I read ‘Waking Up,’ by Sam Harris. The subtitle is what hooked me: ‘A guide to spirituality without religion.’ Harris is a well-known skeptic and atheist and as such is going straight to hell, where I suspect he and I will have plenty of time to get to know each other better. One of his previous efforts, ‘The End of Faith,’ is a terrific book and well worth your time, regardless of the state of your belief systems. I had high hopes for ‘Waking Up.’
To me, the topic of spirituality can be maddening because it means so many different and conflicting things to so many different people. A Jesuit of my acquaintance gave me what I thought was a pretty good (if somewhat dry) definition of the word: that which is not physical. I laid that one on another gentleman of the Catholic persuasion, upon which he clutched his rosary beads closer to his chest and slammed his mind resolutely shut. For him, ‘spiritual’ simply deals with one’s level of compliance to the dictates of a rather ill-tempered deity who seems, to me, to be overly concerned with ritual observance and heirarchy. And money.
I don’t think I am an atheist, but I’m not a religious person, either. To espouse either of those two extremes is to pretend to knowledge that one cannot have, and I think any exploration into the spiritual nature of life must begin with the acknowledgement of the limits of the human mind. And the main problem with religions is the collections of crackpots, con artists and delusional nitwits who claim to speak for The Big Guy. What rational person would choose to be associated with them? It would be like buying into the principle of personal responsibility and the limits of big government, and then attending the Republican convention and running into a bunch of nutbags wearing elephant hats and waving Trump flags. The only rational response is to go home and get drunk.
Harris’s exploration into the realm of the spiritual quickly focuses on the problem of consciousness and the practice of meditation. To me, meditation is a nut I have been trying to crack for about forty years, and I am likely to crack first. As far as I can tell, the purpose of meditation is two-fold: to lessen my dependance on internal and incessant narration, and to introduce me to myself. To Harris, though, the principal illumination is the realization that there is no such thing as the real self, which seems like an odd semantic trap he fell into behind following a couple of gurus instead of watching where he was going. (Guru: an Indian word meaning con artist, crackpot or delusional nitwit.) It reminds me of the old and now discredited problem that arose when mathematicians ‘proved’ that bumblebees couldn’t fly… Um, sir? Look over here? But he writes about the notion as though he’s afraid that if he falters, they’ll take away his zafu and throw him out of the fort.
To me, the essential question inherent in any discussion of spirituality is this: are we, as human beings, strictly biochemical phenomena, or are we something more? What is that which holds the magnet to the refrigerator door? What is the nature of force? What is the stuff of life? And I think the only contribution the practice of meditation can offer here would be to render us more open to the idea that there might be more going on than meets the eye. We might not ever achieve a satisfactory explanation, but I imagine science will get us closer than meditation can.
When you think about it, science and religion probably arose about the same time, back when our distant ancestors first began to try to make sense out of the seemingly inexplicable. Wouldn’t it be funny if they both wound up leading us to the same endpoint? And it would be funnier yet to discover that the poets got there way ahead of us.