Most of us recognized ourselves in the mirror this morning. The person looking back at us has a familiar name, a family, a job. He (or she) carries around a long menu of likes and dislikes, along with a personal history from the moment we emerged from the womb. It would amaze the vast majority of the human race to be told that this person in the mirror is an illusion. Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up, delivers this startling notion loud and clear, and his aim, in a nutshell, is to debunk the illusion of the personal self, which he says is the key to becoming real.
No one can predict if the message will stick. “No self” has been around for centuries as a basic tenet of Buddhism. (Refer to Part 1 of this post for more details.) Harris dresses it up in brain science, but looking for Buddha in the brain is as futile as looking for Mozart in a piano. It’s obviously specious reasoning, but in Harris’s profession of neuroscience, everything comes down to the brain. Devout Christians find sermons in the stones; brain scientists find them in the anterior cingulate.
Harris would be a more persuasive thinker if he weren’t so dogmatically a materialist. His biases make Waking Up a troubling read at times:
“It has long been obvious that traditional approaches to spirituality [are] based, to one or another degree, on religious myths and superstition.” (p. 62)
“Neuroscience has also produced results that are equally hostile to the traditional idea of souls.” (p. 62)
“Some people are so desperate to interpret the [Near Death Experience] as proof of an afterlife that even those whom one would expect to have a strong commitment to scientific reasoning toss their better judgment out the window.” (p. 186)
None of these haughty opinions is good science. And it’s ironic that someone with such a closed mind is now in favor of unbounded awareness.
As for his area of expertise Harris is quite impressive. He makes much of intriguing findings on the brain’s unreliability, wandering thoughts, and confused perceptions. Some of this is over-interpreted. Harris states, for example, that “There is no region of the brain that can be the seat of a soul” (p. 116), but there is no region of the brain that tells us where experience comes from, why the color red is red, how one thought is connected to the next, or how electrical activity in the neuron produces the sight, sound, and texture of the three-dimensional world. Until these basic problems are solved, assertions about higher reality based on neuroscience, whether pro or con, are meaningless.
Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the illusion of “I, me, and mine” lies at the heart of Eastern spirituality. It’s not the special province of Buddhism. Harris’s challenge to the personal self, which is the best part of his book, would be echoed by a Taoist, a Hindu, a Jain, and countless other varieties of Eastern belief. They all hold that you cannot be enlightened as long as you have a personal stake in the world. This is a radical claim, all but unknown in the Christian West, and the Buddhist strategy of “ego death” is possibly the most radical of all.
The reason for such strong common agreement is this: suffering, ignorance, and self-destructive behavior are the product of the conditioned mind. It’s not the brain that forces us to feel pain and sorrow, to act out of anger, to possess low self-esteem. It’s how the brain got trained. Who did this bad training? The mind. Therefore, the mind must find a way out. Only through self-awareness can old conditioning be confronted. The job isn’t done overnight, yet thousands of years of spiritual experience attest to the possibility of waking up.
Viewed sympathetically, Harris’ book gives the reader many good reasons to step on to the spiritual path. If the path leads you to God or the soul, Harris holds that you’re a fool. If it leads you to the purity of perfect detachment, he holds that you’ve won the golden ring. Either way, the personal self isn’t going down without a fight. While neuroscience is busy drawing better brain maps, life goes on, enticing us to be good and bad, loving and hateful, real and deluded. The allure of “I, me, and mine” is very strong, always present, and nearly impossible to resist.
I believe something a medical school professor used to tell his students: “If you want to understand consciousness, don’t go into neuroscience.” Otherwise, you’ll mistake the map is the territory. God isn’t in our neurons, but neither is Nirvana. The fact that Harris is standing by the side of the road shouting “No Self!” actually compounds the problem. If “I, me, and mine” is a trick of brain training, who is to say that “no self” isn’t just another trick? Harris turns the brain into the villain of one story (my self is real) and the hero of another (my self is an illusion). He wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Here we get to the heart of the matter. Buddhism, contra Sam Harris, will never be about the brain. Buddhism is about the mind beyond the brain. Transcendence is the key. It has to be. As long as mind = brain, we are trapped. The same would be true if music = piano. Obviously you could destroy all the pianos in the world and music would still exist. What Harris believes, along with neuroscience in general, is that if every brain was destroyed, mind would no longer exist. The Buddha taught the exact opposite. Mind is universal. Awareness is the foundation of reality. Worlds come and go, but mind remains unchanged.
Harris doesn’t address the most crucial fact about enlightenment: In order for the mind to transform itself, reality must change altogether. If “I” is unreal, so is the world that “I” believes in. A materialist view is lost before it even begins, because it forces you to accept the physical world as a given. Harris relies heavily on the unreliability of perception. But the brain can’t unravel our mistaken perceptions because the brain is itself a perception—it’s caught in the very net it wants to untangle.
Each of us will have to choose our own way, of course. For the moment, skewed science and half-digested spirituality are serving Sam Harris well. He is as partisan, strong-minded, and absolute as ever. Despite its lack of even-handedness, though, this stimulating book is worth reading whether you agree with it or not. Harris has crossed a divide and now has more in common with spiritual seekers than he does with noisy atheists.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)