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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

Every Atheist Needs: Waking Up by Sam Harris

Boy! You think you a know a person (from reading tweets), and then they go and write something so beautifully surprising and delightfully different. The atheist community has some amazing authors, and Sam Harris is definitely already one of them, but nothing has been written like this before. Nothing.

First, the style. This could have easily been a dry book with no personality and and an intense snooze-factor, but with Sam’s intelligent wit and frequent use of openly honest personal stories, this was anything but dull. The small glimpses into Mr. Harris’ past as someone who has an obvious passion for understanding consciousness and the human mind, and someone who has traveled to remote corners of the world to practice meditation found me mesmerized. I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this aspect of the book, was that his personal stories grounded him. He’s so extremely down to earth, and that’s the absolute last thing an atheist expects from a book about spirituality and meditation. The anecdotes will surprise you, though. Sam appears, in his talks and debates, to be utterly collected. I mean, he’s always the calm one, the sane one, the one tethered to reality. He keeps a steady cool as he talks, with the only interruption being an eyebrow lift when he utters something brilliant that he knows will make the crowd laugh. He’s got a charisma that doesn’t lend itself easily to imagining him upset, angry or frustrated. Ever. So, when he writes stuff like this:

The moment I heard the first drops, I was transformed into a hapless, uncomprehending, enraged man racing down a staircase. I’m sure I would have comported myself with greater dignity had I come upon the scene of a murder.

Sam Harris - Waking Up

My reaction – pardon my printing, I usually only type!

It’s not only totally unexpected, but helps us relate to him as absolutely human. This led me to truly understand the central point of the entire book. He wants us to see the benefit of meditation. The Sam he paints unravelling down the stairs is so vastly different from the Sam we see at debates, and after reading this book, I am sure that his long and colourful history with meditation plays a strong role in how cool and collected he is in the public eye.

Hitch had his whiskey and smokes, Dawkins has Twitter, and Sam, well, Sam has Nirvana.

That’s not to say there weren’t some hard hitting sound bites that gave religion a paddling. There were, and I woke Godless Dad up a few times, exclaiming, “Fuck yeah, Harris!”, but that is not what this book is about.

First, and in an obvious effort to subvert the inevitable criticism from the skeptic community, Sam explains that his use of the word spirituality is merely for the lack of a better one. He knows it’s wrapped up tightly in a world of religious dogma and it’s not going to be easy to reclaim it for his purposes, which is to say that exploration of that which has been described as spiritual should be detached from religion all together.

As manuals for contemplative understanding, the Bible and the Koran are worse than useless. Whatever wisdom can be found in their pages is never best found there, and it is subverted, time and again, by ancient savagery and superstition.

It is precisely because the word spirituality has been so synonymous with religious experiences, that Sam finds the need to assure us, his “bullshit detector” is still in perfect working order. He makes clear, we are not take anything he says on faith.

He further explains how religion has failed and even impeded the progress of our understanding of human consciousness. He says,

Waking Up by Sam Harris

At this point, the book turns towards the scientific, and talks about concepts that will make even the bravest of you feel a little bit uneasy. This is the part of the book I like to call, “‘Sup, Steve?” because that’s when I learned that science has good reason to believe we have more than one consciousness taking up residence in our minds. I stopped, thought about it, and promptly named my right hemisphere, Steve.

Consider this:

The point of view from which you are consciously reading these words, may not be the only conscious point of view to be found in your brain. It is one thing to say that you are unaware of a vast amount of activity in your brain. It is quite another to say that some of this activity is aware of itself and is watching your every move.

See what I mean? ‘Sup, Steve.

Really stop and think about that for a second: more than one consciousness. What does that say about the idea that we have souls?

So, after slapping me hard with Steve, Sam started to explain meditation. It’s important to understand here that Godless Mom is no stranger to people singing the praises of meditation. I grew up in a town that became half Buddhist, partly Oprah-ist, and had a small sect of Deepakers. I thought I’d heard it all before. Of course, I don’t know why I was surprised that an atheist explaining meditation would be different, but I was.

Sam simplifies it and offers exercises, which, when taken seriously, really can change your perspective. He explains the illusion of self, which sounds, at first, like new age mumbo jumbo that just makes you want to take a few steps backwards slowly and then just start booking it, like your life is at stake. But, when you continue reading with an open mind, it begins to make some kind of sense.

There was one exercise that he offered to illustrate a tiny part of what he’s talking about, during which you are to imagine yourself in the very room you are in, with no head. When I tried this, I had a brief moment of sudden realization of what he was talking about. I kind of, sort of got it and I felt as though continued exercises towards this goal, will make those moments of understanding less brief.

The book is filled with reasons why meditation is not something to shy away from, including health benefits, emotional benefits and it even appears as though practicing meditation can help in your professional life. If Sam is the example, we can gain a lot from exploring consciousness. We have explored near every inch of this planet, and are mapping out the furthest stars we can see. We’ve created tech that Captain Picard would lust after and cured diseases that would have surely driven us to extinction. The one thing we have yet to understand, is ourselves. What is my self? Who is ‘I’? What is actually going on inside of my brain? Sam’s passion for answering these questions absolutely oozes off the page, and it’s contagious. This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time, and I think you ought to read it, too:


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