I didn’t take detailed notes when reading this book, because I didn’t find much content.
We want advice on how to live our lives. This is a subject that can be informed but not decided by empiricism. It would seem to be the domain of philosophy and ethics, but the author scores a marvelous own-goal by choosing to use the term spirituality and then spending much of the rest of the book defending against the unfortunate connotations of the term.
The premise is reasonable enough. Most religions are not a great source of learning on this subject, because even once the ludicrous metaphysics are stripped away the remaining message is, at best, mixed. The Bible, for example, talks a great deal about unconditional love and forgiveness, but also has a great deal to say about stoning people to death. Buddhism, however, is unusual in that the underlying skeleton has a good deal of wisdom that has been validated by modern science and so it’s worth exploring even if you choose to ignore the more dubious claims.
There follows a rambling course of history, philosophy, neuro-science and personal anecdotes. I found most of it fairly uninteresting, but there were a few sections that at least led to interesting thoughts:
In patients whose corpus callosum whose is severed, there is somewhat convincing evidence that both hemispheres of the brain are independently conscious. Even in a healthy brain, the bandwidth of the corpus callosum is sufficiently low relative to the rest of the brain that there is a measurable difference in performance when responding to stimuli presented to the left or right eye, depending on which side of the brain is needed to handle the response. This raises some interesting questions about whether it makes sense to think of a person as having a single cohesive mind. For example, if we reconnected a split brain, how would each hemisphere experience the transition into a new joint consciousness?
One of the difficulties of teaching meditation, mindfulness and similar practices is that there is no good way to know when you get there. Physical and simple mental skills can be easily demonstrated. Even very abstract mental skills such as high-level mathematics can be effectively transmitted by continuous application to problems and correction of the results. But skills which revolve around internal experience run up against fundamental problems around the nature of consciousness. The author uses this to argue that you ought to study under a guru who can correct your experience, without really explaining how this solves the problem at all. I think it would be much more interesting to explore whether recent results in neuro-imaging and neuro-feedback might lead to much more effective ways of teaching such skills.
The author discusses the use of various drugs to induce specific experiences. A student practicing Metta meditation might have no basis for describing how strong their experience is, or whether it’s the desired experience at all, and their instructor can’t do much to help beyond repeating exercises and descriptions. On the other hand, MDMA is a very reliable way to induce the desired state, and thereafter both the student and instructor have a common yardstick for comparing their experiences. Refreshingly, this section of the book is also one of the most balanced arguments I’ve seen on the subject, and is quite frank about both the potential benefits and the clear risks of various drugs.
Overall, I don’t find this book very valuable or interesting. It tries to be too many different things and doesn’t do a good job at any of them. Instead, I would recommend:
Feeling Good is a guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which makes for a much better ‘scientific Buddhism’ than this tangled mess. Rather than focusing on the achievement of some particular inner experience, it concerns itself with simple, practical exercises for avoiding specific undesirable patterns of thought.
Stumbling on Happiness is a more strategic counterpart to Feeling Good’s tactical approach, focusing on why people are bad at noticing and predicting what makes them happy, and how you can correct for these systematic mistakes.
Trying Not To Try is a delightful tour of early Eastern philosophy which attempts to draw parallels between the differences in Western and Eastern philosophy and modern understandings of cognitive science. It somewhat fails to actually reach a conclusion, but it’s worth reading for the history alone.
Finally, Alan Watts has a wealth of free recordings discussing very similar ideas but in a more pragmatic setting and with a great deal more charm and wit.