Ken Wilber vs. Sam Harris: Comparing Perspectives on Spirituality Without Religion

Note: This post is adapted from an essay I wrote for a class at Princeton.

In this post I examine the perspectives on spirituality without religion offered by two contemporary thinkers -- Ken Wilber and Sam Harris. Both of these individuals claim that contemplative practices, which are sourced from the world’s religious traditions, provide phenomenological insights that the secular, humanist, and rational worldviews do not have access to. In his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion Harris argues that “spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable [religious] faith” (Harris, 202-203). In their work both Wilber and Harris advocate for spiritual practice and attempt to extract the contemplative aspects of the world’s religions which lead to the experience of self-transcendence, but they hold different perspectives on the implications of how this self-transcendence can be interpreted intellectually, and also in the way they define “religion”. In Imagining Religion Jonathan Z. Smith argues that ‘religion’ “ created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy” (Smith xi). In light of this, in addition to comparing the views Harris and Wilber hold, I examine their different understanding of the term “religion”, and see how this functions in the overall context of the message they are trying to convey.

Some background on Harris and Wilbers’ personal journeys is useful I think, in order to shed light on how they developed their perspectives on spiritual experience. This is relevant in the sense that all scholars bring their own epistemological assumptions and a priori commitments to their work. Both Harris and Wilber are critical of the limitations of intellectual discourse in the academic study of religion, and therefore their perspectives are best considered in light of their socio-historical context and life experiences that shaped their views. Both Harris and Wilber spent a great deal of time beginning in their twenties pursuing meditation for soteriological liberation or ‘enlightenment’, primarily through both Buddhist and Advaita meditation practices. In Waking Up, Harris describes that he studied with “a wide range of monks, lamas, yogis, and other contemplatives” (14) and that he “spent two years on silent retreat myself (in increments of one week to three months), practicing various techniques of meditation for twelve to eighteen hours day” (14). Eventually, Harris decided that the question of whether enlightenment was a permanent state or not was not important but rather that “the crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present” (45). Harris explains that the meditative practice of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism was “without question the most important thing I have been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering -- fear, anger, shame -- in an instant” (137). At Harris’ “level of practice this freedom lasts only a few moments” (137).

Similarly, Ken Wilber also went on Buddhist meditation retreats and explains that after about twenty-five years of meditation he began to experience constant consciousness through waking, dreaming and deep sleep, twenty four hours of the day (Wilber 50). For Wilber, meditative practice did indeed lead to soteriological liberation from the temporal sense of self and a shift to a more primary sense of identity that is impersonal. That said, both Harris and Wilber have encountered spiritual experiences which sound similar anecdotally. Harris describes a time when he was at the “Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon” (81). He had an experience that he describes as follows:

“As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self -- an “I” or a “me” -- vanished. Everything was as it had been -- the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water -- but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained” (81).

Similarly, Wilber describes that as one’s meditation practice progresses,

“You still have complete access to the waking-state ego, but you are no longer only that. Rather the very deepest part of you is one with the entire Kosmos in all its radiant glory. You simply are everything that is arising moment to moment. You do not see the sky, you are the sky. You do not touch the earth, you are the earth. You do you hear the rain, you are the rain. You and the universe are what the mystics call ‘One Taste’” (51).

Wilber explains that, “This is not poetry. This is a direct realization, as direct as a glass of cold water in the face.” (Wilber 51). For Harris these meditative experiences, as well as states of mind caused by psychedelics, engendered the belief that with regards to the founders of world religions “their claims about the nature of reality would make subjective sense” (Harris 194). Therefore, Harris clarifies that when he uses the word spiritual he is specifically discussing experiences of “the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness” (Harris 82), not to describe simply “beauty or significance that provokes awe” (Harris 209) in the way individuals with secular world views such as Christopher Hitchens and Carl Sagan might use the term.

In this way both Wilber and Harris advocate an approach to contemplative practice that is phenomenological, existential, and experiential. Both stress that the meditative practices they use to experience different states of consciousness are empirical in that from a first-person point of view these can be validated in an individual’s own experience. Harris argues that his assertion, “if you look closely enough at your own mind in the present moment… you will discover that the self is an illusion” is an empirical claim (Harris 92). Based on their experiences in meditation, both Harris and Wilber also agree that there is such a thing as pure consciousness. For instance, when describing his own experience after years of meditation Wilber says:

“ your pass into deep, dreamless sleep, you still remain conscious, but now you are aware of nothing but vast pure emptiness, with no content whatsoever. But ‘aware of’ is not quite right, since there is no duality here. It’s more like, there is simply pure consciousness itself, without qualities or contents or subjects or objects, a vast pure emptiness that is not “nothing” but is still unqualifiable” (Wilber, 50-51).

While Harris does not claim to experience pure consciousness during sleep each night he explains that during his time on extended vipassana meditation retreats,

“There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels. Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses -- and that the idea of a ‘pure consciousness’ apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken” (Harris, 127)

The view that there is such a thing as pure consciousness, which Harris argues for based on his personal experience, is a point of contention in the debate on religious experience in scholarly discourse. A problem is that those who argue in favor of the existence of such a thing as pure consciousness all claim that one has to have had the experience in order to validate its reality as a phenomenological possibility. Moreover, Harris describes that the challenge is that in order to validate these empirical insights one also has to have access to contemplative tools that not all people are equally gifted in, “but many people 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” (Harris 46). According to Harris “stages of spiritual development, therefore, appear unavoidable” (Harris 46), and moreover, “it is not work that the Western intellectual tradition knows much about” (Harris 93). For instance, Harris uses the example of the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter's critique of Douglas Harding’s book “On Having No Head”. Harding explains in first-person terms what it is like to phenomenologically experience “no-self”. Harris explains that Harding’s “emphasis on headlessness is a stroke of genius that offers an unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness” (Harris 144), but “Hofstadter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind… dismisses him as a child” (Harris 145).

Wilber also agrees that there are different stages of spiritual development and in this way both authors essentially hold the view that rather than simply assessing spiritual texts as narratives, they can be approached as phenomenological descriptions, and that scholars, or more broadly people in general, are therefore not on equal footing in how well they can assess these comparisons. In scholarly discourse however, there is a debate as to whether there is a common core of mystical experience at the heart of the world’s religious traditions, whether there is such a thing as unmediated experience, and even whether the word experience is anything more than “a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning” (Sharf 286). In my Junior Paper about mystical experience I write at length about these issues, but ultimately both Wilber and Harris based on their experiential meditative paths are uninterested in these epistemological debates which leave out the primacy of subjective experience itself, at least insofar as it denies the possibility of the experience of pure consciousness itself. From the perspective of Harris and Wilber, their experiences are self-evident.

However, the way Wilber and Harris explain the implications of their experiences differs, as well as their understanding of the term religion. While Harris’ explanation of how consciousness without a self is a phenomenological possibility which is in line with insights from neuroscience, philosophy and psychology, is cogent, he paints a very narrow conception of religion based on his personal context. For instance, Harris explains that “nothing need replace the ludicrous and divisive doctrines such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions” (Harris 9). Similarly Harris explains that when his daughter asked him about gravity, if he were religious he might have said “Gravity might be God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire. And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists” (Harris 201). Harris explains that he has “heard from many thousands of people who were oppressed in this way, from the moment they could speak, by the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents” (201). Harris is concerned that while there may be some insights from religious contemplatives of the past, these insights harden into dogmatism (203). His point has some merit depending on how religion is practiced, however, I think Harris’ approach inaccurately depicts the variety of ways individuals relate with and conceive of their religious faith and essentializes traditions in a way that is not accurate and could seriously benefit from a scholarly perspective. For instance, Harris often advocates publicly for harsher criticism of Islam when compared to other religions because its texts have in his view a stronger support for violence. However, if one studies the historical origins of Islam it becomes clear that the development of the understanding of Jihad through interpretation of specific verses in the Qu’ran is complex and varied, and that recent revival of violence justified by “Jihad” is in response to various sociological factors. The scholar Wael B. Hallaq explains that the,

“concept of jihad in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are not only widely varied, but also qualitatively different from the consistent pre-modern juristic doctrine. To reduce these differences between the modern and pre-modern concepts of jihad, is not only to miss the point but also to conflate the social, economic, political and legal realities of the seventh/eighth century with those of our own time, thereby producing a ‘historical Islam’ that is reducible to one abstracted essence” (340-341 Hallaq).”

While this criticism of Harris’ view of religion does apply to his public statements about “Islam” as an abstracted essence, as well as his critiques of religion in Waking Up, he might still argue that it is unreasonable to reference texts such as the Qu’ran or Bible for any sort of authority in a modern context even if they are interpreted different ways. Why would anyone interpret them as the literal Word of God given our current understanding from a scientific and secular perspective of the world?

However, Wilber approaches religion from a more comprehensive perspective. Wilber says that in each religious tradition there are people at varying stages of spiritual development. He agrees that “Spiritual development is not a matter of mere belief… And this is why infantile and childish views of God, once appropriate, are so detrimental for mature spirituality” (135). In this way he disagrees with what he calls the post-modern perspective that all views of religion are simply different narratives that individuals hold. Rather, he argues that the descriptions of God or the Self that mystics from different religious traditions articulate are poetic descriptions of a deeper perception of reality. For instance, Wilber says that,

“When Yogis and sages and contemplatives make a statement like, ‘The entire word is a manifestation of one Self,’ that is not merely a rational statement that we are to think about and see if it makes logical sense. It is rather a description, often poetic, of a direct apprehension or a direct experience, and we are to test this direct experience, not by mulling it over philosophically, but by taking up the experimental method of contemplative awareness…” (Wilber 169 - 170).

The focus on direct experience sounds similar to Harris, but Wilber also argues that the mind is not just “an ephemeral epiphenomenon of matter; it is eternal” (Horgan 64) and that “mystics are unanimous that the material universe is a ‘manifestation of this pure awareness’ perceived in deep meditation” (Horgan 65). On the one hand, Wilber argues that there are more advanced stages of human development which transcend and include rationality. On the other hand, Harris describes himself as “simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being” and is therefore “very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions” from his meditation experiences (Harris 82). According to Wilber, “the person with an Apollo complex remains unconsciously attached to the mind and its reality principle. (‘Reality’ here means ‘institutional, rational, verbal reality,) which, although conventionally real enough, is nevertheless only an intermediate stage on the path…” (Wilber 35). The difference between Wilber and Harris’ views is that Wilber says that when one ‘wakes up’ they discover the more primary identity, whereas Harris only goes as far as to say that the conventional sense of self is an illusion. That said, both authors do agree that contemplative insights do not give one answers to scientific truths. Wilber explains that enlightenment “doesn't instantly reveal all of the universe's secrets, as some mystical enthusiasts have implied; if you want to learn more about physics and cosmology, you must study these subjects” (Horgan, 61). Both Harris and Wilber also focus on the primacy of experience similar to the way William James does in the Varieties of Religious of Experience. Both authors, when articulating a view of spirituality without religion have a different take than scholars such as Eliade who write about the sacred and the profane. As I wrote about in a previous paper Eliade writes about the potential for an individual’s view of the cosmos as sacred, but Harris and Wilber are saying that ultimately spiritual practices such a Dzogchen show that in any experience -- sacred or profane -- there is actually no person who is having the experience.

One of the interesting things about studying the category of religion is its interdisciplinary nature. Harris’s Waking Up is significant because it clearly explains how the phenomenological insight of “no-self” in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta is corroborated by contemporary neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, and how none of these disciplines is able to capture the mystery that is revealed in direct experience from these practices. However, he paints a narrow and undeveloped characterization of religious traditions. Harris acknowledges that “readers who specialize in the academic study of religion, may view his approach as the quintessence of arrogance” but he considers it a way to “focus on the most promising lines of spiritual inquiry” (Harris 10). This makes sense within the scope of his book insofar as one tries to extract contemplative techniques from various traditions, but it is problematic because he also makes critical statements and wide generalizations about religion. On the other hand, Wilber provides a much more comprehensive understanding of all aspects and approaches to studying religion, which makes sense given that his personal legacy to the world is what he calls “Integral Theory”. However, Wilber explains that his work is only a theory which has “what the Hindus and Buddhists would call ‘relative truth’ as opposed to ‘absolute truth’” and that spiritual realization can never be “objectified in mental-linguistic forms” (332-333). Both Harris and Wilber recommend that individuals pick up a contemplative practice for themselves. Intellectually, Harris’ perspective is an attempt to find a middle path between mind independent from the brain and deflationary attitude taken by some scientists (205), and to cut through the illusion that there is an ultimately real sense of ‘self’ in subjective experience. For Wilber, on the other hand, despite his ‘Integral Theory’ which also includes the socio-historical study of religion, spiritual practice is to experience the Ultimate that mystics in the world’s religions attempt to articulate which is irreducible to mental perspectives and is not itself a perspective.

Works Cited

Harris, Sam. Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. Random House, 2015.

Horgan, John. Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.

Hallaq, Wael B. Sharī'a: theory, practice, transformations. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Sharf, Robert H. "The rhetoric of experience and the study of religion." Journal of

Consciousness Studies 7.11-12 (2000): 267-287.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining religion: from Babylon to Jonestown. University of Chicago

Press, 1982.

Wilber, Ken. The simple feeling of being. Shambhala Publications, 2004.

Dhanani, Hafiz. Bringing My Religious Experience to the Religious Experience Controversy.