Wake Up

Wake Up is a book by Sam Harris. What follows are quotations from the book that were particularly meaningful or insightful to me. The headings are the titles or sub-titles of the chapters from which the quote is taken.

The Search for Happiness

Most traditions of spirituality also suggest a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically. Not all good feelings have an ethical valence, and pathological forms of ecstasy surely exist. I have no doubt, for instance, that many suicide bombers feel extraordinarily good just before they detonate themselves in a crowd. But there are also forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical. As I indicated earlier, for some states of consciousness, a phrase like "boundless love" does not seem overblown. It is decidedly inconvenient for the forces of reason and secularism that if someone wakes up tomorrow feeling boundless love for all sentient being, the only people likely to acknowledge the legitimacy of this experience will be representatives of one or another Iron Age religion or New Age cult.


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 moment 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. Of course, I'm not claiming to have experienced all such states, but I meet many people who appear to have experienced none of them - and these people often profess to have no interest in spiritual life.

This is not surprising. The phenomenon of self-transcendence is generally sought and interpreted in a religious context, and it is precisely the sort of experience that tend to increase a person's faith. How many Christians, having once felt their hearts grow as wide as the world, will decide to ditch Christianity and proclaim their atheism? Not many, I suspect. How many people who have never felt anything of the kind become atheists? I don't know, but there is little doubt that these mental states act as a kind of filter: The faithful count them in support of ancient dogma, and their absence gives nonbelievers further reason to reject religion.

Religion, East and West

The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don't always point to the same underlying reality - and when they do, they don't do it equally well. Nor are all these teaching equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them.

Making distinctions of this kind, however, is deeply unfashionable in intellectual circles. In my experience, people do not want to hear that Islam supports violence in a way that Jainism doesn't, or that Buddhism offers a truly sophisticated, empirical approach to understanding the human mind, whereas Christianity presents an almost perfect impediment to such understanding. In many circles, to make invidious comparisons of this kind is to stand convicted of bigotry.


The Indian traditions is comparatively free of problems of this kind. Although the teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are embedded in more or less conventional religions, they contain empirical insights about the nature of consciousness that do not depend upon faith. One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one's consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics. To get started as a Christian, however, one must first accept a dozen implausible things about the life of Jesus and the origins of the Bible - and the same can be said, minus a few unimportant details, about Judaism and Islam. If one should happen to discover that the sense of being an individual soul is an illusion, one will be be guilty of blasphemy everywhere west of the Indus.

There is no question that many religious disciplines can produce interesting experiences in suitable minds. It should be clear, however, that engaging a faith-based (and probably delusional) practice, whatever its effects, isn't the same as investigating the nature of one's mind absent of any doctrinal assumptions. Statements of this kind may seem starkly antagonistic toward Abrahamic religions, but they are nonetheless true: One can speak about Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions. The same cannot be said of Christianity or Islam.


Joseph Smith, a libidinous con man and crackpot, was able to found a new religion on the claim that he had unearthed the final revelations of God in the hallowed precincts of Manchester, New York, written in "reformed Egyptian" on golden plates. He decoded this text with the aid of magical "seer stones," which, whether by magic or not, allowed Smith to produce an English version of God's Word that was an embarrassing pastiche of plagiarisms from the Bible and silly lies about Jesus's life America. And yet the resulting edifice of nonsense and taboo survives to this day.


Unlike the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the teaching of Buddhism are not considered by their adherents to be the product of infallible revelation. They are, rather, empirical instructions: If you do X, you will experience Y. Although many Buddhists have a superstitious and cultic attachment to the historical Buddha, the teaching of Buddhism present him as an ordinary hu0man being who succeeded in understanding the nature of his own mind. Buddha means "awakened one" - and Siddharta Gautama was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self. Compare this with the Christian view of Jesus, who is imagined to be the son of the creator of the universe. This is a very different proposition, and it renders Christianity, no matter how fully divested of metaphysical baggage all but irrelevant to a scientific discussion about the human condition.


Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing. There are centuries of anecdotal testimony on this point - and, as we will see, the scientific study of the mind has begun to bear it out. There is now little question that how one uses one's attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds - and lives - are largely shaped by how we use them.


What we need to become happier and to make the world a better place is not more pious illusions but a clearer understanding of the way things are.


No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits; I have never met another person who denied that some of us are stronger, more athletic, or more learned than others. But many peo9ple find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.


Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.

The Riddle of the Self

So you decide to travel to Mars yourself. However, in the process of arranging your trip, you learn a troubling fact about the mechanics of teleportation: It turns out that the technicians wait for a person's replica to be built on Mars before obliterating his original body on Earth. This has the benefit of leaving nothing to change; if something goes wrong in the replication process, no harm has been done. However, it raises the following concern: While your double is beginning his day on Mars with all your memories, goals, and prejudices intact, you will be standing in the teleportation chamber on Earth, just staring at the green button. Imagine a voice coming over the intercom to congratulate you for arriving safely at your destination; in a few moment, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?

To most readers, this thought experiment will suggest that psychological continuity - the mere maintenance of one's memories, beliefs, habits, and other mental traits - is an insufficient basis for personal identity. It's not enough for someone on Mars to be just like you; he must actually be you. The man on Mars will share all your memories and will behave exactly as you would have. But he is not you - as your continued existence in the teleportation chamber on Earth attests. To the Earth-you awaiting obliteration, teleportation as a means of travel will appear a horrifying sham: You never left Earth and are about to die. Your friends, you now realize, have been repeatedly copied and killed. And yet, the problem with teleportation is somehow not obvious if a person is disassembled before his replica is built. In that case, it is tempting to say that teleportation works and the "he" is really stepping onto the surface of Mars. [For those who are interested, there is a book by Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons) that delves into this issue at length.]

What Are We Calling "I"?

One thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it. I am, for instance, sitting at my desk, drinking coffee. Gravity is holding me in place, and the manner in which this is accomplished eludes us to this day. The integrity of my chair is the result of the electrical bonds between atoms - entities I have never seen but which I know must exist, in some sense, with or without my knowledge. The coffee is dissipating heat at a rate that could be calculated with precision, and the second law of thermodynamics decrees that it is, on balance, losing heat every moment rather than gathering it from the cup or the surrounding air. None of this is evident to me from direct experience, however. Forces of digestion and metabolism are at work within me that are utterly beyond my perception or control. Most of my internal organs may as well not exist for all I know of them directly, and yet I can be reasonably certain that I have them, arranged much as any medical textbook would suggest. The taste of the coffee, my satisfaction at its flavor, the feeling of the warm cup in my hand - while there are immediate facts with which I am acquainted, they reach back into a dark wilderness of facts that I will never come to know. I have neurons firing and forming new connections in my brain every instant, and these events determine the character of my experience. But I know nothing directly about the electrochemical activity of my brain - and yet this soggy miracle of computation appears to be working for the moment and generating a vision of a world.

The more I persist in this line of thought, the clearer it becomes that I perceive scarcely a scintilla of all that exists to be known. I can, for instance, reach for my cup of coffee or set it down, seemingly as I please. There are intentional actions, and I perform them. But if I look for what underlies these movements - motor neurons, muscle fibers, neurotransmitters - I can't feel or see a thing. And how do I initiate this behavior? I haven't a clue. In what sense, then, do I initiate it? That is difficult to say. The feeling that I intended to do what I just did seems to be only that: a feeling of some internal signature, perhaps the result of my brain's having formed a predictive model of its ensuing actions. It may not be best classified as a feeling, but surely it is something. Otherwise, how could I note the difference between voluntary and involuntary behavior? Without this impression of agency, I would feel that my actions were automatic or otherwise beyond my control.

Lost in Thought

Again, I am not saying that one's thoughts about reality are all that matter. I would be the first to admit that it is generally a good idea to keep rats out of one's bed. But it can be liberating to see how thoughts pull the levers of emotion - and how negative emotions in turn set the stage for patterns of thinking that keep them active and coloring one's mind. Seeing this process clearly can mean the difference between being angry, depressed, or fearful for a few moments and being so for days, weeks, and months on end.

Breaking the Spell of Negative Emotions

Taking oneself to be the thinker of one's thoughts - that is, not recognizing the present thought to be a transitory appearance in consciousness - is a delusion that produces nearly every species of human conflict and unhappiness. It doesn't matter if your mind is wandering over current problems in set theory or cancer research; if you are thinking without knowing you are thinking, you are confused about who and what you are.


The eight-century Buddhist adept Vimalamitra described three stages of mastery in meditation and how thinking appears in each. The fist is like meeting a person you already know; you simply recognize each thought as it arises in consciousness, without confusion. The second is like a snake tied in a knot; each thought, whatever its content, simply unravels on its own. In the third, thoughts become like thieves entering an empty house; even the possibility of being distracted has disappeared.


... people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. The authors concluded that "a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an an unhappy mind." Anyone who has spent time in silent retreat will agree.

Gradual Versus Sudden Realization

While the philosophy of Advaita, and Ramana's own words, may tend to support a metaphysical reading of teachings of this kind, their validity is not metaphysical. Rather, it is experiential. The whole of Advaita reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions: Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling "I" and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness - free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.

Dzogchen: Taking the Goal as the Path

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available - and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he shoed me that I had no self to transcend.

Beyond Duality

Think of something pleasant in your personal life - visualize the moment when you accomplished something that you are proud of or had a good laugh with a friend. Take a minute to do this. Notice how the mere thought of the past evokes a feeling in the present. But does consciousness itself feel happy? Is it truly changed or colored by what it knows?

In the teaching of Dzogchen, it is often said that thoughts and emotions arise in consciousness the way that images appear on the surface of a mirror. This is only a metaphor, but it does capture an insight that one can have about the nature of the mind. Is a mirror improved by beautiful images? No. The same can be said for consciousness.

Now think of something unpleasant: Perhaps you recently embarrassed yourself or received some bad news. Maybe there is an upcoming event about which you feel acutely anxious. Notice whatever feelings arise in the wake of the thoughts. They are also appearance in consciousness. Do they have the power to change what consciousness is in itself?

There is real freedom to be found here, but you are unlikely to find it without looking carefully into the nature of consciousness, again and again. Notice how thoughts continue to arise. Even while reading this page your attention has surely strayed several times. Such wanderings of mind are the primary obstacle to meditation. Meditation doesn't entail the suppression of such thoughts, but it does require that we notice thoughts as they emerge and recognize them to be transitory appearances in consciousness. In subjective, terms, you are consciousness itself - you are not the next, evanescent image or string of words that appears in your mind. Not seeing it arise, however, the next thought will seem to become what your are.

But how could you actually be a thought? Whatever their content, thoughts vanish almost the instant they appear. They are like sounds, or fleeting sensations in your body. How could this next thought define your subjectivity at all?

It may take years of observing the contents of consciousness - or it may take only moments - but is is quite possible to realize that consciousness itself is free, no matter what arises to be noticed. Meditation is the practice of finding this freedom directly, by breaking one's identification with thought and allowing the continuum of experience, pleasant and unpleasant, to simply be as it is. There are many traditional techniques for doing this. But is is important to realize that true meditation isn't an effort to produce a certain state of mind - like bliss, or unusual visual images, or love for all sentient beings. Such methods also exist, but they serve a more limited function. The deeper purpose of meditation is to recognize that which is common to all states of experience, both pleasant and unpleasant. The goal is to realize those qualities that are intrinsic to consciousness in every present moment, no matter what arrives to be noticed.

When you are able to rest naturally, merely witnessing the totality of experience, and thoughts themselves are left to arise and vanish as they will, you can recognize that consciousness is intrinsically undivided. In the moment of such an insight, you will be completely relieved of the feeling that you call "I". You will still see this book, of course, but it will be an appearance in consciousness, inseparable from consciousness itself - and there will be no sense that you are are behind your eyes, doing the reading.

Look for Your Head

As you gaze at the world around you, take a moment to look for your head. This may seem like a bizarre instruction. You might thinking, "Of course, I can't see my head. What's so interesting about that?" Not so fast. Simply look at the world, or at other people, and attempt to turn your attention in the direction of where you know your head to be. For instance, if you are having a conversation with another person, see if you can let your attention travel in the direction of the other person's gaze. He is looking at your face -- and you cannot see your face. The only face present, from your point of view, belongs to the other person. But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change in perspective, of the sort Harding describes.

Some people find it easier to trigger this shift in a slightly different way: As you are looking out at he world, simply imagine that you have no head.

Whichever method you choose, don't struggle with this exercise. It is not a matter of going deep within or of producing some extraordinary experience. The view of headlessness is right on the surface of consciousness and can be glimpsed the moment you attempt to turn about. Pay attention to how the world appears in the first instant, not after a protracted effort.


We've all had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly noticing our own refection in the glass. At that moment we have a choice: to use the window as a window and see the world beyond, or to use it a a mirror. It is extraordinarily easy to shift back and forth between these two views but impossible to truly focus on both simultaneously. This shift offers a very good analogy both for what it is like to recognize the illusoriness of the self for the first time and for why it can take so long to do it.

Imagine that you want to show another person how a window can also function like a mirror. As it happens, your friend has never seen this effect and is quite skeptical of your claims. You direct her attention to the largest window in your house, and although the conditions are perfect for seeing her reflection, she immediately becomes captivated by the world outside. What a beautiful view! Who are your neighbors? Is that a redwood or a Douglas fir? You begin to speak about there being two views and about the fact that your friend's reflection stands before her even now, but she notices only that the neighbor's dog has slipped out the front door and is now dashing down the sidewalk. In every moment, it is clear to you that your friend is staring directly through the image of her face without seeing it.

Of course, you could easily direct her attention to the surface of the window by touching the glass with your hand. This would be akin to the "pointing-out instruction" of Dzogchen. However, here the analogy begins to break down. It is very difficult to imagine someone's not being able to see her reflection in a window even after years of looking - but that is what happens when a person begins most forms of spiritual practice. Most techniques of meditation are, in essence, elaborate ways for looking through the window in the hope that if one only sees the world in greater detail, an image of one's true face will eventually appear. Imagine a teaching like this: If you just focus on the trees swaying outside the window without distraction, you will see your true face. Undoubtedly, such an instruction would be an obstacle to seeing what could otherwise be seen directly. Almost everything that has been said or written about spiritual practice, even most of the teaching one finds in Buddhism, direct a person's gaze to the world beyond the glass, thereby confusing matter from the very beginning.

But one must start somewhere. And the truth is that most people are simply too distracted by their thoughts to have the selflessness of consciousness pointed out directly. And even if they are ready to glimpse it, they are unlikely to understand its significance. Harding confessed that many of his students recognized the state of "headlessness" only to say, "So what?" It is, in fact very diffuclt to deal with this "So what?" That is why certain traditions, like Dzogchen, consider teaching about the intrinsic nonduality of consciousness to be secret, reserving them for students who have spent considerable time practicing other forms of meditation. On one level, the requirement that a person have mastered other preliminary practices is purely pragmatic - for unless she has the requisite concentration and mindfulness to actually follow the teacher's instructions she is liable to be lost in thought and understand nothing at all. But there is another purpose to withholding these nondual teachings: Unless a person has spent some time seeking self-transcendence dualistically, she is unlikely to recognize that the brief glimpse of selflessness is actually the answer to her search. Having then said, "So what?" in the face of the highest teaching, there is nothing for her to do but persist in her confusion.


The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.

Eye Contact Meditation

We need to come to the end of the path to experience the benefits of walking it.