Waking Up by Sam Harris, my notes

I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“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.”

“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

“Imagine, for instance, that someone has made you very angry—and just as this mental state seems to have fully taken possession of your mind, you receive an important phone call that requires you to put on your best social face. Most people know what it’s like to suddenly drop their negative state of mind and begin functioning in another mode. Of course, most then helplessly grow entangled with their negative emotions again at the next opportunity.
Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else—something that no longer supports your current emotion—allows for a new state of mind. ”

“There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.”

“It isn’t enough to know, in the abstract, that thoughts continually arise or that one is thinking at this moment, for such knowledge is itself mediated by thoughts that are arising unrecognized. It is the identification with these thoughts—that is, the failure to recognize them as they spontaneously appear in consciousness—that produces the feeling of “I.” One must be able to pay attention closely enough to glimpse what consciousness is like between thoughts—that is, prior to the arising of the next one. Consciousness does not feel like a self. Once one realizes this, the status of thoughts themselves, as transient expressions of consciousness, can be understood.”

“If, like many people, you tend to be vaguely unhappy much of the time, it can be very helpful to manufacture a feeling of gratitude by simply contemplating all the terrible things that have not happened to you, or to think of how many people would consider their prayers answered if they could only live as you are now. The mere fact that you have the leisure to read this book puts you in very rarefied company. Many people on earth at this moment can’t even imagine the freedom that you currently take for granted.”

“As we have seen, the split-brain phenomenon puts pressure on the very idea of personal identity. But things can get even worse. In a now famous thought experiment, the philosopher Derek Parfit asks us to imagine a teleportation device that can beam a person from Earth to Mars. Rather than travel for many months on a spaceship, you need only enter a small chamber close to home and push a green button, and all the information in your brain and body will be sent to a similar station on Mars, where you will be reassembled down to the last atom.
Imagine that several of your friends have already traveled to Mars this way and seem none the worse for it. They describe the experience as being one of instantaneous relocation: You push the green button and find yourself standing on Mars—where your most recent memory is of pushing the green button on Earth and wondering if anything would happen.
So you decide to travel to Mars yourself. 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 moments, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?”

“How to Meditate
1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly—either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
6. As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations, or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
7. The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves—as they arise, change, and pass away.”

If you enjoyed these quotes, you might enjoy the book, as well as Sam’s blog and podcast. I would especially recommend a recent episode with Paul Bloom and another one with Dan Carlin.

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