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Waking Up

Book notes for “Waking Up”, Searching for Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris

Quick Review:

Excellent book, helped connect some things in my mind about meditation, stoicism, etc.

Highlights:

Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. One purpose of this book is to give both these convictions intellectual and empirical support. Read more at location 96

Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. Read more at location 144

And there is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention as we shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave. Perhaps I should speak only for myself here: It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. Read more at location 174

Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death? Read more at location 185

Stoicism also says, yes.

We are all, in some sense, living our answer to this question—and most of us are living as though the answer were “no.” No, nothing is more profound than repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; nothing is more profound than seeking satisfaction—sensory, emotional, and intellectual—moment after moment. Just keep your foot on the gas until you run out of road. Read more at location 187

Most of us are far wiser than we may appear to be. We know how to keep our relationships in order, to use our time well, to improve our health, to lose weight, to learn valuable skills, and to solve many other riddles of existence. But following even the straight and open path to happiness is hard. If your best friend were to ask how she could live a better life, you would probably find many useful things to say, and yet you might not live that way yourself. On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice. Read more at location 220

The burn of lifting weights, for instance, would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness. But because it is associated with health and fitness, most people find it enjoyable. Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it. Read more at location 231

We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting. Thus, the question naturally arises: Is there more to life than this? Might it be possible to feel much better (in every sense of better) than one tends to feel? Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change? Read more at location 250

Koestler reports that the aspiring yogi is traditionally encouraged to lengthen his tongue—even going so far as to cut the frenulum (the membrane that anchors the tongue to the floor of the mouth) and stretch the soft palate. What is the purpose of these modifications? They enable our hero to insert his tongue into his nasopharynx, thereby blocking the flow of air through the nostrils. His anatomy thus improved, a yogi can then imbibe subtle liquors believed to emanate directly from his brain. These substances—imagined, by recourse to further subtleties, to be connected to the retention of semen—are said to confer not only spiritual wisdom but immortality. This technique of drinking mucus is known as khechari mudra, and it is thought to be one of the crowning achievements of yoga. Read more at location 382

Insofar as specific techniques of Eastern medicine actually work, they must conform, whether by design or by happenstance, to the principles of biology as we have come to know them in the West. Read more at location 444

My friend Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances. Read more at location 527

How to Meditate 1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion. 2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc. 3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly—either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen. 4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.) 5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath. 6. As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations, or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath. 7. The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment. 8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves—as they arise, change, and pass away. Those who are new to this practice generally find it useful to hear instructions of this kind spoken aloud during the course of a meditation session. Read more at location 552

The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.”15 The purpose of meditation is to recognize that you already have such a mind. That discovery, in turn, helps you to cease doing the things that produce needless confusion and suffering for yourself and others. Of course, most people never truly master the practice and don’t reach a condition of imperturbable happiness. The near goal, therefore, is to have an increasingly healthy mind—that is, to be moving one’s mind in the right direction. Read more at location 615

Nagel asks us to consider what it is like to be a bat.1 His interest isn’t in bats but in how we define the concept of “consciousness.” Nagel argues that an organism is conscious “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something that it is like for the organism.” Whether you find that statement brilliant, trivial, or merely perplexing probably says a lot about your appetite for philosophy. Read more at location 690

Might a mature neuroscience nevertheless offer a proper explanation of consciousness in terms of its underlying brain processes? Again, there is nothing about a brain, studied at any scale, that even suggests that it might harbor consciousness—apart from the fact that we experience consciousness directly and have correlated many of its contents, or lack thereof, with processes in our brains. Nothing about human behavior or language or culture demonstrates that it is mediated by consciousness, apart from the fact that we simply know that it is—a truth that someone can appreciate in himself directly and in others by analogy.23 Here is where the distinction between studying consciousness itself and studying its contents becomes paramount. It is easy to see how the contents of consciousness might be understood in neurophysiological terms. Read more at location 809

The second finding was that when the forebrain commissures are cut, the hemispheres display an altogether astonishing functional independence, including separate memories, learning processes, behavioral intentions, and—it seems all but certain—centers of conscious experience. Read more at location 877

The classic demonstration of hemispheric independence in a split-brain patient runs as follows: Show the right hemisphere a word—egg, say—by briefly flashing it in the left half of the visual field, and the subject (speaking from his language-dominant left hemisphere) will claim to have seen nothing at all. Ask him to reach behind a partition and select with his left hand (which is predominantly controlled by the right hemisphere) the thing that he “did not see,” and he will succeed in picking out an egg from among a multitude of objects. Ask him to name the item he now holds in his left hand without allowing the left hemisphere to get a look at it, and he will be unable to reply. If shown the egg and asked why he selected it from among the available materials, he will probably confabulate an answer (again, with his language-dominant left hemisphere), saying something like “Oh, I picked it because I had eggs for breakfast yesterday.” This is a peculiar state of affairs. Read more at location 885

What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious. It is true that some scientists and philosophers have resisted this conclusion,36 but none have done so credibly. If complex language were necessary for consciousness, then all nonhuman animals and human infants would be devoid of consciousness in principle. If those whose left hemispheres have been surgically removed are still believed to be conscious—and they are—how could the mere presence of a functioning left hemisphere rob the right one of its subjectivity in the case of a split-brain patient? Read more at location 903

People usually show a right-ear (left-hemisphere) advantage for words, digits, nonsense syllables, Morse code, difficult rhythms, and the ordering of temporal information, whereas they show a left-ear (right-hemisphere) advantage for melodies, musical chords, environmental sounds, and tones of voice. Similar differences have been found for other senses as well. We know, for instance, that the right hand (sensation from which projects almost entirely to the left hemisphere) is better able to discriminate the order of stimuli, while the left hand is more sensitive to their spatial characteristics. Read more at location 926

William James, whose views on this topic, and on the mind in general, still deserve our attention: Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps…. The rhythm of a lost word may be there without a sound to clothe it; or the evanescent sense of something which is the initial vowel or consonant may mock us fitfully, without growing more distinct. Read more at location 1015

Many other findings attest to the importance of our unconscious mental lives. Amnesiacs, who can no longer form conscious memories, can still improve their performance on a wide variety of tasks through practice.54 For instance, a person can learn to play golf with increasing proficiency, all the while believing that whenever she picks up a club it is for the first time. Read more at location 1039

People with amnesia can even learn new facts and have their ability to recognize names55 and generate concepts56 improve in response to prior exposure, without having any memory of acquiring such knowledge. In fact, we are all in this position with respect to most of our semantic knowledge of the world. Do you remember learning the meaning of the word door? Probably not. How do you recognize it and bring its meaning to mind? You have no idea. These processes occur outside consciousness. Read more at location 1044

But the stream of consciousness can divide and follow both tributaries simultaneously. Should these tributaries converge again, the final current would inherit the “memories” of each. If, after years of living apart, my hemispheres were reunited, their memories of separate existence could, in principle, appear as the combined memory of a single consciousness. There would be no cause to ask where my “self” had been while my brain was divided, because no “I” exists apart from the stream. The moment we see this, the divisibility of the human mind begins to seem less paradoxical. Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next. Read more at location 1184

we all talk to ourselves constantly—most of us merely have the good sense to keep our mouths shut. We rehearse past conversations—thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said. We anticipate the future, producing a ceaseless string of words and images that fill us with hope or fear. We tell ourselves the story of the present, as though some blind person were inside our heads who required continuous narration to know what is happening: “Wow, nice desk. I wonder what kind of wood that is. Oh, but it has no drawers. They didn’t put drawers in this thing? How can you have a desk without at least one drawer?” Who are we talking to? No one else is there. And we seem to imagine that if we just keep this inner monologue to ourselves, it is perfectly compatible with mental health. Perhaps it isn’t. Read more at location 1253

We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels. We can use thoughts themselves as an antidote, or we can stand free of thought altogether. The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind. Many people do it quite naturally; it’s called “looking on the bright side.” For instance, as I was beginning to rage like King Lear in the storm, my wife suggested that we should be thankful that it was fresh water pouring through our ceiling and not sewage. I found the thought immediately arresting: I could feel in my bones how much better it was to be mopping up water at that moment than to be ankle deep in the alternative. What a relief! I often use thoughts of this kind as levers to pry my mind loose from whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering. If I had been watching sewage spill through our ceiling, how much would I have paid merely to transform it into fresh water? A lot. Read more at location 1276

I am not advocating that we be irrationally detached from the reality of our lives. If a problem needs fixing, we should fix it. But how miserable must we be while doing good and necessary things? And if, like many people, you tend to be vaguely unhappy much of the time, it can be very helpful to manufacture a feeling of gratitude by simply contemplating all the terrible things that have not happened to you, or to think of how many people would consider their prayers answered if they could only live as you are now. The mere fact that you have the leisure to read this book puts you in very rarefied company. Many people on earth at this moment can’t even imagine the freedom that you currently take for granted. Read more at location 1284

Negative visualisation in stoicism

The truth, however, is that you need not wait for some pleasant distraction to shift your mood. You can simply pay close attention to negative feelings themselves, without judgment or resistance. What is anger? Where do you feel it in your body? How is it arising in each moment? And what is it that is aware of the feeling itself? Investigating in this way, with mindfulness, you can discover that negative states of mind vanish all by themselves. Read more at location 1332

It isn’t enough to know, in the abstract, that thoughts continually arise or that one is thinking at this moment, for such knowledge is itself mediated by thoughts that are arising unrecognized. It is the identification with these thoughts—that is, the failure to recognize them as they spontaneously appear in consciousness—that produces the feeling of “I.” One must be able to pay attention closely enough to glimpse what consciousness is like between thoughts—that is, prior to the arising of the next one. Consciousness does not feel like a self. Once one realizes this, the status of thoughts themselves, as transient expressions of consciousness, can be understood. Read more at location 1372

The selflessness of consciousness is in plain view in every present moment—and yet, it remains difficult to see. This is not a paradox. Many things in our experience are right on the surface, but they require some training or technique to observe. Consider the optic blind spot: The optic nerve passes through the retina of each eye, creating a small region in each visual field where we are effectively blind. Many of us learned as children to perceive the subjective consequences of this less-than-ideal anatomy by drawing a small circle on a piece of paper, closing one eye, and then moving the paper into a position where the circle became invisible. No doubt most people in human history have been totally unaware of the optic blind spot. Even those of us who know about it go for decades without noticing it. And yet, it is always there, right on the surface of experience. Read more at location 1381

What we do know is that certain neurons increase their firing rate when we perform object-oriented actions with our hands (grasping, manipulating) and communicative or ingestive actions with our mouths. These neurons also fire, albeit less rapidly, whenever we witness the same actions performed by other people. Research on monkeys suggests that these neurons encode the intentions behind an observed action (such as picking up an apple for the purpose of eating it versus merely moving it) rather than the physical movements themselves. In these experiments, a monkey’s brain seems to represent the purposeful behavior of others as if it were engaging in this behavior itself. Similar results have been obtained in neuroimaging experiments done on humans.20 Some scientists believe that mirror neurons provide a physiological basis for the development of imitation and social bonding early in life and for the understanding of other minds thereafter.21 And it is certainly suggestive that children with autism appear to have diminished mirror neuron activity in proportion to the severity of their symptoms.22 As is now widely known, people suffering from autism tend to lack insight into the mental lives of others. Conversely, a longitudinal study of compassion meditation, which produced a significant increase in subjects’ empathy over the course of eight weeks, found increased activity in one of the regions believed to contain mirror neurons. Read more at location 1524

The sense that we are unified subjects is a fiction, produced by a multitude of separate processes and structures of which we are not aware and over which we exert no conscious control. What is more, many of these processes can be independently disturbed, producing deficits that would seem impossible if they were not so easily verified. Some people, for instance, are able to see perfectly but are unable to detect motion. Others are able to see objects and their motion but are unable to locate them in space. How the mind depends upon the brain, and the manner in which its powers can be disrupted, defies common sense. Here, as elsewhere in science, how things seem is often a poor guide to how they are. Read more at location 1561

The classic example from the Indian tradition is of a coiled rope mistaken for a snake: Imagine that you spot a snake in the corner of a room and feel an immediate cascade of fear. But then you notice that it isn’t moving. You look more closely and see that it doesn’t appear to have a head—and suddenly you spot coiled strands of fiber that you mistook for a pattern of scales. You move closer and can see that it is a rope. A skeptic might ask, “How do you know that the rope is real and the snake an illusion?” This question may seem reasonable, but only to a person who hasn’t had this experience of looking closely at the snake only to have it disappear. Given that the snake always collapses into being a rope, and not the other way around, there is simply no empirical basis upon which to form such a doubt. Read more at location 1571

One study found that when asked whether their mind was wandering—that is, whether they were thinking about something unrelated to their current experience—subjects reported being lost in thought 46.9 percent of the time. Read more at location 1589

Expert meditators (with greater than ten thousand hours of practice) respond differently to pain than novices do. They judge the intensity of an unpleasant stimulus the same but find it to be less unpleasant. They also show reduced activity in regions associated with anxiety while anticipating the onset of pain, as well as faster habituation to the stimulus once it arrives.8 Other research has found that mindfulness reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of noxious stimuli. Read more at location 1615

It has long been known that stress, especially early in life, alters brain structure. For instance, studies both in animals and in humans have shown that early stress increases the size of the amygdalae. One study found that an eight-week program of mindfulness meditation reduced the volume of the right basolateral amygdala, and these changes were correlated with a subjective decrease in stress. Read more at location 1619

This isn’t merely a matter of choosing to think differently about the significance of mindfulness. It is a difference in what one is able to be mindful of. Dualistic mindfulness—paying attention to the breath, for instance—generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion: One feels that one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath or some other object of awareness because of all the good it will do. This is gradualism in action. And yet, from a nondualistic point of view, one could just as well be mindful of selflessness directly. To do this, however, one must recognize that this is how consciousness is—and such an insight can be difficult to achieve. However, it does not require the meditative attainment of cessation. Read more at location 1682

As you gaze at the world around you, take a moment to look for your head. This may seem like a bizarre instruction. You might think, “Of course, I can’t see my head. What’s so interesting about that?” Not so fast. Simply look at the world, or at other people, and attempt to turn your attention in the direction of where you know your head to be. For instance, if you are having a conversation with another person, see if you can let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze. He is looking at your face—and you cannot see your face. The only face present, from your point of view, belongs to the other person. But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change in perspective, of the sort Harding describes. Some people find it easier to trigger this shift in a slightly different way: As you are looking out at the world, simply imagine that you have no head. Read more at location 1925

Spiritual teachers of a certain ability, whether real or imagined, are often described as “gurus,” and they elicit an unusual degree of devotion from their students. If your golf instructor were to insist that you shave your head, sleep no more than four hours each night, renounce sex, and subsist on a diet of raw vegetables, you would find a new golf instructor. However, when gurus make demands of this kind, many of their students simply do as directed. Read more at location 1988

The writer Peter Marin captured the mood perfectly: Obedience to a “perfect master.” One could hear, inwardly in them, the gathering of breath for a collective sigh of relief. At last, to be set free, to lay down one’s burden, to be a child again—not in renewed innocence, but in restored dependence, in admitted, undisguised dependence. To be told, again, what to do, and how to do it…. The yearning in the audience was so palpable, their need so thick and obvious, that it was impossible not to feel it, impossible not to empathize with it in some way. Why not, after all? Clearly there are truths and kinds of wisdom to which most persons will not come alone; clearly there are in the world authorities in matters of the spirit, seasoned travelers, guides. Somewhere there must be truths other than the disappointing ones we have; somewhere there must be access to a world larger than this one. And if, to get there, we must put aside all arrogance of will and the stubborn ego, why not? Why not admit what we do not know and cannot do and submit to someone who both knows and does, who will teach us if we merely put aside all judgment for the moment and obey with trust and goodwill? Read more at location 2077

A person’s eyes convey a powerful illusion of inner life. The illusion is true, but it is an illusion all the same. When we look into the eyes of another human being, we seem to see the light of consciousness radiating from the eyes themselves—there is a glint of joy or judgment, perhaps. But every inflection of mood or personality—even the most basic indication that the person is alive—comes not from the eyes but from the surrounding muscles of the face. If a person’s eyes look clouded by madness or fatigue, the muscles orbicularis oculi are to blame. And if a person appears to radiate the wisdom of the ages, the effect comes not from the eyes but from what he or she is doing with them. Read more at location 2143

I confess that there was a period in my life, after I first plunged into matters spiritual, when I became a nuisance in this respect. Wherever I went, no matter how superficial the exchange, I gazed into the eyes of everyone I met as though they were my long-lost lover. No doubt, many people found this more than a bit creepy. Others considered it a stark provocation. But it also precipitated exchanges with complete strangers that were fascinating. With some regularity people of both sexes seemed to become bewitched by me on the basis of a single conversation. Had I been peddling some consoling philosophy and been eager to gather students, I suspect that I could have made a proper mess of things. I definitely glimpsed the path that many spiritual imposters have taken throughout history. Read more at location 2157

The very fact that Alexander remembers his NDE suggests that the cortical and subcortical structures necessary for memory formation were active at the time. How else could he recall the experience? Read more at location 2355

Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these categories only partially intersect. Read more at location 2458

Whatever the case, the action of these drugs does not rule out dualism, or the existence of realms of mind beyond the brain—but then, nothing does. That is one of the problems with views of this kind: They appear to be unfalsifiable. Physicalism, by contrast, could easily be falsified. If science ever established the existence of ghosts or reincarnation or any other phenomenon that placed the human mind (in whole or in part) outside the brain, physicalism would be dead. The fact that dualists can never say what might count as evidence against their views makes this ancient philosophical position very difficult to distinguish from religious faith. Read more at location 2516

As Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in his highly entertaining book Breaking Open the Head, the fact that both the Mayans and the Aztecs used psychedelics, while being enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice, makes any idealistic connection between plant-based shamanism and an enlightened society seem terribly naïve. Read more at location 2597

Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it. The goal, thereafter, is to cease to overlook what is already the case. Paradoxically, this still requires discipline, and setting aside time for meditation is indispensable. But the true discipline is to remain committed, throughout the whole of one’s life, to waking up from the dream of the self. We need not take anything on faith to do this. In fact, the only alternative is to remain confused about the nature of our minds. Read more at location 2630

Twelve years have now passed since I first realized how high the stakes are in this war of ideas. I remember feeling the jolt of history when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. For many of us, that was the moment we understood that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair or moral progress impossible but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions and animosities of our ignorant ancestors. Read more at location 2648

Such sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, but they lie at its core. As for the rest—charity, community, ritual, and the contemplative life—we need not take anything on faith to embrace those goods. It is one of the most damaging lies of religion—whether liberal, moderate, or extreme—to insist that we must. Read more at location 2657

Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations—changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world—but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life. Read more at location 2674

Consider the sensation of touching your finger to your nose. We experience the contact as simultaneous, but we know that it can’t be simultaneous at the level of the brain, because it takes longer for the nerve impulse to travel to sensory cortex from your fingertip than it does from your nose—and this is true no matter how short your arms or long your nose. Our brains correct for this discrepancy in timing by holding these inputs in memory and then delivering the result to consciousness. Thus, your experience of the present moment is the product of layered memories. Read more at location 2771