Sam Harris on Spirituality Without Religion

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheist who is deeply committed to spiritual practice. 

How is the possible, you might ask?

The answers are in Sam’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

“Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions,” Sam writes. 

Indeed, I was surprised by how much meditation practice Sam has done, and by how many prominent teachers he’s studied with, including Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and H. W. L. Poonja.

Waking Up sums up his lessons from those experiences — insights that result from Sam’s particular blend of open-mindedness and skepticism.

Sam’s goal is to stake out a middle ground between religion and atheism. This is a brilliant star to shoot for, and Sam takes us closer to it.

Following are the big ideas I gained from Waking Up — plus a few things I’ll ask Sam if I ever have the honor of conversing with him.

Spirituality is for all of us — including atheists and agnostics

I appreciate the way that Sam defends the use of the word spirituality:

…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.

Several of Sam’s other books describe the dangers of irrational religious beliefs, especially when they lead to intolerance and violence. Yet he concedes that “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

For centuries, in fact, people of many religious traditions — as well as atheists and agnostics — report similar states of “nonordinary” consciousness. 

Sam wants to reclaim such experiences, including states of self-transcendence and radical compassion. And, he says, we can discuss them in scientific terms without resorting to irrational beliefs. 

Spirituality is about non-duality 

During a visit to the Sea of Galilee — the place, according to many Christians, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount — Sam gazed at the surrounding hills and sank into a feeling of primordial peace:

It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been — the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water — but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes.

This is a prime example of non-dual experience, where the border between the observer and what is observed simply disappears.  

Over the centuries humanity has produced a vast literature about such experiences. They are reported by people of many faiths — and no faith whatsoever

In fact, the Buddha made anatta (no-self) the centerpiece of his teaching. 

I could list many more examples. Meditation teacher Michael Taft aptly describes them as “intimacy with everything”

You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong. Awareness is no longer split into an experiencer and the thing that is experienced, there is just pure experience with no divisions.

For Sam, non-dual experience is the sine qua non of spirituality. And Waking Up is largely an argument that our conventional sense of self — an isolated observer housed in a body separate from everything else — is an illusion.

Non-duality includes good will

There’s also a form of non-duality that involves relationships. Sam experienced it while taking the MDMA (“Ecstasy”) with a friend.

During this psychedelic trip, Sam recalls, he was suddenly struck by the simple knowledge that he loved this person:

I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him.

Moreover, this goodwill expanded to include others:

I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love…. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit.

Spirituality and science are compatible

Sam emphasizes that non-duality is not something that we have to take on faith.

Psychologists know that altered states of consciousness are possible and universal. We can talk about them in secular terms, like scientists, basing our conclusions on logic and evidence. 

In fact, our ability to have a selfless experience of the world is consistent with what we know about the brain. Waking Up goes into much detail on this point, including an entire chapter about the brain processes that mediate our experience of selfhood. 

The bottom line: There are many such processes, they spread across the entire brain, and it is possible to disrupt any of them. 

Caveat: The experience of non-duality is not a basis for making claims about the origins of the universe or the nature of the cosmos. Subjective experience does not automatically translate into objective truth — the claims made by scientists.

Sam encourages to stick with what we can reasonably claim about spirituality:

Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

Spirituality does not require religious beliefs

We can practice many Eastern forms of spirituality without belief in miracles or supernatural realms. As Sam reminds us, Siddhartha Gautama — the founder of Buddhism — was not a God. He was “merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self.”

The sacred literature of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta in particular are simply “lab manuals,” Sam writes — instructions for meditation. Accordingly, the literature is testable: Follow the instructions and see if you get the intended results. 

For example, Advaita “reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions”: 

Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.

You can experience non-duality for yourself

Our sense of self as a separate entity is language-based. When we talk, we divide the world into subjects (ourselves) and objects (other people, events, and things). And, we talk to ourselves constantly.

Experienced meditators will tell you that it’s possible for this internal conversation to wind down and eventually stop for brief periods of time. And when that happens, the distinction between self and other — along with all other distinctions — gradually disappears.

There are a couple of caveats here as well:

  • Non-dual experience is not always immediate. Getting there can take many hours of meditation practice. Be patient
  • Authentic non-duality requires a healthy sense of self. This is paradoxical: You can’t safely transcend yourself unless you first develop a functional ego. In practical terms, this means treating mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression before you begin meditating.

Suffering begins and ends in the mind

For centuries, wise human beings have reminded us that misery is mind-based. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, echoed this insight. He said that we suffer because due to the irrational beliefs that: 

  • We should succeed in everything we do.
  • People should always do exactly what we want them to do.
  • Events should always turn out the way we expect.

The Buddha, too, taught that suffering and nirvana (the absence of suffering) are fundamentally mental experiences. When we feel miserable, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become prisoners of our thoughts. 

“Our minds,” as Sam notes, “are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others.”

Spirituality reveals consciousness beyond its contents 

Our subjective experience of the world boils down to two primary events:

1. Thoughts, feelings, and urges to act

2. Awareness of those thoughts, feelings, and urges to act

Sam refers to 2 as consciousness and 1 as the contents of consciousness. 

This is not a mere technical distinction, says Sam. Spiritual practice is all about going beyond the contents of consciousness and learning to rest in pure consciousness. The more that we do this, the more we will be free of suffering.

This might sound strange, but consider the process: Meditation allows us to mentally stand back from any mental state. We learn to simply witness those states as they changes, continually arising in consciousness and then passing away. 

Our speaking can reflect this insight: Instead of saying I am anxious or I am depressed, you could say: Anxiety (or depression, or any other emotion) is arising in me.

This shift is subtle and profound. It reminds us that in any moment we can change our relationship to our thoughts. Instead of identifying with them, we can simply witness them and hold them lightly. 

Spiritual practice involves precision and acceptance 

Mindfulness meditation is analytic. The practice is to systematically deconstruct yourself.

Take the experience of anger, for example:

  • How is it arising in this moment? And the next? And the next one after that?
  • What words and images does it bring to mind? 
  • Where exactly in the body do you feel it?

The practice is to see yourself as a scientist — a neutral observer. Your job is to collect as many data points as possible. And you can do that only if you stop judging emotions as good or bad. Instead, simply say that they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Spirituality takes us toward unconditional serenity

Practicing in this way reveals that you can be free of emotions even in the midst of experiencing them. 

As Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young says: It’s not that This too shall pass. It is: This is passing right now, in the present moment. 

In short, says Sam, consciousness is never stained by what it knows: “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.”

This insight alone can change your life. Over time we can develop a stable serenity in the midst of constantly changing events. In the words of another Zen saying:

No matter how assailed, anger need not arise.  

No matter what the pleasure, compulsive longing need not arise.  

No matter what the circumstances, a feeling of limitation need not arise.  

In summary, Sam’s radical claims are that:

  • States of well-being are inherent to the human mind.
  • We can access these states through meditation.
  • These states are available in the midst of ordinary life with all its difficulties and constant alternation between pleasure and pain.
  • We experience these states independently of satisfying any desire or meeting any goal.

Spirituality can involve psychedelics

In addition to MDMA, Sam has experimented with LSD and psilocybin as aids to meditation practice. 

His conclusion: Psychedelics are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, these drugs can open up the flood gates of awareness and give you a sublime taste of non-duality. LSD and psilocybin in particular can do this non-toxic and non-addictive ways.

On the other hand, psychedelics can also trigger hellish mental states that resemble psychosis.

In short, psychedelics don’t guarantee that you will experience wisdom and compassion. They simply guarantee that the contents of your consciousness will change.

The beauty of meditation is that it’s a much safer way to change your mind. Sam compares LSD to “being strapped to a rocket,” while meditation “is like gently raising a sail.”

Gurus can go astray

The spiritual path present us with both delights and dangers. There are compassionate and competent teachers. There are also charlatans who milk their followers for money and insist on blind obedience.

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to tell the difference. 

As Sam puts it: “One can’t fake being an expert gymnast, a rocket scientist, or even a competent cook — at least not for long — but one can fake being an enlightened adept.”

The problem is that an unscrupulous teacher can take any objection raised by a student and recast it as fear, attachment, or some other form of resistance to the teaching. This dynamic creates the constant potential for abuse.

Sam gives many examples of gurus who went off the rails. (One that fascinates me is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who Sam describes as a sexually promiscuous and violent drunk.)

The fact is that teachers with genuine insight can also be ethical landmines. Sam offers guidelines for protecting yourself:

  • Distrust anyone who says that they’re infallible.
  • Avoid any spiritual practice that’s forced on you without your consent.
  • Continue with a spiritual practice only if it makes sense to you and produces concrete results.
  • If a teaching is based on numerology, prophecies, or channeling the teachings of invisible entities, then run away. 

What’s missing for me

I found myself eagerly highlighting juicy passages throughout Waking Up.

Overall, though, Sam tried to do too much in this book. It’s part spiritual memoir, part brain biology textbook, and part meditation manual. Waking Up reads like several unfinished books rolled into one. 

I had some specific disagreements with Sam as well.

You can’t think your way into non-duality. The main goal of Waking Up is to convince us that non-duality is real. 

To test Sam’s presentation, I recommended Waking Up to my book group — six sophisticated readers. No one was convinced. 

I can’t blame them. I’ve had non-dual experiences, and they were revelations. But I don’t think you can access them by reading and writing and talking about non-duality. 

The reason is simple: It’s the process of thinking that creates duality in the first place. 

Non-duality is possible only when the mind is still and free of concepts. It’s non-symbolic — an experience that’s not mediated by language. 

Thinking about non-duality is like trying to erase your image in a mirror by wiping it away with a cloth: No matter how hard and long you rub, you’ll still be there.

Better than attempting intellectual proof is offering instructions for meditation. This makes it possible for readers to have a direct experience of non-duality — the most powerful form of persuasion. 

To his credit, Sam does include several sidebars throughput Waking Up with practice instructions. These might be the best parts of the book.

There is a place for duality. I wouldn’t recommend living in non-duality all the time. In fact, there are times when a clear sense of separation is useful. If you’re being sexually or physically abused, for example, then your safety lies in setting clear and non-negotiable boundaries.

I like how Shinzen Young explains it: Rather than talking exclusively about no-self, he suggests having a flexible sense of self — one that can expand or contract in healthy ways based on your current context.

We need more help with integrating the experience of non-duality. Non-duality can be disorienting. If no one is really home, then how do I explain my sense of myself as an agent — an individual who makes decisions and chooses my behaviors? How do I carry out the tasks of daily life — interacting with people and going to work? And how do I tell people about what I’ve experienced? 

There are many possible answers to these questions. Sam doesn’t explore them, however, and I wish he had.

There are other forms of spirituality. Sam equates spirituality with nonduality and focuses on just two paths — Buddhism and Advaita. We have more options, however. 

Take the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example. Here is another potent form of spirituality without religion. Non-duality can be transformational, but recovering addicts will tell you that getting sober is nothing to sneeze at either. 

Let’s not vilify religious people. We can practice Buddhism and Advaita without believing in miracles or other supernatural events. This is not possible, Sam says, with Christianity and Islam, which require unscientific beliefs.

I doubt this. People who call themselves Christian range from intolerant fundamentalists to mystics such as Thomas Merton with a deep affinity for non-dual experience. The same can be said of Islam.

Again, the whole phenomenon of religion is more complex than Sam describes. I don’t assume that anyone who goes to church is a superstitious boob.

Ethical behavior is a prerequisite for spiritual practice — not a result. Sam describes “forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical: feelings like love, gratitude, devotion, and compassion.” 

Well, okay. But all the fallen gurus remind us of an inconvenient truth: Even profound spiritual experiences do not guarantee ethical behavior. 

In reality, the spiritual path begins with ethical behavior. Morality is the foundation of meditation practice — not the fruit. In his formulation of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha explicitly recognized this.

Let’s not oversell non-duality. I’m fascinated by non-duality, enlightenment, or whatever else you want to call it. It’s fun to explore, and Sam illuminates the path. 

And yet non-duality is not a panacea. The people we describe as enlightened can still struggle with sex, money, relationships, and a host of other issues. 

Let’s keep it all in perspective. Yes, the spiritual path can help us soar to planes of existence that defy description. But when it comes to waking up, compassion matters more than anything else. 

The highest expression of our spirituality is not in altered states of consciousness: It’s in our ordinary acts of kindness.