The Meaning of the Word ‘Spiritual’
Regardless of how well a book is written, and how interesting its content, if it is non-fiction it seems that its value should be judged upon how successfully it achieves its stated objective. As far as potential readers are concerned, the objective is traditionally determined from a book’s title. And, in this case, it appears that the intended purpose of this book is to teach us about ‘Spirituality’ whilst avoiding any ‘religious’ overtones.
This tells us that the author acknowledges that ‘spirituality’ is usually associated with religion. It suggests that, not only does he believe that it need not be so associated, but also he thinks that he can teach us about spirituality without needing to say anything at all about religion. Before starting to read the book, therefore, it would be useful to know exactly what is meant by the term ‘spirituality’.
Here are a few definitions, direct from dictionaries located on Google:
Cambridge Free English Dictionary and Thesaurus – the quality that involves deep feelings and beliefs of a religious nature, rather than the physical parts of life.
Collins English Dictionary –
- the state or quality of being dedicated to God, religion, or spiritual things or values, esp as contrasted with material or temporal ones
- the condition or quality of being spiritual
- a distinctive approach to religion or prayer ⇒ the spirituality of the desert Fathers
- (often plural) Church property or revenue or a Church benefice
Merriam-Webster – the quality or state of being concerned with religion or religious matters: the quality or state of being spiritual.
Longman – the quality of being interested in religion or religious matters.
The title begins to look a little ambitious; somewhat akin to ‘A guide to coffee without coffee beans’! However, it is possible to consider the word ‘spiritual’ in a more general sense: “Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” (Oxford Dictionaries). And this brings us down to a more fundamental distinction between ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘Oxford Companion to Philosophy’ edited by Ted Honderich (Oxford, 1995, ISBN 0-19-866132-0) states that “The original idea of a spirit is of a disembodied agent, as an immaterial soul or a non-material, intelligent power… When we talk now of the spiritual… we refer typically to the kind of emotion one might have toward God or some other factor beyond one’s material life.”
It is an unfortunate fact that many words in the English language have been devalued in modern times. Meanings have changed (maybe because lots of people who do not know the correct meaning are propagating their misunderstanding via the Internet), just as correct spelling is now seen to be less important in schools (maybe because of abbreviated and codified spelling in SMS texts). If one calls someone a ‘spiritual person’, this may well simply be because they are vegetarian and read books about crystals and angels.
Here is how Sam Harris uses the term:
“Yes, to walk the aisles of any ‘spiritual’ bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term – apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’ – with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.”
I suggest that, for a book intending to teach us about spirituality, it is extremely important that the author know precisely what it is. In contrast, another book with this word in the title provides an extremely clear explanation (‘Law of Love and The Mathematics of Spirituality’, Raju Sitaram Chidambaram, AuthorHouse, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4567-9499-6.):
“The terms spirit and matter are widely used in Western Philosophies. The two terms can be best understood by the ‘seer-seen’ distinction central to Vedanta: spirit is concerned with the ‘seer’ whereas matter is everything ‘seen’. The seer itself cannot be seen, asserts Vedanta. The spiritual life of an individual is the something distinct from its worldly life. The worldly life of an individual consists of transactions at the physical level performed with the aid of its sense organs and organs of action, as well as reactions at the mental level, such as thoughts and emotions…
“The spiritual life of a jiva, on the other hand, has the primary goal of knowing the truth about one’s own self, the world, and the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) underlying both the self and the world…
“The happiness in worldly life is obtained through finite actions which can only produce finite results. Therefore worldly happiness is never permanent or complete… In contrast, the peace sought after in spiritual life is obtained through knowledge, and not action, and is both total and permanent.”
It is my underlining in the last sentence, and this is key to my criticisms of the book under review. Harris clearly appreciates the correct meaning because he also states at one point that “Deepening that understanding (of the way things are) and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by ‘spirituality’ in the context of this book.”
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that he subsequently follows this guidance. We can never find out the truth about ourselves and the nature of reality through meditation, drugs or any of the other ‘actions’ or ‘experiences’ spoken of by Sam Harris. According to a correct definition of the term spiritual – ‘relating to our true self as opposed to body or mind’ – a more appropriate title for the book might have been: “Improving your body-mind without Spirituality”.
Experience versus Knowledge
The purpose of ‘spiritual’ disciplines, such as meditation, is to prepare the mind to be able to assimilate words of truth provided by others. Our perceptions and thoughts are always going to be dualistic – how could they be otherwise? Therefore, how could any experience give us realization of the non-dual nature of reality?
He says that: “One can… experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness”, as a result of self-inquiry; and, with regard to the ‘truths of Eastern Spirituality’, “we are merely talking about human consciousness and its possible states”. The fact is that who-we-really-are is nothing to do with changes in consciousness. Indeed, all states of consciousness, including the most sublime ‘nirvanic’ ones are equally mithyA, meaning that they have no reality in themselves but depend upon the non-dual Consciousness (with a capital ‘c’) for their reality. It cannot be emphasized enough (though Harris does not mention it at all) that Advaita has nothing to do with experiences of any kind; it is about knowledge – and not objective knowledge about ‘facts’, but Self-knowledge of the subject ‘I’.
It is incredible that Harris can make statements such as “One can traverse the Eastern paths simply by becoming interested in the nature of one’s own mind”. This is nonsense. It must be remembered that ‘I’ have a mind; ‘I’ am not a mind! Becoming interested may prompt one to seek out a teacher, but one is most unlikely to reach any meaningful conclusions on one’s own.
Harris appears rather to believe that the reason that seekers follow spiritual teaching methodologies is “to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce non ordinary states of consciousness”. It is unfortunately true that many of today’s ‘seekers’ may well share this totally distorted and mistaken view.It probably stems from the nineteen sixties when most people in the West first heard about meditation and yoga from the Beatles and the Hippy culture.
Since then, the idea that ‘enlightenment’ is about ‘experience’ (of a highly evolved and refined type, of course) has been propagated amongst those who have never wanted to find out the truth of the matter; and it has also polluted the outlook of those who do.When he goes on to talk about gurus, he even implies that they have “to be able to produce such experiences in others”, despite the fact that he also acknowledges that the ‘experiences’ of so-called gurus often leave much to be desired! (That “the signs of accomplishment are not always clear” is why traditional Advaita relies upon sampradAya-s, in which teaching methods, knowledge and ability to interpret the scriptures and read Sanskrit, are rigorously passed down from guru to disciple through the ages.)
The situation has also not been helped by the message of Vivekananda and the neo-Vedantins, who have been particularly influential in the West. They point to intense meditation resulting in the deep trance-like state of samAdhi as being the way to realize the truth. Despite their essential background of Advaita, they have allowed this to be distorted by the views of Yoga philosophy. In fact, samAdhi is no better than deep sleep for giving enlightenment. Both are characterized by ignorance and error, and both are experiences with a beginning and an end. There is no liberation to be found there.
Another problem which adds to the book’s confusion is the attempt to utilize science, supposedly to improve upon or correct the ancient (and therefore bound to be mistaken) views of the original philosophies (be these Advaita or Buddhism). Harris explains that “Throughout this book, I discuss certain classical spiritual phenomena, concepts, and practices in the context of our modern understanding of the human mind.” Why would one want to do this? It is missing the point completely. The truth cannot be found in the mind; rather the mind is a tool with which we may discover the truth.
I explain in my article ‘Science and Consciousness’ that science can never explain the nature of ‘I’ because I am the subject, doing the investigating. The subject can never objectify himself. It is true that I can investigate both the body and the mind because I am neither of these. But this also means that understanding the human mind is not going to help in an ‘investigation’ of spirituality; it is simply not relevant to ‘who I really am’. Furthermore, if Harris is ‘talking about the nature of experience itself’, he is not talking about ‘I’, since I am the experiencer. Finding out about household electric light circuits and how they work tells me nothing at all about the one who operates the light switch.
Another myth propagated by Harris is that ‘being in the moment’ is somehow key to ‘enlightenment’.
In common with most scientists, Harris assumes as axiomatic a) that there is a world; b)that man has evolved; c) that the brain is the seat of consciousness etc. How can anyone with such a blinkered approach investigate ‘spirituality’? He says “If spirituality is to become part of science, however, it must integrate with the rest of what we know about the world.” This is entirely the wrong way round. If we are to have any hope of understanding the nature of reality and of our Self, we have to be prepared to suspend our preconceived notions of what is ‘real’ and be open-minded to concepts which are initially counter-intuitive. “We are such stuff as yeasts are made of”, he says. No– our bodies are such stuff; we are not the body… or mind!
He devotes many pages of discussion to divided brains and the problems that he sees this phenomenon as posing. In fact, it poses no problems at all to Advaita’s explanation of Consciousness; it actually supports it! Consciousness is one and the same, whether in two sides of a split brain or in different people altogether. ‘Who you are’ is neither side of the brain! Such a presentation should not be possible in a book by an author who claims to understand Advaita. (Actually, he does concede that he does not understand Advaita, but this admission is hidden away in the Notes, were most readers will not find it, There, he says that “Purists will insist on important differences among the various schools of Buddhism and the tradition of Advaita Vedanta developed by Shankara. Although I touch upon some of these differences, I do not make much of them. I consider the differences to be generally a matter of emphasis, semantics, and (irrelevant) metaphysics –and too esoteric to be of interest to the general reader.” This is an incredible admission for someone writing a book such as this, giving the reader to understand that it is a book deserving to be read!) There are significant differences, and Shankara specifically refutes the beliefs of other philosophies in his commentary on Brahmasutras and elsewhere.
Harris refers to ‘Advaita and Buddhism’ in several places, as though they belong to the same class. This is like comparing bananas with vegetables. Fruit and vegetables might perhaps be legitimately compared regarding, for example, average cost of production and distribution, nutritional value etc. But to compare all vegetables with a single fruit is not meaningful. Hinduism comprises various philosophies, just as there are differing beliefs in the several branches of Buddhism. If Harris wishes to make comparisons, he must be much more specific about what, precisely, he is comparing.
He excuses his failure to cover either in any depth at all by claiming that he is looking for the ‘diamond’ amongst the presumed mainly detritus that forms the bulk of most ‘religions’. He says that, rather than ‘arrogance’, this approach is a ‘symptom of impatience’. He wants to “focus on the most promising lines of spiritual enquiry”. However, in order to be able to do this legitimately, one requires an in-depth understanding to begin with. Harris’ statements purporting to present ideas from Advaita, at least, demonstrate that he does not have such in-depth knowledge. Accordingly, any accusation of ‘arrogance’ would indeed justified.
In fact, samAdhi is no better than deep sleep for giving enlightenment.
It is scarcely surprising that he is lacking in understanding of the fundamental concepts of Advaita given that his background is limited to spendingtime with Sri Poonja and studying some of Ramana Maharshi’s writing/dialogs. Ramana did not belongto a saMpradAya (teacher-disciple lineage) and thus had no formal experience of explaining the scriptural texts. Poonja was a sometime disciple of Ramana and both of them are principally responsible, along with Nisargadatta Maharaj, for propagating the highly unsatisfactory method of ‘satsang’ teaching to the West. Also, Poonja knew very much less about traditional Advaita than Ramana, so the fact that he was “even more uncompromising than his guru” carries little weight!(Harris refers to him as “one of the greatest living exponents of Advaita Vedanta”! This is so far wide of the mark that it very clearly highlights Harris’ ignorance of the subject to anyone who is genuinely familiar with the teaching.) Harris praises Poonja, saying that: “He appeared to simply speak from experience about the nature of experience itself.” It is not at all obvious what this means. What assertion is possible from someone who is ‘uncompromisingly non-dualistic’? (See my book ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle’ for a criticism of non-traditional methods of teaching Advaita Vedanta.)
As an example, Harris makes sarcastic reference to Hinduism: “If Christians insist that Jesus Christ is the son of God, for instance, Hindus can make him yet another avatar of Vishnu without losing any sleep.” But, had he studied Advaita to any depth, he would know that adhyAropa-apavAda is fundamental to its teaching. Thus, there are many stages to its presentation; teachers utilize those elements which are appropriate to the level of understanding of the student. Concepts such as karma and rebirth are indeed taught in the early stages – but they are rescinded later when the student is ready to accept that who-he-really-is (Consciousness) has never even be born so that the idea of rebirth makes no sense.
Furthermore, he never mentions, and is presumably unaware of, the fundamental distinction between absolute and empirical reality (paramArtha and vyavahAra) in Advaita. Indeed, he says that Advaita is described as ‘non-dualistic’ “because it refuses to validate the point of view from which one would meditate or practice any other spiritual discipline”. This is simply not true.
Traditional Advaita specifically advocates a number of practices, including meditation, and states that, without a reasonable level of proficiency in these, one will not be able to take on board the teaching. Certainly the absolute truth isthat reality is non-dual but equally it is recognised that all of our experience is to the contrary. He concludes that, “since Consciousness is already free of anything that remotely resembles a self, there is nothing that you can do, as an illusory ego, to realize this”.
This is doubly wrong. Firstly, you are not the ego, you are that Consciousness! Secondly, there is a lot that you (as the jIva) can do. In addition to performing the preliminary practices, as already mentioned, you can listen to a qualified teacher unfolding the proven teaching of the scriptures.
Other Religions and Non-duality
It is not at all obvious why ‘religion’ should be so disparaged. He recognizes “the needless confusion and harm that inevitably arise from the doctrines of faith-based religions”. The literal meaning of ‘religion’ is ‘joining back’, from the Latin ‘re ligare’. Its essential aim (and, I suggest, one rather more worthy) has nothing to do with psychology or personal happiness but with the nature of reality itself. It is difficult to understand how someone could place more value on a drug-induced experience than upon use of reason applied to scriptural revelation.
Hinduism comprises various philosophies, just as there are differing beliefs in the several branches of Buddhism.
Even Harris’ perennial complaints about religions in general would lose their bite if he only recognized that most religions have an esoteric element which is only made available to those who are sufficiently qualified. Thus, Hinduism has Advaita, Islam has Sufism, Christianity has the Gospel of St. Thomas, Judaism has the Kabbalah, China has Taoism and Zen. The point is that one has to understand them before one can justifiably criticize them. Otherwise, it is no better than the medieval church condemning the early scientists.Harris states that “the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam rule out of bounds (the metaphysical claims of those schools of Buddhism and of Advaita which ‘explicitly transcend dualism’)”.
Religions are in such a mess today because of centuries of Chinese Whispers; with people who have personal agendas responsible for propagating their misunderstandings. The so-called ‘science’ of non-dualism is in this state from the outset!
Here is an early statement which illustrates the profound depths of misunderstanding of the topic about which Harris claims to be writing: “One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics.”
I am not going to say much about Buddhism here, since I freely acknowledge that I know little about it – my area of expertise is Advaita. (However, I do know that the Advaita philosophers Gaudapada and Shankara systematically refuted the various Buddhist philosophies, which even contradict each other, in around the 8th – 9th CE.)
He appears to advocate Dzogchen Buddhism as being similar to, but better than, Advaita. It is better because “it makes it absolutely clear that one must practice this insight (i.e. into the nonduality of consciousness’)”. How could any practice be non-dual? The story which follows implies that it is all to do with absence of thought. But enlightenment has nothing to do with absence of thought. Both thought and action will (apparently) continue at the empirical level irrespective of whether the supposed subject is enlightened or not.
He clearly has little respect for either Buddhism or Advaita, when he says that his purpose in writing the book is to encourage contemplative insights “without accepting the metaphysical ideas that they inspired in ignorant and isolated peoples of the past”. And he claims he is not being arrogant!
Another myth propagated by Harris is that ‘being in the moment’ is somehow key to ‘enlightenment’. This idea almost certainly stems from Ramana and Poonja. Its relevance is that only if one is present, and not partly day-dreaming or conducting an internal discussion with oneself, can one pay attention to a guru and assimilate the teaching. It is a practice which should precede self-inquiry; it is not equivalent to self-inquiry. No matter how much one may ‘be in the present’ or do meditation, one is never going to realize the truth that there is only Consciousness and that ‘I am That’.
Harris spends a significant portion of the book extolling the value of meditation as prescribed by the Buddhist ‘Mindfulness’ technique and with this I have no complaint. It sounds very similar to techniques with which I am familiar and I can corroborate his stated benefits. Anyone following the guidelines and practicing regularly (twice per day for a number of years) would be certain to see physical and psychological benefits, reduction of stress and so on… but zero spiritual benefits, according to a correct understanding of that term.
We do it, he suggests, because we want to ‘improve our experience’! And maybe that is true for the majority of so-called spiritual seekers. But, if they are ever to ‘find’ anything, this mistaken notion has to be abandoned. “The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self”, he says. I guess what he means is ‘freedom from the dominion of the ego’, but he then says that seeking such freedom, “as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage.” There is some truth here – we are already free – but still much confusion. The one who begins the search is the ego. There is a mistaken belief that ‘I’ am suffering, ‘I’ need to get out of this etc. But the end of seeking, the gaining of Self-knowledge, is the discovery that the real ‘I’ was mistakenly identifying with the body and mind and is not suffering at all. Indeed, the real ‘I’ is eternally free and unlimited.
There is no denying that much of the book makes interesting reading, although ‘interest’ is of course not the same as knowledge. For example, he gives an interesting ‘thought-experiment’ of a man teleporting to Mars. The man is ‘scanned’ and the data transmitted. As soon as the reconstruction has completed on Mars, the source data is deleted (i.e. the man on Earth is destroyed). And he asks whether ‘you’ are killed, since an identical copy is now walking around on Mars.
But his debate on the topic totally ignores the point made by Advaita that who-the-man-really-is is neither the one left on Earth nor the one appearing on Mars, and that it is not possible for anyone to be ‘killed’ since no-one was ever born in the first place. He identifies ‘my’ consciousness with ‘this’ mind and this is precisely the error that we all make and which Advaita sets out to correct. Enlightenment is all about dispelling this wrong notion.
This is a pity because his general descriptions of the mystery of ‘who I am’ and personal consciousness are very good; both observant and helpful. I loved the quote “Having an ego is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking.” But they are useful in the context of improving one’s quality of life and mental equanimity; they have nothing to do with Self-knowledge.
There are some perceptive insights but one feels that he is missing the background knowledge to be able to rationalize these and convert them into explanations that would aid true understanding. For example, he could have turned the sections on thought, consciousness and self into something really useful if he had encountered the concept of chidAbhAsa. (The ‘self’ (or ego) of the mind is not who we are; it can be understood as a ‘reflection’ of the real Self. The ‘mind’ is a phenomenon associated with a brain which has evolved to a particular degree, enabling it to reflect (and thereby ‘manifest’) Consciousness. Despite this, it is in itself inanimate, and only exhibits life whilst ‘animated’ by Consciousness.)
He devotes quite a few pages to the experiments of Douglas Harding. These are useful for alerting the ordinary person to the possibility of there being more to self and world than is normally considered. If such a person also happens to be generally dissatisfied with life and his or her unsatisfactory pursuits of happiness, then he/she may just become a seeker. Harris’ metaphor of using the window as a mirror is also a good one in this context. But no amount of practical effort and ‘looking’ will ever reveal that ‘I am Consciousness’ and ‘Everything is Consciousness’. Someone has to tell you this and then answer all of your doubts to your satisfaction.
Then he strays into the domain of Out-of-body experiences, ‘rubber hands’ and the like. This is another field which, though undoubtedly interesting, only tells us about the brain. The brain is an instrument. Neuroscience will tell us nothing about the self that is using it.And none of this has anything to do with the title of the book.
Many pages are devoted to a discussion of Near Death Experiences, although the reason for this is unclear – it is quite disproportionate, given the supposed topic of the book. He rightly condemns them as having nothing to do with spirituality, since they are merely the result of a cocktail of naturally produced chemicals in the brain. But then, inexplicably, he lauds hallucinogens as a mechanism for artificially inducing spiritual experiences, when all that they do is introduce a cocktail of man-made chemicals into the brain! You know full well (afterwards) that any experience you might have had was chemically created and therefore unreal. How can it possibly teach you anything useful? This is the height of irresponsibility and should have been rejected by the publisher.
He says that “everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness”. No it isn’t! You cannot alter consciousness. So-called ‘states’ of consciousness are still only non-dual Consciousness reflected in the mind in slightly different ways. You can change your state of consciousness and the condition of the mind also changes, but it is the same Consciousness that pervades all the states.
Hallucinogens cannot be compared with meditation. The former induce a state of mind which is totally beyond our control while, with the latter, we are always completely in control. And this is the point! The purpose of meditation is not to promote feel good states of ‘oneness with the universe’ but to enable us to cultivate mental discipline and discriminatory faculties so that we may follow a proven teaching methodology and gain Self-knowledge.
Some Misunderstood Definitions
Harris fails to understand some of the most basic concepts in ‘spirituality’; as soon as he switches from neuroscience to metaphysics, explanations become very confused:
‘Omniscient’ in reference to one who is ‘enlightened’.He makes sarcastic remarks about their scientific and quiz-performance abilities. Advaita uses the term sarvaj~na in this context, meaning literally ‘all-knowing’. But it does not mean knowing ‘things’; indeed it means knowing that there are no things at all. It means knowing that everything is non-dual Consciousness; as the Upanishads put it, ‘knowing That, knowing which all else is known’.
He does not seem to appreciate the ‘goal’ of spirituality, certainly not as far as Advaita is concerned. He says that, as regards ‘the true goal of meditation’, it“encompasses many of the experiences that traditional mystics claim for themselves.” As already pointed out, self-realization has nothing to do with experience. Nor does it have anything to do with mystics who claim experiences. So-called mystics who have experiences or extraordinary ‘powers’ (siddhi-s) are not Advaitins at all but (probably) followers of Yoga philosophy. Being “endowed with clairvoyance and other miraculous powers” does not indicate someone to whom one should look for spiritual guidance!“Losing one’s sense of being a separate self” and “experiencing a kind of boundless, open awareness; feeling at one with the cosmos” probably means that one is on psychedelic drugs. Certainly such a person is not indicated as having Self-knowledge! Those who practice the Buddhist technique of metta meditation or those who take MDMA may well experience ‘self-transcending love’ (whatever that might be) but one is bound to ask: ‘So what?’ They will discover nothing about the nature of reality thereby.
The key term ‘enlightenment’ is not understood at all. He says, for example, that he knows (‘from experience!) “that it is possible to be far more enlightened than I tend to be”. Self-knowledge is binary – you are either enlightened or you are not. I very much doubt that “in one sense, the Buddhist concept of enlightenment really is just the epitome of ‘stress reduction’” but this is emphatically not the Advaita concept! It has nothing to do with happiness or suffering, love, compassion, pleasure, pain, being in the moment… nothing to do with life’s problems. The body has physical problems; the mind has intellectual and emotional problems; the physical body is born and dies. Who-I-really-am is not born and will not die; it is unlimited, non-dual Consciousness.
At one point, he implies that it is ‘the experience of self-transcendence’, whatever that means – it sounds like samAdhi. Even worse than this, he says that “if… you take the right drug, you will know what it is like to be enlightened”! This is a deplorable claim and shows how completely the author has failed to understand what it does mean. Virtual reality is NOT reality!
What has a beginning in time will also have an end – samAdhi is not Self-knowledge. He asks “Is true freedom even possible?” It is already the case, as anyone who knows Advaita would appreciate.
It is not possible for there to be a more important term than ‘Consciousness’, since (according to Advaita) that is all that there is in reality. Harris says that “Investigating the nature of consciousness itself – and transforming its contents through deliberate training – is the basis of spiritual life.” Advaita tells us that Conciousness (Brahman) is partless, attributeless, changeless, eternal. Accordingly, the quoted sentence is quite meaningless. Talking about the process of acquiring knowledge, he says “these processes occur outside consciousness”. Nothing occurs outside Coonsciousness: he means ‘awareness’. He says that “Consciousness is the substance of any experience.” This is actually true, though not in the way that Harris means – Consciousness is not experienced; it is what enables us to have experiences!
The way in which Harris sees Enlightenment, and the manner of gaining it, are possibly best explained by what he says under ‘The Paradox of Acceptance’: “The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.” This seems to be the aim of the book – and it probably succeeds better than many of the ‘self-help’ books around today. But it takes the reader no nearer to finding out who he/she really is. And it does a great disservice to Advaita Vedanta by totally misrepresenting its aims and teaching.
This has been a ‘hard-hitting’ review of the book and it might be thought unfair, since it is actually quite good in the ‘self-help’ category that is typical of the typical High Street bookstore. But its title claims that it is a ‘guide to spirituality’ and its author claims to know Advaita and on those grounds it must be condemned, since demonstrably neither is true. The book is intelligent and well-written but unfortunately lacks understanding.
This review was commissioned by Advaita Academy, a School for Traditional Vedanta (www.advaita-academy.org). A shorter version of this essay is available on Swarajya Mag at http://swarajyamag.com/culture/sam-harris-waking-up-a-guide-to-spirituality-without-religion/
Dennis Waite is the author of “The Book of One” and runs the Advaita Vision portal at http://www.advaita.org.uk/