In Praise of Multiplicity [Free Verse]

Everybody seeks oneness,
but maybe one with everything
is too much,

it's a state in which one is
lost, irrelevant, and unloved -
all at once.

Maybe it's better to be tied
to the mast -
like Odysseus - 
straining to make that dangerous 
connection, 
but unable to, 

the connection of non-connection,
the love of longing,
of trying,
but not of being plugged in --

air-gapped to prevent 
resonance at a frequency
that would shatter one's soul.

BOOK REVIEW: Sonnets by Sri Aurobindo

SonnetsSonnets by Sri Aurobindo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This booklet collects together the 88 sonnets written by Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo was a guru who set up his ashram in Pondicherry because he was on the lam from the Brits, and Pondicherry was under French control at the time. Sri Aurobindo is a karma yogi (yogi of action and good works) who – together with a partner who the community came to call “Mother” – set up Auroville with the intention of making it a utopia.

The eighty-eight sonnets are arranged in two parts. The first seventy-four were written in the 1930s and 40s, and part II consists of 14 sonnets that were written between 1898 and 1909. The sonnets of the first part are more mystical and also more stream of consciousness. The poems of Part I use vivid language, but aren’t always easy to follow – if one is seeking a coherent meaning from each. The sonnets of part II are less sophisticated (and more easily interpreted) and feature a degree of angst that is completely absent in the latter poems (latter chronologically, earlier in the volume.) The sonnets presented are in varying styles. While they are all fourteen lines of pentameter, the rhyme scheme varies.

At the end of the book there are notes on the collection as a whole, as well as short notes on individual poems. There is also a short section in the back that shows a few of the poems under edits so that one can gain a little insight into the poet’s sausage-making process.

I found these poems intriguing to read. As I suggested, they aren’t always easy to interpret but they have a thought-provoking spirituality to them as well as some beautiful use of language. One needn’t necessarily have an interest in Sri Aurobindo to enjoy the poems, although they are overwhelmingly of a mystical / spiritual nature.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader

Pilgrimage: A Very Short IntroductionPilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Reader compares and contrasts the ways and motives of pilgrims around the world, from Muslims on hajj to Elvis fans going to “Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee” [name that tune.] The author’s specialization is Japanese pilgrimages and so trips such as the circuit around Shikoku’s eighty-eight Buddhist temples are well-represented among the examples used. However, he also visits and revisits popular Hindu pilgrimages such as Kumbh Mela and Amarnath, Christian pilgrimages to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, and even secular pilgrimages to locations such as the Vietnam War Memorial.

The book consists of six chapters. Chapter one offers a fly-over of the topic in the context of it being a worldwide phenomena. Cultures from around the world engage in similar behavior when it comes to spiritual travel. Chapter two investigates forms, themes, and meaning in pilgrimage, and how they vary across different religions. This helps one define the topic and differentiate pilgrimage from similar activities – to the degree that that can be done. Chapter 3 delves into the pilgrimage as a search for the sacred, and it uses many examples from around the world to consider the varying perspectives.

Chapter 4 reflects upon the differences in modes of transport, motivations, and how the latter influences the former. Obviously, technology has radically changed the face of pilgrimage. There usually remain purists who wish to continue in the old ways (i.e. traveling mostly on foot) and others who’d just as soon use jet airplanes and air-conditioned buses. This leads to conflicts in the pilgrim community where walkers see those who travel in comfort as lacking commitment, and those who travel in comfort may see the old-schoolers as hikers who are more interested in walking than praying.

The penultimate chapter examines pilgrimage as a form of tourism. While it may be considered sacrilegious to some to equate the two activities, they certainly share in common not only the activity of travel but also such behaviors as the collection of souvenirs (e.g. relics, scrolls, and amulets.) The final chapter looks at how pilgrimage has spread into the secular domain with war memorials, nature trails, and the birth or death homes of popular personages from politics or entertainment.

The book contains many monochrome photos and a “further reading” section in the back.

I found this book to be interesting. As a secular traveler who often crosses paths with pilgrims, I was fascinated to gain insight into their head-space and to reflect upon the role that religion and spirituality played in the dawn of travel.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner

The Way of the ShamanThe Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

From tripping on ayuhuasca in Peru to sucking the evil spirits out of patients, Harner offers an overview of shamanic methods and practices. While it would seem like such an undertaking would be a thick tome given the wide variety of cultures in which Shaman are a fixture, Harner suggest that there is a remarkable similarity of methods used by these “medicine men” be they in the Americas, Central Asia, or the South Pacific. Of course, at a tight level of granularity there are differences, and Harner gives examples of such differences here and there – usually using examples of the Shamanic practices he has studied in South and Central America. However, this book is more the high altitude over pass of the landscape.

There are seven chapters. The first couple of chapters both set up the book and hook the reader with a detailed discussion of Harner’s ayuhuasca — and other mind / mood altering substance – experience. It should be pointed out that not all Shaman use psychedelics and Harner describes in detail alternative approaches to achieve altered states of conscious that involve a combination of drumming and meditative practices.

Chapter three discusses altered states of consciousness, and what Harner calls the “Shamanic State of Consciousness” (SSC) which is the altered state that is pursued by medicine men in their practice. Chapter four describes the concept of power animals and the role that they have in health and illness. (i.e. from the Shaman’s view, an illness might be seen as the result of lacking such a “spirit animal.”) The final three chapters discuss practices such as how the Shaman can acquire a power animal for the patient or how he / she might extract a malevolent influence.

I found an interesting corner being turned in this book. In the opening chapters it reads much like an anthropologist’s scholarly account. Even talking about tripping on psychedelic substances, it’s all with the grounded feel of a scientific mind. However, in the latter half of the book, it reads as though Harner truly believes that the altered state of consciousness is actually a sort of parallel dimension with an intrinsic reality unto itself. I don’t know whether this is a tactic to feather it in for skeptical readers or if it reflects Harner’s own internal journey. (It’s definitely a hard line to walk when writing a book that one hopes to be read by both scientific rational skeptics and religious true believers.) At any rate, the book gets a bit wilder as it goes along. In the beginning, the reader might think the book a discussion of how a powerful placebo effect is achieved, but by the latter chapters it seems one is considering how malevolent spirits can be trapped or extracted from a patient.

As for ancillary material, there are line-drawn illustrations, annotations, a bibliography, and two appendices. The first appendix is about drumming and gives details about what kind of drums and rattles the would-be Shaman should seek. (Drumming plays a major role in achieving the proper state of mind.) The second is a detailed description of a game played by the Flathead Indians. I should note that I read the 3rd edition of this book. The original was published in 1980.

I found the book intriguing as one interested in how people of various cultures achieve altered states of consciousness, how they experience such states, and why they pursue them in the first place. I’d recommend it for a reader who is curious about Shamanic practices – even one who, like me, is a complete neophyte to the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnanananda

Jnana Sankalini TantraJnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnananda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Tantra is in a class with quantum physics as a topic that everybody likes to talk about but no one seems to understand. But the situation is worse because everybody can have an opinion about what Tantra is and who’s to say one is correct and another is not. Therefore, there are many conceptions of Tantra floating around out there. Unfortunately, I can’t say that this book will clear up the topic, though it does offer a great deal of information in a readable package.

In the West, Tantra is mostly about having longer and more satisfying orgasms during sex. In India, that is seen a great oversimplification, but there’s an entirely different muddling of the topic. If there were pro-Tantra and anti-Tantra parties, the topic could remain clear despite differing views on the validity of the approach. Everybody might agree about what Tantra is, but veer apart as they say why they like it or loath it. However, there’s another faction, and that’s the mainstream religious personalities who want to selectively utilize bits and pieces of Tantra that they find useful, while suggesting other parts of it are all just a misunderstanding. And, again unfortunately, that is where this book stands.

As my criticism may not make sense otherwise, I’ll try to explain something I was taught about Tantra. As it was described to me, Tantra (the yogic version, Buddhist Tantra may vary entirely) was—at least, in part–a practice of engaging in endeavors that might be considered distractions on the path to overcome them. Whereas, mainstream religion says, “x is bad, never do x,” Tantra says “x can be a distraction, and so I should engage in x in a mindful way so that it no longer controls me.” This is where the focus on sex comes in. It’s not that Tantrics were perverts; they just believed they could achieve some manner of transcendence through its practice.

My primary complaint is that this book selectively takes what it likes and strains credulity by suggesting the material it dislikes is all a misunderstanding of a selective code. So there is this idea of the five principles (panchatattvas or panchamakara) and they are five practices of Tantrics consisting of consumption of: alcohol, meat, fish, roasted/fried foods, as well as sexual activity. Now, most of these are objectionable to the modern Hindu, but the author says that these were all just code for a practice of breathing with one’s tongue pressed to a certain spot on the roof of one’s mouth. Why was kechari mudra so super-secret that one had to call it sex or fish-eating? (And why would one use a code consisting of activities one finds severely objectionable?) I don’t know, the reader is just left to believe that it makes sense.

Now, should I conclude that the entire work is in code? For example, when it says that finding a good teacher and following them is important, might they really be saying that I should “Find a river otter to take to Disneyland?” No. Because only the parts that the author and his sect finds contrary are encoded, everything else is to be taken literally.

Now, the offending section is only a small part of the book, and the topic of yogic Tantra. However, the degree to which it strains credulity makes it difficult to believe anything else the books says.

The book is in two parts. The first part is an introduction to jnana sankalini tantra (JST), and the second part is the 110 verses of the JST—said to be a dialogue between Shiva and Parvathi on Tantra—with analyses by the author.

I believe that this book contains a lot of interesting ideas, but, being a neophyte to the subject but with a degree of expertise in detecting faulty logic and religious dogma, I didn’t feel I could trust the book entirely.

If you are a mainstream Hindu who wants a palatable description of Tantra that doesn’t offend your sensibilities, this is probably a great book for you. If not, I don’t think you’ll have any better idea of Tantra is than when you started.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of TransformationHow Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book busted me over the head with some profound food for thought. I’d been skeptical of the notion of Enlightenment. [Note: the authors distinguish big-E Enlightenment as a permanent and substantial brain change, in contrast to the little-e enlightenment which is just a momentary epiphanies or insight—a number of which may precede the big-E Enlightenment.] It’s not that I disbelieved that some people had life-changing and / or perspective-changing experiences, but rather that such events represented permanent change. My skepticism was influenced by the many gurus who have been said to be Enlightened, but who behaved to all appearances like petty, materialistic douche-bags. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that these teachers achieved some momentary heightened state of consciousness during their youth, but—if they had—they clearly couldn’t maintain it under the pressure of being idolized. I’d, therefore, come to think that life is a perpetual struggle to try to be a better version of oneself, and backsliding can and will happen at any moment. This book, however, suggests there is a possibility for permanent brain changes. [Though Dalberg’s “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to still apply.]

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has made a career out of conducting brain imaging studies of people engaged in various spiritual, religious, and meditative activities. His co-author is a psychologist, Mark Robert Waldman, who works on applying neuroscientific understanding to positive psychology. In this book, the two examine what Enlightenment is from a neuroscientific standpoint and then try to cull the common features across a population of cases of Enlightenment / enlightenment. Discovering the common elements of Enlightenment is no easy task. While it seems everybody is theoretically capable of achieving Enlightenment, it also seems that the experience is different for everybody and the collection of systems (religious, spiritual, and secular) by which it’s pursued is vast. However, the authors present a five-step outline by which readers can prime themselves to achieve Enlightenment, and it can be personalized depending upon one’s beliefs (or lack thereof—Enlightenment occurs among agnostics and atheists as well as religious practitioners) and background.

The book consists of 12 chapters divided among three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 to 5) lays the groundwork for readers to understand what Enlightenment is, how it feels, how it’s experienced between people with radically varying belief (and disbelief) structures, and it presents a model of human awareness that is crucial to the later discussion. Part II (Ch. 6 to 9) considers what happens in the brain during various practices by which individuals advance towards Enlightenment. Concepts like unity, surrender, and belief are explored in detail. Part III (Ch. 10 to 12) describes the process by which readers can pursue Enlightenment for themselves. If one is inclined to chart one’s own path, versus adopting an existing program, one has all the insight and tools to begin constructing one’s personal method by the time this section is complete.

The book has graphics as necessary (e.g. brain diagrams) that largely consist of line diagrams. There is an appendix that consolidates tools and resources, and the book is annotated by chapter.

I found this book to be both interesting and potentially beneficial to readers who take it beyond a popular science book and into the realm of self-help. The authors do a great job of navigating the waters between religion and science. Obviously, they are scientists and are agnostic about that which cannot be proven, but they don’t question other people’s beliefs and–if anything–error on the side of being open-minded. Still, I suspect that there will be religious types offended by the very notion that all humans are biologically primed to achieve this heightened state. It should be pointed out that the book could be supremely useful for such individuals because it points out the need to engage in exercises to challenge one’s most closely held beliefs. (Those with less mental flexibility and capacity for tolerance seem to be less likely to achieve Enlightenment.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone trying to figure out how to be the ultimate version of oneself.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And SleepThe Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore, and didn’t know what to expect–but was intrigued. It’s a book on the Tibetan Bön approach to dream yoga and sleep yoga, written by a Bön lama (monk.) Dream yoga is a term used in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to refer to what is called lucid dreaming in Western scientific circles. My review will focus on the more than 3/4ths of the book that deals in dream yoga (lucid dreaming.) The 40-ish pages that deal with sleep yoga are outside my wheelhouse. The author suggests that that part is for initiates who are familiar with certain background concepts. I’m not an initiate, and—in fact—I have no idea whether there is any merit to sleep yoga practice. Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomena, but, as far as I know, what the author calls sleep yoga remains unstudied. All I can say is that the part on dream yoga is readily comprehensible, despite much of it being couched in spiritual terms, but a lot of the section on sleep yoga is arcane and ethereal.

As it happens, I was pleasantly surprised with the portion of the book about dream yoga. Having read a number of books dealing with the subject recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would learn anything that was both new and useful. But I was exposed to ideas that were new, useful, and mind-blowing. There were a few ideas for helping one to achieve lucid dreaming—mostly through practices carried out during the day—that I’d not seen in other works, at least not put in such clear terms. Also, while there is a lot of reference to the Bön and Buddhist spiritual traditions, this didn’t result in the explanations being needlessly complicated or arcane. There is a lot of information that one doesn’t need if one is a secular practitioner, but many readers will find it interesting, even if it’s not necessary to advance their practice.

The book is organized into six parts: 1.) The Nature of Dream, 2.) Kinds and Uses of Dreams, 3.) The Practice of Dream Yoga, 4.) Sleep, 5.) The Practice of Sleep Yoga, and 6.) Elaborations. The last part has information pertinent to both dream yoga and sleep yoga.

There are some graphics in the book including photos, line drawings, and tables. Most of these aren’t essential, but some make it easier to imagine what the author is describing (e.g. when he discusses sleeping positions.) The book has a glossary and bibliography. The former is useful, and the latter doesn’t hurt (but it’s only one page and offers only a handful of citations.) The glossary is mostly of foreign terms, but includes English terms specific to the religious traditions discussed. It offers both Tibetan and Sanskrit variants of the word if they exist, which is a nice feature. There is also an appendix which summarizes the crucial practices elaborated upon in the book.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice. I will say that it may not be the best first book to read on the subject, unless you are a practitioner of Bön or intend to be. (For that, I would recommend Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide…” which I recently reviewed.) However, this book makes an excellent follow-up once one has read a book that is couched in simpler terms (i.e. not specific to a certain spiritual tradition) and which reports on the science. I found that the book gave me a number of new ideas, and—in fact—offered some insightful ideas.

View all my reviews

POEM: Truth From Unlikely Places?

matrix_620

I passed a man on the street,

in the brutal noonday heat.

Blending in, but for his Tee.

It read, “Nothing is as it seems.”

I said, “Ain’t that the truth, brother.”

He walked on, like all the others.


A message sent on the sly?

From some watcher in the sky?

How’d he know it’d draw my eye?

And not be taken for a lie?

Maybe my will is not so free,

and what I “know” isn’t reality.


[Later that day…]


Rev. screamed, “We’re living in a simulation!”

“Friends, this ain’t no pre-apocalyptic nation.”

“Aliens watch us on their reality-TV station.”

“All I can offer is a bargain spaceship vacation.”

I distrust those who shout from a box,

and distrust more the joining of flocks.


But the kook’s words rattled in my mind.

Maybe lunatics get things right sometime.

What if the world is just a simulated grind,

and passersby just figments of my mind?

If this world is fake, should I abstain?

Or try much harder to entertain?

BOOK REVIEW: Free Will by Sam Harris

Free WillFree Will by Sam Harris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I had high hopes for Sam Harris’s book Free Will, but they didn’t pan out. It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. While I’m normally a huge fan of brevity and conciseness, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. My two principal complaints regard the lack of information: a. substantiating the notion that free will is always and everywhere an illusion as Harris asserts; b. suggesting what logic is at the root of decision if our conscious thoughts are irrelevant. (If they were random synaptic firings our behavior wouldn’t be nearly so consistent. Self-preservation of genes? The hand of god? You won’t know from this book.)

Harris might claim that that’s not the purpose of this book, that one should familiarize oneself with the vast literature on the topic before getting to this book. In that case, my complaints remain two-fold. First, he shouldn’t take on such a bold and presumptuous title as Free Will (no subtitle) if he’s not going to educate us from the ground up on the titular topic. Second, if the reader has done all the scholarly reading on the subject, why should we care about Harris’s opinions?

I will say that if you liked Matrix Revolutions, the third Matrix movie, you will love this book. SPOILER: In that movie, we find out that Neo is the central element of an elaborate plan to fool people into thinking they have some control over their own lives. In Harris’s book, Neo is replaced by the conscious mind.

There’s a scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion–though Harris only touches on it. This conclusion has been reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. [On a note unrelated to the book: we also know that individuals with damage to the emotional centers in the brain become unable to make decisions because all options hold the same weight.] The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of changing letters / numbers. Some subjects felt the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.) What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when their consciousness became aware of their decision.

Harris briefly mentions a couple of these neuroscience experiments, but then expects that the reader will treat the free will illusion as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Maybe there has been a broad enough scientific investigation of the topic to safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris does make this point.

Harris tells us about couple of studies in which, a.) there’s no cost differential between the different options; (i.e. is it possible that the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number for which there is no objectively better or worse option?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds—probably mostly college undergrads. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.)

There are a couple of red-flags for me about Harris’s approach to the subject. First, Harris scoffs at the suggestion that it might be that the conscious can overrule the subconscious, and seems to deem this as unworthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision instead of the conscious truly vetoing. Anytime a scholar is dismissive of another scholar’s attempts to further probe into a question signals that a pet theory has become a sacred cow.

Second, Harris suggests that anyone who truly studied his own mind in action couldn’t help but realize the fallacy of free will. People who can’t imagine that others see the world differently than them are also a point of concern when it comes to getting sound information. Could it possibly surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who’ve spent far more time alone with their minds than he, who’ve concluded quite the opposite?

Alright, I may have overstated Harris’s position when I suggested the conscious mind is relegated to a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-esque) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives. I suspect Harris would agree that evolution doesn’t over-engineer, and a conscious mind that is just part of a trick would be the vastest act of over-engineering in the history of the universe. (Unless the universe is a hologram, as some physicists are now suggesting–presumably based on the notion that their math works out in 2-D.)

I just don’t have a good idea of what purpose Harris thinks the conscious mind serves. His central point seems to be that we still need to keep putting rapists and murders in jail so they can be kept off the streets. We just shouldn’t bear any ill-will toward them because they had no control over their decisions. However, if we set a tone with our conscious thought stream, then whether the individual’s decision to act was conscious or not they would have culpability by virtue of stage-setting. If we don’t have any control over our conscious thought stream then there would be no benefit to courses of study that help one improve one’s state of mind, but there’s also a scientific literature showing that people who begin meditative practices, yoga, and the like do see tangible positive changes. (Not to mention that Harris should give all the money back for the books he has sold about meditation, i.e. Waking Up.) If we have conscious control of our thought stream, but that thought stream is irrelevant, then we should be walking around in a constantly perplexed state.

To add to the confusion, Harris uses the term “choices” to refer to his “decisions,” but according to his paper he doesn’t make any choices. He—like all of us—are slaves to some unknown–or at least unexplained–process. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

I can’t say I’d recommend this book, unless you’ve read extensively on the topic and are rounding out your reading experience. This book isn’t the ideal starting point for engaging this subject—as it seems when you are reading the blurb–because you’re as likely to come away more confused than when you began reading.

View all my reviews