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Waking Up

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For the millions of Americans who want spirituality without religion, Sam Harris’s new book is a guide to meditation as a rational spiritual practice informed by neuroscience and psychology.

From multiple New York Times bestselling author, neuroscientist, and “new atheist” Sam Harris, Waking Up is for the 30 percent of Americans who follow no religion, but who suspect that Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history could not have all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. Throughout the book, Harris argues that there are important truths to be found in the experiences of such contemplatives—and, therefore, that there is more to understanding reality than science and secular culture generally allow.

Waking Up is part seeker’s memoir and part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality. No other book marries contemplative wisdom and modern science in this way, and no author other than Sam Harris—a scientist, philosopher, and famous skeptic—could write it.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2014

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Harris Sam

2 books

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,780 reviews
Profile Image for Chris.
384 reviews147 followers
August 1, 2016
After enthusiastically starting this book, I gradually became annoyed, and eventually angry, as it slid on a downward slope to the end. This embarrassing work is far beneath what I would have expected from a scholar such as Harris. What a surprise it was to find details on the sexual malpractices of spiritual gurus and how to find one that matches your "tastes," among other awkward and simplistic information.

I had been eagerly looking forward to reading Waking Up after its publication was announced in Spring 2014. Who better than Harris, the master of rationality, to offer a companion way to look at the world to sit side-by-side with my scientific outlook—one that embraces the spiritual without the religious? Who could object to experiencing another form of beauty in one's life that doesn't contradict the observed facts of the universe? Maddeningly, his book does not deliver on this promise, as other reviewers have also noted. What it does do is present a trivial prescription, not at all original, which is easily summarized: (1) "you" don't exist, and (2) empty "your" mind of all thought.

Those that have read Waking Up, should see evidence of my displeasure by noting the deliberately frequent use of "I" and "me" in this review: "I" being the very one who read his book and subsequently wrote this text with some passion. "I" am most certainly not an illusion, believe me. (You, on the other hand, are free to believe what you will concerning yourself.)

Of course, in this demotion of self and mind, Harris only reiterates ancient well-known aspects of Buddhist philosophy. He does so here without adding anything new. That reduces what's left of the book to its only other theme: that of the meaning and origin of human consciousness. Again, Harris adds nothing, this time to the relevant science, which is covered in great depth in several recent authoritative books by other scientists. An excellent example is the very readable Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts, by Stanislas Dehaene. Published in 2014, it's quite comprehensive, covering many of the points in Harris's book, with more depth and authority, and going far beyond.

In the final analysis, what's left? Only some surprising autobiographical material about his use of psychoactive drugs—that is, it's surprising if you are a Harris fan. Such use may be more common by others who are not necessarily public intellectuals. (I acknowledge that, like Harris, Aldous Huxley used mescaline and wrote a book about it, the classic The Doors of Perception. Huxley's is leagues ahead in spiritual depth, even if the science is somewhat dated.)

What am I critical of this book? Not for the link to Buddhism, I'm not a believer, never will be; not for the drug use, I'm not a prude; not even for the amateurish advice about gurus, since at least it is momentarily (ironically?) humorous. My ultimate criticism is his failure to teach us something new. He should have given us some real tools with which to make our lives meaningful in the spiritual sense without resorting to religion. The book's promise was forfeited. Concomitant with that failure, he has damaged his image as a leader in the American culture war, whether he wants to be one or not.

This book strongly deserves a 1-star. I'm struggling to maintain some intellectual respect in Harris. He's possibly now nothing to me, despite his great previous work advocating rationality over groundless faith (see The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason). Unlike him, who seems to think that an empty consciousness is man's highest mental state, I still consider human thought to be the ultimate expression of the Universe examining itself, not the true source of pain and suffering that Harris claims in this deeply weird book.
Profile Image for Dan Harris.
Author 13 books1,864 followers
March 1, 2014
This book is not out yet, but Sam was nice enough to let me read the galley. It's fascinating. It will surprise a lot of people to learn that this often acerbic atheist in fact has a deep history of meditation practice. In this book - which is part polemic, part memoir, part pop-science - he makes the case for a "spirituality" (he doesn't like the word, per se, but points out that there are sadly no other options) divorced from religion. Whether or not, you agree with his views on faith, Sam makes a compelling philosophical and scientific argument for the benefits of meditation.
Author 6 books96 followers
October 3, 2014
A little disappointed with this one. Harris basically defines spirituality as the quest to see the ego and the self as illusions, and while that's certainly a worthy goal, it strikes me as a somewhat narrow definition for spirituality, as I personally find spirituality to also include things such as developing a sense of love and compassion towards other people.

The book is subtitled "A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". In practice, the guide parts consist of a few meditation instructions, some arguments from neuroscience and philosophy on why there isn't a unified self, and a brief discussion about how psychedelics can provide useful insights to the nature of consciousness. The meditation instructions aren't bad, but there's also nothing particularly novel about them, and only a few of them are provided. The neuroscience arguments seemed weak even to someone who believed in the claim that they were trying to establish, as did the philosophy for the most part. Ken Wilber's No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth did the philosophy much better, I feel. I'm sure that there are people who find the content in this book interesting and novel, and there were a few useful nuggets of information, but for the most part it was either stuff that I had seen before or stuff that was novel but unconvincing.

And then there is the ranting and endless religion-bashing. Harris seems to use every possible excuse to attack religion and superstition. While I'm an atheist who agrees that religions have plenty of silly beliefs, I didn't get this book to read endless rants about their evils. Blah blah Christianity prevents people from correctly interpreting their meditative experiences and is generally evil blah blah blah Buddhism is better and has a lot of valuable stuff but still we shouldn't forget that it too has all kinds of silly nastiness blah blah YES I GET IT COULD WE PLEASE GET BACK TO THE TOPIC. Oh, only for a few paragraphs, then you want to get back to the ranting. Sigh.
Profile Image for Josh.
26 reviews3 followers
June 8, 2014
This book is bound to ignite another firestorm in the skeptic community around the word "spirituality," but it really shouldn't. As Harris makes clear from the outset, his interests still lie squarely within the bounds of rational inquiry. One need not entertain any spooky metaphysics in order to honestly interrogate the mind and its limits. What he does argue, however, is that consciousness is an object of study unlike any other in science - because it is both the subject of investigation and the tool we're using to investigate.

A healthy portion of the book is spent fending off the attacks Harris anticipates from his less experience-hungry colleagues in the scientific community: spirituality is a term too loaded down with religious baggage, mystics and contemplatives are all on some level lying about the depth of their experiences, and the entire enterprise is ripe for fraud. Harris is quite willing to grant some ground to these objections, but having spent a serious span of his life on meditation retreats, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, and exploring the possibilities of consciousness, he insists that there really is a "there" there. And scientists would be well served not to dismiss it out of hand.

By the final pages, Harris has made a strong case with his usual verbal flair. All of us - scientists included - should be eager to openly and honestly explore consciousness because that's all that could ever really matter. And unlike so many self-help books, Waking Up suggests that the answer doesn't rest in learning more and more about the "self" but rather in dissolving it - and noticing that the thing that thinks our thoughts cannot be identical with the thoughts themselves.

While the program put forward in the book (and likely the online courses set to begin this September) is a daunting one, it's extremely hard to argue with Harris' reasoning. Who doesn't want to be happier, less neurotic, and more at home in one's own mind?
Profile Image for Lance.
Author 7 books500 followers
August 26, 2016
Much of this was about becoming consciousness and not being distracted by thought, but most of the time I was thinking of other things.
Profile Image for B Schrodinger.
305 reviews659 followers
February 7, 2017
"A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion" - sounds great. I feel spiritually stunted yet dread the involvement of religion.

The book started out great, thoughts on the use of spirituality with some academic references.

Sam then says that to be spiritual without religion you need to lose your sense of self.
He then explores the psychology and brain physiology of self and thinks he shows that the self doesn't exist. I followed most of the science, but when the philosophy came into it I was lost.

Alright, Sam, what else do you have to offer? Oh, the one true way to do this is to use a Bhuddist meditation technique cutting out the jumbo jumbo. Oh, you studied it yourself with your guru for like ever. Yeah, this is far from religion. How do you do it? Hand wavy stuff and you might want to study it yourself. Why thanks Sam. This really helps out.

Oh and now you want to go on about how gurus are often shady characters. Really holding up this argument well, Sam.

I couldn't deal with anymore.
In summary this is a pamphlet for some Bhuddist hippy shit that Sam got into in his twenties.

Note: There are a lot of reviews here that love this book. I definitely know there is a possibility that I was just too dense to get what Sam was on about. But I'm just a scientist who was hoping to develop his spirituality.
Profile Image for Thomas Stroemquist.
1,481 reviews123 followers
September 25, 2017
My first acquaintance with Sam Harris was through one of the many YouTube snippets in which logically reasoning and science advocating people debates different religious people about the existence of god (along with about a million sidetracks). Being Swedish, I found this fascinating for a while (very few Swedes would ever define themselves as 'atheists' - for quite similar reasons why most people do not define themselves as "non-elf-believers"). I watched a bunch of these, until my fascination with the power of human self-delusion was exhausted and the fascination with Harris' and his team-mates patiences was long gone - and I will probably never have to watch another. I've also never picked up a book by any of the knowledgeables (Harris, Hitchens, Nye, Dawkins...) much for the reason that I know beforehand that I will agree on most counts and the compelling powers of logical reasoning in themselves are not enough to keep interest up for a lengthy text - or so I've always thought.

Harris (and Neil deGrasse Tyson) did stand out from the rest of the debate-willing sceptics (yes I do know this is not all these guys do!) by discussing more about how peoples' different beliefs affects all of us - from immediate family all the way through globally, short-term, long-term and impact on development, economics, humanitarian, personal freedom and many other levels. Some debating 'atheists' seem quite content with discussing the plausibility of talking snakes or likewise conversing burning bushes or the possibility of building an impossibly large wooden boat and sail on it for an extended time carrying two of every species on earth. This is why I have been a bit more interested and learned a bit more about and from these two.

And so, I was excited to happen upon this book. "...a scientific and philosophical exploration of the self" - and that far it's great. Chapter 2, "The Mystery of Consciousness" had some very interesting ideas and information, all expressed in Harris' usual eloquent and impeccable style and Chapter 3 "The Riddle of the Self" had me largely spellbound. Unfortunately, then the fun ended. "...and a how-to guide for transcendence", or the second half of this book contains, much to my chagrin, some of the same logical discrepancies (or at least the missing arguments) for much of the theories and "practises" taught that he himself has consistently accused his religious counterparts. First, the author does not offer a single piece of argument - much less evidence - before he jumps head-first into the art of meditation. Long story short: we don't know what thoughts are, how they come to be, how they work or why we have them. But we know that they spin around in our heads every waking hour. And therefore it must be right to try to turn off the flow, right? Wrong. You just jumped the first four questions and they should really be answered before the "solution".

So now, un-persuaded that I should really meditate for some unclear reasons, lots of the remaining text got less interesting. But that's not the worst. Harris - being a meditation fan - can't really avoid fan-boy:ing the "masters" of this trade. Problem is that the "masters" do seem to be lacking. Being an "enlightened" and ridiculously wise and 'good' person - would it be too much to ask that you refrain from sexually abusing your protégés? Or show a basic understanding of what they are used to, or the codes and ways of the society they where brought up in? Do we really need Sam Harris acting apologist to a bunch of men (always...) that are - by undisclosed standards - above the rest of us, but that are - in the cold light of reasoning - obviously as clueless as most of us? No, that stinks in my opinion. If meditation for some yet unproven reason is what an animal brought forward by millions of years of evolution must do to keep sane - is there one piece of information that leads us to believe that a Tibetan monk or an Indian outcast is the go-to authority on the subject? Asking an old guy, talking in riddles and surprising by obviously having it together in some respects, but sounding like a charlatan in the next instant - does this remind anyone of anything?

If Harris meant this to be any sort of primer, he failed miserably. Nowhere in this book did I find the reason to why I should strive to turn off my conscious thoughts (often by focusing on physical phenomena, such as how the bench of choice feels against my buttocks or worrying very much about breathing) for hours on end. Breaking negative thought cycles and breaking free from disabling pondering, I'm convinced is a good idea, from a psychological and personal experience viewpoint. Some people like fishing, I'm into equine therapy myself.

Two thought-provoking and great chapters, unfortunately that leaves more than half of this book with a lot more to be wished for.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews33 followers
March 13, 2017
I did not sleep much last night ---but I read this book during the dark hours --and finished it this morning!

I'm inspired!!!!!

On the bottom of page 43, Sam says, "I make no claims in support of magic or miracles in this book".[HE SHOULD!!!!]. 'Miracles' would manifest in the world if enough people read this book.

On the same page (bottom of page 43) , Sam goes on to say, "However, I can say that the true goal of meditation is more profound than most people realize -- and it does, in fact, encompass many of the experiences that traditional mystics claim for themselves. It is quite possible to lose one's sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness -- to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos."

SAM HARRIS wrote the ABOVE sentences! AMAZING!!! YES?/!!!! (For those who are familiar with Sam's other books --- its pretty cool to see SAM HARRIS writing THESE words. Sam? Cosmos? Sam-the-atheist?

Don't let his other AMAZING --LIFE-ALTERATING- books fool you to think Sam does NOT have his own 'spiritual' practice....(so to speak --for lack of a better way to say this).

This was the MOST personal -wonderful SAM HARRIS book to date! (he let us see into his personal soul and educated us at the same time).

The Chapter on "The Mystery of Consciousness" was and entirely new discovery --way of understanding for me. He talked about the 'split-brain' phenomenon. The isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious from the left hemisphere. (He/she does not know what the other is thinking --or even that he/she exists).

This chapter is so good--I've already re-read parts of it a few times. I'm still trying to figure it out with my OWN Right & Left brain.

For Book clubs that choose NON-FICTION books ---PICK THIS BOOK. Much to chew on for discussions!!!

I could go on and on ---
but I will leave you with just two more things to consider:

1) Read Moral Landscape --(if you've not already). Its a brilliant book that changed my thinking forever!!!!

2) "Where does gravity come from"? Sam's 3 year old daughter wanted to know. Do you? lol

GREAT BOOK!!! VERY TOUCHING --(Congrats to SAM!!!!)---- 'EXCELLENT'....[This book is needed 'now' & people might be able to hear the message today].
The Bonus: Wonderful teachings on meditation found in these pages, to boot!!!

Profile Image for Gendou.
585 reviews264 followers
November 23, 2014
TL;DR the only benefit of meditation is investment justification.

This book made me so very sad, because I like the idea of spirituality without religion. Really, this book is about Vipassana meditation and Buddhism. It's just awful, which I never would have expected from Sam Harris.

Harris starts off with an accusation that "few scientists have developed strong skills of introspection". I've found the opposite to be true, both anecdotally in my personal life and in the biographical literature.

The thesis of this book is that we go throughout life "thinking without being aware that we're thinking" which is the "illusion of the self". If by "there is no self" he meant the Cartesian creature is fiction, I would agree.

But Harris is a believer in the "Hard Problem" of consciousness. He says that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of information processing. He doesn't accept that neuroscience can fully explain the emergence of consciousness by correlating mind states with brain states. "We know nothing about how such a miracle of emergence might occur." Well, maybe *you* know nothing about it, but other people do. Don't be fooled. This isn't philosophy. This is science denial. Worse, it's dualism. Plain and simple. Ironically, he rejects dualism in the first chapter.

His emphasis on consciousness is also ironic because later on he insists, "what does not survive scrutiny cannot be real." Well, the idea that there's something special called consciousness beyond what neuroscience can explain about the brain doesn't survive scrutiny at all! He nonetheless demands the reader accept the subjective experience of consciousness as undeniable evidence for its existence. This is totally unscientific. Subjective experience alone is not falsifiable, subject to independent verification, etc. and so is not scientifically reliable.

Harris tries to explain the illusion of the self by comparing it with the optical blind spot. This is a false analogy because the blind spot is real and can be measured. Meditation, on the other hand, produces no physiological or psychological consequences in excess of what we'd expect from undertaking a calming activity.

Harris caution the reader about meditation Gurus who abuse the power they have over their disciples. He cautions against believing claims of supernatural powers, though he doesn't dismiss their possibility, either. He sounds particularly credulous to ESP which I find hilarious.

I think the overarching problem with this book is that Harris doesn't fully appreciate the philosophy of science. He claims his baloney detector is fully functional, but I think his detection rate would be improved were he to study skepticism and critical thinking.

For example, people who claim great benefit from mediation are biased because they've got an imperative to rationalize the large amount of time they spend meditating. This conflict of interest goes unmentioned in the book.

Another telling example is when Harris describes an interaction with his young son. His son asked where gravity comes from, and after a thoughtful pause, he replied, "we don't know where gravity comes from." Um, yes we do, Sam! Mass! Gravity comes from mass! Duh!

Obviously, he was answering the childlike question "why does gravity behave the way that it does?" instead of the scientific question "how does gravity behave?" Harris seems not to understand that "why" questions are invalid in science. Only "how" questions are answerable by science.
48 reviews10 followers
September 4, 2014
I received this book through a goodreads sweepstakes. It came in the mail a few days ago. I couldn't put it down after I opened it. All finished reading it within three days. I was baptized Catholic and attended a Catholic school through 8th grade. I was later confirmed Catholic in high school because that was my grandmother's wish for me. The woman is my life, so I do as I'm told, but I never really felt like Catholicism was for me. Way too strict and judgmental. I went to a few other churches to try those out and none of them really fit me. I decided to change from religious to spiritual. This book breaks that all down for the reader. It makes it easy to see why more and more people are choosing to be good people because they believe they should be instead of because a priest or deacon tells them to be.

My only complaint is all of the references in the back. Of course I had to cross reference a lot of them for more information, such a sucker for knowledge, so that took a little while.

Great book. Worth a buy or a rental.

Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
579 reviews1,958 followers
November 21, 2018
If we colonized the moon, people who lived there could ostensibly have a perfectly decent life. But based on our evolutionary inheritance as earthlings, we would, in all likelihood, crave gravity and greenery.

This is an interesting analogy to living life as an atheist. We can live quite well without religion. But because so much of our history as humans has revolved around spiritual pursuits, there may be something akin to gravity and greenery that we atheists lack and long for and even need.

Personally speaking, there is simply no way for me to accept many of the core premises of the spiritual traditions. Particularly in light of evolutionary biology, neuroscience and psychology. But I still engage in contemplative practices, I still seek the renewal found in total engagement, I still love to meditate in a group, I still love yoga, I still find deep meaning and gratification in being of service to others. There is gravity and greenery in these pursuits.

But precisely, what is the spiritual equivalent to gravity and greenery. What exactly is it that we atheists need and crave and more importantly, how can we get it without betraying our rigorous, critical, sceptical, monist selves. This book is Harris's stab at answering these questions.

If you're interested in mindfulness or other forms of contemplative practice, and you want a clear, secular context in which to ground your experiences in, than this book may be good news. It certainly is for me.

Unlike many other secular, rational presentations of mindfulness and meditation to date. Sam Harris goes for the gold by attempting to construct a secular account of "enlightenment".

I personally can live without the whole business of enlightenment. At least as it is traditionally rendered. I actually think it's a pernicious myth. But self transcendence (for lack of a better phrase) is something I can't live a full, rich, meaningfull life without. And as far as I can tell, plain old, nuthin fancy, butt normal, no magical powers, self transcendence (again, an awful term without a better alternative) seems to be what Harris is referring to when he uses the term enlightenment, and I'm unreservedly only moderately uncomfortable with that.

If you're familiar with Harris's work, you may be as surprised as I was to hear him freely use constructs such as spiritual, ego etc. His rationale was simply that there aren't good alternatives as of yet. Rather than try to create new words, he stuck with the old ones despite the problematic connotations. I nolonger believe in ghosts or souls. So needless to say the word spiritual has been awkward for me for a while. This book is helping me reclaim the word.

I'm still taken aback by the fact that the point man of the New Atheist movement, is a former Hindu/Buddhist meditation doing, acid dropping Dharma bum. And he is still all the way in the game. Attempting (like many of us) to make sense of our spiritual and psychedelic experiences based on what we currently know about the brain and psychology (not an easy job).

Harris refers to this task as snatching the jewel (i.e. the legitimate value of contemplative practice) from the dung heap (i.e. the cringeworthy religious beliefs/claims/practices of the contemplative, mystical and religious traditions).

I knew I loved this guy, but I had no idea how much of a bro he actually is. I have to give him huge props for risking everything and coming out in this way. This is a huge move that will inevitably bring him a torrent of criticism from every angle.

If for no other reason, this balls out move compelled me to give the book 5 stars.

Harris does a terrific job of parsing out the spiritual use value of psychedelics with out overstating (or understating) their benefit. A subject I have been unsuccessfully wrestling with for years. I know there was immense value in my early psychedelic experiences. I also know they were limited and degenerated into vastly diminished returns by the end of my psychedelic carrier. And I also know that I will not use them again, for various great reasons. Harris takes aim and clarifies this tricky subject in a seemingly effortless paragraph or two, tosses in a hilarious bad trip story for good measure and moves on. I love this guy!

It's like the baby boomers had a huge (and unsanitary) spiritual drug orgy and their love child, Sam Harris appeared from behind the bong and cleaned up the intellectual mess without (a) shoveling all of it into the trash, or (b) framing it like it was fine art.

Good job bro!

I have to say. I've been waiting for someone to write this book. It's not without flaws (I think invoking the "hard problem" of consciousness is a major one, I think the very idea that consciousness is a special i.e. magical hard problem is actually creating a bad problem), but I don't feel like dinging him at the moment. For now I'll simply enjoy the feelings I'm having after reading this awesomely interesting, sassy, and even lol funny book.

S.H. Rules!
Profile Image for Sara Alaee.
168 reviews175 followers
February 18, 2015
It’s not long since I’ve first come across the word “spirituality”. I’ve mostly heard it from people who practice meditation. As a beginner I didn’t quite understand it. This book gave me some good ideas.

Consciousness is at the core of the book. The hard question is this: What’s consciousness? And where does it come from? I really enjoyed Sam Harris’s reasons and responses to this fundamental question and the wisdom with which he promoted his ideas. His philosophical and scientific arguments regarding the benefits of a mindful life is quite thought-provoking. He addresses consciousness and the issue of “Self” in a clean way, shattering the mysteries of the latter while subscribing to an appropriate explanation of the former:

“The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished.”
“Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”

He believes that spirituality is an altered state of consciousness that can be induced by contemplative practice or drugs (psychedelics); none of which is in any way dependent to religious beliefs or rituals.
There is a bit of neuroscience in the book as Harris tries to demystify consciousness. He also discusses his personal transcendental experiences, first on a drug trip as a young man and then on a tour of Eastern contemplative practices. He then discusses the dangers of being taught about consciousness by imperfect gurus(spiritual teachers). (I’m quite fond of the last chapter. It’s really good.)
Despite all the risks, however, Mr. Harris believes that experience of spiritual states can drastically improve the quality of one’s life:

“It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others.”
“We are always and everywhere in the presence of reality. Indeed, the human mind is the most complex and subtle expression of reality we have thus far encountered. This should grant profundity to the humble project of noticing what it is like to be you in the present. However numerous your faults, something in you at this moment is pristine—and only you can recognize it. Open your eyes and see.”

I strongly recommend this book to all, whether one’s a believer, non-believer, questioner, rebel, upholder, abstainer, moderator, and the list goes on… It’s one of the best books written on the subject.

Profile Image for Terence M - [back to abnormal].
502 reviews174 followers
October 27, 2020
1.0 star of 5.0 - "I did not like it"
Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
Audiobook - 05:41 Hours - Narrator: Sam Harris

Quite some time ago in the early 2000's, Sam Harris hit the headlines for being one of the famous The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse, as they were known, which included Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. I was devouring books about "New Atheism" at the time and I read "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason", and a year or so later, "Letter to a Christian Nation", both written by Sam Harris. I enjoyed both books, particularly "The End of Faith". Subsequently I re-read "The End of Faith" and also acquired and listened to the audiobook.

Thinking that perhaps my thoughts about, and my attitude towards, Spirituality might benefit from a relatively short dose of "Sam Harris" I started listening to "Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". I guess I should have known better. Life is full of “if onlys” and today’s “if only” is: If only I had read the Goodreads second highest review, by “Chris”, I would have almost certainly not bothered with even loading “Waking Up” into iTunes and then onto my iPhone. Chris said everything about the book and much more than I ever could. However, it is my practice to skim, but not read, a few reviews by my friends and others I follow, prior to listening to a new audiobook. None had written a review, so I ventured into the brave new world of non-religious spirituality unprepared for the dismal, boring narration of "Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion".

I have written before about authors who record their own audiobooks - in my opinion, with several notable exceptions, they should leave the job to professional readers/narrators. Harris's voice is a monotonous droning, with little inflection or depth. After hearing the words "read by the author", I groaned to myself and then my suspicions were confirmed. I listened to the one hour and twenty-seven minutes long first chapter and called it quits.
Author 3 books
June 11, 2014
This review concerns the MARKETING of the book, not the book. Serious ethical lapses are occurring in the marketing of this book. This is NOT a traditional spiritual book for "the millions of Americans who want spirituality without religion" as the description states for Sam Harris has stated on numerous occasions that he DOESN'T BELIEVE in that type of spirituality. Still, this book is being marketed to spiritual people. VERY Disappointed in Sam Harris for putting profit over people and his ethics. I describe this problem in greater detail in an article in The Christian Post. Please read it and learn for yourself before purchasing a book that is being marketed as ONE type of spirituality, when it's actually about a completely different type. http://www.christianpost.com/news/wak...
Profile Image for Omar.
199 reviews
May 12, 2022
Sam's ego gets in the way sometimes from meaningful discussion on these topics. He calls world religions intellectual ruins, yet practices a secularized form of Buddhism which has brought profound insight and mental composure to his life. He’s basically taken what’s useful and discarded what isn’t and is under the delusion that he’s separated himself from religion hence the title of the book. He’s a contemplative and a mystic—he’s a kindred spirit to all of those religious people that he thinks he’s above. He’s reluctant to use the word ‘spirituality’ to guard his reputation from being associated to intellectually ‘inferior’ people going as far as to say that he’s looking to ‘rehabilitate’ the word. He just comes off as very insecure with this dimension to his life, but if you can look past all of that you may find some very interesting scientific discussion that makes the case for why everyone should be meditating and practicing mindfulness, particularly as a tool to interrogate our sense of self.

On the self, again, Sam lifts from the Buddhists and argues that the sense of having a persistent and unified self is an illusion. He says that the self is built upon processes that are 'transitory and multifarious'. He takes things a step further than the Buddhists though by citing current science while tying it to the notion of free will. He explains how consciousness precedes the self and that the totality of our inner lives being attributed to the self would be erroneous but rather are contents of consciousness. Consciousness is what essentially observes the self (the ‘I’). The illusion is that we think we're the thinkers of our thoughts and that the ego and our sense of volition are simply objects in our subjective experience and the product of brain activity to which we inherently have no real control over but have the strong perception that we do . What is certainly real to Sam is that we are having a conscious experience---everything else may be illusory---so our lives are simply an interactive movie and unconscious processes are writing the script. My main issue with all of this is that he can’t sufficiently explain what consciousness is or how it’s possible therefore to make the leap and explain how the mind works is a bit overzealous. Also, his writing at times is quite paradoxical on this matter which is quite revealing:

"An ability to examine the contents of one's consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill. And yet basic mindfulness can be practiced very early in life. Many people, including my wife, have successfully taught it to children as young as six. At that age--and every age thereafter--it can be a powerful tool for self-regulation and self-awareness"

So becoming self-aware that you have no-self is a powerful tool for self-regulation. Makes total sense Sam. Who is the one being mindful?? His response would be an 'impartial pure awareness' and that the self behind the thoughts is an illusory and transitory entity as well. I just don't see the utility in any of this as the self is emergent, whether it's illusory or not, and serves a useful function so why all the 'hacks' to dismantle it? For therapeutic purposes? Does he reduce spirituality to a dissociative technique to dismantle stress in order to manage stress while experience a sense of oneness? Again, that's called Buddhism.

Now, he does mention that the psychological continuous self is a very real component to our lives and is an autobiographical account of our experience that we live each moment as a continuation of our former selves so to those worried that you may be 'losing' something with exposure to these ideas---you won't (everything of value isn't an illusion). I can't help but feel that these ideas on the self may just be intellectual gymnastics that may have philosophical implications, but not very practical ones apart from facilitating a richer meditative experience if your belief systems align. At the end of the day, people are going to go about their lives with a strong sense of self--the ego is a part of being human whether it's illusory or not. Sam even writes:

"Nothing I say here is intended as a denial of the fact that psychological well-being requires a healthy "sense of self"--with all the capacities that this vague phrase implies. Children need to become autonomous, confident, and self-aware in order to form health relationships. And they must acquire a host of other cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills in the process of becoming sane and productive adults"

So don't take the no-self stuff too seriously.

Bottom Line:

I really don't understand the title for this book as he spends most of his time essentially promoting Buddhism. He travelled to both Nepal and India to study Buddhism and Hinduism as he explored spirituality so this book should have been titled Waking Up: A Secular Approach to Eastern Spirituality because he lifts all of his ideas and meditation practices from those religions. A lot of the science mentioned here seemed crude and wasn't convincing either. Consciousness is not understood yet to rule our free will and by extension the self. Our biology and the universe is not completely understood yet to jump to conclusions. The irony behind Sam's spiritual philosophy is that it's a very self-centered personal exploration whereas for others, including the religions he criticizes, its a selfless journey involving community building and tolerance. His disdain for religion is driven by ego and the need for intellectual superiority, but in the process he's detached himself from others and the richness in diversity. A little bit of humility on his part may change his life for the better. You don't need to piss people off on your way towards 'enlightenment'. A much better read is "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment" by Robert Wright---less pretentious with better insight on secular spirituality for the modern person.

Lastly, a quote from Christopher Hitchens:

"“Oriental religions, with their emphasis on Nirvana and fatalism, are repackaged for Westerners as therapy..."

That sums up this book and Sam's quasi-guru schtick to cash in with this repackaged form of Buddhism.

Profile Image for Matt Manry.
128 reviews22 followers
June 2, 2016
I really wanted to like this book, but Sam Harris just can't resist taking so many cheap shots. At points, Waking Up was very interesting and engaging. However, other parts of the book were so bland, boring, and completely anti-religious that I could barely take it.
Profile Image for Eric.
136 reviews2 followers
December 8, 2014
Sam could have made his argument in just a few pages. I do really like his writing style, so I still enjoyed reading this. I just kept waiting for him to really apply what he was writing about. He went on and on about how beneficial mediation is, especially dzogchen, and how important it is to be taught exactly how to do it, instead of being taught in metaphor. But then he never talked about how to actually do it. Maybe that was outside the scope of his book. I was also looking forward to the chapter on psychedelics, but was disappointed to find that much of it was lifted from a couple of his blog posts from his site that I had already read a while ago. Overall, it's still worth reading.

Original review:
I can't believe I have to wait 5 more months for this to come out.
Profile Image for muthuvel.
257 reviews156 followers
May 12, 2020
Try devouring this Buddhist Parable:

"A man is struck in the chest with a poison arrow. A surgeon rushes to his side to begin the work of saving his life, but the man resists these ministrations. He first wants to know the name of the fletcher who fashioned the arrow’s shaft, the genus of the wood from which it was cut, the disposition of the man who shot it, the name of the horse upon which he rode, and a thousand other things that have no bearing upon his present suffering or his ultimate survival. The man needs to get his priorities straight. His commitment to thinking about the world results from a basic misunderstanding of his predicament. And though we may be only dimly aware of it, we, too, have a problem that will not be solved by acquiring more conceptual knowledge."

The term 'Spirituality' is more colluded with religious doctrines obliviously. And over time, many presume that both are the two sides of a same coin. Astronomers and Astrophysicists, Physicists like Sagan, Neil Tyson, Brian Cox gets some of us 'spiritually' enlightened, getting awe with the depth of understanding than previously believed possible when they start talking lyrically about their specialized fields. Some Writers like Shakespeare, Kurt Vonnegut(personal option) make many people realise that they could lead a happier life, prouder to be alive than previously believed possible. Musical artists like Beethoven, Mozart make the same using the tools and medium they knew. Now, take a religious person listening to a 'Spiritual' Guru, he would feel connected and profound relevantness of his existence with respect to that Guruji's words and view of world. Sam Harris connects the word with understanding the brain and it contents both physical and emergent, of course rational content free of dogma, which is equally important to knowing the worldly facts and phenomena.

The Book deals with signifying the importance of being "spiritual" which the author implies removing the illusion of self. By "illusion of self" he meant that the illusion of inner-self, some kind of agenticity within our body having control over it which adds up concepts of soulful mind duality, and freewill stuffs. And breaking this illusion of the self, he says that our minds can have different and better 'conscious' experiences irrespective of our emotional states. It's not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves and the problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without being fully aware that we are thinking. Even though he explained things in simpler terms, I felt like I was listening to the most complicated man alive. He explored the split brain phenomena, Nature of Consciousness, Contemporary meditation techniques as per the western as well as the Eastern cultural and psychological understanding, the yogis, gurus who were considered as enlightened (still many consider themselves enlightened) in context to the core objective of enabling the readers to understand about our mind a little better and more profound. He also had his exquisite intellectual ponderings on the effects and usage of 'drugs'. The term 'drugs' collectively defines a wide variety of neurotransmitters and chemical enhancers of neural activities in which substances in both category has both neurotoxic, epileptic as well as excrescence enhancing tool for consciousness. Collectively labelling them as 'drugs' disables us to have intellectual discussion on the ethical, psychological, biological, legal effects amd usage of such substances like Psilobin, DMT, Ketamine, LSD, MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy), etc.,. It is also worth noting that some substances stereotypically labelled as 'drug' has lesser effects than widely legalised Alcoholics and tobacco.

"The power of psychedelics, however, is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime."

He repeated the phenomena many times with various illustrations to make sure the listeners/readers could really understand and ponder out the stuffs. As Carl Sagan once said, Brain is a small place with a very enormous space and capabilities.

He used fluids to define the nature and physical foundation of consciousness, as emergent phenomena.

"Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling I, and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents."

Even though I've already read a book of Sam Harris on Free Will, i got to know more about him than being a skeptical neuroscience spokesperson. His early life encounters with drugs, in search of his spiritual encounters inside USA. While he was in his 2nd year at Stanford, he took off 11 years to spend time in India and Nepal, trying to understand the case of which he described briefly in this book.

"I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk of injury than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.

The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don’t always point to the same underlying reality—and when they do, they don’t do it equally well."

Well for general audience, there's nothing novel about this work; Its just about trying to become happy. The Conventional sources of happiness aren't always reliable depending upon various transient conditions. It is difficult to raise a family happily, to keep yourself and the people you love healthy, to acquire wealth and find creative and fulfilling ways to enjoy it, to form deep relationships, to contribute to society in ways that are emotionally rewarding, to perfect a wide variety of skills—and to keep the machinery of happiness running day after day.

See if you can stop thinking for the next sixty seconds. You can notice your breath, or listen to the birds, but do not let your attention be carried away by thought, any thought, even for an instant. Keep away from mobile or computer, and give it a try.

"If your golf instructor were to insist that you shave your head, sleep no more than four hours each night, renounce sex, and subsist on a diet of raw vegetables, you would find a new golf instructor."

There is no question that novel and intense experiences—whether had in the company of a guru, on the threshold of death, or by recourse to certain drugs—can send one spinning into delusion. But they can also broaden one’s view.

Before trying this book, I've checked the reviews of this work and found too many negative reception about it. Many of them indicated themselves as ardent followers of Sam Harris by his support and critical views on religion and his science popularizing façade but disappointed with Sam Harris for supporting the Meditation via 'buddhist' techniques and this illusionary concept of 'self' and many didn't feel like it's science at all because of confusing usage of consciousness. Sam did answer those things in the book itself,

"Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and any other discipline that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are scientific; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being philosophical; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests historical or journalistic; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being religious."

Overall, I feel the book is well worth reading, pondering out our brain stuffs. Though the brief summary of the book is very simple but one has to go through every word vigilantly, to avoid confusion, to avoid misconceptions. So I wouldn't recommend it for all.
Profile Image for Vince Darcangelo.
Author 13 books22 followers
October 8, 2014

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion

Sam Harris

My anticipation for the new Sam Harris book turned to anxiety when I learned it would be about spirituality. Was the firebrandtype philosopher and scientist—co-founder of Project Reason and author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—changing teams?


Perhaps a better title for this book, though, would be The Atheist’s Guide to Meditation.

At its core, Waking Up is about mindfulness, and as a fellow atheist who has attended a fair share of Buddhist retreats (including a recent one on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), I can relate to some of the conflicts Harris encounters. No matter how secular the retreat, I get nervous when I find myself in a room full of people following the direction of a group leader offering spiritual betterment.

Harris takes out the touchy-feely and goes straight for the scientific foundation of a mindfulness-based approach to life. The result is a book heavy on Buddhist philosophy and refreshingly light on bullshit.

What makes Waking Up different is that it’s also what Harris calls a “seeker’s memoir.” We follow his journey from a skeptical teen to an adult struggling with the feelings of “unsatisfactoriness”—which is his interpretation of the concept of dukkha, rather than the traditional definition of suffering.

He had my attention early in the book, when describing the disquiet of his solitary thoughts and the relief he felt when experimenting with MDMA, LSD and DMT: “It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life.”

Through his seeking, Harris reveals that, for him, spirituality is not the existence of a higher being in the ethereal realm, but rather the cognizance one has of an immaterial self. “Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”

Speaking of continuity, Harris gets a little far afield the deeper we delve into the book. Beyond memoir, he explores the scientific underpinnings of consciousness and meditation, drops some knowledge about psychedelic drugs and, justifiably, rants on the silliness (and scientific dishonesty) of Proof of Heaven and other accounts of near-death experiences.

While I really enjoyed many of these sections, they didn’t have the cohesion of a linear narrative. It read more like a collection of essays on a single topic—which is fine, just not what I was expecting.

Harris’ informed and enlightened discussion of psychedelics resonates the most with me. Not only do I agree with his observations (and share some of his experiences), but Harris also challenges some of my long-held assumptions.

For instance, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a seminal bit of psychedelic literature, and for years I bought in fully to Huxley’s description of the brain as a “reducing valve.” Harris debunks this by drawing on modern neuroscience, causing me to think about mind-manifesting drugs in a new way.

All told, Waking Up is an interesting and enjoyable read. There’s a bit of science writing, philosophy, memoir and a unique take on spirituality and meditation.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
980 reviews579 followers
September 13, 2014
The hard question is "what is consciousness". In the past we had Leibniz's monads and Descarte's homunculus unsatisfactorily explaining consciousness. 'Cogito ergo sum' gave western thought the mistaken impression that there is a single self inside the brain. The author suggests another path for understanding the hard question namely gaining self awareness (of our non-existence) through meditation from which one can discover the illusion of the self which leads the individual to 'enlightenment' and the realization that the 'self' does not exist.

The author puts his spiritualism without mysticism in to context by reasonably looking at how we think about thinking and gives the listener just enough names of the brain parts without overwhelming the listener, and all the time supporting his path to self understanding by learning to first deny the self.

In the end the author thinks that the denial of self leads to a greater understandings about who we are and that a guru or some selective use of drugs will help the listener achieve enlightenment and lead to a more ethical person with greater appreciation for life. As for me, I think I'll continue learning about the universe by looking outside of myself and use reason, coupled with empirical data (induction) and properly constructed models and seek enlightenment that way and not get a guru or use drugs and spend too much time thinking about denying myself through meditation and self reflection.
422 reviews169 followers
April 17, 2015
So. Sam Harris felt the need to publish a book that states, without novel argument, what everyone already knew. One that doubles as a guide to being a dipshit dogmatist on the irreligious side of the binary. He also deems it necessary to inform us right off the bat of his mind-expansion under the influence of MDMA. Which, man, at least begin the book by talking about a non-stupid psychedelic if you're going to rant about this transformative event in your life that pretty much exactly parallels every secular person's experience with psychedelic trips.

And if you don't know anything about mindfulness or meditation practices, information is everywhere. Sam Harris gives a half-decent overview at certain points, but you're better off getting your information from other sources. Most of which are freely available online. And I mean, shit, that Jack Kornfield guy isn't particularly invested in any religious doctrines. If you come across evidence of doctrines that don't resonate with you, just ignore them. I know the covers of Kornfield's books make him seem pukey and the Spirit Rock website is laden with images of creepily smiling middle-class, middle-aged white people, but. And the guy's a legitimate authority in the Western Buddhist tradition.

I'm no friend of organized religion or woo-woo new agey shit, guys. Those of you who know me know this. But my position on organized religion does not create an obligation to take Harris at his word. In fact, basic examination of much of what Harris says (in this book and in others) reveals an extraordinary lack of basic scholarly skill and critical thought.

I mean, this guy got decimated in an argument with JOE FUCKING ROGAN. Not that Joe Rogan is an idiot. But that the Fear Factor/DMT/I-got-high-and-have-Ganesha-statues guy could so easily demonstrate the faults in the thinking of one of our most visible and well-regarded public intellectuals really says something about the quality of our public intellectuals.

Okay, so I dislike Sam Harris. But I'll give him some credit for writing a clear enough book about why meditating or doing something similar does not automatically render one a new age loony and about how valid and true many ideas from Buddhist thought are even in a scientific, rational context.

Finally, and this concerns mostly the "I'm going to meditate and not consider Buddhist thought at all" crowd more than Harris himself, perhaps: I think there is potential value in entering a sacred traditional practice with something resembling the mindset of people who actually believe the practice is "religious" (if the meditation of Theravadin Buddhists is considered religious in the same way as prayer). If you're assured enough in your agnosticism or atheism, entering practices with the traditional context in mind can help maintain the integrity of the practice itself. Otherwise, you end up with braided asshole stoners going to yoga class to hit on chicks in yoga pants and laugh at the teacher's accent and pay no attention to the fucking yoga. There are miles between "I'm going to ignore what yoga means and why it exists; this is just like going to the gym" and "I'm yoking myself to the gods and this area in my lower spine is going to cure all my ailments" or whatever the fuck. Similarly, there are miles between "I'm going to do this weird meditation thing and it's not real anyway so I don't have to listen to the teachers and understand its foundations" and "meditation will bring about a good rebirth and help me attain literal nirvana."
Profile Image for Lena.
Author 1 book341 followers
October 20, 2014
Ever since the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, Sam Harris has been making the argument that we can no longer afford the luxury of religious belief. In his writings, he has explained his theories about not only why the unproven beliefs of dogma are so dangerous, but also how many of the benefits that religion provides can be found in secular places.

In Waking Up, Harris addresses the issue of what he terms "spiritual" states - altered states of consciousness that can be spontaneous or induced by things like contemplative practice or drugs. Most religions point to such states as proof of their assertion that there is a world beyond this one. Harris, however, uses these pages to argue that a.) they do no such thing, and b.) they are worth cultivating anyway.

There is a fair bit of neuroscience in this book as Harris delves into what we currently know about consciousness. He also discusses his personal experiences with transcendent states, first on an Ecstasy drug trip and later as a rationalist in deep study of Eastern contemplative practices. He also discusses the risks of both of those paths, including the dangerously unpredictable impact of psychedelics and the hazards of attempting to learn about consciousness from imperfect human teachers.

Despite the risks, however, Harris's book is an unapologetic argument that the cultivation and experience of spiritual states can drastically improve the quality of one's life.

I agree with Harris about a number of things, including that experience of such states can be potentially life changing. I also agree that there is an urgent need for people who experience such states to be given an opportunity to understand them outside the context of a particular religion or the New Age book aisle.

Where I am not totally on board, however, is with his assertion that people who have never experienced such states should try to do so. Harris believes that the cultivation of such states can reduce human misery and suffering. I don't doubt that's been true for Harris and for many others. What I question is whether or not consciously exploring such states can work for everyone. As I understand it, the current research on meditation as not sufficiently answered the question of whether people who seem to be experiencing the benefits of contemplative practice do so because the contemplative practice actually changed them or because they had brain chemistry that predisposed them to self-select for contemplative practice in the first place. Harris himself acknowledges that traditional concentration practice has significant limitations, and the value offered by pointing-out practices is often lost on those who are exposed to it without previous context.

The role of psychedelic drugs in Harris' own journey also raises questions for me - did that fundamentally alter his brain chemistry in such a way that he was enabled to have experiences he couldn't have had without those drugs?

Ultimately, I'm not certain someone starting from scratch could induce the kind of experiences Harris describes by following his instructions. I think it's a question well worth asking, and I applaud Harris for asking it. I'm just not quite as convinced of the answer as he is.
Profile Image for Alex.
146 reviews22 followers
August 10, 2015
Wow! Where to begin? This book is extremely cerebral. Sam is a clearly a skeptic towards many things related to spirituality, which is fine, but his extreme judgment toward various religions comes seeping through his text. That is, except for Buddhism, which he often seems to put on a pedestal.

I felt disillusioned by the book, based on the cover. It should have said this was a philosopher's guide to spirituality. And how true that is! Make sure you're awake and a pot of coffee before reading! He writes in a fairly highfalutin way and certainly doesn't wait for you to catch up on where he is headed. He is very opinionated and had a haughty tone throughout.

And it’s apparent his intended audience appears to be other educated philosophers or at least neuroscientists. If that wasn’t his intention, then he has certainly failed at trying to reach a broad audience. The majority of the book read more like a college textbook than a book meant for the lay reader.

He got too bogged down in superfluous details about the brain and it got in the way. And many of the studies he referenced were irrelevant to his central thesis (which that itself was unclear). As a psychologist, I almost always find information on the brain interesting, but I can easily see how most people would check out with glossy eyes after the first few studies he cites.

It got so intense, I couldn't help but fear he was writing a textbook on psychophysiology or neuroscience and accidentally wrote in this book instead! This seemed to intensify around the midway mark. (Later, he did begin to get back on track with spirituality, but again from a stripped down Buddhist/meditation perspective and kept his ideas to primarily this vein.) I also realized around this time that his description of spirituality, and thus the book, was really just a covert autobiography of his OWN route to spirituality; however, instead of coming clean and conceptualizing from this way, he came from a perspective of being judgmental and projecting his scientific skepticism to any other route to the Divine than what he has found. It was almost like he was saying, “Hey, I was a very judgy, skeptical, and depressed person and found my way to spirituality via Buddhist meditation, so therefore this is THE way to being spiritual, and everything else is fanciful, hyped up crap, and the only other options to explore spirituality are either Dogmatic religions or New Age woo woo.”

It was just disappointing how narrow minded he was, especially for pointing the finger at others who come from (although he's right here) that same narrow-minded place. I would have thought someone who is writing about spirituality would be more inclusive and open minded to how there can be a VARIETY of ways to the divine: multiple ways to the mountain top.

Waking Up is also extremely theoretical and conceptual in nature. And don’t go in hoping he will give you a number of exercises either. While he does offer a suggestion here and there, they're rare, vague, and not always practical.

Toward the end he starts a discourse on mind-altering (illegal) drugs. He shares his own use of DMT and other drugs, briefly noting the realistic fears and dangers that come from such use (both from personal experience and in a general sense), but then goes on to conclude his desire for his young girls to try LSD or other psychedelics when they become teens/early adults, saying otherwise they would have “missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.” Huh?! I was appalled he would write such a thing so openly in a book! Then, later, he contradicts himself saying that there are natural ways to get every sort of synthetic high.

Overall, the book left me feeling very unsettled, like a real bad taste in my mouth after a mediocre meal. At the end, I was still hung up on his viewpoints of frivolity with having his daughters take LSD, or how he'd repeatedly lump Spirituality into the Religion category.

To quickly summarize his book in a few sentences: In order to be more spiritual and less religious, disregard all mainstream religions (save Buddhism which I put on a pedestal) because they are silly, trite, and filled with barely anything more than fanciful, imaginal, illogical, and mostly untrue ideas. Practice mindfulness and follow most of what Buddhism says and call it a day. Oh, and if you want to learn about semi relevant (at best) studies conducted on various parts of the brain, I’ve included this as well for your reading pleasure.

But I also don’t want to only dog on the book. There were some valid points he touched on and some quotes I enjoyed.

If you're a scientist or atheist who is allergic to any sense of religion, metaphysics, or modern sense of spirituality and are in the very first stages of "waking up" (i.e., in the “I'm not awake stage but just beginning to recognize that I might not fully be dreaming”) then you might benefit from this book.
Profile Image for Algernon.
49 reviews3 followers
August 3, 2022
"Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work."

What Sam means by "spirituality" is: 'The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.'

This book looks much more interesting than it actually is. let's just say... I din't hold my pee once to continue reading.
I might have skipped 3/5 of this book, simply for the lack of interest, but the remaining 2/5 are extremely valuable, intriguing, and make me glad "thank God" I didn't drop it altogether. And I think, in my humble thinking, this is the best way to read it. For those parts it deserves a read with skipping like you watching Youtube without ad-block.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books549 followers
March 22, 2019
This is my second book by the author and again offered a number of thought-provoking arguments. Even if Harris didn't exactly convince me of all his points, he has a way of explaining them that makes me think. This book will stay on my mind a while longer, I predict.

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Stephanie.
510 reviews33 followers
April 9, 2015
This is not a very long book—only 206 pages in hardback, or 5 hours on audiobook—but it took me a while to finish it. For every minute I spent reading, I spent another 2 minutes thinking about what I'd just read. And some of it just sailed past me, no matter how hard I tried to understand it. Harris is a clear writer, one of the clearest, so I have to assume my own cognitive limitations are at fault and not his power of explanation. Still, I can't quite grant a full 5 stars to a book that I didn't fully grasp.

I got a lot of it, though. I'm an atheist who took an 8-week class in mindfulness meditation, and I meditate regularly. I studied Buddhism a bit in college and decided that of all the religions, it was my favorite, because it was more like a philosophy than a religion. I have Buddhas all over my house. But I am a scientific-minded materialist, so I could never fully embrace Eastern religions because they are just too laden with, well, religion. Like most atheists, I have an allergy to the word "spiritual" because it seems like an unnecessarily woo-laden term for a normal, entirely earthly emotional experience.

This book was exactly right for me, then, because Harris is open to Eastern spirituality but will not sacrifice his Western rationality to the cause. He has his feet completely on the ground, he's inoculated against silliness. As someone who wanted to bolster her meditation practice, and get better at finding that self-less place of equanimity, I was really ready for Harris's approach. And it did help. The self-portrait of Ernst Mach, in particular, gave me a jarring sense of sudden understanding. (Jarring in the way that the Rubin vase illusion is jarring when you suddenly see two faces instead of a vase, or vice-versa.)

I also enjoyed his writing about drugs, especially psychedelics. His paragraph about his hopes for his two daughters, in relation to drugs, was almost eerily similar to my own advice to my kids about drugs, maybe because our experiences are/were somewhat similar. Though I only tried psychedelic drugs a few times and never had a bad trip—thankfully. I knew exactly what he was talking about when he discussed what such drugs do to your consciousness, and the possibilities they bring to light. But he seems to indicate meditation practices can get one somewhere near those experiences, and mine certainly never have. (Then again, I haven't spent months in silent retreats in Tibet.)

The bit about gurus was very entertaining but not so useful to me. He's worried about people who might get snared by charlatans, and that is a legitimate worry, but it seems somewhat unlikely that people who are reading a book by Sam Harris are especially credulous. Still, it's always a good reminder that one should not allow oneself to become abused in the service to any spiritual goals, and that anyone who insists you need to do harmful things in order to achieve enlightenment is someone you should avoid.

I think this is a good book for someone like me, someone who is familiar with Buddhism, who is attracted to its teachings, but who is not keen on religion. It's useful for someone who knows something about neuroscience and philosophy. It's a good addition to Harris's other writings. If someone is entirely new to any of this, I'm not sure this book will sit well. The requirements for the "right" audience seem fairly stringent.

I do recommend the audiobook. Harris narrates it himself and there's something about his inflection that helps make the meaning of his words clearer. That's not always true with writers who narrate their own books, though you'd think it would be. He gets into some difficult concepts, and hearing his voice somehow made it easier for me to understand. That being said, the paper book has diagrams and images that are also necessary to understanding. So: check 'em both out. (Thank you, public library.)
Profile Image for Mohit Parikh.
Author 3 books185 followers
June 16, 2015
A book written for atheists in a christian nation. Sam wants to assure his readership that he still belongs with them - and with Dawkins and Hitchens and Sagan - even as he takes a step further and talks about Spiritual Awakening. He wants to suggest that there is nothing irrational about spirituality the way he defines it.

Problem is: He isn't the greatest explorer of spirituality.

The question for me was: why should I trust you to tell me that astrology is bullshit and ghosts do not exist but love is the substrate of the universe? Which is to say, why you are qualified to tell me the boundaries of what is irrational and what is rational to accept in spirituality?

Sam Harris is smart. He is just lagging behind in the conversation.

Also, I wish he was less self-conscious about how he will be received by his largely liberal atheist American readership.

By the way, here's an awesome review of the book:
Profile Image for Xander.
420 reviews141 followers
July 17, 2020
It took a long time for me to read this book. I hesitated, I put it away, even though I truly admire Sam Harris - in my opinion one of the most clearest thinkers of our time. Why did I do this? Because I always associated spirituality with quacks, strange cults and vague esoteric and mystical illusions.

I don't know why I finally picked up this book and started reading - but I am glad I did. It really offered me gems of insight that I could never have anticipated. And after reading Waking Up (2014), I admire Harris even more.

So what is this book about? As its title indicates, Harris wants to offer a secular approach to spirituality. On the one hand, he wants to take the monopolistic claim on spirituality out of the hands of the superstitious and mythical religions; on the other hand, he wants to take a stand against the ignorance, disdain and self-complacency with regard to spirituality that many scientists show.

Sam Harris is a philosopher and neuroscientist, and he uses three quarters of the book to approach spirituality from these perspectives. This means that he constructs arguments based on scientific knowledge about the mind, as well as thought experiments. The strength of the book though, lies in the one quarter in which Harris adds his own personal experiences to illustrate what he means.

The message of the book, in summary, is as follows:

Each of us is continually thinking about everything. Long trains of thoughts, sometimes partly unconscious, are only interrupted by rational goal setting. We want that new job, this new relationship, etc. This leads to suffering - we never 'live' in the moment of now, continuously busy with our thoughts and desires. Consequently, most of us experience feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction.

According to Harris, there are some Eastern traditions, especially buddhism, which have discovered insights (hundreds or even thousands of years ago) that are now being vindicated in the neuroscience labs around the world.

Meditation, of which mindfulness is the most accessible and known form, can make us aware of our continuous thinking. Once we notice this - and this takes much practice - we experience our thoughts as just that - thoughts. Through meditative practice we can learn to dissociate the contents of our consciousness - our thoughts - from consciousness itself. This leads to a happier, healthier and more satisfied life.

One of the strongest experiences of our consciousness, is the concept of 'self', 'I' or the 'Ego': the subjective center that experiences everything and that guides our behaviour, thoughts and movement. According to Harris, this 'self' is an illusion - and meditation can help us get rid of this illusion, if only for a few seconds or minutes. One of the interesting ways that he demonstrates this is by giving the example of split-brain patients, who - due to a surgical intervention, cutting the corpus callosum and hence severing the two halves of the brain - seem to possess two distinct consciousnesses.

This illustrates that consciousness is divisible, and hence, that the idea of 'a self' is an illusion. There is absolutely no such thing as a 'self', and the moment we start to look for it - in other words: use introspection to study our 'self' - it disappears. This disappearing of the self is what buddhist teachings call self-transcendence: the momentary feeling that the self disappears and that we experience our consciousness as it 'just is' - all the experiences and thoughts passing by.

Harris' book is both an exposition of buddhist teachings in accessible language, backed up by the most modern scientific insights, as well as a plea to practice meditation (especially mindfulness). This is, in effect, what Harris calls spirituality - the experience of loss of self, if only for a couple of seconds or minutes (and only after many hours of practice) and the continuous realization that our thoughts are just thoughts, their contents do not (have to) affect us in the least.

I am convinced of the truth of his position on spirituality. I would never have thought I would say this, seeing myself as an extremely rational thinker and one who demands the stamp of approval of either science or logic to believe a proposition to be true. Yet, Harris offers an answer to both: the results of neuroscience are perfectly compatible with the insights of meditation, and the plea for (the benefits of) meditation can be perfectly constructed as a rational argument.

It is very worthwile to quote Harris on this point:

"A middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all.


Everything we take ourselves to be at the level of our subjectivity—our memories and emotions, our capacity for language, the very thoughts and impulses that give rise to our behavior—depends upon distinct processes that are spread out over the whole of the brain. Many of these can be independently interrupted or extinguished. The sense, therefore, that we are unified subjects— the unchanging thinkers of thoughts and experiencers of experience—is an illusion. The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances, and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others."

Throughout the book, Harris offers approaches to start meditating yourself, and tries to illuminate hard to digest subjects by offering thought experiments and analogies. This makes Waking Up not only a very interesting read (from a scientific or philosophical perspective), but also a very handy tool to start practicing yourself. In the last chapter, Harris goes a little bit too far for my taste: explaining how to judge the trustworthiness and ethical norms of teachers, proving the fallacies in near-death experiences and advocating the use of psychedelics as a way of opening your mind (i.e. experiencing that what we daily perceive as consciousness isn't all there is to experience). I should add two caveats to this last point, though: Harris clearly states that the ingestion of mind-altering substances isn't the same as meditation, and that it is definitely not suited for everyone.

Yet, I admire Harris' try to wrest spirituality from religious hands and to offer us, rational and scientifically informed individuals, an approach to experience more to this universe than just the 'cold hard facts' of experiment and observation.

I just know this is one of the books that truly changed my view on something important in life, and that I will consequently remember it and its message for a long time. I love this experience of 'sudden new insights', and I am thankful that Harris offered me this experience with Waking Up.


One additional note: I have previous experiences with mindfulness. I once tried to start practice it, when I was in a dire personal situation. I ended up being frustrated that I couldn't seem to shake all the thoughts off that would go through my mind 24/7. I took this frustration as a sign that mindfulness simply wasn's something for me. When reading Waking Up, I realized that my frustration was exactly a sign of progress: once you start noticing your thoughts, you will immediately notice their penetrating presence throughout the whole day.

If I understand Harris' view correctly, this was just the first step in practicing meditation. The next step should be to sever the connection between the contents of these thoughts (i.e. not act on them) and you being conscious of them (along with any other experience you might perceive).

It is, from a personal perspective, very interesting that I feel moments of this supposedly next phase in meditation during running excercises. When I run 10-15 km, at a decent pace of 11-12 km/h, I seem to end up in this trance-like state where thoughts will just pass by - I notice them, but don't really have the energy (or will?) to act on them. This truly feels very pleasant - it is the primary reason why I run at least two times a week - and I wonder if there's any connection between 'runner's high' and self-transcendence...
Profile Image for Raed.
254 reviews56 followers
September 25, 2022
“What does your conscience say? – ‘You shall become the person you are’.”
_ Nietzsche (The Gay Science)_

Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith
People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science— apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms— acknowledging the validity of selftranscendence— our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.

What does a spiritual experience mean? If you are a Christian sitting in church, it might mean that Jesus Christ survived his death and has taken a personal interest in the fate of your soul. If you are a Hindu praying to Shiva, you will have a very different story to tell. Altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this, and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms.

Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations— changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world— but it also allows a
person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.

Everything about my mind and body seems to feel the weight of the past. I am just as I am
But consciousness is different. It appears to have no form at all, because anything that would give it form must arise within the field of consciousness.
In fact, we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life

The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances, and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others

There is only consciousness and its contents. there is no inner self who is conscious.
BROTHER OF CHAOS Open your eyes and see this consciousness

Profile Image for Hoz Kamaran.
47 reviews13 followers
March 26, 2016
If you are looking for the meaning of spirituality beyond religion, this is the right book to read. If you find religious spirituality illusional, that doesnt mean spirituality doesnt exist.

Alot of people think that with the progress of science religion dies, thus spirituality must also die. But once you realize what is spirituality and its independence of a religion or personal god, you will realize that its necessary for a better understaing of existence and science.

We often think we are a one. we think our body and mind are both unified under a soul. And we think we have 1 soul. But, Sam harris amazingly rejects the idea of having a soul by presenting the (split brain experiment) in which the 2 hemispheres of the brain start behaving independently and unlikely of each other. It is like a person has 2 souls, because everything related to the human thought, brain, behavior...... gets non-unified while it is still the same body. And this really makes the idea of having a spirit/soul really doubtful.
You will better ubderstand the split brain experiment as you read the book.

Sam Harris thinks the spirit can mean consiousness, thus spirituality can mean contemplating at consciousness.
Consciousness is not yet defined, but it can be contemplated and felt.

Our joys are temporary. We get happiest only for a few days, then everything gets back to its ordinary track. Our joys are external and they depend on our friends, environment, job, money, achievements, or winning competitions of life. But can we find joy internally? can we still get happy without the need of the externall world?
These are questions that spirituality seeks.

Sam harris finds Buddhist meditation one of the most effective ways to understand consciousness/spirituality. Unlike most of the other religions, Buddhism is not concerned with threatening people with hell, or telling people what to do, feel, or think. This feature gives Buddhism- as a philosophy, not religion - the privilege to be the most effective and peaceful path for understanding spirituality.

Sam harris also talks about the illusion of near death experience, and how NDE may occur in the brain according to neuroscience.

The book is not so easy to read. talking and writing about spirituality is not an easy task. The book does not still give full answers to spirituality - which makes 3 stars suitable for this book, but it is still worth 4 stars for that it cant be better for now.
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