Review: Spirituality without Religion?

A review of January 2015 meeting by our Secretary Libby Oakden…


At our January meeting our chair, Sam, reviewed ‘Waking up’, by author Sam Harris. A lively debate followed about the book and its themes and main premise: ‘A Guide to Spirituality without Religion’.
Walking up to the Meeting House, workmen in the road were to be seen repairing the electric supply. After enquiring we were assured that the power would soon be back on. Hoping to make tea and start the heating shortly, we lit candles and kept our coats on. As people arrived they saw a ring of people sitting in a dim, candlelit room and wondered if it was an exercise in spirituality! As the last stragglers arrived, Sam began to describe the book.

Each chapter of the book is centred on a different theme: Spirituality, The Mystery of Consciousness, The Riddle of the Self, Meditation and, lastly, Gurus, Death, Drugs, and other puzzles. Sam’s review covered the first four chapters and the main conclusions of the book.

In it Dr Harris describes his journey to find a state of, what he terms, spiritual enlightenment. He takes the reader though how he has researched and practised through introspection, consulting spiritual teachers and the practice of serious meditation. As a philosopher and neuroscientist he also covers some of the neuroscience of consciousness, describing theories that interest him.

The first chapter of the book considers the nature of spirituality as others described this to him; his first attempts and puzzlement at failure and then the glimpses he saw of what (he thought) may be a state of heightened spirituality though his use of psychoactive substances. These gave him experiences which motivated him to embark on his quest and to discover the things he describes.

As he claims, the insights of meditation ‘…confirm established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.’

There was a great deal of disagreement and debate in our ranks about the nature of spirituality. Is the term too closely associated with religion and new age superstition to be used to describe a state of awareness that is based in human physiology? Dr Harris’s aim seems to be to try to reclaim the word away from blind believers; however the common use and perception of the word makes this a tall order.

Chapter two’s exploration of the nature of consciousness is complex. Sam spoke about the more straightforward statements.  ‘…the reality of  consciousness appears irreducible. Only consciousness can know itself – and directly, through first-person experience. It follows, therefore, that rigorous introspection – ‘spirituality’ in the widest sense of the term – is an indispensable part of understanding the nature of mind.’

In the third chapter, the nature of self, Dr Harris links the perception of self and consciousness. There were a range of views of consciousness and the nature of self. Although there was an elegant description from regular member Ken about how brain mechanics gives us the perception of consciousness.

The final chapter that Sam covered was on meditation, which is the method by which Dr Harris proposes we reach an enlightened state, and links the other themes in the book. Sam led us in a meditation practice where we shut our eyes and tried to imagine we had no head. The desired effect, to perceive a kind of hole where your head could be, was not felt by everyone but it was fun to try. We talked about how some of us practice meditation or have done in the past. The popularity of meditation has tended to be dictated by fashion and some remembered movements in the 1960s and 1970s promoted changing state of mind through meditation. Dr Harris’s assertion about focusing attention was disputed; doesn’t creativity need a wandering mind and free spirit, not a state that is constrained by active dismissal of thoughts that arrive?

While Dr Harris’s book is interesting, as a work it seems incomplete. Not everyone agreed that spirituality was the right term to use, although it is challenging to arrive at a better descriptive word. Given the debate in the room, this book is a useful a starting point for further reading. Does anyone feel there are better books that provide clear instruction about one or more of the themes in Waking up?

A range of books articles that either came up in discussion or may be of interest:

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith. by J. Anderson Thomson, Clare Aukofer, Richard Dawkins (This is a short, straightforward and interesting book)

New Scientist on consciousness here 

Live Science here 

Mindfulness review in the Guardian here

Headspace was mentioned during the meeting

The form of meditation Sam Harris espouses is Dzogchen