What we wake up from, on Harris`s showing, is the illusion of the self. In other words, we discover “that the sense that we are unified subjects – the unchanging thinkers of thoughts and experiences – is an illusion.”[p.205] Buddha, Harris tells us, awoke from the dream of being a separate self.
When we wake up from the dream, what do we find that we are, instead? The answer is consciousness. And it is a consciousness that is aware of itself, able to witness what is going on within itself. Harris informs us that, in the best tradition of Buddhist mind watchers, he has “spent years observing his own mind in meditation”.[p197]
Well then, in what relation do thoughts stand in to the mind? They can`t be states of consciousness, because that would make consciousness a substance, which looks suspiciously like a self. Are they things which come into existence within view of consciousness, but separate from it? That would confer fleeting thinghood on thoughts, which seems to be multiplying entities beyond necessity. The previous view had one thing undergoing different states. The closest Harris gets to declaring a position on the ontological status of thoughts, comes when he writes “we primarily have to recognise thoughts as transient experiences in consciousness”[p93] which leaves the question of their ontological status hanging.
Harris`s position is that we can witness that no inner self exists, but it is not easy. He comments
“an ability to examine the contents of one`s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and non-discursively with sufficient attention to realise that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill.”[p47]
Perhaps that is why so few have it. But we can be helped by the right information, which Harris was fortunate enough to receive:
“I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.”[p135]
Tulku Urgyen gave Harris the ability to cut through the illusion of self directly, an ability, he writes, which improves with practice.
Harris canvases the question of whether we possess a continuum of experience, or whether we are a continuum of experience. He doesn`t answer it, but as he obviously rejects the former, he is left with the latter. The old question of what ties the continuum together, is raised.
There is a major inconsistency in the book about the unity of consciousness. Harris spends most of a chapter discussing the implications of split brains, i.e., brains in which the fibres joining the right and left hemispheres have been severed. He concludes “the most important implications are for our view of consciousness: It is divisible.” [p70] However, in a later chapter on meditation, in a section entitled “Beyond Duality”, he writes “You can recognise that consciousness is intrinsically undivided.”[p140]
Like Richard Dawkins, Harris frequently reminds the reader of her duty to be scientific, but as well, he is strongly of the view that we can learn about consciousness from introspection, particularly meditation. So it is unclear how he will resolve the above dilemma.
There is no hint in the book that meditation can reveal other than what Harris mentions, but there are credible claims that it can. For example, S.N.Dasgupta, a guru, a professor, and author of a five-volume history of Indian philosophy, writes:
“If the [yoga] practitioner persists, he steadily proceeds towards that ultimate stage in which his mind will be disintegrated and his self will shine forth in its own light and he himself will be absolutely free in bondless, companionless, loneliness of self illumination.”1
Others attest that the self can be seen in meditation.2 Who is correct?
Harris`s account of his experiments with drugs is interesting. When he was young, he and a friend took the drug Ecstasy, after which he felt totally where he was, and he felt a boundless compassion for his friend, and anyone who might walk through the door, which is recognisably Buddhist. There is a spirituality without religion.
Later in life, Harris experimented with psilocybin and LSD, some of the results of which were horrific and some beatific. They vividly illustrate William James` statement, which Harris quotes “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but a special type of consciousness, whilst all about it , parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” [p197] We haven`t got to the bottom of that yet.
1 S.N.Dasgupta. Hindu Mysticism. Frederic Ungar Publishing Company, New York. 1973. p80
2 Reg Naulty. Meditation in Western Mysticism. Compass. Vol.44. No.4. Summer, 2010. pp. 29-31
Waking up. A guide to spirituality without religion, by Sam Harris. Simon and Schuster. New York. 2014. pp.245.
Reg Naulty, Canberra Regional Meeting