Frank Bruni at the NYT discusses Sam Harris’s new book

August 31, 2014 • 12:17 pm

As I’ve mentioned before, Sam Harris has written a new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, which will be on sale September 9.  Full disclosure: I’ve read it and given it a blurb: “As a neuroscientist, Sam Harris shows how our egos are illusions, diffuse products of brain activity, and as a long-term practitioner of meditation, he shows how abandoning this illusion can wake us up to a richer life, more connected to everything around us.”

As my blurb notes, it’s a wide journey through the land of spirituality, ranging from the latest findings of neuroscience to a chapter on gurus Sam has known. He recounts his experiences with drugs, and tells us what he’s gained from his own many years of Buddhist study and meditation.

The book will surely anger or confuse those people who think Sam has gone soft on religion, but take my word for it, there’s not an iota of sympathy for the divine in the book. And, having taken psychedelics in my youth, I have considerable sympathy for trying to understand what the brain is really capable of, and how our perceptions can be altered. (I myself am really glad I tried those consciousness-altering substances, for such experiences are both perceptually stunning and potentially life-changing.)

At any rate, New York Times writer Frank Bruni, in a Sunday op-ed piece called “Between Goddiness and Godlessness,” discusses Sam’s book, and, I’m glad to say, with considerable sympathy. An excerpt:

IN books and lectures since “The End of Faith,” Harris has increasingly redirected his energies from indicting organized religion — “I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse,” he told me — to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it. There is the church of Burning Man, he noted. There is the repetition of mantras. There are the catharsis and clarity of unsullied concentration.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

I’m not casting a vote for godlessness at large or in my own spiritual life, which is muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions. I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word. We hear the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When’s the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?

During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: “May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.” That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.

“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said.

There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.

Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.

It’s good to see this kind of discourse, especially in a paper that, to me, shows unwarranted sympathy for religion. Although Bruni won’t admit to being an atheist, he does admit that he’s confused, and it’s refreshing that he’s even encouraging discussion about religion and whether religion is a justifiable practice, although this phrase by Bruni leaves me feeling a bit queasy: “I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word.”  Commenurate? Commensurate? To any rational person, respect for science and the truth it has given us, and the improvements not only in our own lives, but in our intellectual understanding of our origins and our universe—that far outweighs any “fealty” to superstition. Nonetheless, Bruni does point out that even agnosticism is poisonous for politicians in our faith-soaked country.

I expect that, as usual with Sam’s books, the atheist community will be divided on this one. But I also expect it will sell well, for anything that smacks of “spirituality” in a day when, as Bruni notes, many of the “nones” are seeking spiritual alternatives to conventional religion, will be of interest.  And, indeed, the book is doing well more than a week before it’s even appeared. The Amazon rankings a few minutes ago:

Screen shot 2014-08-31 at 3.09.02 PM

If you’re interested but don’t know if you want to take the plunge, Sam has published the first chapter for free on his website.  Have a look.

The cover is good, too:


96 thoughts on “Frank Bruni at the NYT discusses Sam Harris’s new book

  1. ” this phrase by Bruni leaves me feeling a bit queasy: “I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word.” Commenurate?”

    I beleive Bruni means that it’s high time to stop giving religion the upper level.

  2. It’s fascinating how it’s all connected, rational mind, perception, ego and chemicals. At a certain point in time MDMA allowed me to lower my guard for the first time ever. It was life-changing (in a good way).

    1. I take the paradoxical stance to discourage (almost) anyone from taking drugs, while thinking that it may be a good experience for them — the risks and other factors are usually too high. You may not know what kind of stuff you get. You may begin second-guessing every quirk afterwards and wonder if this is “normal” and the like. Someone must really want it without any pressure or advice or encouragement and then take precautions (inform yourself, have friends watch your back etc).

      When I took the substance you mention, I had most of the negative side effects, that appeared almost at the same time with the positive ones.

      Within minutes I had a panic attack and the feeling that I was about to die. It then showed its usual and expected effect of shutting down some body functions. The tongue feels numb and dry. The fingers get cold. It felt as if my body was putting the lights out, one by one.

      At the same time, I was euphoric and happy. Very weird. I sat there for a few minutes and was convinced I was dying, but strangely felt good about it (it was however not actually serious).

      Also a strange sensation was that some things aren’t “automatic” anymore. You don’t feel thirst, or temperature the same way and must make sure you drink enough, but not too much (watch electrolytes) and you manage your temperature by guessing whether you should take a break and famously chill out for some time.

      The perception reminds me of the film “drive”, and colours that are “bold”. I point out though that this substance is potentially harmful and should be avoided, as Sam Harris somewhere noted himself.

      1. I’m not sure what you are getting at. You have survived the experience seemingly, with a bit of a scare and perhaps an inkling of interesting altered state.
        How dangerous really was it, is it? People do all sorts of things for pleasure or to gain experience. People race cars, ride motorcycles, climb mountains and so on. Over the years people have done all sorts of things to themselves chasing religious experience. Simple ascetics being one.
        Many many, many people have taken this and other stuff and survived and had fun and expanded there range of experience, without harm.
        Due warning as to risks is warranted but not asserting ‘should be avoided’.

          1. MDMA when you get it from a dealer, and not the pure stuff from a prescription, has been found to be laced with rat poison as well.

            1. Yet another reason for decriminalization. I have no desire to partake, myself, but I’d really much rather the college kids across the street get their stuff (if they do; don’t know; don’t care) from a CVS or Walgreens that has the same FDA oversight as for aspirin and / or ATF oversight of vodka and / or USDA oversight of milk.

              Is it really so much to ask? That I don’t have to worry about my neighbors dying from rat poison they didn’t suspect was contaminating something they swallowed?


              1. Hell, if I could get clean MDMA I’d probably take it just to stop my desire to slap people at least 50% of my day. I feel like Alice from the Dilbert cartoons who often says, “must stop fist of death!”

              2. Bringing it back on topic, I actually have a mantra that does wonders for that sort of thing:

                “Billable hours. Billable hours. Billable hours. Billable hours.”

                You want me to do what? With the what-what?

                Of course you do. What was I thinking!? Now, please excuse me while I get right on that and bill you some more hours.


        1. Ok, but I’m still not sure what you are getting at. Are you calling for all drugs to be avoided, all somewhat dangerous endeavourers to be avoided, or banned, or what? Many things can fall into the categories you mention. Racing cars, or bikes or extreme sports can become addictive. Alcohol obviously is more harmful than almost anything.
          Millions of people indulge in a lot of things, most responsibly.
          Try having a high speed motorcycle crash for a ‘different’ experience.
          Then, get back on the bike.
          Your warning should be taken seriously, as should other concerns but then informed consent should prevail.
          It is all most definitely worth it in my opinion.

  3. Professor Ceiling Cat’s endorsement has me considering pre-ordering the book. I’ll read that sample chapter and decide.

    It’s not at all strange to suggest that certain behavioral practices can modify behavior in predictable ways. If you desire the predicted outcome, the indicated process may well be your wisest course of action to attain it.

    Are the benefits of meditation worth the expense of practicing it? That’s gotta be an individual decision, much as whether the benefits of home cooking merit the time and effort in learning and daily preparation.

    Some of those techniques I do have superficial experience with, and they really do help for performance anxiety. I haven’t felt any need for anything more than that, so I haven’t pursued it any further. But if Sam’s put together a cookbook of this sort of thing, it might be nice to at least thumb through it looking for recipes I might want to try.


    1. I listened to the first chapter when I had a long drive and I liked what Sam had to say. I already pre-ordered a fancy edition so I’m waiting for that to arrive this month.

      Having just finished reading My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey about how a neuroanantomist has a stroke in her brain’s left hemisphere and describes what it was like to go through the stroke and recover from it. She describes what it was to lose language, the ability to communicate and read, the entire self (since the left hemisphere keeps track of space and time and tracks what we do in it), time, space, etc. and her experiences match up to what science tells us. Using SPECT technology (single photon emission computed tomography)the neuroanatomy that gives us the ability to have a religious or spiritual (mystical) experience is identified. Also, she talks about how she felt one with the universe, and how she was a great liquid expanse (she wasn’t able to determine where her body was and that it was different from other things outside her body – the damaged part of her brain did that). She also no longer had the “chatter” of her left brain. Experiments where they place enlightened gurus in I think the SPECT and have them ring a bell when they feel they have reached a state of clam, etc. shows that the left hemisphere is much more inactive….meditation allows you to shut up your left brain and enjoy only the right.

      So, all this blabbing is to say that Sam’s book seems to be in line with all this and I like that he says in his first chapter that he wants to disentangle all the woo and divinity from the real experiences of contemplative study.

            1. Best clam chowder I ever ate…I was a student at Arizona State University, and had just flown out to South Carolina to take my first real orchestral trumpet audition, for the Charleston Symphony. Didn’t make it past the first round. A friend of mine from ASU had travelled separately there to also take the audition. I think he might have washed out in the second round, or maybe also the first like me. We drove to the coast, basically heading East until we ran out of land. Stumbled upon a pier with a restaurant.

              I don’t remember what the rest of the meal was, just that it was good. But the clam chowder we started with was superlative.


              1. My favourite clam chowder is the kind you get in New Brunswick. My grandmother always used to make it. The next is the kind you get in New England. Anything with corn or tomato in it is blasphemy!

              2. This had neither corn nor tomato.

                I’m sure a good chef could make a lovely clam soup with corn and / or tomato. I just wouldn’t consider it chowder.


              3. Chaque a chaque une.

                Succotash made with corn and squash that was in the garden mere minutes before it went in the skillet is heavenly. But if it came out of a can, count me out.


        1. Well, my Google-fu doesn’t seem up to par right now. “Clam” is slang for a badly missed, “splattered” worng note, especially amongst trumpet players. I’ve had practice sessions that could most emphatically be described as a state of clam, but I can’t find any good example to demonstrate the phenomenon….


      1. Indeed, I just finished reading the first chapter and placed an order for the book.

        One can rightfully argue over the choice of the word, “spiritual,” but Sam is crystal clear in his own definition. The phenomena he associates with that label are plausibly woo-free, even if commonly found in association with woo. Many will have a problem getting past his somewhat non-standard definition of the term, but I can at least sympathize with him that there might not be any other options less bad.

        At least on first reading, Sam takes an honestly critical look at the various practices and is very careful to insist upon independently-verifiable evidence and sound logic as the criteria, and has no problems rejecting huge swaths of woo that surround what he labels as “spiritual.” His filters might need a bit more fine-tuning; he seems to discount or not be aware of some of the serious human rights concerns associated with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. That’s cause for concern, but not not outright rejection.

        And he does promise to describe experiments that can be independently verified by the reader. When it comes right down to it, that’s really all that matters.

        Because of the woo that suffuses these subjects, there’s good reason to be highly skeptical. If some saffron-robed guy at the airport tried to sell what Sam’s selling, I’d tell him to get lost. Sam, at least, has solid credentials as a skeptic that rate him an open-minded if highly cautiously critical audience. I’ve found him to go off the rails on certain other subjects that don’t need to be re-hashed here, but he and I are practically in lock-step agreement on a great many other points.

        At the very least, the approach that he has outlined in that first chapter is a good approximation of the one that I would have taken had I thought there was some “there” there that warranted serious investigation. And Sam claims to have found a “there” worth going to, and a “there” that is plausibly reachable. He may be out in left field again, as he’s no stranger to that territory. But he also throws a wicked fastball when he steps up to the plate, if I might be permitted to completely mangle my baseball analogy.

        There’s enough reason to hope that he’s on to something to warrant buying the book. Is it more than that? I’ll see in a week and an half….


        1. Yes, and I’m glad he addressed the term “spirituality” right off. I don’t like that word for all the reasons Sam explains – it’s historical infusion with woo and religion. Blech, I just can’t get passed it and although I accept Sam’s definition, I will probably cringe at the term throughout the book.

          1. “Ditto.” I can appreciate his logic for keeping the word and I can work with the non-woo definition he’s applied to it. I just think that even fabricating a new word from whole cloth would have been better than keeping the word.

            I get the impression from the first chapter that “mindfulness” or “meditation” would, in practice, be practical substitutes, referring to the tools used rather than the end result. But I suppose this is all a moot point, what with the book already at the printer….


  4. One of the images I’ve come up with to help me work on my mindfulness is Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character pointing his 44 magnum at me and saying, “Get out of your brain and step away from your ego.” It really does make my day.

  5. I’m sorry, but when I put the usual skepticism on the idea of “spiritualism”, “meditation”, “drugs” and “looking”, this old deceit falls down in the same bin as acupuncture and astrology. That is, the evidence, despite decades of opportunities, is not present. And people willing to encourage what they experience as beneficial turn to anecdote (!).

    When there is statistically sound evidence that meditation and drugs are beneficial, or that there is a large group of people that is “looking” and “spiritual” however that is defined, I will sit up and take notice.

    But there hasn’t been any such. And honestly I expect there never will be. The lousy track record speaks for itself, here as elsewhere.

    1. From Wikipedia:

      Reviews of these RCTs consistently find that meditation with a focused development of “mental silence”, an aspect often excluded from techniques used in Western society, gives better results than simply relaxing, listening to music or taking a short nap. Those who practiced mental silence showed clinically and statistically significant improvements in work related stress, depressed feelings, asthma-control, and quality of life as compared to commonly used stress management programs.

      Sounds like evidence to me. Perhaps not conclusive evidence, but certainty a cut above astrology.

    2. I think Sam deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least insofar as he claims and at least gives the appearance of using independently-testable repeatable methods of attaining very specific results using certain methods.

      I think we can safely agree that there is widespread report of subjective personal advantage to be had from certain religious practices. We can also safely dismiss the supernatural explanations traditionally offered for them — that ship has sailed and we don’t need to beat the dead horse any more.

      But that still leaves the possibility that the subjective experiences themselves are as described; that there may be some benefit or pleasure to those experiences; and that the experiences can be replicated without abandoning one’s grip on reality.

      Sam’s thesis is that the answer to all three is, “Yes,” and purports to instruct on how to demonstrate as much.

      And it at least passes the sniff test. He offers a technique in that first chapter for “mindfulness” that is an exercise in a particular type of concentration that is intended to permit a person to concentrate one’s attention in a certain manner. Whether there is any benefit to such thought patterns is a subject for experimentation, but it’d seem most bizarre if thinking certain thoughts didn’t result in identifiable mental states. The question then becomes which thoughts induce which states, and subsequently if there’s anything to be gained from said states.


    3. I read most of the first chapter and it emphasizes something more akin to self-help than traditional spiritualism, a term that has no meme or lexicon in my life.

      However, I think Sam is espousing a very simple, profound message: You are all that you have. Begin there and find out just how much more you can accomplish. I once wrote similar things about how we should approach a single day:

      “A lifetime does not invent itself. It is made by the aggregate of small, everyday choices — choices that each of us wills into existence. Each morning, you awake and you are, for a moment, your only friend, your best friend. You spend your whole life with yourself and you engage the world.” (#)

      Honestly, it is anecdotal to give this advice for those who do not need it, but some people need motivation, and Sam delivers quite well.


    4. I believe there is evidence for self awareness being very beneficial and these practices do improve self awareness. After listening to the first chapter, I’m confident that Sam is going to provide more detailed evidence.

    5. When there is statistically sound evidence that meditation and drugs are beneficial, or that there is a large group of people that is “looking” and “spiritual” however that is defined, I will sit up and take notice.

      The question is what is exactly “beneficial”. Is it beneficial to have an epiphany, which would be my choice of words instead of “spiritual experience”? Drugs, medidation, music and dance etc. are means to it.
      I had epiphanies under star sprinkled skies. It was the sensation of being one with everything and to fully understand and comprehend everything. It lasts a few seconds, is an overwhelming experience. Is it beneficial? Yes. I think so. I got a sense of wonder and amazement that I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.

      I had even more “spiritual experiences” under thick grey clouds of gathering storms. I love storms. I can’t quite describe the feeling of sheer awe when the winds pick up and you are within a corn field and it begins to wave heavily and lightning can strike you down at any moment (I would not recommend this excersize). Again, it gave me a strange connection with everything around me, where at once I felt small and insignifcant, but also large and powerful, I’m alive after all. Beneficial? I would think so too.

      I had epiphanies in Berlin clubs (without drugs ;)). I saw mammals all around me and we are all in a uterus. Reddish lights. Very soggy air. Music is more like a heartbeat from the mother. Fragments of sounds and noises appear in the musical landscape, as if they come from outside the womb. We are all alive, we sweat and are in this together now. Again, awesome and eerie.

      It is always both, amazingly good, and amazingly terrible. Beneficial? I would say so. For me, the amazingly good always won out. I can’t say with certainty how other people would feel about these. I have an idea why deities are frequently “awesome” in the original sense.

      But as you see, there are great many different states that have little to do with each other, except that they are “not ordinary” with different ways to get there. They can be epiphanies, i.e. in some way related to knowledge, they can be extraordinary introspection or perceptions etc.

  6. Thought about pre-ordering it, but the hardcover comes out on September 9. And the Kindle edition comes out on April 9, 2015.

    I don’t buy carbon based data retrieval units (as the author Harris – Robert not Sam – describes dead tree books), and I’ll also be on a boat then too.

    Hopefully, the publisher will release the Kindle version much earlier…

  7. I’ll read it and reserve my judgment till afterwards. Probably the most divisions have been over his Free Will and The Moral Landscape books. My views diverged on these two, I thought Free Will was very well argued and persuasive, I didn’t think The Moral Landscape was anywhere close to persuasive, for multiple reasons. I know some people draw the opposite conclusions, or didn’t like either. Tentatively I’m thinking it will be a great book, since he’ll probably stay this side of reality with his spirituality.

  8. This observation has no bearing on any of the above posts but I was wondering: Do any of you see a face in the clouds on the book cover? I do. Whose face could it be? No beard so it can’t be Jeebus. Do any of the rest of you see it or is it just me?

  9. Maybe that is just me being close-minded, but I remain very sceptical about what our brains on drugs, repetition of mantras or meditation can actually tell us – apart from the fact that the brain can easily be confused, perhaps. It seems preferable to remain in possession of our fullest possible capacities to observe clearly and to reason critically when trying to understand, well, anything.

    This whole idea seems somewhat too similar for comfort to those evangelicals who recoice at the ease with which bereaved and dying people can be converted to their religions. If one needs to be cognitively defenseless and softened up to accept something, isn’t that rather a bad sign about that something, be it belief in god or the kind of “spirituality” that claims that our being is an illusion because it is (wait for it!) made up of parts?

    1. My sense of Harris’s position is that he is in fact recommending that we employ our fullest possible capacities to observe clearly and reason critically about the workings of our own minds. And one way he suggests for doing that is by setting aside our internal monologue and our prejudices about who we think we are and actually paying close attention to the process by which thoughts and sensory impressions form and emerge into consciousness.

      I don’t see anything cognitively defenseless or soft-headed about that. Why shouldn’t the direct experience of consciousness be a worthy subject for close scrutiny?

    2. Maybe that is just me being close-minded, but I remain very sceptical about what our brains on drugs, repetition of mantras or meditation can actually tell us – apart from the fact that the brain can easily be confused, perhaps.

      That’s not what Sam’s promising with the first chapter — or, at least, not exactly.

      I think you’d agree that optical illusions are an important area of study, as well as something that can be an awful lot of fun to experience and learn about. Life is richer and more fruitful with a good understanding of what visual perceptions you can and can’t trust, and how to recognize (and appreciate and use to good effect) good representations of reality.

      Sam’s claiming to expand that beyond just the visual perception parts of consciousness, to the sense of self. And he’s going out of his way to claim to do so in a way that leaves you in control, not some witch doctor.

      Does he deliver on those claims? I’ll have a better idea after the book arrives in a week or so.


    3. “It seems preferable to remain in possession of our fullest possible capacities to observe clearly and to reason critically” – well, if you think your observation and critical reasoning faculties are permanently top notch, you’d have no particular reason to let them vary over time (unless it made life less boring). But this assumes that ‘clear’ and ‘critical’ are uncomplicated, scalar magnitudes that can be maximised and fixed, rather than unavoidably multidimensional, time- and context-varying qualities of a physiological machine subject to growth, exogenous and endogenous derangement, and decay. In short, your brain chemistry is far from constant, but if you prefer never to be in charge of how it varies, that’s your choice.

    4. Gregory Kusnick, Ben Goren,

      Maybe I have misunderstood, but some of what he writes reads more as if he were suggesting that the meditation, hallucination etc. themselves produce the insight as opposed to constituting the data.

      John Scanlon,

      Of course my mental capabilities vary, and feeling some vine course through the body can be a fun thing to do, but to the degree that I am in charge of my capabilities I would aim to maximise them when specifically trying to understand something. Trying to understand my mind by taking drugs or forcing it into a meditative state seems like trying to describe a picture by deliberately looking through wrong strength prescription glasses that make everything blurry.

      There is, of course, also the more fundamental issue that the relevant claims such as the self being an illusion or us being one with the universe are potentially classic deepities – trivial on one interpretation and wrong on another.

      Of course my brain is made up of functional parts, but concluding from that fact that my self is an illusion is quite simply invoking the fallacy of composition. Of course I am part of the universe but not in any interesting way – I still cannot perceive somebody on the other side of the planet without using a telephone or Skype, for example.

      I just don’t see why we can’t have self-help and feel a greater connection with what is around us without cribbing “spirituality” from the religious. I don’t need an atheist temple, prayer or priest either.

      1. Maybe I have misunderstood, but some of what he writes reads more as if he were suggesting that the meditation, hallucination etc. themselves produce the insight as opposed to constituting the data.

        I think that might be a fair assessment, and I don’t think that that represents a problem.

        Consider an optical illusion. You can certainly describe it in words, but you don’t get a visceral appreciation for it until you actually experience it for itself. Woah — that dot really did vanish! No way can those two squares be the same shade of gray! OMG — get those fucking crawling snakes off that piece of paper! If you’ve ever “seen” your blind spot, studied the Adelson checkerboard, or cast your glance on one of Akiyoshi’s geometric patterns, you know exactly what I’m referring to. If not, no matter how carefully or precisely I describe it, you won’t “get” it until you actually experience it for yourself.

        Or, the actual experience of the phenomenon in at least some cases is the only way to either communicate it or truly comprehend it. Sam’s proposals are consistent with being in that class.

        Does he deliver? And it it worth it? Well, that remains to be seen. It’s at least worth, to me, the price of the book and the time it’ll take to read it.


      2. I think what you describe as “forcing [your mind] into a meditative state” is what Harris would call paying attention to the moment-by-moment workings of your own mind. If the goal is to understand it, it seems to me you have to be willing to look closely at it.

        (I suspect Harris would also say that if you have to force it, you’re doing it wrong.)

        1. Maybe but meditation is definitely not the only way.
          You can understand the mind without having to meditate for 10 years.

          I would say we know more about the mind and the self thanks to science than to meditation.

          1. Nobody, least of all Harris, is denying the value of science. But if you want to know your own mind, that requires self-examination as well as science. Harris is describing techniques of self-examination, for those who want to pursue them.

            Those who find the whole idea of self-examination stupid or creepy are free to ignore him.

            1. … are free to ignore him.

              I read this a lot lately in those parts of the internet that I frequent. It is trivially true of course – we are all free to ignore anything we find nonsensical, problematic or misguided. And clearly insults, harassment and trying to shut people up should not be tolerated.

              But it must be possible to express scepticism and non-insulting criticism – especially so among scientists – because otherwise everything will turn into an echo chamber. Or in other words, if we only really ever exchanged opinions on things that we cannot ignore (i.e. global scale existential crises) then comment streams such as on this website could simply be turned into a single “like” button.

              1. Fair enough; I withdraw that portion of my comment. Thoughtful, informed criticism is always welcome.

                But critics who’ve decided in advance to ignore whatever Harris has to say probably aren’t contributing anything useful to the discussion.

  10. Not impressed.
    I just think you have to be really stupid or very naive in order to believe you can only find “true happiness” if you meditate…a lot apparently. So, boo hoo for those of us who do not intend to start a meditation practice anytime soon… Or ever.

    After reading the first chapter and having read other books on meditation and buddhism, imo, there is nothing original or remotely interesting there, I see a lot of the usual buddhist nonsense too.

    Poor Sam, I think his critics will eat him alive.

      1. I’m reminded of JFK’s quoting the Greeks’ definition of “happiness,” – “the direction of ones powers along lines of excellence.”

        I don’t suppose that one has to particularly feel “happy” when thusly applying ones powers.

  11. As a leading spokesperson for the general community of humanists, atheists, sceptics, rationalists and freethinkers Sam Harris has crossed a line here that he NEVER should have crossed. What we collectively value within this diverse group is nothing more than our own independent capabilities for thought and enquiry – devoid of any reference to established authority or tradition. In this we demand nothing more than a sceptical point of view, an adherence to rationality and an insistence on evidential based inquiry. A prescriptive formula for a “better life” or specific way of viewing the world and life are NOT part of our movement and wisely never has been. Even the claim that we NEED a so-called “rationally based spiritual or meditative practice” is a criticism of what we are basically about – a criticism that our current religious critics must love to hear coming from someone of Harris’ stature. This book is not only wrong, it is a disservice and an insult to those that Harris tries to address with it.

    1. Sam is certainly within bounds to use his experience to recommend ways we might improve our lives, and we’re free to reject it. He’s not acting as an established authority, either. Have you even read the book?

      1. Harris is certainly free to make assertions about all sorts of things. I suppose I could consider this particular opinion in the same light as I do his opinion about gun ownership (which find ill reasoned and quite abhorrent) and say of this new book “well, he’s entitled to his own opinion”. But this situation is NOT the same thing. Sam was not advocating that atheists would find it advisable to arm themselves with guns, and that their lives are somehow deficient because we atheists don’t all share his views on guns and the joys gun ownership might bring. He is not commenting or reflecting on atheism as such in these views. However, either by implication or intent he is doing exactly this with his new book. He tries to “fix up” meditation so that it is palatable to us –he addresses rationalists specifically. I attended several conferences where Sam got his audience to “explore meditative processes”. When I looked about the room, seeing my fellow atheists, eyes shut, trying to experience, at the prompting of Harris, the sensation of “living in the moment” I felt overwhelmingly creepy. It is woo. It doesn’t belong. And even if it were not woo, it has no connection whatsoever with what our movement is, or should be, about.

        1. Clearly Harris and his audience have a broader conception of what should be an allowable topic of conversation than you do. If it makes you uncomfortable to hear it, your remedy is simple: don’t buy his book. Stop going to his lectures.

          But trying to shut him up because you don’t like what he’s saying isn’t what our movement is, or should be, about.

    2. A prescriptive formula for a “better life” or specific way of viewing the world and life are NOT part of our movement and wisely never has been.

      That’s not at all what I interpreted Sam’s stated goals in that online version of the first chapter. Rather, he’s offering prescriptive formulas to achieve certain cognitive states. He identifies those cognitive states as congruent with those consistently reported by religious believers as being beneficial in one way or another. He explains what he sees as the actual benefits of those cognitive states — and, perhaps, advocates for why those who have not experienced them may wish to do so.

      I’m pretty sure that Sam would agree that, if you don’t find the description compelling or if you’ve tried it and don’t like it, then you’d be silly to pursue it further. (Indeed, he explicitly cautions against those with mental illnesses from engaging in these exercises before consulting with a qualified mental health professional.)

      The point isn’t, “Your life sux0rs unless you perform my sacred rituals!” Rather, it’s, “Look at all these people who report positive benefit from undeniably real subjective experiences but falsely ascribe the experiences and benefit to woo. Here’s how to extract the experiences and, perhaps, the benefit from the woo, should you want to see what the fuss is all about.”

      In my book, that’s the opposite of irresponsible. If anything, it’ll provide a viable and compelling exit strategy to those who might only be in religion for the “spiritual” (using Sam’s definition) experiences who want to keep the experiences but don’t know how to do so without the woo. And it may well convince others that what they’re experiencing is real but woo isn’t the right explanation — and, oh-by-the-way, show them how they can have their Kate and woo Edith, too.


    3. I don’t feel insulted by this book. On the contrary, I’m interested to see what Harris has to say. Isn’t that how open minds are supposed to work?

      1. You remind me that I should add: I’ve not hesitated to, as the phrase goes, rip Sam a new one when he deserves it. See relevant prior posts where I’ve laid into him for his positions on torture and nuclear weapons. I’m less than convinced by his moral essays, though I do applaud his intentions. And, at the same time, there’s damned little daylight between him and me on subjects relating to religion and gods and the importance of science and so many things that really matter. It’s a mixed bag, as they say.

        If it turns out that he’s out in left field on this, I’ll call him on it without hesitation. But he absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt, and this first chapter shows reason to be cautiously optimistic.

        Put it this way: I don’t think anybody here would find it controversial to suggest that breathing and concentration exercises can be measurably beneficial to help control performance anxiety. Sam’s thesis seems to be that similar exercises can be helpful to alter mental states in other ways, as well, some of them similarly useful for other settings.

        That’s not at all an outrageous or shocking proposition.


        1. Not outrageous or shocking as long as he provides evidence to back up his claims.

          I wonder what kind of evidence will he provide to support the idea that meditation will give you “an increasingly healthy mind” or that it will give you the “capacity to be free in this moment”. Sounds like Deepity woo to me.

          I think Sam is using his credentials to validate his beliefs.

          1. No doubt, and I’ll be reading it looking exactly with those suspicions at the forefront. To his credit, he devoted most of that first chapter to addressing such suspicions head-on, and he did a “good enough” job to convince me to order the book.

            He at least sets off on the right track; we’ll see if, when, where, and how he goes off the rails.

            Of course, I’m hoping he doesn’t. Ideal would be for him to promise as delivered, and I’m willing to grant him the possibility that he could well be the first to do so. He’s certainly the most anti-woo person to ever make the attempt, even (especially?) in that first chapter — which is why I think he merits serious consideration.


          2. “I think Sam is using his credentials to validate his beliefs.”
            Exactly Siaj!
            Sam seems on a crusade. All the signs are there – even in the title – “Waking Up” – waking up from what exactly? And in what way are we ”slumbering”? In the book strapline we find – “A Guide to Spirituality without Religion”. Why a GUIDE? Who is to be “guided” and to what exactly? Sam himself describes the need for the book and his target audience for it in this sentence – “A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet.” (n.b: I must say that somehow I never felt any such “missing” need myself or heard any secular friends express it) As for the books promotion, we find not the normal book launch/ book-circuit tour, but a major self-funded multi-city road-show. Never before done by Sam on any previous book launch… the whole thing is…… well…. almost evangelical. I really don’t like any of it at all!

    4. I would have thought that we, as a movement, have indeed been promulgating a ‘prescriptive formula for a better life’. That being a critical, reasoned, sceptical approach to the world. An evidence based reality being ‘better’.
      I think Sam has established sufficient credentials using these principals, that given his experiences and speciality in this field, he deserves to be heard. I have no doubt that what he says will stay well within the realm of ‘evidence based reality’.

      1. I agree with this. I have read and listened to the first chapter, and will certainly get the book, in carbon form. Given that he remains quite definite about the falseness of supernatural and mystical claims but has put in sufficient effort to confirm (to his own satisfaction) various benefits of meditation, I wish him well in his new and probably far more lucrative career as an empiricalist guru. Alan Watts has been dead a long time, it’s time someone else had a go.

        That said, I’ve never liked his writing enough to want to read much more of it (unlike Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens, to name but three), and the flat delivery of the spoken version didn’t improve it. Particularly disturbing was that a writer with any claim to general knowledge and self-awareness could pronounce ‘Koestler’ as ‘Kostler’ but ‘Gödel’ as ‘Girdle’ with a postvocalic ‘r’; that’s just freakin’ wrong all over.

  12. A history of depression, agoraphobia, and anxiety already gave me more than enough experience of what it’s like when your brain is not interpreting reality in an honest way. My greatest fear is losing my grip on reality – I’m terrified of developing dementia in my later years.

    Despite many attempts at discussion and debate with people pushing for rationalistic spirituality or advocating for recreational use of mind-altering drugs, I fail to be convinced that trading away a solid epistemic footing for colorful hallucinations or experiences of unusually strong emotional valence is a trade worth making.

    It seems to me that studying the brain with cognitive psychology/neuroscience is a much safer and more methodologically satisfying way to test the abilities of our neural organ; also, that those two fields render unnecessary any allegiances we might have to the spiritual or the transcendent. In my opinion the only thing those words have left to offer us is ambiguous poetic language that makes it too easy to smuggle mysticism into naturalism.

    That said, the folks who want what Sam’s book is offering are welcome to it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an intellectual pursuit as fruitful and as unobjectionable as deism.

    1. What Sam is talking about isn’t anything close to an hallucination. Meditation or even just being aware of your body as you experience things and quieting the ceaseless thoughts and nattering in your brain is really all he is offering. There are many scientific studies that show what happens in the brain when one does this and it is as simple as shutting up the activity in the left hemisphere (if you are right handed) of the brain.

      1. In fairness…though that’s the example Sam offers in the first chapter, he’s also hinting at ways to attain the same sorts of ecstasies experienced, for example, by reclusive hermits, as well as other less extreme mental states.

        Even if one has no desire to personally experience that sort of thing, I think it’s worth reading a purportedly objective account of how it’s done. And even if personal curiosity doesn’t do it for you…imagine a discussion with a religious person who cites such an experience and being able to counter with, “Oh, yeah? Did you do <insert recipe from Sam’s book />? And did you experience <insert predicted results from Sam’s book />? That’s to be expected. Compare your experiences with those from <insert cross-cultural example from Sam’s book />.” That sort of thing can take the wind out of a lot of sails.


        1. Said ways are tools to do these, as you say, and are not about hallucinations. I expect Sam is going to do a good job of plainly speaking about these things and honestly it is about time. I want my copy now! I’m a sesame Street generation! <- I say for the lolz because his book is about being in the now.

          1. I’m eager for my copy, too — if for no other reason than to see if he sets forth what all the fuss (from “spiritualists”) is all about. I think it’s fair to withhold judgement and preliminarily grant him the tentative benefit of the doubt — at least, until you’ve read the book yourself or the first round of independent critical reviews.

            He may well fuck it up, especially considering the treachery of the minefield he’s wading into and his own very-good-but-far-less-than-perfect record. But he gives good reason to hope that he doesn’t.


          2. But how is Sam’s book different from The Power Of Now and all the other woo-ey books on Now-ness.

            Can you really shut up the activity in your left hemisphere by just thinking about it? Sounds like magical thinking to me

            Since there is no way to prove Sam’s methods actually work, we -or rather those who will read the book and follow his advice- will have to take his word on it and just believe, trust or wish that they are effective. How is that different from what Chopra and all the other woomeisters say??

            What if the feeling of “being in the now” is an illusion too?

            1. But how is Sam’s book different from The Power Of Now and all the other woo-ey books on Now-ness.

              The hope is that Sam’s stripped out the woo, and left simple recipes — “Breathe in through your left nostril, wiggle your right toe three times, and hum the lowest note you can until you’re out of breath. This should cause a peculiar tingling sensation that feels like it’s coming from three feet to the right of your left ear.”

              Can you really shut up the activity in your left hemisphere by just thinking about it?

              That’s the claim, yet to be demonstrated.

              Since there is no way to prove Sam’s methods actually work

              Ah — but that’s it. The way to prove them is with any other experimenter’s claim: replicate the procedure and see if you get the same results. If Sam’s done his job, he’s presented everything necessary to replicate the procedure and provided a good description of the expected results. If he’s done his job….

              How is that different from what Chopra and all the other woomeisters say??

              Chopra would tell you to become one with the cosmos, and, if he was able to get you to replicate the results, he would tell you that you had succeeded and experienced the true quantum consciousness that lies at the foundation of all reality. Sam, presumably, will tell you that doing this-and-that will cause the sensations that Chopra will tell you is the quantum consciousness, but that it’s “merely” neurons firing in your brain. He’d likely add that, just as carefully observing an optical illusion can change the way you look at similar phenomena, the experiences gained in this manner can cause other perceptual shifts.

              What if the feeling of “being in the now” is an illusion too?

              Not only do I think Sam would agree with that suggestion, he’d probably praise you for thinking of it and suggest that you’re well on your way to understanding the sorts of perceptual conundrums these exercises are (I think — don’t know yet) supposed to expose.


              1. “The hope is that Sam’s stripped out the woo, and left simple recipes..”

                It would be great if that was the case but he does make claims about special, presumably superior or better states of being.
                That is the thing I take issue with.

                He is kind of saying that if you follow his “recipe” you will get the same results he got. Anyone with half a neuron can tell that that is not necessarily the case.

                There is nothing scientific about Sam’s recipe, we are all diffrent and the mind is too complex. I think no one can actually predict the result the implementation of this recipe will have in an individual.

                It is not a 2+2 thing, IMO.

                “The way to prove them is with any other experimenter’s claim”

                Yes, but you know that in the real world claims don’t count as evidence. Plus, you would have to get the exact same result with every single person that tries the experiment.

              2. Essentially, our brains are all identical from an anatomical perspective. My brain looks like your brain or most other human brains. How they function, may be different but it’s all the same brain and that is why when you injure parts of it, we can predict what the consequences will be.

            2. Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others.

              But how is Sam’s book different from The Power Of Now and all the other woo-ey books on Now-ness.

              You haven’t read or listened to his first chapter that her released, have you? Sam clearly lays out how his book has nothing to do with the mystical side of any new age belief or any of the wooishness of eastern mystics and gurus. You should really go back and read what Sam writes about this.

              Can you really shut up the activity in your left hemisphere by just thinking about it? Sounds like magical thinking to me

              Can one species give rise to another over time? That sounds like magical thinking to me!

              Since there is no way to prove Sam’s methods actually work we -or rather those who will read the book and follow his advice- will have to take his word on it and just believe, trust or wish that they are effective. How is that different from what Chopra and all the other woomeisters say??

              First of all, given the type of people who read Sam’s books I doubt the majority are going to just believe what Sam says without proof and from my experience of reading Sam’s books, watching his debates, and reading his articles, I am confident he will provide proof and we will either accept that proof or reject it. Saying we will just believe Sam and then asserting a false equivalency between Sam and Deepak Chopra is not only factually incorrect but insulting.

              1. I read it, thanks.
                I would be very suspicious of anyone who claims that conventional happiness is “not good enough” and that a true state of happiness and other special states of consciousness can only be achieved if you follow a spiritual practice or meditate for years.
                Apparently there is something wrong with fear, anger, hunger and all the other “negative” states of being.

                This phobia of negative states of mind and actions is typical of new age traditions.

                I really hope he can prove this special happiness exists but I don’t think he can/will.

                I hope he understands the difference between anecdotal evidence and real evidence.

              2. I think that is a common misunderstanding – that those who advocate for mindfulness are saying to ignore all bad emotions. It isn’t that you don’t want to experience those emotions, but you want to understand them and observe them instead of simply reacting to them. This isn’t about new age traditions, as Sam mentions in his piece.

        2. I discuss hallucinogens in response to this post, not specifically Sam’s book. Sorry for my ambiguity, there. (Although I’ve read plenty of Sam and wouldn’t be surprised to see them making an appearance, hah.)

          I’ll also say I consider the meditation studies you reference to fall under the purview of my third paragraph up there, and as such do not find them disagreeable or uninteresting.

          I’m afraid I’m still just not intrigued by Sam’s book. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be curious to read, for example, Ben here’s thoughts on it should the opportunity arise in the future.

          Speaking of which – and please pardon my imprudence – I’m tickled to converse with you both. To a very longtime silent reader, Diana MacPherson and Ben Goren are two of the big fish in the ecosystem of this website’s comments. Pleased to finally make your acquaintance (such as it were).

    2. Why must it be a trade. One can sample a range of experience, for fun, for learning, for whatever, without trading away ‘solid epistemic footing’. In my opinion increasing ones ‘information’ in these areas increases ones epistemic footing.
      It is hard to find limits without pushing past them sometimes. This applies in a lot of areas. Not everyone wants to push the limits but some of us do, to see what’s there.

  13. There is definitely a common thread throughout humanity to seek that feeling of being outside of oneself. Many devoutly religious people have told me of feelings of bliss and transcendence as the result of deep prayer and meditation.

    I never managed to have one of those experiences in any type of religious ceremony. Rather, since I was a child, I just felt a feeling of discomfort and unease while sitting in a church pew; some feeling of almost indescribable awkwardness. If religion must go for transcendence and wants to get people back in the pews, I think the Church would do well to start with some marijuana in the incense dispensers. Maybe it’d even make some of the stories more believable.

  14. In “Waking up” Sam Harris uses the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ interchangeably. Just as he says that you do not have to be religious to be spiritual, so too you do not have to believe in God or be religious to be a mystic.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “The Greatest Achievement in Life,” I summarized many similarities, and some differences, among the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

    Ironically, the man who personally introduced me to mysticism was an atheist who once wrote “God is man’s greatest invention.” Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.

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