Closet Fascination

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



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:


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.


Pondering My Spirituality

Back when I started this blog in 2008, I posted about religion . Since then, I think my beliefs have become more solidified. When you do the work I do, you become very clear on your beliefs. My students challenge my beliefs everyday whether I share them with them or not. Today, I got thinking about religion and God again because we watched a TED talk called the , “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” One of the last slides in Shawn Achors presentation  has a list of ways to increase happiness in one’s life. The first thing was: 3 gratitudes. Make a list of three things you are grateful for everyday. To which one of my students states, “Sounds like prayer might be the best way of doing that first one.” I replied, that prayer can be one way to express gratitude if you believe in God and went on to say that gratitude can be expressed with or without prayer. He didn’t like that answer. He again insisted that prayer might be good even if you aren’t religious. For some reason, today, I couldn’t leave it alone and I repeated: yes, if you believe in God.

Which got me thinking: for a long time, I’ve maintained that I’m not religious but I still believe in God. More recently, I decided upon doing some thinking that I am probably more agnostic than anything. I don’t think you can prove God’s existence nor am I convinced that an absence of proof, proves God doesn’t exist. The reason why I maintained a belief in God for a long time boils down to one feeling that I’ve always attributed to ‘God’. This feeling is awe. What is awe? The dictionary defines awe as a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. I feel this feeling when I enter a beautiful cathedral, but the one place that always inspires awe in me is being out in nature. I don’t think the feeling of awe proves God’s existence, but it is the core of my spirituality.

Spiritually doesn’t have to involve belief in a higher power. The definition of spirituality is :”almost any kind of activity through which a person seeks meaning,”(Wikipedia) In essence, I have been practicing spirituality since I started questioning my religion to this very day. Perhaps people can find meaning through religion, but that wasn’t how it was for me. Church always felt like an obligation, something that I did because I was told to, even when I was young. I remember visiting the church in my father’s community and being scared by a ‘Fire and Brimstone’ esk sermon. The church in my community was never like that. It was warm and welcoming. My favorite priest growing up eventually left because he believed that women should be able to become priests. At the age of 11, I agreed with him and I think that is where the questioning began. By the age of 14, I was reading about all sorts of different religions and started meditating. I didn’t keep up with the meditation, but it was through meditation, not through any experience at church that I had my first experience with ‘awe’. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered meditation. I think it is the number one thing, perhaps tied with exercise that keeps me sane.

For me spirituality does not require connecting with a higher power, if one exists. For me spirituality is connecting with my values and beliefs. What are these values and beliefs? I was reading the wikipedia on humanism (something I want to learn more about) and this quote stood out to me:

Contemporary humanism entails a qualified optimism about the capacity of people, but it does not involve believing that human nature is purely good or that all people can live up to the Humanist ideals without help. If anything, there is recognition that living up to one’s potential is hard work and requires the help of others. The ultimate goal is human flourishing; making life better for all humans, and as the most conscious species, also promoting concern for the welfare of other sentient beings and the planet as a whole.The focus is on doing good and living well in the here and now, and leaving the world a better place for those who come after.

This pretty much sums up why I do anything in life. Why I do the work I do. If I didn’t believe that education could help my students better their lives I wouldn’t do the work that I do. There is an inherent reprogramming aspect of my job that I don’t like. I mean I don’t believe anyone can change unless they want to and sometimes the people I work with aren’t ready to change. They aren’t done with the drugs or the lifestyle and that is ok. It is why I believe wholeheartedly in harm-reduction for people that aren’t ready to quit. I’ve never done hard drugs, but I understand not being ready to give something up.

It is why I challenge the black and white thinking some people have when it comes to religious beliefs. I don’t believe in conversion, I believe that everyone is entitled to believe what they want to believe so I challenge the idea that many people have regarding their religion: that their religion is right, the truth, the only way to see things. I believe that more than one truth can exist. What is right for me isn’t necessarily right for another person.

When I share my beliefs, my lack of religion, my agnostic views on god there is a few ways people take it. The first way, they figure if I don’t follow a religion, am agnostic about God then I must believe in nothing. They figure. if my values don’t come from religion, I must not have any. I think this brand of black and white teaching comes a little bit from some religious teachings, that people that haven’t found the religion are lost, need saving. Thankfully, I don’t run into many of these people. Most people are tolerant of my views as I don’t attack their views.

I guess my whole point behind this whole post is spiritually doesn’t necessarily involve God. To me spiritually is a journey you take, where you get clearer on how you want to live your life. There is no one right way of doing it or at least that is how I feel about it.

For me, spiritually is also living in a way that connects me to nature. Any time I spend time in nature I feel that awe feeling. Nothing compares to me. So I’m going to keep doing what works for me. God or no God, nature has always been there for me.

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