to spent entire weeks on silent retreats or travel the world to learn from dozens of spiritual teachers (such as Harris has done). The most practical manual which I can recommend for this is still "Search Inside Yourself". (And Harris' work motivated me to read SIY again! Or actually listen to it this time. I just bought the audiobook.)
  • I actually listened to the Audiobook of Waking Up, read by Harris himself. His voice and intonation is just as great as his choice of words and telling things as a story! I wish more authors would read their own books or at least get a really good and passionate voice actor to do the job.
What I found interesting, but not great:
  • Harris' view of what the purpose or end goal of Spirituality actually constitutes seems plausible and interesting to me, but not necessarily like something that would appeal to everybody. Just like all people share their very basic needs for food, air, sleep, socializing, and security, they diverge hugely on what they desire once the basics are met. One might see it as their goal to fly to Mars or at least prepare humanity to do this. Another might want to explore the ocean at thousands of meters of depth. Yet another might want to spread love and compassion to help the people around them, while again others (including some of my friends) see it as their goal to help as many people on earth as possible by earning a lot of money and wisely choosing to which altruist organisations to donate that. Similarly, Harris view of Spirituality (in a grossly abridged one-sentence summary) is that of an inquiry into the nature of consciousness and the self, followed (after long years of search) by the realization that consciousness is spotless like a mirror and there is no self. While I also find this realization quite comforting I am personally looking more towards how my meditation practice and my world view support my own well-being in the life outside the meditation hall. Others, again, are looking towards spirituality to find connection with other people or even with something that is more perpetual than us people.
    My own search is similar to Harris' in some regards. For instance, the importance of curiosity and inquiry and how I value teachers for the knowledge they share either with accessible explanations or by their good example. But as I see the differences between Harris' and my own goals, I see that many people will be even more different and maybe even unable to understand Harris' points. When it comes to their life's purpose, people are just incredibly different. For instance, while someone like Harris and (to some extend) myself is perfectly happy being the pilot of one's own life, many others simply seem to crave being led by someone who takes some (or more) responsibility off their shoulders. For some people this is so strong that they become devout followers of a guru. For others it is as simple as being one of the reasons (instead of having their own business) to work for a company large or small, where their boss takes some of the hard decisions. But this craving for leadership seems to be so basic, that there will always be some people who will not follow such a route of open-minded inquiry. 
  • His experiences with psychedelic drugs sound really fascinating and since I have heard similar stories from friends the book actually made me decide to try out some things myself – but that was just before Harris recounted his extra-ordinarily bad experiences with just the same drugs and how (as I understood it) he wasn't able to influence the outcome of his trips into the positive direction. And that was deterrent enough for me!
    In the end he gave a wonderful picture comparing drug-induced with meditation-induced higher states of minds: the first is like being stripped to a rocket that goes off with a large fraction of light speed. It can be truly mind-boggling when it goes to some place nice, but a nightmare if it goes wrong. And it is unclear whether one can influence the direction. Meditation, on the other hand, is like sailing when you start with a raft on still water: you can raise and enlarge your sail very gradually and it takes a lot of time to reach the open ocean. You will face troubles one by one so that you can learn how to overcome the obstacles and keep learning and growing. I personally like this image a lot because it can explain how many people are satisfied using meditation on one level (for instance, to calm their minds, or to better understand other people), but are not motivated to sail further out. Again, this was a wonderful motivator for me to engage in meditation more seriously!
Finally one thing I found really annoying about the book: his harsh criticism of Religion. Although he is factually right with all his charges against all the large religions, small cults, and other forms of superstition and mysticism. And although religions really have created a lot of damage to humanity and will continue to do so if humanity doesn't transform them into more open, accepting, and compassionate organisations, I simply believe that as a matter of how psychological defenses in the human mind work, criticizing religion in such a harsh way will only make it stronger. I, too, believe that religion as it is now has to disappear, but that this has to happen as some kind of embrace and transform. Probably religions of the future will have much less followers than in societies where religion was a mandatory part of the culture. Hopefully they will be free from any unethical behavior and even encourage people to explore there own ethics and learn to be more aligned to what they think and feel is right. Probably some superstition will never be rooted out, simply because colorful and dramatic explanations and justifications for good rules of behavior just stick better in the human mind than the dry scientific explanation which will yield the same conclusion. (As I like to say: usefulness of knowledge often trumps truthfulness.) And finally, I can't see how to completely root out the phenomenon of obedience from the basic hard- and software of the human mind. All we can do is to make people more aware of it, less dependent of it, show them more choices, and finally, create better and more ethical leaders.


Post a Comment