A very interesting read which expanded my mind by making me question the fabric of consciousness and the illusion of self. The book shifted my perspective on the nature of thought and provided great lessons which I use to overcome the everyday challenges of life.
About the Author
Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. His books include The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying, Waking Up, and Islam and the Future of Tolerance (with Maajid Nawaz). The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, meditation practice, human violence, rationality—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live.
Book: Waking Up
The Premise of the Book
A guide to meditation as a rational spiritual practise informed by neuroscience and psychology.
Spirituality as Sam defines it is to become aware that our sense of self is illusory.
Consciousness is what it is like to be us– if there is an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.
The Book in a Nutshell
Consciousness is not an illusion.
The self is an illusion.
Self-awareness through meditation is the path out of suffering.
Religion vs Spirituality
Harris opposes the dichotomy between rationality and spirituality, advocating for a middle ground that separates religion from spirituality and science. Sam believes that spirituality should be seen through the lens of science such as psychology and neuroscience.
2. West vs East
The two represent separate mindsets with regards to their focus on the outside and inner world. The former focuses on the outside by prioritising rationalism and materialism while the latter is concerned with self-transcendence and contemplation.
3. The Road to Happiness
Happiness is found within not outside material possessions.
4. The Present Moment
The present moment is all we have so put energy into developing a better relationship with the now and less into worrying about the past or future.
5. The Cure to Suffering
Train our minds through meditation to overcome suffering caused by perpetual thinking and thoughts. Thoughts penetrate our consciousness but meditation is the tool that can be used to separate ourselves from thought and return to the present moment.
6. 4 Foundations of Mindfulness
The body (changes in posture, breathing and activities)
The mind (attitudes and moods)
Feelings (senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness and neutrality)
The objects of mind (5 senses including other mental states)
7. The Illusion of Self
Sam explains that the self is the sense of being an ego/"I"/thinker of thoughts in addition to the thoughts/experiencer in addition to the experience. The sense that we have of riding around in our heads as a passenger in the vehicle of the body. The sense of being a subject/locus of consciousness inside the head is an illusion. Harris says there is nowhere in the brain for our ego to be hiding. Everything we experience such as conscious emotions/thoughts/moods/impulses which initiate behaviour is delivered by a myriad of different processes spread across the brain that can be independently erupted. There is a changing system and we are a process – there is not one unitary self that is carried through one moment to the next unchanging. Yet, we feel that we have this self-centre of experience. Sam claims it's possible to lose the feeling of self - have the centre drop out of the experience so that rather than feeling like we are a passenger looking in. We can just be identical to this sphere of experience that is all the colours, light, feelings and energy of consciousness.
My Favourite Quotes
“Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others”
“Most of us do not even realize that suffering cannot arise without thought, or that we have the power to choose what and how to think”
“In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life”
“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again”
“The truth, however, is that you need not wait for some pleasant distraction to shift your mood. You can simply pay close attention to negative feelings themselves, without judgment or resistance. What is anger? Where do you feel it in your body? How is it arising in each moment? And what is it that is aware of the feeling itself? Investigating in this way, with mindfulness, you can discover that negative states of mind vanish all by themselves”
“But it is true as a matter of conscious experience. The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world”
“If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations”
Do not resist the contents of consciousness whatever they may be. For example, if we are anxious before giving a speech, become willing to feel the anxiety fully so that it becomes a meaningless pattern of energy in our mind and body. If we are injured and in pain, the path to mental peace can be traversed in a single step: Simply accept the pain as it arises, while doing whatever we need to do to help our body heal.
2. Meditation Instructions
Sit comfortably, with our spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
Close our eyes, take a few deep breaths and feel the points of contact between our body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting - feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever we feel the breath most clearly - either at the nostrils or in the rising and falling abdomen.
Allow our attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing (there is no need to control our breath, just let it come and go naturally). Every time our mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
As we focus on the breath, we will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
The moment we observe that we have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return our attention to the breath - or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
Continue in this way until we can merely witness all objects of consciousness - sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves - as they arise and pass away.
“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives”