Can Sam Harris Wake Us Up?

By Deepak Chopra, MD




It caused a stir when Sam Harris, in a new book titled Waking Up, changed his message from militant atheism to peaceful Buddhism. A positive message is better than a negative one, and since Buddhism is often labeled as “a religion without God,” Harris’s move isn’t as radical as it looks at first glance. He has had Buddhist teachers for a long time.  Waking Up speaks to a growing number of Americans who say they are spiritual but not religious. Some of these people want to find God, only outside the constrictions of organized religion.  Since he’s still adamant that God doesn’t exist, Harris probably has nothing to say to that group.



What he offers, with abundant backing from neuroscience, is a new flavor of Buddhism, in which some time-honored tenets are proven to be true by examining how the brain works. There is always a danger when someone holding personal beliefs dresses them up with science. You wonder if the contrary evidence has been fairly examined. Many readers may accuse Harris of paying serious attention only to the research that fits his scheme, and this is certainly true. An entire realm of spiritual experience is alien to him, not just the kind associated with praying, feeling God’s presence, contacting the soul, and near-death experiences. To Harris, this whole realm is delusional; therefore the research that supports it must be worthless (not that he shows any depth of knowledge about it—his dismissal is out of hand).

He’s also uninterested in Eastern paths like Yoga and Vedanta, although they get a few passing references.  What’s crucial for him is to find a neural basis for subjective spiritual experiences. He whispered about this when he was among his militant atheist friends, who took a scornful view of subjective experiences, on the grounds that science and rationality are opposed to the woolliness of subjectivity.  It’s heartening that Harris has more sense. His own personal experiences—with drugs, meditation, and various spiritual guides—has convinced him that experiences in consciousness are valid.


Without describing himself as a Buddhist, Harris puts Buddhism up as his candidate for locating the neural basis of spiritual experiences, thus connecting objectivity and subjectivity into an acceptable, rational package. My own strong belief is that Buddhism isn’t compatible with the materialistic slant (i.e., it’s all in the brain) that is the bedrock of Harris’s book. I don’t want to spoil the good that readers will take away from the book. The more that people give credence to their subjective experiences, the more likely they are to take up meditation, as Harris advocates. That’s hardly a new idea, but it’s good to have it reinforced, since research on the benefits of meditation, now more than forty years old, has become ever more convincing.


We can’t find what we’re not looking for, and what Harris seeks to prove isn’t at the core of spirituality. He likes the Buddhist teaching about the personal self being an illusion, because he can match it up with several pet theories about the brain. One of these holds that we believe we have a self, a personal “I,” because the brain’s complexity can’t be fathomed, so we choose arbitrarily to believe in “I” in order to make sense of the world.  There’s also the matter of finding “I” somewhere in the brain, in the way that vision can be found in the visual cortex. Some neuroscientists feel, in fact, they have located a brain center for the sense of self. The drift is clear enough: we are products of the brain’s chemical and electrical activity. That’s the hard reality, and the good news, as Harris sees it, is that the brain creates valid experiences that can and should serve to support a better brand of spirituality devoid of miracles, for example, which he disdains.


Yet all of this can be countered. In the Vedic tradition of India, going back centuries before the Buddha, there are some key ideas about the self that are still compelling today. Let me summarize them.


The everyday self, according to the Vedic seers, is a faint reflection of the higher self, clouded by the restless mind and the demands of everyday life. Through meditation, the higher self can be experienced. It is the source of love, compassion, creativity, and intelligence. The everyday self wouldn’t have those qualities without the higher self. Once this is realized, a path opens that enriches life by freeing us of illusions about who we really are. As we wake up, inner and outer reality are no longer separate. In unity consciousness–the highest state of enlightenment–reality “in here” is no longer separate from reality “out there.” Both exist as the play of universal consciousness.


Buddhism takes a very different view and offers a different path. Leaving aside the many schools of Buddhism, the path outlined by Harris offers no higher self. It is based on the total illusion that a personal “I” exists. It is this fictitious self, the ego personality with its countless demands, preferences, and insecurities that binds people to an unending cycle of pleasure alternating with pain. To escape from this bondage, then, is the main goal of the spiritual path. Through meditation, a person gains mental clarity. The ultimate clarity is achieved in a state of pure detachment, in which it is seen that consciousness is empty of any content. In the state of enlightenment, one is fully awake to the freedom that arises when the ego has died.


The teaching of “no self” looks very different from the teaching of “higher self.” Without identifying as a Buddhist, Harris believes that “no self” can be scientifically validated. (It also rationalizes his atheist position.) Has he successfully made the case?  If he has, then Sam Harris is the man to go to if you want to wake up. Since the research he cites is solid and valuable, what matters is how he interprets it.  For each point he makes, I’ll give a counterpoint from the “higher self” perspective.


Point: On p. 41, addressing the cause of human suffering, Harris takes a phrase from the Buddha, “the unsatisfactoriness of life,” twisting it a bit into “the unsatisfactoriness of the good life.” Pointing out that even happy, successful, healthy people have subtle kinds of suffering, he leaps to two conclusions (p. 42): “Most of us feel a wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis.” “We are all prisoners of our thoughts.”


Counterpoint: Neither of these statements has a basis in experience. Do you feel a “wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis”? This attempt to undermine “the good life” requires Harris to make thought the enemy, so that he can teach us how to stop participating personally in our thoughts. But he overlooks the fact that deciding to follow Buddhism, or Sam Harris, is a thought. How do we know which thoughts are positive and which are negative? Being a utilitarian, Harris invokes pain. But sadist, psychopaths, liars, con men, and even ordinary people pursue and even enjoy “painful” thoughts. If I feel unattractive and fat, the thought is painful, but it leads me to lose weight, which is good.


In reality, suffering isn’t a matter of seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, because in the complex tapestry of the self, most experiences are tinged with both pleasure and pain. Anyone who has been a parent knows this very well, as does anyone who has experienced the travails of love.  The “higher self” view holds that what we want is richer, more fulfilling thoughts, of love, compassion, truth, and so on.


Point:  On p. 43-44, discussing the meaning of enlightenment, Harris writes, “”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.” But, and it’s a big but, this boundless awareness “says nothing about the universe at large.” This is the physicalist guarding the wall that separates scientific facts from subjective feelings.


Counterpoint: In the Vedic tradition, the portal to higher knowledge is the unbounded awareness Harris describes, and because all of reality is the product of consciousness, what we learn and know through the inner journey far surpasses scientific data. This is the point, so often made, that the map isn’t the same as the territory. Falling in love, creating great art, losing yourself in the beauty of music—these are the ways we experience reality. Collecting data about them isn’t remotely the same as having the experience. In the states of enlightenment described in Vedanta, there are experiences that say a great deal about the universe. In the fully awakened state of unity consciousness, a person experiences his awareness as his core existence. This is the control switch that creates everything. Harris permits his limited experience of unbounded non-self as valid, but not the experience of advanced states of unboundedness of fully enlightened beings. Of course scientific knowledge is valuable, but it doesn’t explain how our experience comes to exist or how subjective experience connects to the objective universe. Harris puts the universe “out there,” waiting to unfold a wealth of data, but in reality we live in a participatory universe, and it’s how we participate that determines the outcome of every moment.


Point: Harris follows the Buddhist principle that it takes a thorn to remove a thorn. The mind creates suffering, but we must use the mind to get out of suffering. The point is made in classic Buddhist fashion on p. 45: “Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states . . . can transform your life. Every mental state you have ever had has arisen and then passed away.” This analysis is key to the rest of the book, since Harris is heading for a state where thoughts are witnessed from a place of detachment, and if the brain can deliver such a state, poof, no more suffering.


Counterpoint:  It’s psychologically incorrect to say that a mental state like anxiety, depression, or anger merely rises and falls away. These feelings can be endemic, repetitive, and stubbornly fixed. There is a stage of therapy, and a very valuable one, where the patient gains some distance from negative thinking, and by not being so overwhelmed, healing can begin. It is also true, as classical Buddhism teaches, that the “witness” is an aspect of the mind associated with detachment.


But it puts the cart before the horse to try and witness. Should I witness the death of a child rise and fall in my mind? Should I be detached from the thought that I love my wife? The fact that thoughts appear and disappear is secondary. The primary thing is what you do with the thought. Good, bad, and indifferent actions can follow from any thought. Your next thought might change your life. The witness state develops spontaneously when meditation allows the mind to settle into its true nature, which is peaceful, loving, creative, intelligent, and so on. Because the mind is at the root of all experience, it delivers the best that existence has to offer, not in a blank state of detachment but in a subtler state where you enjoy what is happening and also witness it as the product of your own consciousness.


The Upanishads have a beautiful image about this, speaking of two birds sitting in a tree. One bird eats the fruit while the other looks on silently. This is the classic Vedic view of the mind, that its silent source creates and supports the active mind. Witnessing and thinking go together. One isn’t used to demolish or detach from the other.


These counterpoints are not posed out of hostility to Harris’s book, and I hasten to add that I venerate Buddhism as a great spiritual tradition. I hope Sam Harris has viable responses to these points. In the next post we’ll go deeper into the brain science he relies upon. But it would seem that his angle of interpretation was firmly set before he looked into the data. That angle is his to pursue, of course, but as a directive for everyday life among his readers, I have my doubts.  If “no self” is only a stepping stone on the way to the “higher self,” these issues can be resolved to the benefit of everyone.


(To be cont.)


Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.   Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)