Sam Harris – An atheist finds spirituality

Sam Harris is one of the icons of the atheist trend.

I haven’t read any of his books, but I generally favor rationality over blind faith. That part is good; but it has also seemed to me that the atheist trend, from what I know about it, seems like a religion in itself. It is a belief against something.

In any case, I was surprised to find out that Sam Harris is into and has been for into traditional spirituality for many years.

“Given this change in my perception of the world, I understand the attractions of traditional spirituality. I also recognize the needless confusion and harm that inevitably arise from the doctrines of faith-based religion. I did not have to believe anything irrational about the universe, or about my place within it, to learn the practice of Dzogchen.”

Sam Harris has written a new book call Waking Up. I look forward to it; it’s about awakening from a rationalist’s point of view. He describes it as “Eckhart Tolle for smart people.” Here’s a sample chapter:

Here’s an interesting conversation between Sam Harris and Dan Harris: A bit gossipy–they’re both mildly bashing Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.

I see Deepak Chopra as populist. I haven’t read any of his books and I don’t have much use for him, but I do acknowledge that he has raised interest in meditation and awakening.

I share in the criticism of Eckhart Tolle. The guy has made enough money. One of his stated purposes is to save humanity; and I would suggest to Eckhart Tolle that he now personally doesn’t need any more money.

But I still recommend his Power of Now book as a good place to start. In that book, he covers most of the basics of awakening very well, in simple and clear language. He covers consciousness as prior to everything else, the obstacle of identification with thought, thought, emotion, conditioning, pain-body and so on. He doesn’t cover fear and self-inquiry adequately. He seems to over-demonize the mind and the ego. I like the practice of observation but I didn’t think the practice of presence, which is central to the book, was effective. But again, I still recommend the book as a wonderful place to start.

Also, here’s a relevant article by Sam Harris:

“The whole of Advaita reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions: Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.”

That’s good. It makes me think what are the very simple and testable and rational assertions of awakening?

  • Consciousness is prior to everything else. Consciousness is all there is. I-am is the only certainty.
  • The self/ego/”I” do not exist
  • The biggest obstacle to clear seeing is fear
  • The universe is entirely subjective. Time, space and physicality occur in consciousness, not the other way around.
  • Suffering is optional
  • The present is the only moment of experience.

4 thoughts on “Sam Harris – An atheist finds spirituality

  1. Davidya

    Thanks, Kaushik
    The trend to radical atheism is a curious one as a few otherwise rational people can be quite militant about it.

    I would agree with the idea of simple and testable rational explanations of awakening. But you do have to go a little deeper to get the core truths that underlie the process. Each stage of the process brings it’s own sense of reality, it’s own perception of what is true. If you lean on one stage vs another, then you end up focusing on what is relative rather than constant.

    For example, your first and second points contradict each other. “I-am is the only certainty.” and “”I” do not exist.” Both are true at certain points but neither is a fundamental.

    It only takes simple observation to notice that even highly evolved teachers still have personalities. In fact, they can tend to become even more distinct and unique. To suggest that doesn’t exist or is illusion is misleading. It’s true that a me-sense has no reality in and of itself. It’s better to see it as an effect. And even though some do indeed experience a sense of ego-death with awakening, what actually ends is the identification with a sense of “me”. The identification shifts from a local me to the larger cosmic sense or Atman. I am Atman/ That (or whatever term is used) is then true.

    Further, consciousness is not the foundational reality, although it will seem so for a time. It too is fundamental to Atman but is also an effect of yet deeper reality. We can say Consciousness is prior to every thing. Also that it is the origin and container of all things and experiences. But it too has an origin.

    Not to pick apart our initial effort – it is a good start. Just that it should be seen as an evolving set of principles. Testable, as you mentioned.

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Davidya,

      Good points, as usual.

      The stages and layers of awakening are indeed surprising, and the truth seen at each stage is relative, and sometimes contradictory at a different stage. It was surprising to realize that identification with thought is an obstacle, and equally surprising and paradoxical to understand that thought is productive and creative and influences my reality.

      It’s quite an adventure. And the adventure continues. Earlier this summer I became interested in intention-manifestation and wanted to sincerely and objectively test that idea. I’ve been reading about it. And I think I have the right approach in testing it objectively. But now I find I’m losing interest in that, and picking up more interest in exploring how to articulate, rationally, that physicality is entirely subjective. Interest changes, but the ride is wild and I’m very glad that I now find this exploration enjoyable and creative and I’m past the stage where it seemed to be very personal, frantic and scary.


      1. Davidya

        Hi Kaushik
        Yes, even when we know the stages, their actual experience can be a surprise. One teacher of mine mentioned that our thoughts about what they are are often the last barrier to the actuality.

        And yes, quite the adventure. And that’s a good approach to take. My focus shifts over time as well. And while it’s true that physicality is subjective, what is the subject that sees that? Am I an individual creating this reality? Or is it a higher, deeper aspect that is?

        The literature describes a post-awakening phase where we notice everything arising spontaneously. So we ask – what is creating all this if it’s not a me?

      2. Davidya

        Rick Archer over on Buddha at the Gas Pump has been talking about Sam Harris a bit recently, hoping to get an interview. It’s not on his posted schedule yet.

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