Archives For: Book Club

Book Club: Waking Up The Buddha

Oct 30 2014 @ 2:21pm

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Our first installment of reader commentary on Sam Harris’ Waking Up addressed the question of the self’s existence – or lack thereof. More emails along those lines here and here. Many of the following do the same, while offering clarifications and critiques from a Buddhist perspective. The first reader emphasizes the practical effects of rejecting our usual notions of the self:

Twenty years of meditation in the Dzogchen tradition have convinced me that the self, as it is conceived in the West, does not exist. With regard to your reaching different conclusions from Harris based on the same experiences, there is an old Zen saying “Words are a finger pointing at the moon – be careful not to confuse the finger with the moon.” I might describe the experience as one of realizing immaculate Buddha nature, but the important question is: what effect does this experience have? Am I a wiser, more compassionate human being because of it?

The concepts about the experience are just that – concepts. They no more objectively prove your experience of the love and existence of God than they prove Harris’ rejection of God. The experience belongs to no belief system. It is what it is.

Another reader wants “to clarify something about Buddhist (Mahayana) philosophy that Sam doesn’t explain”:

In Buddhist thought, there are two sorts of frames of truth. Relative truth is the truth of bookclub-beagle-trappearance, and absolute truth is how things truly exist. Computers are an excellent example of this; there’s an apparent reality to email, blogs, the internet, but we know that those things don’t exist in any true sense – they are just conceptual representations of electrical activity. The key point is that relative reality is still real, it’s just real as appearance, in the same way that a dream or videogame might be real as a dream or videogame. Relative reality from a Buddhist perspective is all of the stuff we relate with, self, other, trees, greenery etc. Ultimate reality is reality free from concept, which is therefore impossible to describe.

When Buddhists talk about the non-existence of self, what they mean is that self is a mere appearance. In particular it doesn’t have the qualities of separateness, permanence, or solidity that we ascribe to it. From a relative perspective, self exists as an appearance, but it has no reality from an ultimate point of view. Suffering arises because we try to relate with this ephemeral, shifty, appearance of self and other as though they were more than appearances.

Read On

The Best Of The Dish Today

Oct 28 2014 @ 9:15pm

The Dish’s favorite pet photographer has a new book out – and a puppy time-lapse to plug it:

It’s the kind of advertizing done right. I’m sorry that these end-of-the-day musings keep referring to the collapse of ethical journalism, but, hey, how can you ignore a story like this on CNN’s blatant conflict of interest in running puff pieces (with no disclosure) on the Hamad International Airport in Doha. Seriously, this is a textbook case of buying favorable coverage.

Today, you might have skipped past our latest installment of the Book Club discussion of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. It’s well worth a visit. There’s some serious, vital stuff in there. One reader was struck to the core:

To my fellow reader who wrote in describing his experience with no-self:

Oh, my friend, thank you. I’ve too have had periods of this no-self experience over the past few years. The experience is notoriously impossible to describe, and I don’t even try. You’ve captured it perfectly and in such concrete and simple language. Many of the great mystics have not done as well. I have just one friend I who knows this happens to me, and I never reveal it to anyone else. Though I am a devoted church-goer it’s not something I would ever try and explain to anyone there. I’ve wondered if this experience is more common than I think it is, and wondered if there could be others I could talk with about this. I’m so glad to know you are out there.

And in response to those trying to decide whether the self exists and to locate the no-self experience in biology, divine transcendence, or some other phenomenon: Why does it matter where the experience of no-self comes from and whether the self exists or not? I certainly don’t know. I know the experience of “no-self” exists and that it changes who I am in the world for the better in an exponential way. I’m a church-goer, and I don’t care if there is a God or not. That is not the most interesting question. The interesting question is how does one place oneself to make the no-self experience more likely, and when no-self does visit, what response shall I offer?

Thank you my friends at the Dish. Politics, poetry and mysticism all in the same blog. Bliss.

Elsewhere today, we covered the fascinating and horrifying Ebola epidemic: Christie’s still a dick; the case for an asterisk on the assurances that it won’t break out in America; and the CDC’s new, tighter guidelines for quarantining. I noticed the Pope’s impact on America’s culture war; and re-visited the enduring, exploded myths of the Matthew Shepard murder.

Plus: a remixed Ghostbuster video for Halloween week; Freddie DeBoer’s worries about micro-aggressions in the academy; and the most powerful case yet for doing absolutely nothing in Syria and Iraq.

The most popular post of the day was A Declaration of War on Francis; followed by The End of Gamer Culture?

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here. You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 22 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here. Dish t-shirts are for sale here, including the new “Know Dope” shirts, which are detailed here. One final reader for the day “surrenders” over the Book Club discussion:

Okay, okay: I finally caved, and bought Sam Harris’s book.

See you in the morning.

A reader flags the long podcast seen above:

I started reading Waking Up after watching Sam Harris on Joe Rogan’s podcast. In it, Harris recounts his case against free will and mentioned that he thought that the self was an illusion. I am sympathetic to that view and in a manner believe it to be true, so I purchased Waking Up primarily to read his case on the question of self.

I can’t say I really came away with the tools to feel I can prove this belief. Harris writes in the mode of a skeptic and does so well. But nowhere does the book move fully beyond skepticism to proactive persuasion. So you ultimately end up with firm evidence that common conceptions of self are false, but then the final leap seems to be that moments of awe and the truth are … just self-evident. Something that just is. But some people aren’t going to interpret these moments in that way. Certainly many Christians will associate with the idea of divine light in these moments, as you do. People of other backgrounds will see it in other ways.

Another is more critical:

bookclub-beagle-trI love both you and Sam. I really do. I’m with him on the dangers and damage wrought by religion. With you on most political issues. But on this question from Waking Up, regarding the nature of the so-called “selfless” state of mind human beings sometimes experience during meditation or prayer, I’m afraid you are both wrong.

Andrew, why do you both seek transcendence so badly? For what you feel, what we all feel in these oceanic moments, is neither an experience of being flooded by God’s love (your view) or a glimpse into the underlying “selflessness” of consciousness (Sam’s view).

Read On

A reader introduces another main theme from Sam’s book:

I wrote in earlier to share my excitement over atheists breaking into the discussion of spirituality. To that end, I think Waking Up is a valuable read. I walked away appreciating a bonafide atheist’s taking on the subject. Having sat on the fence for my whole life on the subject of God, I’ve found writing that approaches atheism as a negative definition (what we are not) but a positive one (what we are) essential in becoming more comfortable joining a small minority of non-believers.

bookclub-beagle-trI’ve been meditating for over a year now. It is perhaps the most substantial and rewarding thing I’ve done for myself and I plan on continuing the practice for the rest of my life. I can’t quite explain the growth that sitting in silence every morning has given me. It’s almost like I’m playing a bit with the dials of life, turning up my attention to the essential and the hidden while turning down some of the noise that can make listening to it all difficult, like my tendency to argue or having my thoughts spiral out of control.

As one might imagine, I was very receptive to the chapters on meditation. The discussion of the lack of self is certainly worth a re-read. I know that I, for one, want to circle back on the neuroscience to make sure I caught everything.

Ultimately, I felt like Waking Up was an invitation to discuss as opposed to a deep dive. I understand why. The typical person reading the book might need a little convincing. However, in making the basic case for 51dolkylmindfulness, I think Harris understandably did not chase any specific points to anywhere too arresting. I hope that Harris continues to write on the subject. It’s clear that he has more to offer and I think he would have receptive audience having argued the basic case.

I’d be interested in reading more about spirituality interfaces with morality, the day to day, and broader constructs of society. Andrew and Sam had a great discussion re: religion a while back. I think it would be great to dive to the same depth and explore some of those questions with the new book in mind.

Another reader:

I just finished Waking Up. The book has some fascinating things to say about the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the “self,” but I see it primarily as an invitation to the reader to begin a meditation practice. As Sam writes, “I am suggesting an experiment that you must conduct for yourself, in the laboratory of your own mind.” So I have a question for you, Andrew: Have you taken him up on this invitation?

Read On

This reader liked the book, to say the least:

​I am 69, an atheist, and a retired engineer. Until I read about Waking Up on the Dish, I had never heard of Sam Harris. Because of his book, not only will I die happily, I will be happier for the rest of my life. For a long time I struggled with questions such as “Where was I before I was born?” and “What happens to me after I die?” I had not researched to find answers to my questions. However, the scientific and philosophical discussion by Harris has convinced me that consciousness is self (I). My perception of I is just my consciousness. Bingo! Now I am not worried about “I.”

Waking Up will not change many minds, as you suggest. But it may help many individuals like me who are not deep thinkers. Thanks for paving my way to enlightenment.

Another offers a critique:

The problem with Sam Harris’ thesis is that he spends a good deal of energy to destroy one dualism – the self and the rest of the world – and then focuses the rest of his capital on 51dolkylconstructing another in its place – consciousness and sensory perception. As if consciousness is any easier to define as a continuous, knowable entity than self. A valid argument could be made that he’s simply substituted one term for the other and both are subject to the same powerful criticisms he makes against self – that both are elemental, Western constructs of spirituality that don’t survive analytic examination.

What are we left with then, if that’s the case? A construct of consciousness that, on the most basic level, is completely reducible to brain waves and other sensory input. Humans may seem to be more complex organizations than, say, rocks and debris. The brain is a wonderfully mysterious organ to behold, after all, especially by its owner or someone similarly placed. And true spiritual oneness with the world could start by meditation and a loosening up of the dualistic approach we utilize to strap the world down on a gurney and do with it as we please.

But Harris might need one more nudge in an Eastern direction, to get his argument fully down. He’s wedded himself to the existence of consciousness, despite acknowledging all along that it is not scientifically provable (except, he argues, through self-examination).

Or one nudge back West, in which the richness of human experience and thought cannot be reduced to neurons, without making it meaningless. Another reader turns the critique toward me:

Like many, I found Sam’s book enlightening and deeply challenging. And, like you, in the end I found myself unable to follow him into the complete annihilation of the self; it is too intuitively, phenomenologically present, it seems to me, to accept Sam’s dismissal. But the bookclub-beagle-trtraditional Western view of the self seems also unsatisfactory, hence the value of trying to see things from a different perspectives.

However, I also cannot accede to your Christian idea of a self relating to an altogether different and greater entity or being (which, only too often, amounts to the projection of human personality traits onto God, emotions such as love or anger or jealousy).

Read On

Book Club: Does The Self Exist?

Oct 21 2014 @ 12:02pm

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In our discussion of Sam Harris’ Waking Up, I want to try a different tack than in previous Book Club discussions. I want to throw this over to you as quickly as possible, rather than write a review of the entire book as an introduction. And with Sam’s dense but deep little tome, there’s one question I’m eager to ask Dish readers about: were you convinced by his argument that there is no real self as we usually understand it?

Sam makes the case with a dozen little perspective shifts. He cites the fact that the right side of the brain often has no idea what the left side is doing, and vice-versa and asks: how can there be a coherent “I” if that is true? Or he challenges us with Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about the inherently unstable entity called a self “that is carried along from one moment to the next.” Or he notes how much of our lives are lived without our active consciousness at all, where even the task of sipping a cup of coffee is undergirded by

motor neurons, muscle fibers, neurotransmitters I can’t feel or see. And how do I initiate this behavior? I haven’t a clue. In what sense, then do I initiate it? That is difficult to say.

Much of this argument is entirely by a process of elimination. He merely chips away at a stable notion of the self – even in its most intuitive form – and challenges us to ask what remains:

However one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However its absence can be found – and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. This is an empirical claim.

The key argument, it seems to me, is that we are not identical to our thoughts. Our existence is rooted elsewhere – in fact, in the banishment of thought. It reminded me of the account given by Pope Francis of his experience before he signed the document that would make him Pope:

Before I accepted I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows.

I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it …

For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.

I can read much of Sam’s book, in other words, and yet reach a very different conclusion about what’s really going on. Or am I only projecting what I want to believe onto the experience itself? Feel free to tell me. Not that it usually requires a request.

More relevant: Did Harris persuade you on the question of the self? Where was his argument’s weakest – or strongest – link for you? Email your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com

Book Club: Waking Up, Ctd

Oct 10 2014 @ 12:39pm

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Our latest Book Club selection is already shaping up to be our most popular, based on the reader response we’ve been getting so far:

I am an atheist, and until I read about Waking Up on the Dish, I had never heard of Sam Harris. I bought the book, read it, and because of it not only will I die happily, I will be happier for the rest of my life. I am 69, a retired engineer. For a long time I have wondered about, and struggled with questions such as, Where was I before I was born? What happens to me after I die? Sam Harris has convinced me that consciousness is self (I.) My perception of I is just my consciousness. Bingo! Now I am not worried about “I.” Thanks, Andrew, for paving my way to enlightenment.

Another atheist:

Count me as one excited for this pick! I had already requested it at the library in fact, before 51dolkylyou chose it. The timing of its release happened just as I have been reading more books on Buddhism and attempting to practice meditation myself. Despite being a long-time atheist, I have lately felt the need to find a different framework, a spiritual one, and Harris’s book offers me reassurance that I don’t need to feel I am betraying my convictions, or giving in to some soft-heartedness, by heeding the pull toward spirituality. At first I felt almost ashamed to be exploring meditation and Buddhism, as if I am failing to be rational or abandoning my intelligence. But in fact I think that my world when I only considered myself as an atheist and did not leave room for exploring other paths was too narrow and lacked room for any nurturing growth or exploration. I think it will be a great conversation.

The book has had a powerful impact on me, since I have long been drawn to many elements of Buddhism (Thomas Merton guided me there), but always stumbled at the problem of the self. The book helped me think about that problem more powerfully than anything I have ever read – including many Buddhist scriptures.

We’ll be starting the discussion next week, so there is still plenty of time to read the book – buy it here. And send your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com. Sam has agreed to join the conversation in its final stages, so he might even respond to your writing. Another reader sends the black-and-white photo seen above:

Recently my wife and I went to hear Sam talk about his new book here in DC. Neither of us believe in the supernatural or an afterlife, etc, but we do believe there are numinous experiences to be had in life, and that those can be – and I’d argue can better be – had outside of religion. So, we’re really stoked that you’re placing this topic on the table for discussion.

One more:

I’ve only been able to read the first half of the first chapter. I keep having to stop and process. bookclub-beagle-tr-2Is it true that all religions are similar but for the crazy fictions we place on them, or that you have to believe ridiculous, magical things before you can be a follower of all major religions (except Buddhism)? And that, honestly, all day long we’re just lurching between states of wanting and not wanting?

Many thanks for choosing this book. I am humbled, even after 21 pages, and grateful for the future time lost to the interesting conversations this reading provokes.

You Don’t Really Exist

Sep 15 2014 @ 12:25pm

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Discussing his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris uses the above image to explain why:

It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.

What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.

The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.

Damon Linker has a must-read review of the book here. Waking Up is our latest Book Club selection, introduced here. Buy it here and join the discussion at bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Quote For The Day

Sep 11 2014 @ 11:22am

“The fact is that Waking Up lends a different picture of Harris (at least to me): an intelligent and sensitive person who is willing to undergo the discomfort involved in proposing alternatives to the religions he’s spent years degrading. His new book, whether discussing the poverty of spiritual language, the neurophysiology of consciousness, psychedelic experience, or the quandaries of the self, at the very least acknowledges the potency and importance of the religious impulse—though Harris might name it differently—that fundamental and common instinct to seek not just an answer to life, but a way to live that answer,” – Trevor Quirk, TNR.

Quirk doesn’t care for the new atheists and, until reading this book, was repelled by Sam’s public persona. But I’ve known Sam for a while now and always knew he was different from the others in his camp. His book is a place where the atheist, the spiritual and the religious can meet and argue. Join me in this month’s Book Club discussion of Waking Up. Get it here. We’ll be debating it in October. One reader’s on board:

What a timely choice for the next book! I’ve had a somewhat searching summer and finally gave myself the permission to identify as an atheist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve taken a stand on the issue of God’s existence, but for all my life I’ve had a mental block against the word atheist. Atheism, on its face, seemed to lack the rich language necessary to sort out a complex world. In its fight against irrationality, it had forgotten how to make us feel (with notable exceptions). This gap felt real to me, but allowing myself the possibility of atheism applying to me opened me up a bunch of writers and thinkers.

Naturally, at one point or the other, I found myself reading Sam Harris. I definitely don’t agree with everything he writes, but it’s undeniable that he writes well and demands from you your attention. Waking Up seems to fit exactly into this gap that I mentioned. I had pre-ordered it when Sam Harris announced the project. Very excited to read the book and see what fellow Dishheads thinks.

Send those thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Book Club: Waking Up

Sep 9 2014 @ 3:40pm

Well, I couldn’t resist, could I? Sam Harris is a friend and great interlocutor. We’ve hashed out the issues on Israel and, indeed, religion itself in dialogues. See the Gaza conversation here; and the longer exchange of emails on religion here. I always learn something from him – and I have always thought of him as somewhat different than an atheist like Hitch. Why? I cannot imagine Hitch spending time in an ashram, or being dedicated to regular and disciplined meditation, or writing something like this:

I once spent an afternoon on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon … As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self – an “I” or a “me” – vanished. Everything was as it had been – the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water – but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

That’s a passage from Sam’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. It tackles big subjects – neuroscience, consciousness, meditation, faith – in his sometimes dense but always pellucid fashion. At times, the book is actually quite funny – there’s a 51d++OL+kYLpart about him dealing with various water leaks in his house that cracked me up.

And the book’s argument is a rare and serious one: that it is possible to find a place in one’s mind where one is no longer in one’s mind. This elusive idea of consciousness is the basis of a peace and serenity and balance that we in the West have so often failed to achieve, even as our civilization constantly scales new heights. This can be achieved within a religious tradition – such as Buddhism or a Merton-like Christianity – but Sam also insists there need be no religion to the experience at all.

Now, I’m religious as well as spiritual, a believer in prayer and meditation as vital parts of any healthy faith life – while Sam is unrepentantly hostile to any idea of divine revelation, or anything but consciousness beyond our own delusional egos. And it struck me that many Dish readers – some engaged in our religious and spiritual coverage, some hostile to religion but open to the sublime and the spiritual – would get a huge amount out of the book, and the conversation it could prompt.

So drum roll … this is our September book of the month.

Buy the book now at Amazon and help us get a little affiliate revenue while you’re at it. I have a head start, because Sam got me an advance copy. He’s agreed to join the conversation in its final stages. I hope we can get somewhere in a debate often defined by polarization and cheap rhetoric – and see where we overlap and where we still differ.

And with your input, religious and spiritual people, I hope we can advance the conversation about spirituality as opposed to religion as well. I’ve long believed that the key thing we need right now is a revival of a Christianity less concerned with dogma and more focused on faith as a way of being in the world. Sam’s is as good a provocation on those issues as any out there. So join in! Get the book here – and we’ll start the discussion after the beginning of October. Send your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and there’s a good chance you’ll see them posted.