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Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Sam Harris

Personal Thoughts

A refreshingly rational and non-religious view of spirituality and meditation.

Summary Notes

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. 

Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.


  • The feeling that we call “I” is itself the product of thought. Having an ego is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Look for whatever it is you are calling “I” without being distracted by even the subtlest undercurrent of thought—and notice what happens the moment you turn consciousness upon itself.


  • A longitudinal study of compassion meditation, which produced a significant increase in subjects’ empathy over the course of eight weeks, found increased activity in one of the regions believed to contain mirror neurons.
  • Long-term meditation practice is also associated with a variety of structural changes in the brain. Meditators tend to have larger corpora collosa and hippocampi ... which suggests that meditation could protect against age-related thinning of the cortex.7.
  • A mere five minutes of practice a day (for five weeks) increased left-sided baseline activity in the frontal cortex—a pattern that, as we saw in the discussion of the split-brain, has been associated with positive emotions.12.
  • Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others.
  • 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. 

How to address mental suffering:

  • We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels. We can use thoughts themselves as an antidote, or we can stand free of thought altogether.
  • Thinking about what one is grateful for increases one’s feelings of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future.
  • If you are anxious before giving a speech, become willing to feel the anxiety fully, so that it becomes a meaningless pattern of energy in your mind and body.
  • Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity.

If I am slightly depressed, I can brighten my mood with happy thoughts. I can even access a feeling of happiness directly by simply recalling what it is like to be happy—deliberately putting a smile in my mind—but I cannot reproduce the greatest joy I have ever felt. Everything about my mind and body seems to feel the weight of the past. I am just as I am.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Sam Harris

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