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Sharing the insights I discover as I explore and experience the mystery that is our reality. Join me in my journey and share yours.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sam Harris: Spirituality and Mysticism

In a recent post I expressed my dissatisfaction regarding the seemingly subjective nature of spirituality and announced my resolve to focus on investigating and exploring areas that at least offer the chance of obtaining some clarity into the nature of things.  I figured I would turn to science, whose scalpel of reason appears to quite effectively slice away at misconceptions and whose systematic approach focuses on objectively finding answers.Since then I have read a couple of books that have really made me reflect more deeply on my decision to forgo spirituality in its entirety and I'm starting to see that perhaps in my frustration over what seems an unending battle between intellect and heart, and my apparent thirst for some sort of clear direction in which to proceed in my pursuit of truth, that I might have entered into the mindset Ken Wilber would label as "flatland". A tunnel vision way of thinking that focuses completely on that which can be scientifically measured and analyzed.

The two books I have read recently and that really started making me re-think my approach was Andrew Newberg's book, "Why We Believe What We Believe" and Sam Harris' book, "The End of Faith". I would like to mostly focus on what Sam Harris has to say regarding spirituality in the last chapter of his book, so I will only briefly note that in Newberg's book it became clear to me that science can also be laden with a level of subjectivity has well.

"...personal experience is subject to numerous perceptional, emotional, and cognitive distortions that occur at every stage of neural processing. What is finally summoned forth into consciousness turns out to be a very limited and subjective view of the world.

Science tries systematically to utilize subjective experience to measure objective reality, but even scientific views of reality differ. Every hypothesis finds dissenting views, so scientists themselves are challenged to choose who or what to believe. Furthermore a scientist's belief system can influence the outcome of a study as much as a theologian's belief system can influence his or her perception of the world."  ~ p. 280

It seems like everywhere I turn subjectivism is glaring me in the face! From science to spirituality. Though, I do think spirituality is given more of a free ticket in allowing the imagination to take flight and encouraging one's mind to lift off of the foundation of reason and into the open skies of ambiguity and subjective speculation which, to me, is no way of going about trying to ascertain any sense of clarity into the nature of the Absolute. So, is it possible to wed reason with spirituality and erect a meaningful yet logical platform in which to proceed on one's journey towards understanding? Sam Harris seems to think so.

In his book Harris points out that spirituality has been a source of transformation for man since our very beginning and that it certainly can provide one with a deep sense of meaning, clarity, inspiration and depth. Spirituality itself is not necessarily the culprit that battles reason and plunges seekers headfirst into delusion, but more so religion. Harris points out that there is an underlying essence that carries much truth and lives at the heart of all religions and spiritual traditions. These truths were  most easily recognized and espoused by their mystics but covered up by false layers of dogma and doctrine; religion's sweltering blanket smothering their fragile lights.

"Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism)...

A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior and strong communities are essential for human happiness... While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world." (p. 221)

Harris points to the rational and systematic approach in empirically studying the nature of consciousness and reality that the philosophies in the East have and how they contain gems of wisdom derived from those who used their consciousness as laboratories. Those who chose not to superimpose fanciful false layers of myth but instead  dove straight into experience and extracted precious truths.

" Even the contemporary literature on consciousness, which spans philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience, cannot match the kind of precise, phenomenological studies that can be found throughout Buddhist canon."  Harris goes on to say, "Mysticism to be viable , requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower. Some traditions realized this millennia ago." ( p. 217)

The "manual" like instructions that Harris is referring to are the similar techniques mystics and yogis the world over have discovered in which to allow oneself to enter into the state where "our sense of "self"-of subject/object dualism in perception and cognition-can be made to vanish, while consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience."( p. 217)

I found Harris' views on spirituality and mysticism refreshing. Overall what I got from the last chapter of his book, The End of Faith, is that spirituality can be approached in a rational manner implementing reason and logic. That any interpretation of what one experiences should be compared by, might we say a "peer review" of sorts, with other conclusions of those who have explored the nature of consciousness themselves. The mystics,  those who themselves have traversed the landscape of consciousness, are great examples of sources to draw from for they have provided maps for those who wish to make similar journeys in the form of texts like the Buddhist canons and the Vedas. Even the Western religions offer their own mystics for one to extract insight and direction from-Islam has Sufis like Rumi and no one need look any further than Jesus when looking at Christianity for an example of someone who attained to a self-realized state.

So, in closing, after some introspection, reading and insightful conversations lately I've decided that I would be rejecting the very reason I am attempting to implement in my pursuit of truth and understanding if I turned away from spirituality completely. Instead, I will proceed practicing the disciplines that I have found meaningful and inspirational. However, I will do so with caution as to not be led astray by interpreting any of my experiences with any undo sentimentalism and while simultaneously discovering the wonders of the natural world that have been revealed by science. By developing the widest lens in which to perceive things as they are I will hopefully progress in a fruitful direction that will at some point allow mind and heart to converge in a harmonious consensus. Okay...being completely optimistic. ;)

Your thoughts are always appreciated in the comments section. Thank you!


  1. Sounds like a good plan to me. It is also a very Buddhistic approach. Listen, test, use what works and makes sense. Take nothing on someone elses word.

    I am more of a spiritual person than a scientific one (just my mind set)but I have found the mysteries of quantum physics every bit as mystical as the mysteries of Buddhism.

    I also believe that both science and spirituality are needed in our world. Different perspectives can help in anyone's search for understanding.

    1. Thank you for stopping by Gups! I appreciate your thoughts and agree that both science and spirituality have important roles in our lives. I'd like to think that they could compliment and not contradict one another.

      I think your method of, "Listen, test, use what works and makes sense. Take nothing on someone elses word. " Is a wise one!

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I stopped by your blog and enjoyed it! Looking forward to checking out more of your posts. :)

  2. Thanks for bringing together Harris and Wilbur in an interesting introspection on your own journey.

    I found it quite refreshing to read, and I wish you the best of "success" as you pursue your new-found openness :)

  3. Great wee article Jessica.

    Science is not as objective as it would have us believe. I was chatting to a leading Brain expert recently at a conference. He told me that the brain simplifies everything that our senses feed it in order for us to stay semi-sane. In other words its 'objective' reality is just a charicature of what is REALLY out there, if indeed anything at all.

    The mystic has found a connection with an inner source of knowing that proves itself more dependable than the results of empirical study. As has been said, both Hinduism and Buddhism realised this many milennia ago.

    Do keep listening, observing and writing!

    :) Dylan

    1. hmm interesting comment from the Brain expert. Do you also have some source for this or some research and findings. Would love to read more about it :)

    2. Thank you so much for stopping by Dylan.

      "In other words its 'objective' reality is just a charicature of what is REALLY out there, if indeed anything at all."

      I've read similar sentiments from those like Steven Pinker in his book, "How the Mind Works" and here's similar thoughts by Andrew Newberg in his book, "Why We Believe What We Believe":

      "...Everything we see is an illusion, in the sense that our eyes, memories, and consciousness can envision only a symbolic representation of the world...our brain converts reality into lines and shapes, with depth and color, constructing something that differences from actual appearances in the external." ~ p. 55

    3. Dylan..I had more to say but I've been having trouble with blogger and had to send. For some reason it wouldn't let me write anymore text in the window.

      Anyways, I agree with what you wrote regarding the mystic. I believe inner exploration and the experiences one can have through such endeavors, cultivates a knowing that cannot be achieved via intellectual speculation.

      Thanks so much again!

  4. As always, Jessica, your depth of thought, your excellent writing, and your soul-baring honesty about your spiritual/intellectual journey, never cease to astound me and inspire me. This was an absolute delightful learning experience for me. So glad you chose to share your thoughts with us.
    Love and blessings always as your journey continues . . .

    1. I'm really glad you enjoyed the post Martha. Thank you so much for your kind words! You have been along with me as I've written about my journey from nearly the beginning!You are always a steadfast source for inspiration and encouragement. Many blessings. :)

  5. Jessica, I’ve heard of Sam Harris, but am not that familiar with his writings. But I do resonate with Dylan Morrison. I read your comment on his most recent post and ‘get it.’ One problem with most religion is that it’s all cerebral. All head and little if no heart. So what did I do but run in the opposite direction. I wholeheartedly embraced the teachings of Brennan Manning and others who didn’t stop with ‘head knowledge’ as some call it, but traveled deeper, into the heart realm, where Christ dwells. I made this comment on Dylan’s post, “The Mystic.”
    “The mystic is one who loves the Book but no longer looks for God within its textual pages having found the One deep within and without. Key words: no longer. The Book was once a road map to God, but now that I’ve reached my destination, I don’t really need the map so much to find him. Also, it’s like reading letters from your Beloved versus seeing him in Person. After the revelation came that I contain the Treasure in this earthen vessel, I seek him within myself. I am a living epistle now.

    Oh, and one more thing. I’m working on a writing project and currently seeking submissions on the topic of forgiveness. If you have something to share, do stop by. I’d love to hear from you! Also, could you help me spread the announcement on your FB wall – “Seeking stories on forgiveness” along with my link - and in all the blog groups of which you are a part. Help me spread the word.
    Much love,

  6. oh..and btw Debra. I'd love to contribute! And I will definitely spread the message. I'll send you something via messaging in the near future. Thanks! :)

  7. Trouble with blogger. I don't see my original comment.

    Anyways...Yeah, I enjoyed Dylan's post too and really liked your comment you posted on it. Thanks for reposting it here. For sure, when one encounters what lies within there it is realized that consideration towards variables like dogma and doctrine are longer necessary, and oftentimes an impediment.

    Really loved your thoughts. Thanks for sharing them. :)

  8. Christianity is now the largest religion in the world. How ever there are hundreds if no thousands of different churches of christian teachings. All religious leaders never identified themselves as leaders. What they did was try and point the way to right living, understanding of humanity, the kingdom of heaven or whatever you wish to call it. They all pointed to the people you have to look within. The kingdom of heaven is within you. You must make the journey inward and discover it. No book, no mystic, no guru can help you. If one continually looks outside he sees chaos to find peace, god, heaven the journey is inward. Sit quietly for 30 min. a day, relaxed and without judging yourself or anything let your thoughts in your mind flow. Just watch them don't try to control them. In the beginning of this you will notice a highway of garbage that goes through your mind. After much inner searching you will start to see things differently. You must also live in the moment, here and now, don't cling to things outside or inside. Be here now. You are what you seek. Ask the questions and the answers will come in their time, trust and you will be trusted. There is only the Immediate Present and nothing more. Make it beautiful. You are the captain of your own ship, and the master of your own destiny. It's all within you. Look, Listen and Learn.

  9. Thank you so much Blue...

    I like how you put it..when it comes to observing the ceaseless thoughts that seem to be streaming about full force in our mind from our subconscious...

    "Just watch them don't try to control them. In the beginning of this you will notice a highway of garbage that goes through your mind"

    Beautiful advice and reflections that I hope all who stop by will consider.

    I'd like to say one thing regarding Christianity...that the message that you speak is not one that is commonly found among many of the various denominations that seem to have resorted to concentrating on the dogma and doctrine rather than perhaps the revelation that is possible through Divine union. That, as as Neil Douglas Klotz puts it, many denominations now see the message of Scripture in a two-dimensional way, which limits spiritual perception and realization. I think this is why you find many within the protestant denominations thirsty for more spiritual depth and turning to more contemplative practices that are found with branches, like the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church, like centering prayer.

    Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

  10. I have not delved into any of the books just mentioned. My readings are quite simple like children's books. And my thoughts couldn't go as far. However, I laud you for embracing 'everything' out in the open. Taking in what Debra has written in her comments, while taking on matters of science and the world, let it also create tension within ~ that is the thirst for mysticism and the Unknown.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I am always amazed at how far you could reach this adventure. Lots of love sis.

  11. Thanks so much for stopping by Melissa. :) There's certainly tension within. I think sometimes we try to resist it...Perhaps instead it should be embraced and used as a tool in which to learn from.

  12. Jessica,

    First and foremost, you are a talented writer and it is overwhelmingly evident in this particular article. These are difficult concepts to dissect, explore, and reconstruct in a rational and fluid paradigm. All human endeavors are subjugated by dogma, subjectivity, and the like. I believe this is more true today with the abundance of accessible information and the continuing consolidation of institutionalized learning. Anyhow, we can discuss informatics another day. Let's just say, I both empathize with your journey and feel a certain kinship with your perspective on the convergence of mysticism and science. I've always shied away from Atheistic dogma as it shares a similar dogmatism of religious thinking that is very off putting. Moving beyond dogma is an act of enlightenment or freedom to observe and process information absent polarization. This in essence is a systems view. I have varied thoughts on Wilber but the more I study these issues (albeit somewhat infrequently) I move closer to an integral model as a way of life. It seems, at least for me, all roads appear to lead to a multi-dimensional and interconnected way of understanding our world. The problem I seem to be struggling with at this time is how to take this model and apply it in day to day practice. Thank you for sharing this rather encouraging post.


  13. Thank you so much James for your kind words towards my writing and your detailed response. I really appreciated what you had to say and felt I could relate to it. I do believe either side of the extremes-dogmatic atheism and dogmatic theism, limit one's objectivity and view of things, perhaps hindering one from discovering essential elements along the way.

    I have read some of Ken Wilber but I could certainly read more. He is a philosopher/writer that I have found inspiring and intriguing and making a lot of sense. I can relate to moving towards a more integral model. I like his model of the four quadrants and realize that sometimes I focus too much on one particular quadrant. Like, for example, the upper right..which would be focusing more on a strictly materialist worldview. I think I, and probably everyone, could benefit in trying to cultivate as evenly as possible all four quadrants, to get as wide and holistic perspective as possible. Something I definitely need to work on!

    Thanks so much for your comment! :)

  14. I would love to read the two books that you mention in this post. Because I want to know more about spirituality and also I want to know if all people have the same or different spirituality. And I would like to know if what is the meaning of spirituality. Thanks for sharing this to us.
    spirituality articles

  15. am not developed that much to talk about spirituality but the lines
    "it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world." gave me a thought that how really my ethics are related to my Spirituality

  16. ah! spirituality now i am close to know the actual existence of it thanks
    though the lines
    it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world." really gave me a thought that how spirituality is related to my ethics?