I listened to the audio version of Sam Harris book Waking Up:A Guide to Spirituality without Religion last year (2020) and I came back to it now to further investigate Sam’s conceptualization of spirituality and consciousness. This time, I am motivated by a deeply disturbing experience I am currently going through because of my mother’s fatal illness.
It is two years now that my mother has been bedridden, quadriplegic and unconscious due to a severe non traumatic brain injury. Every night, as I sit by my mom’s bedside, alone, my mind drifts far away into the world of consciousness and spirituality.
I still can not overcome the devastating blow life dealt me! I struggle to find meaning to life and to find answers to vexing questions that keep me awake at night. Why mom? Why would she suffer like this?
She was the kindest sweetest person ever only to end up imprisoned in a lifeless and unconscious body? Every single night I would call on whoever out there looking over this universe to show me answers to those questions.
Why would you torment mom and us her family in this inhumane and tragic way? Do you have a heart, feelings? Why would people call you Merciful when all we saw from you are continuous suffering and pain. These and several other existential and spiritual questions crossed and still cross my mind on a daily basis.
It is within this context that I approached Sam Harris’s book, a desperate attempt to find an explanation to this spiritual turmoil I am going through. I want to fathom the nature of consciousness, what is it? How can it be regained once it is lost? Where does it go when it is lost?
Unfortunately, Harri’s book does not provide any satisfying answers but it does, however, help in understanding the contemplative part of our existence. He himself posed the same existential question concerning consciousness. “what are we conscious of” when we say we are conscious. To this Harris responded:
We are conscious of the world; we are conscious of our bodies in the world; and we also imagine that we are conscious of our selves within our bodies. After all, most of us don t feel merely identical to our bodies. We seem to be riding around inside our bodies. We feel like inner subjects that can use the body as a kind of object. This last impression is an illusion that can be dispelled. (p. 103).
Thoughts, as Harris stated, are the expressions of consciousness. However, consciousness is much more than thoughts, it is more encompassing and inclusive. Thoughts are ephemeral epiphenomena that can be real obstacle to self-transcendence and to profound sense of meditation. For Harris, meditation does not nullify thoughts but “it does require that we notice thoughts as they emerge and recognize them to be transitory appearances in consciousness” (p. 139).
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality explores the idea that spirituality and religion can exist independently of each other. Harris argues that spirituality is a natural human experience that can be achieved through meditation and contemplation. The book also illustrates how religion can be harmful and how it often impedes true spiritual growth.
Harris proposes that one can cultivate a sense of wonder and awe for the universe without resorting to supernatural beliefs. The book is written in a clear and engaging style, and draws on Harris’ personal experiences to provide insight into the benefits of a secular approach to spirituality.