A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
By: Sam Harris
Many people have had spiritual experiences. Altered states of consciousness characterized by feelings such as self-transcending love, awe, ecstasy or bliss. Trying to make sense of these experiences, people often place them in the context of religious beliefs or doctrines.
Unfortunately, religious interpretations often come with unscientific baggage or unhelpful claims about the universe or reality at large. As religions fall short, science mostly ignores spiritual experiences or struggles to understand and explain them.
The purpose of this book is to find a place for secular spirituality, and in the process, arrive at a better understanding of one’s own mind and the nature of one’s own consciousness.
The key conclusions include:
- We pursue happiness by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
- But, our lives are subject to constant changes.
- Causing well-being to be temporary and dissatisfaction unavoidable.
- Our minds determine the quality of our lives.
- (Temporary) happiness and suffering are mental events.
- Everything good and bad must first occur in consciousness to matter.
- But, our minds are constantly distracted by thoughts (without us being aware of it).
- Negative thoughts easily and reflexively lead to negative emotions.
- We sometimes get trapped in trains of negative thoughts.
- We believe we are the thinker of these thoughts.
- We identify with our own thoughts.
- We have the feeling that there is a thinker of thoughts, an “I”.
- This conventional feeling of self is an illusion.
- The self is difficult to actually physically locate.
- It can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.
- Spiritual practices can help you to “wake up”.
- Discover states of consciousness other than constantly being distracted.
- (Pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment.)
- Practices like meditation help you recognize “thoughts as thoughts”
- View thoughts as temporary (good or bad) appearances in consciousness.
- (Discover that there is only consciousness and its (changing) contents.)
- As a result, you may be able to become less tangled up in your own thoughts.
- Stop reflexive responses to pleasant or unpleasant changes in your life.
- Shape the way in which you relate to your thoughts.
- Achieve equanimity amid the flux of daily life.
- (Become aware of the flow of experience in the present.)
A thoughtful and thought-provoking book that explores many interesting concepts and theories, forcing you to deeply consider many of your previously held beliefs. There are practical insights and applications, even if that doesn’t seem to be the main objective of the book.
The book’s stated objective is to provide a secular framework for spirituality. Because of this formal objective, the book’s main claims and conclusions are perhaps too absolutist or purist (or at least worded in such a way) for many people to be directly and practically helpful.
Claims such as “transcending the boundaries of the self is a necessary condition for well-being”. Or, “the goal of meditation is to cleanse your mind to arrive at an imperturbable state of well-being”. This often feels like an all or nothing affair: either you meditate, obliterate the self and pursue some ideal imperturbable state or you are doomed to suffer. This may discourage a lot of people? If you don’t buy into certain spiritual concepts (“overcoming the self”), why bother with meditation or other spiritual pursuits: “so what?” Given how much people already stumble in meditation and get frustrated with the lack of reliable, immediate (or medium-term) results, a less absolutist approach would perhaps be more motivational and practical?
- We have a coherent set of beliefs …
- About the world and ourselves.
- … that can be thought of as a sense of self.
- A cognitive model, not a thing, that forms over time (“Model hallucinations“).
- Coherent and relatively stable over time.
- These beliefs govern our behavior …
- Use beliefs to make predictions about what to expect from the world.
- Compare predictions with actual experience (sensory data, etc.)
- Optimize behavior to minimize surprises (differences between belief and experience).
- … and are situated in the higher levels of the brain.
- Inside the default mode network, part of the higher levels of the brain’s hierarchy.
- Part of the brain that “keeps order”, exerting a top-down influence on the rest.
- Influences what we perceive and what we block out and how we process information.
- This is our normal waking state …
- Order develops over time, mental habits form.
- … it works well …
- For most people for most of the time.
- It is optimized for survival and stimulates achievement.
- … but has its downsides …
- Sometimes brains can become “too ordered”.
- The grip of prior beliefs can become too “strong”.
- Causing mental suffering (depression, anxiety, addiction, etc.)
- Or more modest issues (rigid thinking, restricted creative thinking, etc.)
- … and it is not the only possible state.
- Our beliefs are not fixed in time and the degree to which they impose order can vary.
- Beliefs can change and be changed, their grip can be tightened or loosened.
- So, temporarily altering the order of the brain can be beneficial.
- Loosening the grip of beliefs.
- Not “obliterate them”.
- There are various tools to alter your mental state.
- Most are targeted at the DMN.
- Affecting (reducing) the level of order in the brain temporarily.
- Meditation, psychedelics, breath-work, etc.
- But also exercise, listening to music, task-related activities that reduce DMN activity.
- Helpful to view meditation as one of these tools …
- Absolutist view: cleansing your mind to arrive at an imperturbable state of well-being.
- Moderate view: help lower the grip of firmly held beliefs (the ego, or self).
- …. to train you mind …
- To not reflexively react to data (try to neutrally observe your thoughts).
- … and raise awareness …
- Taking your mind out of its narrative mode (focus on breathing or some other task).
- Awareness of unproductive links between prolonged negative thoughts and negative emotions.
- … thereby reducing the half-life of negative emotions.
- Reduce the flow of negative thoughts
- Reduce reflexive reactions.
This may be a more practical and helpful line of reasoning, especially as you go about your daily life and try to lead a productive life, than pursuing meditation to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of your mind.
Perhaps a lot of this is semantics or emphasis, because a lot of the concepts above are explicitly raised in this book, but somehow (for me) much of this gets lost in the pursuit of establishing purist truths. So for me, the deepest goal of spirituality is not freedom from the illusion of the self. Life is not and cannot always be about witnessing the flow of experience and having an open and serene mind.
Life is about acknowledging that a certain level of coherent order helps us to go through daily life productively, that over time, such a level of order may become mentally restrictive and that from time to time we may need make adjustments, and that there are tools to help us make these adjustments (be it meditation, exercise or gardening).
Spirituality then is realizing that for most of your life, you are on autopilot, efficiently coasting on your beliefs about the world and your place in it, but every now and then, you can and need to tweak your autopilot, or shut it down for a bit, to avoid getting stuck in unproductive mental habits.
- We are constantly in the process of creating and repairing a world that our minds want to be in.
- Distraction is the normal condition of our minds.
- All brains may be split to a degree; we may live in a world of split and overlapping subjectivity.
- Thoughts themselves are not a problem, but being identified with your thoughts is and being lost in thoughts is.
Seeking, finding, maintaining and safeguarding our well-being is the great project that we are all devoted to. In search of happiness, we mostly try to find good enough experiences and reasons to be happy now, in the present moment. But, amidst the world’s ceaseless changes, the endless cycle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain turns out to provide an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Since every experience we have is shaped by our minds, how we pay attention to the present moment shapes the character of our experience and therefore, the quality of our lives. The way we think about an experience can completely determine how we feel about it. We are constantly in the process of creating and repairing a world that our minds want to be in.
For many, a spiritual journey starts with the realization that pleasures are fleeting and that lasting happiness is illusive. The question arises: is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change? Is there a form of happiness beyond this, a deeper source of well-being? Are there different possibilities of human well-being, alternative states of mind? Instead of continuously being occupied with and identifying with internal thoughts, is it possible to simply observe the contents of consciousness from one moment to the next?
A true spiritual practitioner then is someone that can be at ease for no reason. If there exists a source of well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. This state is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self, a condition of selfless well-being.
Faced with the same reality, many religions have glimpsed similar truths and have given voice to some of the same insights and intuitions, including the concept of self-transcendence. But most religions are unhelpful in pursuing a scientific discussion about the human mind or condition, as they lean heavily on unfounded ideas about the nature of reality. Only Buddhism (and Advaita Vedanta) is useful in that it asserts that a spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the moment.
Mindfulness is a state of clear, non-judgmental and undistracted awareness of, attention to and acceptance of the contents of consciousness, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the act of experiencing more clearly. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment. With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention.
In the midst of life’s changes (aging, relationships, etc.), feelings of dissatisfaction are inevitable. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid this flux. Distraction is the normal condition of our minds. The problem is not thoughts themselves, but the state of thinking without being fully aware that we are thinking.
Meditation is a technique for waking up: coming out of the trance of discursive thinking and to stop reflexively grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant and becoming aware of the flow of experience in the present.
Conventional sources of well-being and fulfillment tend not to last and are not good enough. While the ultimate goal of meditation may be to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable, some permanent state of enlightenment, a more realistic goal is to use spiritual practice to develop a capacity to be free in the moment, in the midst of whatever is happening.
A better understanding of the nature of consciousness, of the impermanence of mental states, can help liberate you from suffering in the present. A spiritual master no longer suffers certain cognitive and emotional illusions. Specifically, she will no longer feel identical to her thoughts and will no longer feel that there is an inner self who is the thinker of these thoughts. Instead, she will maintain an openness and serenity of mind. These spiritual insights can be developed by meditation, training your mind.
- Exists: The one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion. Even admitting that it may only seem to exist (as in: your memories may be fabricated, your brain may be in a vat somewhere, etc.) is sufficient to say that it exists: if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. The unconscious mind similarly exists: dual processes govern human cognition, emotion and behavior – one is automatic, unconscious and the other is deliberative, conscious.
- Subjective: the fact that I am having an experience may be indisputable, but, the only proof that I am having an experience is that I am having an experience. Only consciousness can know itself.
- Emergent property: first there is a physical, unconscious world; then, by virtue of some property of process, consciousness emerges, perhaps on the basis of information processing in complex systems. The hard problem: why does your experience have a qualitative character in the moment? It is unclear how and why consciousness arises at all.
- Divisible: a person’s experience in the world, while apparently unified in the brain, can be physically divided. As in split brains, hemispheres can be independently conscious; the hemispheres are unlikely to perceive self and world in the same way and they form their own sets of beliefs. All brains may be split to a degree; we may live in a world of split and overlapping subjectivity; we have of course no way of “knowing” directly (we are only conscious of the parts that we are conscious of).
- Comes before everything else: Our notions of meaning, morality (how to behave toward others) and value presuppose the actuality of consciousness. What matters is how our actions affect another’s conscious experience for better or worse. Notions of good and bad typically depend on some change in the experience of conscious creatures.
Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self, to a center of consciousness that exists somewhere inside the body, the feeling that we call “I”, that defines our point of view and provides an anchor for our beliefs. For many, the self is the subject of experience in each moment: the thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the owner of a physical body.
But despite the fact that you may feel like an internal self all the time, this self is difficult to locate. And while the self may feel imperturbable, we know that it can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.
In this sense, the feeling of self is an illusion and a product of thought. While thinking is indispensable to humans, our habitual identification with our thoughts, our failure to recognize thought as thoughts, as appearances in consciousness, is a primary source of human suffering.
Thoughts themselves are not a problem, but being identified with your thoughts is and being lost in thoughts is.
Being identified with your thoughts can cause unnecessary suffering by being unable to interrupt the train of negative thoughts or by being overly reactive. This type of suffering can be reduced by using thoughts themselves as antidotes (develop appropriate habits of mind, positive outlook) or by standing free of thought altogether (becoming more aware of the connections between thoughts and emotion and patterns of continued negative thoughts).
Being lost in thought can cause suffering as the wandering mind is often an unhappy mind. The wandering mind has been correlated with activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN), an area of the brain associated with self-representation. The DMN is active when we are biding our time and when we evaluate experiences from a first person point of view, hinting at a connection between being lost in though and having a sense of self. The DMN is less active when we pay attention outwardly, when we are concentrated on a task (“losing yourself in work”). Meditation decreases activity in the DMN.
Meditation is a method of breaking the spell of thought, of experiencing consciousness without a conventional sense of self (meditation may also have other physical and mental health benefits). The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds by breaking one’s identification with thoughts and allowing the continuum of experience, pleasant or unpleasant, to simply be as it is. It is not an effort to produce a certain state of mind. It is to recognize that which is common to all states of experience: that they all simply appear in consciousness.
Nothing is intrinsically boring if you pay sufficient attention. Boredom is simply a lack of attention. Similarly, attentive menial labor can be an exercise in self-overcoming.
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value. Drugs are another means to this end. Psychedelicss (psilocybin, LSD, DMT, mescaline) are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness, almost guaranteeing that the contents of your consciousness will change dramatically. Exerting their influence through the serotonin system in the brain, psychedelics alter cognition, perception and mood for a period of time. Psychedelics do not necessarily guarantee profound insights or a clear recognition of the selfless nature of consciousness [is that really necessary?] and may result in very high peaks very deep lows, suggesting that other ways of practicing (meditation) that provide less volatile access to changes in consciousness.
- As a matter of conscious experience, the reality of your life is always now.
- Wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.
- Sam Harris Making Sense Podcasts:
- Roland Griffiths (summary to come).
- Michael Pollan (summary to come).