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Book Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience

VREThe takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.

First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.

This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.

After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.

In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!

Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.

This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality.  He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?

Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?

There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.

I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?

Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.

Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.

Book Review: Waking Up by Sam Harris

WakingUpAs an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.

Let me back up.

For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”

But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.

It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.

After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.

When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.

So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.

No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.

Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.

It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?

A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:

“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”

Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?

What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on.  I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”

Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.

I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.

The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.

In Defense of Sam Harris, Sacred Cow Butcher

Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.

This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization WakingUpof non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.

But then Ben Affleck happened.

When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.

But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.

The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.”  What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.

What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.

Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.

And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.

While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.

One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”

If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now  become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.

It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.

Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?

In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.

But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.

The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.

From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.

So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.