The author Sam Harris who is a philosopher and a neuroscientist is an interesting guy. On the one hand he has a strong dislike of religious institutions but finds something worthwhile in spirituality such as meditation, for example. Still, I believe, at bottom he is a diehard materialist as most neuroscientists are. He also has a certain fondness for Buddhism. Just guessing, but from what I have read on his blog he moves in the direction of secular Buddhism.
Yesterday I was reading the first chapter of his book, Waking up when I came across this paragraph.
That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.
Taking the Buddhist standpoint, I will say that it is true that as unawakened people we are always dealing with illusion and, most of all, self-deception. We do it so much day in and day out that the illusion becomes our reality while deceiving ourselves becomes how we deal with the problems of living with illusion. In light of this, we eventually come to regard our psychophysical body as this is mine, I am this, this is my self. Illusion, at this point, becomes concrete—it's all too real and painful.
How we disengage from the psychophysical self is a core issue in Buddhism. It is no easy task to get out of such a mindset.
Harris is not wrong in saying that spirituality is cutting through the illusion of self. But the self he is referring to is the psychophysical person who came into the world through their mother's birth canal. It is the one I am glomming onto believing: this is mine, I am this, this is my self. This is also the self the Buddha says, again and again, is not the self! Let me say it again, the psychophysical person that I am glomming onto is not who I really am. It is not my self or in Pali, anattâ.
The problem that many Buddhists face and those like Sam Harris is in realizing that complete, all at once disengagement from the psychophysical person, lands one in a positive, spiritual state of being which is indescribable in terms of the former psychophysical person. One has awakened, in other words, to the animative principle (in Sanskrit, âtman, citta, cetana) only to discover that they are spiritual agents. From this we can say that we live in the psychophysical body but we are not of it.
Of those who are disposed to materialism but who like Buddhism they still don't understand the notion of transcendence; that fundamentally we are clinging to what we are not; that if we let go we return home to our true nature which is also the essence of our universe.