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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

17 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sherwin Nuland on the Art of Dying as a Lens on the Art of Living Meaningfully

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“The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it.”

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne wrote in his timeless meditation on death and the art of living. And yet in the half millennium since his day, we’ve made paltry progress on coming to such nonchalant terms with the reality of death. We are still profoundly unprepared when it strikes our loved ones and paralyzed by the prospect of our own demise. Our discomfort with “the idea of a permanent unconsciousness in which there is neither void nor vacuum — in which there is simply nothing” is what surgeon, bioethicist, essayist, and Yale professor Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) explores with astonishing wisdom and sensitivity in his soul-stretching 1993 book How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter (public library) — a dimensional treatise on death and an effort to “demythologize the process of dying,” fusing philosophical reflections on its most universal aspects with the specialized complexities occasioned by the six most common disease categories implicated in modern death.

But Nuland’s hard-earned professional expertise, his life’s work in medicine and understanding the human condition, is merely the byproduct of his unforgiving personal brush with death — Nuland lost his mother to colon cancer a week after his eleventh birthday, a tragedy that shaped his life. “All that I have become and much that I have not become, I trace directly or indirectly to her death,” he reflects. This book itself was written less than a year after Nuland lost his brother to the same disease that had claimed their mother’s life.

Nuland writes:

Everyone wants to know the details of dying, though few are willing to say so. Whether to anticipate the events of our own final illness or better to comprehend what is happening to a mortally stricken loved one… we are lured by thoughts of life’s ending… To most people, death remains a hidden secret, as eroticized at it is feared. We are irresistibly attracted by the very anxieties we find most terrifying; we are drawn to them by a primitive excitement that arises from flirtation with danger. Moths and flames, mankind and death — there is little difference.

[...]

As with every other looming terror and looming temptation, we seek ways to deny the power of death and the icy hold in which it grips human thought.

Throughout history, he observes, our strategies for ameliorating that icy hold have varied, from mythology to humor to religion, but the past few decades have given us a wholly new phenomenon, one he dubs “modern dying” — a sort of packaged experience that takes place at the hospital, where we try to artificially enact the ancient ideal of ars moriendi, or the art of dying. Reflecting on his extensive work with dying patients, Nuland considers the impossibility of that ideal in a modern context:

The good death has increasingly become a myth. Actually, it has always been for the most part a myth, but never nearly as much as today. The chief ingredient of the myth is the longed-for ideal of “death with dignity.”

[...]

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity. I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die… Only by a frank discussion of the very details of dying can we best deal with those aspects that frighten us the most. It is by knowing the truth and being prepared for it that we rid ourselves of that fear of the terra incognita of death that leads to self-deception and disillusions.

And yet despite lamenting the illusory mythology of dying with dignity, Nuland’s perspective is ultimately an optimistic one, reframing the source of dignity in death rather than denying it altogether, and doing so in wonderfully poetic terms:

The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope that we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.

But our greatest act of hope in dying, Nuland argues, is the dissolution of our illusion of separateness. He writes:

The real event taking place at the end of our life is our death, not the attempts to prevent it. We have somehow been so taken up with the wonders of modern science that our society puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It is the dying that is the important thing — the central player in the drama is the dying man: the dashing leader of that bustling squad of his would-be rescuers is only a spectator, and a groundling at that.

Reflecting on the commonly documented medical fact that the dying can often survive for weeks beyond their prognosis, sustained merely by the hope to live until a specific moment of significance — a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s graduation — Nuland calls to mind Rilke’s famous lines of verse (“Oh Lord, give each of us his own death / The dying, that issues forth out of the life / In which he had love, meaning and despair”) and considers the true source of hope:

For dying patients, the hope of cure will always be shown to be ultimately false, and even the hope of relief too often turns to ashes. When my time comes, I will seek hope in the knowledge that insofar as possible I will not be allowed to suffer or be subjected to needless attempts to maintain life; I will seek it in the certainty that I will not be abandoned to die alone; I am seeking it now, in the way I try to live my life, so that those who value what I am will have profited by my time on earth and be left with comforting recollections of what we have meant to one another… Whatever form it may take, each of us must find hope in his or her own way.

Nuland turns to the heaviest burden in dying, the feeling of regret over “conflicts unresolved, breached relationships not healed, potential unfulfilled, promises not kept, and years that will never be lived.” But even in this despairing proposition, he finds an unlikely and rather beautiful source of hope. Subverting Viktor Frankl’s famous formulation of the oft-repeated idea that we should live each day as if it were our last — “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” Frankl wrote in his spectacular memoir about the search for meaning — Nuland finds consolation in a heartening mirror-image interpretation:

Perhaps the mere existence of things undone should be a sort of satisfaction in itself, though the idea would appear to be paradoxical. Only one who is long since dead while still seemingly alive does not have many “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” and that state of inertness is not to be desired. To the wise advice that we live every day as though it will be our last, we do well to add the admonition to live every day as though we will be on this earth forever.

He returns to the hard ideal of ars moriendi, now enveloped in this newfound softness:

Since human beings first began to write, they have recorded their wish for an idealized ending some call the “good death,” as if any of us can ever be sure of it or have any reason to expect it. There are pitfalls of decision-making to be sidestepped and varieties of hope to seek, but beyond that we must forgive ourselves when we cannot achieve some preconceived image of dying right.

But perhaps Nuland’s most salient point has to do with the necessity of death as a force of nature’s forward momentum — an idea partway between evolutionary theory and the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, with a touch of Alan Watts. He writes:

We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.

In that sense, the dignity of death is indeed the dignity of life, and our only responsibility in dying well is having lived well:

The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives. Ars moriendi as ars vivendi: The art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them. Who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.

How We Die is a timelessly wonderful read in its entirety. For a necessary counterpart, see Meghan O’Rourke’s beautiful memoir of grief and learning to live with loss.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt on Thinking vs. Knowing and the Crucial Difference Between Truth and Meaning

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“To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

In 1973, Hannah Arendt became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality, an ancient quest of enduring urgency to this day. Over the years, the Gifford Lectures have drawn such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Iris Murdoch, and Carl Sagan, whose 1985 lecture was later published as a the spectacular posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience. Arendt’s own lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library), an immeasurably stimulating exploration of thinking — a process we take for so obvious and granted as to be of no interest, yet one bridled with complexities and paradoxes that often keep us from seeing the true nature of reality. With extraordinary intellectual elegance, Arendt draws “a distinguishing line between truth and meaning, between knowing and thinking,” and makes a powerful case for the importance of that line in the human experience.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt considers how thinking links the vita activa, or active life, and the vita contemplativa, or contemplative mind, touching on Montaigne’s dual meaning of meditation, and traces the evolution of this relationship as society moved from religious to scientific dogma:

Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity; it is the point where mental activity comes to rest. According to traditions of Christian time, when philosophy had become the handmaiden of theology, thinking became meditation, and meditation again ended in contemplation, a kind of blessed state of the soul where the mind was no longer stretching out to know the truth but, in anticipation of a future state, received it temporarily in intuition… With the rise of the modern age, thinking became chiefly the handmaiden of science, of organized knowledge; and even though thinking then grew extremely active, following modernity’s crucial conviction that I can know only what I myself make, it was Mathematics, the non-empirical science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself, that turned out to be the Science of sciences, delivering the key to those laws of nature and the universe that are concealed by appearances.

The disciplines called metaphysics or philosophy, Arendt notes, came to inhabit the world beyond sense-perceptions and appearances, while science claimed the world of common-sense reasoning and perceptions validated by empirical means. The latter is plagued by “the scandal of reason” — the idea that “our mind is not capable of certain and verifiable knowledge regarding matters and questions that it nevertheless cannot help thinking about.” (Four decades later, Sam Harris would capture this beautifully: “There is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”) But Arendt is most intensely concerned with the world we inhabit when we surrender to thought:

What are we “doing” when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?

Illustration by Jean-François Martin from 'The Memory Elephant' by Sophie Strady. Click image for details.

To begin solving this riddle, Arendt turns to Kant’s famous distinction between Verstand, or intellect, which seeks to grasp what the senses perceive, and Vernunft, or reason, which is concerned with the higher-order desire for understanding the deeper meaning behind such sensory input; while intellect is driven by cognition, reason is concerned with the unknowable. He memorably wrote:

The aim of metaphysics… is to extend, albeit only negatively, our use of reason beyond the limitations of the sensorily given world, that is, to eliminate the obstacles by which reason hinders itself.

Arendt unpacks Kant’s legacy and its enduring paradox, which plays out just as vibrantly in our ever-timely struggle to differentiate between wisdom and knowledge:

The great obstacle that reason (Vernunft) puts in its own way arises from the side of the intellect (Verstand) and the entirely justified criteria it has established for its own purposes, that is, for quenching our thirst, and meeting our need, for knowledge and cognition… The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.

Hannah Arendt c. 1966 (Photograph courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust)

This vital distinction between truth and meaning is also found in the fault line between science and common sense. Arendt considers how science’s over-reliance on Verstand might give rise to the very reductionism that becomes science’s greatest obstacle to tussling with the unknowable:

Something very similar seems, at first glance, to be true of the modern scientist who constantly destroys authentic semblances without, however, destroying his own sensation of reality, telling him, as it tells us, that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. It was thinking that enabled men to penetrate the appearances and unmask them as semblances, albeit authentic ones; common-sense reasoning would never have dared to upset so radically all the plausibilities of our sensory apparatus… Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is the role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

This sounds remarkably like the notion of moral wisdom — the necessarily subjective values-based framework that, by its very nature, transcends the realm of science and absolute truth, rising to the level of relative meaning. Adding to history’s finest definitions of science, Arendt writes:

The end is cognition or knowledge, which, having been obtained, clearly belongs to the world of appearances; once established as truth, it becomes part and parcel of the world. Cognition and the thirst for knowledge never leave the world of appearances altogether; if the scientists withdraw from it in order to “think,” it is only in order to find better, more promising approaches, called methods, toward it. Science in this respect is but an enormously refined prolongation of common-sense reasoning in which sense illusions are constantly dissipated just as errors in science are corrected. The criterion in both cases is evidence, which as such is inherent in a world of appearances. And since it is in the very nature of appearances to reveal and to conceal, every correction and every dis-illusion “is the loss of one evidence only because it is the acquisition of another evidence, in the words of Merleau-Ponty. Nothing, even in science’s own understanding of the scientific enterprise, guarantees that the new evidence will prove to be more reliable than the discarded evidence.

And therein lies the paradox of science — the idea that its aim is to dispel ignorance with knowledge, but it is also, at its best, driven wholly by ignorance. In a sentiment that Carl Sagan would come to echo twelve years later in his own Gifford lecture“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” — Arendt writes:

The very concept of an unlimited progress, which accompanied the rise of modern science, and has remained its dominant inspiring principle, is the best documentation of the fact that all science still moves within the realm of common sense experience, subject to corrigible error and deception. When the experience of constant correction in scientific research is generalized, it leads into the curious “better and better,” “truer and truer,” that is, into the boundlessness of progress with its inherent admission that the good and the true are unattainable. If they were ever attained, the thirst for knowledge would be quenched and the search for cognition would come to an end.

Illustration from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for details.

In considering this “illusion of a never-ending process — the process of progress,” she returns to Kant’s crucial distinction between reason and intellect:

The questions raised by our thirst for knowledge arise from our curiosity about the world, our desire to investigate whatever is given to our sensory apparatus… The questions raised by the desire to know are in principle all answerable by common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning; they are exposed to corrigible error and illusion in the same way as sense perceptions and experiences. Even the relentlessness of modern science’s Progress, which constantly corrects itself by discarding the answers and reformulating the questions, does not contradict science’s basic goal — to see and to know the world as it is given to the senses — and its concept of truth is derived from the common-sense experience of irrefutable evidence, which dispels error and illusion. But the questions raised by thinking and which it is in reason’s very nature to raise — questions of meaning — are all unanswerable by common sense and the refinement of it we call science. The quest for meaning is “meaningless” to common sense and common-sense reasoning because it is the sixth sense’s function to fit us into the world of appearances and make us at home in the world given by our five senses; there we are and no questions asked.

This disconnect between the common-sense criteria of science and the quest for meaning, Arendt argues, reverts to the original question of thinking and the limitations of “truth”:

To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know. Thinking can and must be employed in the attempt to know, but in the exercise of this function it is never itself; it is but the handmaiden of an altogether different enterprise.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt’s most poignant point explores what that enterprise might be, speaking to the power of asking good questions and the idea that getting lost is how we find meaning:

By posing the unanswerable questions of meaning, men establish themselves as question-asking beings. Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded… While our thirst for knowledge may be unquenchable because of the immensity of the unknown, the activity itself leaves behind a growing treasure of knowledge that is retained and kept in store by every civilization as part and parcel of its world. The loss of this accumulation and of the technical expertise required to conserve and increase it inevitably spells the end of this particular world.

The Life of the Mind is an absolutely remarkable feat of intellectual grace in its entirety. Complement it with the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity, then revisit these animated thoughts on wisdom in the age of information.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sam Harris on Spirituality without Religion, Happiness, and How to Cultivate the Art of Presence

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“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.”

Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” is among modern history’s most oft-cited aphorisms, and yet as is often the case with its ilk, such quotations often miss the broader context in a way that bespeaks the lazy reductionism with which we tend to approach questions of spirituality today. Nietzsche himself clarified the full dimension of his statement six years later, in a passage from The Twilight of Idols, where he explained that “God” simply signified the supersensory realm, or “true world,” and wrote: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

Indeed, this struggle to integrate the sensory and the supersensory, the physical and the metaphysical, has been addressed with varying degrees of sensitivity by some of history’s greatest minds — reflections like Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library), philosopher, neuroscientist, and mindful skeptic Sam Harris offers a contemporary addition to this lineage of human inquiry — an extraordinary and ambitious masterwork of such integration between science and spirituality, which Harris himself describes as “by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives.” Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort “to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”

Sam Harris by Bara Vetenskap

Harris begins by recounting an experience he had at age sixteen — a three-day wilderness retreat designed to spur spiritual awakening of some sort, which instead left young Harris feeling like the contemplation of the existential mystery in the presence of his own company was “a source of perfect misery.” This frustrating experience became “a sufficient provocation” that launched him into a lifelong pursuit of the kinds of transcendent experiences that gave rise to the world’s major spiritual traditions, examining them instead with a scientist’s vital blend of skepticism and openness and a philosopher’s aspiration to be “scrupulously truthful.”

Harris writes:

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds — “If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” — Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity. He writes:

Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

This message, of course, is nothing new — half a century ago, Alan Watts made a spectacular case for it, building on millennia of Eastern philosophy. But what makes our era singular and this discourse particularly timely, Harris points out, is that there is now a growing body of scientific research substantiating these ancient intuitions.

Harris recounts one of his own early empirical dabblings into how physical experience precipitates metaphysical awareness — taking the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, with a close friend — which profoundly shifted his sense of the human mind’s potential. Remarking on the “moral and emotional clarity” of the experience, Harris describes it not as a muddling of consciousness but as a homecoming to truth:

It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward… I had ceased to be concerned about myself. 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. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. 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. Love was at bottom impersonal — and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love — I love you because . . . — now made no sense at all.

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all… The experience was not of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. Love was — as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages — a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Such a formulation calls to mind the sentiment at the heart of Tolstoy’s letters to Gandhi (where, one can assume based on the time period, there was no Ecstasy involved) — a testament to the immutability of this basic human truth. For Harris, it laid the foundation for what would become his life’s work:

I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

This sentiment, it turns out, is one shared by about a quarter of the population, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” – a seemingly paradoxical proposition that, Harris argues, captures the crux of our ancient struggle for integration:

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.

Even the term “spiritual” itself comes so loaded with cultural baggage — from self-help books to off-the-deep-end kooks — that its usage seems to warrant a special kind of self-conscious, almost apologetic justification, and Harris offers an elegant one:

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. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Much of our unease with nonreligious spirituality and the integration of science and spirit, Harris argues, comes from the blinders that narrow the view of both camps. Scientists “generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind,” while New Age thinkers “idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics” — a fault line that leaves us with the lose-lose choice “between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”

A lucid approach to integration, Harris suggests, requires the acknowledgment of some “well-established truths about the human mind,” ones revealed equally through meditation, in the scriptures of the major religious traditions, and by neuroscience — the illusory nature of what we call the “self,” the notion that how we pay attention shapes our “reality,” the idea that happiness can be taught and its psychological detractors uprooted. Harris writes:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience — self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light — constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

[...]

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are…

Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields.

I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines — such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Perhaps Harris’s most central focus in the book is the art of presence as a gateway to true happiness — something Alan Watts so eloquently championed more than half a century ago but, crucially, without the advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that make Harris’s case so compelling. Reflecting on how the hamster wheel of achievement and approval can cheat us of the very happiness with which we so often equate it, Harris writes:

Even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment… Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain?

[...]

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed.

[...]

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?

Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.” And a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment.

In the remainder of the altogether spectacular Waking Up, Harris goes on to outline the practices, mechanisms, and psychoemotional tools that enable us to access that “selfless well-being,” exploring such dimensional themes as the frontier of the conscious and the unconscious mind, the elusive but highly teachable skills of happiness, and the nature of consciousness. Complement it with Alan Lightman’s beautiful meditation on science and spirituality.

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