on transience and the meaning of life (or lack thereof): waking up by sam harris

Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease and death?

I’m fairly new to the meditation game, but in the short few months that I’ve been doing it I’ve been astonished by its effects. However, I tend to keep this fairly quiet, and dodge any and all questions about “what kind of meditation?” / “how do you do it?” / “don’t you go crazy” etc. People tend to either want to talk about vipassana vs kundalini vs Dzogchen, or they want to talk about how meditation makes them go crazy and they hate it, but I don’t really want to have either discussion. To me, meditation is an extremely personal thing – both in the sense that it is a private matter and in that it’s unique to every individual.

That’s why I loved Waking Up by Sam Harris. The subtitle is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”, which captures exactly how I see the practice. It’s a form of spirituality that has nothing to do with angels or heavenly fathers. It’s (as Neil Strauss puts it) a way of figuring out how you personally are connected to the world around you.

The book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be an exploration of various approaches to spirituality, but instead Harris quickly stripped away the legitimacy of any other option for spirituality except meditation. Waking Up is actually a scientific treatise on the purpose of meditation.

Until I read it, I didn’t know that I didn’t know the purpose of meditation. Surely, I thought, it must just be to be calm and peaceful. I was never that interested in the Buddhist ideas of ‘enlightenment’.

But Harris makes a pretty compelling case, backed by neuroscience and (strong) psychology, that the purpose of meditation is to dispel the illusion of the self and realise what it’s like to exist in pure consciousness.

In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.

This feels realistic to me. This feels true. This feels much more correct than any Buddhist spiel about “forever freeing yourself of all suffering through the practice of non-attachment”. I mean, that may be exactly what it is but the way the Buddhists teach it is nevertheless disturbingly dogmatic. The way Harris writes it just makes total, perfect sense.

So what would a spiritual master be a master of? At minimum, she will no longer … feel identical to her thoughts. … She would no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us: She would no longer feel that there is an inner self who is a thinker of these thoughts. Such a person will naturally maintain an openness and serenity of mind that is available to most of us only for brief moments, even after years of practice.

I’ll admit, it’s difficult to imagine what Harris is talking about, even after a few months of meditation practice and after having read his very convincing, scarily rational book that logically dispels the illusion of the self. But the point is that the book sets the path: it has indicated to me how and where to look. And I’m immensely looking forward to the journey.

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About Varia

Traveler, writer.
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2 Responses to on transience and the meaning of life (or lack thereof): waking up by sam harris

  1. It’s a little scary how parallel our lives seem sometimes when I read your blog posts. I just finished a book on Buddhist psychology and while it was interesting, I don’t think it’s going to change the way I live my life. Thanks for writing this and recommending the book – spirituality without religion is precisely what resonates with me as well. I’m glad you’ve found a meditation practice that works for you!

    • Varia says:

      That’s so serendipitous and funny – I also just picked up a book on Buddhist teachings (Dropping Ashes on the Buddha) which has been very widely recommended and found it completely not vibing with anything I think at the moment. Maybe if I hadn’t read this book first I would have found more in it, but now all the philosophizing just seems unnecessary and almost cumbersome, even though its goal is to simplify.

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