14 August 2014

What Would an Agnostic Spirituality Look Like?

Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist, is coming out with a book titled "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". I will be interested to read because, while I consider myself more of an agnostic, I relate to his interest in meditation and higher states of consciousness while at the same time being skeptical of the metaphysical implications that can be drawn from the phenomenology of it. He has come out with a precursor article that I highly recommend. His discussion of the various philosophies/methods of awakening to the realization of "no-self" (for Baha'i's, read "the death of the self"), particularly Theravada Vipasssana compared to Advaita Vedanta and Dzogchen direct inquiry, squarely hit home what I have been pondering lately. I was also surprised to hear that he doesn't believe consciousness is limited to the 5 senses, which makes him kind of an outlier among atheists.


Harris has release the first chapter, here are a couple of quotes that jumped out at me.

Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.
That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.

*Update 2*

Now that I have read the book here are some thoughts. In some ways I wish this book would have been published a year earlier, because so much of what I have experienced and thought about in the last year aligns almost perfectly with the themes in this book. It could have given me a head start on the path I was taking. Reading this book now, it seems thoroughly familiar.

To explain: last year at this time I began meditating and taking an interest in spiritual experience independent of religious belief. I took an interest in Vipassana meditation, using techniques from the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition and following the "stages of insight" laid out originally in the Visuddhimagga. I also became interested in Advaita Vedanta and self inquiry and struggled to reconcile the two paths in my mind (gradual vs. sudden). I  experimented with the "having no head" approach to perception that he describes and have taken hallucinogenics, considering their role on the spiritual path. I have read neuroscience books debunking the "illusion of self" from a naturalist point of view, and have considered the idea of brains being filters of universal mind. I could go on and on. 

I think the value of this book for me is that it beautifully weaves together and confirms what I had already found to be true. There is an intimacy to knowing that other people are reading this and being exposed to practices and ideas that have so enthralled me. 

There are a couple of quibbles that I have.

For one, I think he slightly misconstrues the Vipassana approach. While the means of Vipassana is cultivating concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity, a gradual process which implies somebody who is practicing (i.e. dualistic in a sense), the whole point is to more clearly and directly recognize the "three marks of existence", i.e., that all sensations and thoughts, including the ones normally thought to comprise the self (like the sensations behind the eyes), are inherently impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal. According to my understanding and experience, if done correctly, it is just as "direct" as the other approaches he describes; in fact it all boils down to the same basic thing, just coming from a slightly different perspective. 

He also doesn't address the fact that, despite its evanescent nature, the sense of self obviously evolved over time through natural selection because it provided an evolutionary advantage at some point. It may very well be true that it is no longer useful to thrive in the 21st century, but to dismiss it out of hand and call it an illusion, without placing it in a historical context, is kind of misleading. 

*Update 3*

Here is a short succinctshort succinct video by Harris on cultivating spiritual practice without recourse to untestable beliefs: 

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