February 26, 2024

While researching various perspectives during the preparation of my next book (Transformational Awakening) I came across Sam Harris’ “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”  Harris has been writing best sellers for many years from the perspective of a rationalist and atheist.  In this book he is not bashing organized religion so much as defending spirituality.  You could easily assume he has a Buddhist philosophy, as his main point is that the idea of SELF is an illusion.

We are not separate from God or the universe.  Our mind is connected to everything else, our consciousness is not separate and distinct.  Even now, we harbor more than one distinct consciousness in our brain, and this can be made more obvious when (usually to minimize epileptic seizures) the right hemisphere can be surgically separated from the left.  “The human mind can be divided with a knife,” Harris says.  A person will remain conscious with either half of their brain removed completely, but if the halves are merely separated they can hold different opinions and argue with each other (which we experience to some degree under normal conditions.)

Harris offers a few “things that make you go hmmmmm.”  What if one hemisphere accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the other says all organized religion is nonsense?  Is one half of the brain “saved” while the other is doomed?  Or should we view such a person as we would view the soul of a dying infant – saved because they are incapable of making a decision?  If such a person was half Democrat and half Republican, how could they vote?  Do they have to abstain, or do they deserve two votes for two seats of consciousness in one body?  And are we really any different now, with a thin connection in the brain that allows some communication between hemispheres?  As Harris says, “How can our brains not harbor multiple centers of consciousness even now?”

Ignoring that dilemma, imagine the following (as philosopher Derek Parfit did): mankind develops teleportation, as seen in science fiction.  You can press a button in New York and be dematerialized and rematerialized in Los Angeles – or on Mars, or anywhere else.  Your last thought is standing where you started and your next thought is suddenly being elsewhere.  If others have been doing it with no side effects, I eventually would too, if it seemed as safe and commonplace as it does on Star Trek.  Rematerialized me, with all my memories and all my thoughts and concerns and problems, with every atom identical to how I was before I dematerialized and rematerialized is still me, right?

Now imagine the friend in line ahead of you calls you to let you know he teleported safely to the destination – but he’s still standing in front of you.  The technicians, overhearing your concerned conversation, explain that to make absolutely certain they never lose anyone, they materialize new versions at the destination about ten seconds before they dematerialize the original at the starting point.

Now you have a problem with your idea of self.  What materializes at the destination is just a copy – while a second you – the original, real you – gets dematerialized into oblivion after this other entity is created at the destination.  Suddenly aware of new you already at the destination, and viewing “them” as “not you” you might be a lot less willing to be dematerialized.

But Harris tells us that such ideas about the self are all illusion, and that “Spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of the self.”  We can do this by consciously directing our thoughts instead of allowing them to wander distractedly.  That requires practice and training and dedication, because it is hard to do for more than a few seconds without being distracted.  Practicing the art of meditation, Harris strongly suggests, may help to reveal new insights on the true nature of consciousness.  (Drugs may be a less acceptable alternative method for opening that door.)


I interpret the central message of “Waking Up” as – take control of your own thought processes.  Most people are spiritually/mentally asleep in that they are not even aware of being distracted – unaware that anyone actually can consciously seize control of their brain and thought processes.  This realization is either experienced or missed completely, there is no middle ground.  It is somewhat like discovering our reflection in a window and then concentrating on it – not allowing ourselves to observe the commotion happening outside, which we can clearly see through the window.  We would normally look past the window – through it – instead of focusing on it.  Instead of perceiving the universe through our brain, we should realize that our brain is central to our reality, and that changing how we think and perceive things changes our universe.  As Harris says: “changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world.”

Focus on our brain instead of observing through it.  Contemplate our own thoughts, and redirect them.  Take control of the present moment, with less obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.  Take control of your thought process now, in the present moment, and experience the present intentionally.

For the brain may be more of a filter than anything else – a way to reduce and minimize our experiences, to keep us distracted by the dangers of the material world, and not allow us to dwell on the subtle connection to the spiritual.  As Harris paraphrases Aldous Huxley: the brain’s “purpose may be to prevent a transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness.”  This idea makes sense to me, as I have long suspected that our material brain and the limited portion of our consciousness within it are here on Earth as a learning experience.  I suggest that we have a greater consciousness seated in a spiritual dimension, with only a tenuous connection to our true and complete self (which may not be as separated from other consciousnesses as we imagine either.)  Our brain’s job could be to keep us alive, surviving the dangers of the material world, while preventing us from discovering spiritual truths from our greater consciousness – for getting hit by a bus and realizing the true nature of the universe can both end the school of life experience we are here to learn from before we move on to something greater.

Jalal-ud-Din-Rumi: “One day, you will find yourself outside this world, which is like our mother’s womb.”

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