"Waking Up" by Sam Harris [Book Review]

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

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Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
By Jonathan Roseland

I lost my religion.

I was once a very religious, evangelical Christian and now I'm not.

One night, a while ago, I found myself in a very placid lucid dream, it wasn't one of those lucid dreams where you are having sex and fighting with lightsabers, I was just in a dark room lounging on some bean bags, talking with a red-haired woman. I had conducted the digital text test so I knew I was dreaming and I asked her a difficult question:

I was once very religious with strong faith, now I am not. When I was religious I always believed that non-religious people, while claiming intellectual reasons for their atheism were just using it as an excuse for their hedonistic activities. Now I carry on a fairly hedonistic existence and I'm not religious. Am I intellectually justified or am I just avoiding my maker because my moral standards are a shadow of what they used to be?

Tough question right? And a question that could only be answered by oneself.

The character in my lucid dream responded that I was indeed bullshitting myself; that I was a non-believer of convenience, not conviction. That I was not intellectually justified.

This book is less anti-religious than you might guess from its title. Its author is one of the most hated philosophers and current public intellectuals because of his politically incorrect criticisms of religion. This is interesting to me because he's the most polite politically incorrect person I can think of - really the polar opposite of the kind of rude anti-religious rants you hear from comedians and shock jock podcasters - yet he inspires vitriolic hate across the Internet. You can go look him up on Youtube and watch his videos and he comes across as just the most docile, sober, soft-spoken critic of religion.
So this book is not like 250 pages just beating up on religion. It's really about meditation practice which is the solution to spirituality without religion. I suspect many religious people could read this book and will be better religious people for it.

On the other side of the spectrum, some strictly atheistic people may not even consider reading a book like this with the word spiritual in its title. However, I'll give them a more precise definition of spiritual to consider:

Seeking to understand our minds, the nature of self, and our relation to the world more deeply by way of reaching for extraordinary states of consciousness.

That's a pretty good definition, right? I actually came up with it myself - but it's based upon what he says in the first chapter of the book. In the book he says:

Spirituality must be distinguished from religion— because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. (p. 8)
I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble. (p. 5)

We can reach for extraordinary states of consciousness while avoiding superstition by doing meditation, taking psychedelics, or even using Biohacking tools like Nootropics, brain training, or even biofeedback technology (see my other video about the religious experience I had while HRV training...)

The Disproven Soul

One of the things that the book effectively deconstructs is the notion of the homunculus; which is the idea that there is a little guy somewhere in your head who pulls the levers which control the machine that is your body. Religion calls this a soul.
The book references split-brain phenomenon, which is when people have the two hemispheres of their brain disconnected surgically and it radically changes the nature of their identity...

it becomes difficult to say that the person whose brain has been split is a single subject, for everything about his behavior suggests that a silent intelligence lurks in his right hemisphere, about which the articulate left hemisphere knows nothing. (p. 66)
What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious. (p. 67)
The question of whether the right hemisphere is conscious is really a pseudo-mystery used to bar the door to a great one: the uncanny fact that the human mind can be divided with a knife. (p. 68)
This fact poses an insurmountable problem for the notion that each of us has a single, indivisible self— much less an immortal soul. (p. 69)

The book suggests that your consciousness is kind of like Jay and Silent Bob, where one half of the dynamic duo is kind of impulsive and loudmouthed and the other is the mute voice of reason - I'm not sure if that's a good metaphor, it's been a while since I saw that movie. I wonder how many expressions there are in the world's languages for being of two minds or having different personalities or different people inside of oneself. I think we can disregard the idea of having a single, static personality as childish and superstitious.
So we can see from medical science that consciousness is not an intangible, irreducible, unknowable thing but that it's pretty clearly attached to the mechanics of our gray matter.

Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. (p. 56)

The Illusion of Consciousness

In my reading of neuroscience and philosophy of the mind, I had often heard before that consciousness and the self is an illusion.

Which I'll admit is an unsettling idea, quite possibly the most unsettling idea - that I don't exist.

the conventional sense of self is an illusion— and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. (p. 82)
There is no region of the brain that can be the seat of a soul. (p. 116)

One night after reading I did the Blue Sky Protocol like normal, yet when I reached the final stage where I imagine my mind as an empty sphere floating in space, I thought of what the book had to say about the self as an illusion and I began to repeat mentally for several minutes: I don't exist, I don't exist, I don't exist...
Then I returned to focusing on emptying my mind of thoughts, in between thoughts I was struck by how distinctly insubstantial consciousness felt.

Consciousness does not feel like a self. (p. 103)

Which was unsettling, this must have been what Friedrich Nietzsche was talking about when he wrote:

"...if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

 Hacking Empathy

Interestingly, meditation practice is a hack for improving empathy.

Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others, as well as positive affect in the presence of suffering. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to have similar pro-social effects. (p. 122)
Conversely, a longitudinal study of compassion meditation, which produced a significant increase in subjects’ empathy over the course of eight weeks, found increased activity in one of the regions believed to contain mirror neurons. (p. 114).

I tracked down the studies mentioned. From the Abstract of “Compassion Meditation Enhances Empathic Accuracy and Related Neural Activity.”

This study employed a randomized, controlled and longitudinal design to investigate the effect of a secularized analytical compassion meditation program... Twenty-one healthy participants received functional MRI scans while completing an empathic accuracy task, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test... These findings suggest that CBCT may hold promise as a behavioral intervention for enhancing empathic accuracy and the neurobiology supporting it.

I'm a little disappointed that the study doesn't mention how long the subjects underwent training before increasing their scores.

From a 2012 study of 82 female schoolteachers entitled “Contemplative/ Emotion Training Reduces Negative Emotional Behavior and Promotes Prosocial Responses.”

Contemplative practices are believed to alleviate psychological problems, cultivate prosocial behavior and promote self-awareness... Findings suggest that increased awareness of mental processes can influence emotional behavior, and they support the benefit of integrating contemplative theories/practices with psychological models and methods of emotion regulation.

You salespeople and pickup artists guys who follow me will want to make a special note of this. Fine-tuning your empathy will absolutely make you better salesperson or seducer and you know this because whenever you hear from salespeople who make a lot of money or PUAs that get laid a lot - that get the results that you are in the game for - they pretty consistently talk about the importance of empathy in what they do. So if you like getting laid more or getting paid more, you should be concerned with hacking empathy.

Also, many of us spend the majority of our waking lives staring at glowing screens; this is bad for our social skills and these studies are saying that meditation is a way of maintaining them.

Eye Contact Meditation

Speaking of things that should interest pickup artists, the book describes an intimacy exercise that I enthusiastically recommend you try. Eye Contact Meditation is what it sounds like; you just sit across from someone and stare into each other's eyes, it's not a staring contest but you want to maintain persistent eye contact, you want to avoid laughing, talking, or smiling to cut the tension. Try doing this for just 10 minutes, set the meditation timer on your phone for ten minutes.

Mind Wandering

Mind Wandering

“a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” (p. 119)

From the abstract of a notable 2010 study on exactly this:

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

I agree with this, I try to avoid mind wandering. I'm an Entrepreneur and a perpetual traveler, I've never known life without constant struggle and challenge. Personally, whenever I let my mind wander it gravitates to something that worries me. Unless you just have a boringly comfortable life, your mind wandering is going to inevitably lead to unproductive worrying. Meditation certainly helps with this but I think Dual N-Back training is a whole lot better.

Freeing Yourself of Your Thoughts

He defines spiritual enlightenment; as someone who does not feel that they are identical to their thoughts. Someone who can identify their thoughts in the moment as separate from themselves; being free of the tyranny of our thoughts.

Taking oneself to be the thinker of one’s thoughts— that is, not recognizing the present thought to be a transitory appearance in consciousness— is a delusion that produces nearly every species of human conflict and unhappiness. (p. 101)
being distracted by thought is understood to be the very wellspring of human suffering. (p. 101)
Having an ego is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking. (p. 102)

Our primary duty as the owners of the most powerful computers (our minds) in the known universe is to be philosophers; to be rigorous practitioners of metacognition - to think about thinking. We are the only beings, that we know of, that can do this. It's an extraordinary gift that we disregard.

I have a pretty good example of this recently; I was out at a salsa dancing club.
I had spent about 20 minutes interacting with this girl I found pretty attractive, it was going pretty well...
She was laughing at my dumb jokes and my crappy Russian
We were Latin dancing so I was putting my hands all over her body.
I can smell her hair and her light perspiration.
I'm feeling her soft skin.

I was on 500 milligrams of Phenibut so I was just mildly intoxicated.
Then another guy in the club pulled her off me for a dance, which happens at Latin clubs. Of course, I had a little initial reaction of "This motherfucker! That slut!" yet almost instantaneously, I self audited this angry little thought and extinguished it. Upon reflecting on this little episode it's remarkable that in such a state of arousal my metacognition kicked in so quickly; that's a year of meditation and three years of brain training working.

Interviews of Osho

It's recommended that you watch a couple of interviews with the spiritual guru Osho. As you'll see, he's undoubtedly quite charismatic, but I noticed something uncanny about him. He very rarely blinks. Try to count how many times he blinks during this 10-minute interview.

Perhaps this is a lifehack. Here's a presence exercise; next time you are having a conversation with someone, try to maintain very strong eye contact with the other person. Try to refrain from blinking until they break eye contact. Blink when they aren't looking.

About this book

Waking Up Book

This is one of those books that makes me skeptical of people who claim to read a book every day. It's pretty dense in some parts, I had to read certain passages three or four times to grasp them. I really cannot imagine reading this book in a day and getting much value out of it. It's a pretty good meditation 101 type book, it gives plenty of practical advice for getting started meditating, so I recommend this book to people who know they probably should be meditating. Get started with this guided meditation track.

Or perhaps you are a person like me in that you were raised in a religious tradition that you ultimately grew out of because of your rationality and a strictly scientific view of the world yet you know that there is a benefit to spiritual life, this book will provide you with some useful direction.

A year ago, my new year's resolution was to meditate every day, with the help of the two Apps Coach.me and Headspace, I've accomplished that. If you have not already, see my video about the Blue Sky Protocol, in which I outline four short-term benefits of meditation.

Next time I find myself in a placid lucid dream, I'll ask that question again. Perhaps I'll get a more useful answer.

The book ends with a profound passage, that I'll leave you with...

Indeed, the human mind is the most complex and subtle expression of reality we have thus far encountered. This should grant profundity to the humble project of noticing what it is like to be you in the present. However numerous your faults, something in you at this moment is pristine— and only you can recognize it. (p. 206)

4 stars blue LM


I'm no longer an atheist for reasons I describe in this article Simulation theory legitimizes religion? I'm willing to revisit my old faith and can finally shrug off the nihilistic burden of atheism.


Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion


"Gaze Into the Abyss" - Lifehacking Spirituality without Superstition ["Waking Up" Book Review]

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I got a little taste of what Friedrich Nietzsche was talking about when he wrote:
"...if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
"Gaze Into the Abyss" - Lifehacking Spirituality without Superstition ["Waking Up" Book Review]
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