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Making sense of waking up; or, what Sam Harris gets wrong about awakening

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

First, a couple of disclaimers. Sam Harris is probably the most famous proponent of non-duality at the moment, at least in the West. And I think that this is a jolly good thing – I am grateful to him for presenting it so well and for putting it on the map with huge numbers of people who might not have engaged with it otherwise (including, to some extent, me). And I defer to Sam’s insight. He seems to have awakened in a significant way, whereas I have not. So, perhaps everything I am about to say will seem totally stupid once I reach Sam’s level of understanding. But, until then… Causes and conditions Sam is a strong advocate for the direct path to awakening: don’t spend countless hours in meditation; just look in the right place and you will see the selflessness and emptiness of all things. Sam says this because he himself spent 10 years searching ardently, notching up some serious time in vipassana retreats, but coming up empty. Then, finally, he got an audience with revered Tibetan lama Tulku Urgyen, who did what lamas in his particular tradition are famous for doing: he gave the Sam the (rather self-explanatory) “pointing-out” instruction. Which is to say, he pointed out exactly where Sam needed to look in order to see what had been there all along: the absence of a fixed, separate, agentic self. And Sam’s life was never the same again. There was no need to have a big “awakening” experience precipitated by hardcore meditation practice – all that was needed was clear instructions. Given this experience, it makes good sense that Sam’s message is what it is. But the experience might have been misleading. Because non-dual awakenings are very often reported to have this quality of ordinariness; of “Of course! It’s so obvious”. And they may or may not come with the special effects that we often expect from an awakening experience: the ecstasy, the kundalini energy etc. So, if when you follow the pointing-out instruction and look for the self, you awaken to its non-existence, but it seems obvious and rather ordinary, then you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s non-existence is obvious – that it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. But it’s not so: many people look and look, but cannot see. Some eventually awaken, some don’t, and there’s no surefire way to make it happen. And why might it be that Sam could see, whereas so many can’t? Well, could it have anything at all to do with all those years of hardcore meditation practice before he met Tulku Urgyen? Could they have paved the way for awakening? Could that be why the oldest schools of Buddhism insist that profound depths of meditation are essential for awakening? Could it, further, be why Tulku Urgyen's own tradition insists that its students go through years of meditative preparation before receiving the pointing-out instruction that enabled Sam to awaken? He didn’t force Sam to go through that preparation, but then again, he must have known that Sam had been preparing for a very long time. For all Sam knows, all that meditation was absolutely necessary for his awakening. Cultivation vs awakening Sam’s beef with the gradual path is that it is not especially likely, for any given person, to result in awakening. This is a fair point – you are probably more likely to awaken if you at least try to look in the right place. But in the meantime, while you are waiting for your big breakthrough, what have you got? With Sam’s direct path, possibly not much. You can look and look and look, but until you see, you just have a load of looking, which might not improve your life that much.

Whereas the practises of the gradual path – concentration, loving-kindness, investigation into how the mind and body work – yield benefits at every point along the way. Or at least at some point before awakening. People find their lives transformed by these practices, though their sense of self may remain intact. I am one of these people, and I am extremely glad that I did all that meditation, rather than just trying to follow Sam’s instructions and failing to see what he was pointing to. The dangers There’s been a lot of talk of the dangers of meditation recently, which is another jolly good thing, though it gets a bit overegged at times. If you sit for half-an-hour a day and do the odd weekend retreat, you probably aren’t going to do anything too serious to yourself. But if you follow Sam’s path, you might do something extremely serious to yourself. You might turn your whole sense of yourself and world upside down. This is extremely wonderful, according to Sam and many others. But it doesn’t seem to be a wholly unalloyed good. Most people who go through experiences like Sam’s report emotional turbulence in the aftermath, which can range from mild to being, as non-dual teacher Adyashanti reports, “the worst 5 years of my life”. Adyashanti thinks it was worth it, but this is not something to be dismissed or ignored. People need to know that it might happen, if they are to make an informed choice. And the long-term outcomes aren’t always so great either. Adyashanti also reports that a substantial number of people who awaken fall prey to a “loss of personal will” that leaves them apathetic and hollowed-out. Adyashanti doesn’t think this is a good thing, and I doubt many people would willingly sign up for it. There are a lot more ways that awakening can go wrong, which have been extensively catalogued by the researcher Willoughby Britton and her collaborators; these are just the ones reported in a single podcast by a single non-dual teacher. So, surely, it cannot be responsible to promote practices that can lead directly and sometimes unexpectedly to awakening without giving the appropriate health warnings. Anyone can download Sam’s app and dive in, without the faintest idea of what might lie in store. Just as with powerful medications, we need a list of adverse effects. The middle way Buddhists love a middle way, because the Buddha did. So, here it is: it would indeed be a shame if, through ignorance, people neglected the non-dual practices that Sam promotes, and kept on slugging away at their meditation for years without awakening. People should know about these practices, and if they want to awaken, they should consider using them. But they should be aware of the risks, and in many cases, the optimal approach will be to use them alongside an extensive practice of cultivating useful qualities and insights in meditation. That’s what Sam did, after all.


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