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Closet Fascination

A blog about a journey, smoking, not smoking, vaping and everything in between

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religion

Waking Up By Sam Harris- A Book Report

This is the first book that I have finished reading in a long time. I’ll probably read it again before I fully grasp the impact it will have on my life because for me it was one of those life changing books; not because it taught me something I didn’t already know, but because it articulated so eloquently something I’ve deeply believed for a long time.

I’ve written about religion on my blog before and my views on spirituality. I’m agnostic when it comes to belief in God in that I don’t really think we will ever be able to prove God’s existence. I also don’t think it really matters if we do. I have a certain amount of awe about our world and how much we still don’t know about it, but to simply explain natural phenomena that we can’t explain (yet) by saying that is ‘proof of God’ isn’t good enough for me. Perhaps that makes me a full out atheist. I don’t like labels.

I’ve always considered myself spiritual, but never really been able to articulate what that means to people. In my post on spirituality, I sum up a lot of my views, but there was still something about being spiritual that was could not be explained by living my values or even just being with nature.

Enter: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion By Sam Harris. I think I first read about this book about two years ago. I follow a website called Brain Pickings on Facebook and they had written an article about the book and it seemed interesting, but much like unacknowledged or unobserved thoughts that come and go into our minds, I never gave the book a second thought. What rekindled interest? Oddly, it was this post on Dilbert writer’s Scott Adams’ blog entitled, Sam Harris Induces Cognitive Dissonance in Ben Affleck. The video for that is here.  This got me interested in him in general, so I went to his website and promptly started to devour the podcasts. Many of these were a useful, intellectual analysis of what is going on right now in America, unlike what is currently being posted by my friends on Facebook. It is critical of both sides and I appreciate that. Wanting more, like the obsessive fiend I can be, I bought Waking up on Thursday and have since read it cover to cover.

For me, this book explained to me something I have, albeit only briefly, experienced but could never put to words what it was.

These two paragraphs from the book sum it up:

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.

I think I’ve had a few of these moments through out my life. They were fleeting and Waking Up  assured me that this is completely normal. The missing link in my description of spirituality is self-transcendence or going beyond the self.

Typically, these moments have been when standing a top a tall mountain or skiing down a steep slope. More recently, when I ran the marathon in 2014, there were moments where I felt a oneness with the world and joyful beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. My first marathon was such as awesome experience that I hesitate to run another for fear that I will be let down should I not have that feeling again.

The book takes your through five main topics: Spirituality, Consciousness, Self or rather the illusion of self, meditation as a tool for transcending self and finally a catch all chapter called Gurus, Death, Drugs and Other Puzzles. I found the first four chapters to be really strong so the last chapter seemed as if it were a grab bag of interesting topics (I’m glad they were there) but that didn’t have enough substance to be discussed in their own dedicated chapter.

There are some interesting exercises and really I think the book is meant as a ‘here is what spiritually might look like without religion’ rather than exactly how to access it yourself. The exercises are an interesting starting point but left me wanting to learn more. I think this is probably the point. I don’t think Sam Harris fancies himself an expert on any individual’s awakening. He is simply describing what worked for him and how one might go about being spiritual without religion.

A few quotes from the end of the book really hit home for me and in a way summarize the feel and intention of the book:

First:

It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of our thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others. Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experience that are anything but ordinary.

And then:

We are always and everywhere in the presence of reality. Indeed, the human mind is the most complex  and subtle expression of reality we have thus far encountered. This should grant profundity to the humble project of noticing what it is like to be you in the present. However numerous your faults, something in you at this moment is pristine- and only you can recognize it.

Open your eyes and see.

And so I will continue to try…

To meditate…

To eat mindfully…

To exercise…

To be present in nature…

Because all of these things, lead my existence to be better. Happier. Even so, sometimes it can be a struggle to do them because of another hedonistic desire pulling me in another direction. I’ve noticed everything actually worth doing in my life requires some effort, some level of what could be called discomfort to reach the pleasantness. I think I need to commit more intentionally to my meditation practice as I think this would help me shift my perspective to be more present focus and thus better able to appreciate tasks I currently think of as arduous or boring.

Guilt- Religion’s Tool

I have struggled with issues pertaining to guilt my whole life. I think this has a lot to do with the way I was brought up and the religion that both myself and my parents were brought up with. The Catholic Church bases its whole religion on the power of guilt. According to the church, we are all inherently sinful and must confess our sins so that God may forgive us. What this instills in a person if they try to follow it to the extreme is a maladaptive behavior where the person blames everything on themselves. Sure God can forgive us, but he cannot take away the guilt. Defenders of the church might argue that you have been forgiven, why would you still feel guilty? I say- well I’ve been forgiven for that transgression, but how much long before I screw up again? They might argue, if you work hard at being a good, moral person you should not have to confess very often. But almost everyday I’d wager to guess that everyone does something that could be considered inherently selfish or “not good” according to the church. Something that God ought to forgive us for. 

I had to go to therapy in high school. I was really depressed. I’m a pretty introspective person and depression made it worse. I would wallow in my destructive thought patterns. Therapy is very cathartic. I highly recommend it. I talked and talked. About anything and everything pertaining to my life. And my therapist listened and listened and finally he stopped me and said, “I don’t think you are depressed.” My jaw dropped, since I was convinced I was depressed- I had read the criteria for diagnosis in the DSM-IV, I had been wallowing in my deep dark hole for almost two years at that point. All I could reply was , “I’m not? Then why do I feel so miserable?” He proceed to explain to me why he thought I was not depressed or that depression was not my problem. Yes, I felt depressed. But what was more important to note is why  I was depressed. He told me that what I was feeling was the effects of years of constant guilt. He explained that this would depress someone, because how can one person take on the responsibility for the world like that?  They cannot. That is why most people have the adaptive ability to blame things on others. I had to learn this. He gave me homework to do. I was to stop and think about exactly why I was feeling guilty about something and then try and rationalize it without taking on the whole blame. I had to learn to recognize when things were my fault  and when they were due to external circumstances. I struggle with this still although not nearly as bad. 

It is not surprising that I developed this guilt complex. My Dad struggles with it too. My mom probably does too to a lesser extent. My mom’s story is pretty  interesting.  She grew up in a catholic household and when she was 17 she left home after high school to become a nun. As you can probably guess (since I am writing this) she left being a nun. She, to this day, has not told me why. I know that I came quite a few years after she left, so no it was not because she broke her vows and got knocked up. My mom is a good person, a great mother and my best friend and there is something too personal about why she left that she still has not shared with me. I always wonder if there is some residual guilt. What I guess is more ironic is that my mom had me out of wedlock. So technically it makes me “The Bastard Child of An Ex-Catholic Nun”. I  wonder, to this day, what her hang ups with the church are since she must of had some to leave. She does not go to church regularly anymore, although she does go for the main religious holidays. I think she partially did the religion thing for my sake.  I think it is so ingrained in her that so goes out of habit- not necessarily because she believes in the Catholic Church.

That aside, I started questioning the church in high school, shortly after I had pledged my life to be a Catholic. Firstly, I did not like their attitudes about women. Why couldn’t a woman become a priest if she wants to? Secondly, I started to meet people when I moved to the big city that were a contradiction of what I had always been taught. They were good people, moral people with good values that GASP did not believe in God. When you are taught your whole life that people who do not believe in God are going to hell because of it, you start thinking that they must be bad if they are going to hell because only bad people who do not repent their sins go to hell. But according to what I was taught- these amazing people that have done far more giving back to the world than I have were going to hell because they did not believe in God. It made me question- with everything we learn about God, would he really do that? I mean they were upholding many of the moral values that the Church instills in its follow with one tiny little thing- they do not believe. Some people might have reacted  by thinking they should try and save these lost souls.

My reaction was different. I didn’t see why they needed to be saved. Further, I could no longer believe in a religion that would condemn my friends to hell simply because they didn’t believe in the religion or God. I’m not even sure I believe in Hell anymore or even a life after death. And if there is a life after this one, I don’t believe that God would condemn an atheist for not believing. If God is so forgiving, that is a minor transgression if you’ve lived you life being a good person. I consider myself to be spiritual. I no longer believe in the Catholic church. Every time I go, I feel like a giant hypocrite because I go along with mass as if I believe. I say the Nicene’s creed  where you actually say, out loud, that you believe in the Catholic church. Its so ingrained in me that I actually still feel guilt over my hypocrisy. I apologize to God when the time comes of silent prayer.  Despite the fact I’ve abandoned the church, it seems the Church won’t abandon me.  I still retain a irrational belief in God even though I know there is no way to prove his existence.

What does any of this have to do with smoking? Well a lot actually. I’ve spent my whole trying to be a good person. Trying to live up to ideals. I have a realized that a large part of what attracts me to smoking is that it is not good for me. Maybe what attracts me to it, is that it is dangerous and something that no one does anymore and I have largely spent my life playing it safe. Maybe it is irrational to want something that is bad, even though you know it is bad for you. I’ve realized for me, a lot of the attraction has to do with my perception of smoking. I don’t think I would want to do it if it weren’t bad. I think it is also because I see it as “only a little bit bad”. I mean I would never go out and do heroin just because it is bad and makes you feel good. Maybe some one else would, but I have to draw a line as to how far I would be willing to take danger and I draw the line at marijuana. I also get a lot of, I don’t quite know what to call it- pleasure (?) from planning to do naughty. I’m not sure why… I feel like I could go on and on about this religion stuff and how it has affected me, but I’ve already written quite a bit and have to save some content for later.

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