Waking Up by Sam Harris

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Waking Up summary

Waking Up explores and answers the most common questions about religion, spirituality, meditation, mindfulness, thoughts, and consciousness and helps newcomers and veterans alike to understand the nature of mind and how to experience the profoundness of each moment free of the illusion of self.

Waking Up notes & quotes

Here are my notes and quotes on Waking Up by Sam Harris. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.

Chapter 1: Spirituality

  • “How could someone’s happiness increase when all the material sources of pleasure and distractions had been removed?”
  • “And I was utterly oblivious to how different life would be if the quality of my mind were to change.”
  • Everything we strive to accomplish holds the promise that, when completed, it will allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present.
  • We seek happiness without knowing we’re seeking a path back to present-moment satisfaction.
  • When I took MDMA, I felt boundless love for my best friend and wanted him to be happy. It wasn’t the experience of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. I felt sane for the first time in my life.
  • “Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
    “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”
  • Spiritual is best described as an effort to bring the mind into the present or to induce a state of consciousness through meditation, psychedelics, or other means.
  • Everything in this book can be experienced and confirmed in your own life.
  • Research reveals many psychological benefits of meditation, including long-lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception, correlating with structural and functional brain changes.
  • The subject of this book: the feeling we call “I” is an illusion.
  • Spirituality, in the context of this book, is cutting through the illusion of self.
    The tools that enable us to be free from the sense of self can stand alone, separate from religion.
  • “It is possible to stand free from the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.”
  • “Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness behind the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain?”
  • “Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, despite life’s difficulties, in the midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?”
  • “Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions.”
  • Our perception of experience can determine how we feel about it.
  • “Our struggle to navigate the space of possible pains and pleasures produces most of human culture.”
  • The true spiritual practitioner discovers the possibility of being at ease for no reason, if only for a few moments.
  • Some may be skeptical, but the possibility of selfless well-being exists in each moment.
  • One can experience the changes in one’s consciousness without believing in karma or in the miracles of Indian mystics.
  • “To get started as a Christian, however, one must first accept a dozen implausible things about the life of Jesus and the origins of the Bible—and the same can be said, minus a few unimportant details, about Judaism and Islam.”
  • The Pali Canon is the most authoritative teaching of the Buddha.
  • “There is indeed something preposterous about well-educated Westerners racing East in search of spiritual enlightenment while Easterners make the opposite pilgrimage seeking education and economic opportunities.”
  • Many Westerners appreciate that Buddhism isn’t primarily a faith-based religion and doesn’t require unwarranted assumptions.
  • “how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes.”
  • Simply “becoming interested in the nature of one’s own mind—especially in the immediate causes of psychological suffering—and by paying closer attention to one’s experience in every present moment” allows us to traverse the Eastern paths. “There is, in truth, nothing one need believe.”
  • “psychological well-being requires a healthy “sense of self.”
  • “It is always now.”
  • “We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy…as a consequence, we spend our lives far less content than we might otherwise be.”
  • “For beginners, I usually recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali for “insight”).”
  • “The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is almost always referred to as “mindfulness.”
  • Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati,” which means “clear awareness.”
  • “The Sattipatthana Sutta is not a collection of ancient myths, superstitions, and taboos; it is a rigorously empirical guide to freeing the mind from suffering.”
  • “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.”
  • “The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking.”
  • The problem is that we crave lasting satisfaction in that which is subject to change.
  • “Happily, the benefits of training in meditation arrive long before the mastery does.”
  • “The goal is to come out of the trance of discursive thinking and to stop reflexively grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant, so that we may enjoy a mind undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.”
  • Recognizing the impermanence of your mental states alone—sincerely, not as an idea—can transform your life.
  • The mind, rather than circumstances, determines the quality of your life.
  • “Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”
  • Our distorted view of reality leads to unnecessary suffering.

Chapter 2: The Mystery of Consciousness

  • “Investigating the nature of consciousness itself—and transforming its contents through deliberate training is the basis of spiritual life.”
  • “As a matter of experience…you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, from cradle to grave.”
  • “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.”

Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Self

  • The illusion of self is revealed upon close examination, enabled through meditation.
  • “Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self.”
  • “we are all seeking fulfillment while living at the mercy of changing experience.”
  • “No stable self is carried along from one moment to the next.”
  • “Everything that is personal, everything that differentiates my consciousness from that of another human being relates to the contents of consciousness [not consciousness itself].”
  • “consciousness is the context in which the objects of experience appear—the sound of traffic, the sensation of your back against a chair.”
  • Consciousness and its contents are the only things that exist, subjectively speaking.
  • “And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”
  • “this self is nowhere to be found…However, its absence can be found—and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.”
  • “Every moment of the day—indeed, every moment throughout one’s life—offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.”
  • “Thinking about what one is grateful for increases one’s feelings of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future.”
  • “It can be liberating to see how thoughts precede emotion—“and how negative emotions in turn set the stage for patterns of thinking that keep them active and coloring one’s mind.”
  • Seeing this clearly can be the difference between being angry, fearful, and depressed for a few moments or a few days, weeks, and months on end.
  • Failing to recognize thoughts as thoughts or appearances in consciousness gives rise to the illusion that a separate self is living inside one’s head and is a primary source of suffering.
  • “Taking oneself to be the thinker of one’s thoughts—that is, not recognizing the present thought to be a transitory appearance in consciousness—is a delusion that produces nearly every species of human conflict and unhappiness.”
  • “What doesn’t survive scrutiny cannot be real.”

Chapter 4: Meditation

  • One study found that people are consistently less happy when their minds wander, even when the thoughts are pleasant.
  • Stress, especially in early childhood, alters brain structure.
  • Five minutes of daily meditation for five weeks has been found to increase activity in the brain associated with positive emotions.
  • Mindfulness improves immune function, blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also helps behavioral regulation and is associated with greater well-being.
  • “But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self….”
  • “The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.” - Ramana Maharshi
  • “Reality is simply the loss of the ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because ego is not entity, it will automatically vanish, and reality will shine forth by itself.” - Ramana Maharshi
  • “Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.”
  • “Of all the Buddhist teachings, those of Dzogchen most closely resemble the teachings of Advaita.”
  • “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.”
    If you seek out Dzogchen teachings, “don’t be satisfied until you are certain you understand the practice.”
  • “selflessness is not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness. It is right on the surface.”
  • Through Dzogchen, I realized that “much of my time spent meditating had been a way of actively overlooking the very insight I was seeking.”
  • Embracing the contents of consciousness at any moment trains the mind to respond differently to adversity.

Chapter 5: Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles

  • The title “guru” tells us little about a person other than that some students hold this person in high regard.
  • The desire to progress and win a teacher’s approval makes a student vulnerable to emotional, financial, or sexual exploitation.
  • “Apart from parenthood, probably no human relationship offers greater scope for benevolence or abuse than that of guru to disciple.”
  • A student’s moral intuition and self-preservation instincts can continually be recast as symptoms of fear and attachment.
  • “Consequently, even the most extraordinarily cruel or degrading treatment at the hands of a guru can be interpreted as being for one's own good.”
  • Nothing is intrinsically boring; boredom is simply a lack of attention.
  • "Many people renounce the world because they can't find a satisfactory place in it, and almost any spiritual teaching can be used to justify a pathological lack of ambition. A doctrine that criticizes the search for worldly success can be appealing for someone who has not yet succeeded at anything and probably fears failure."
  • “a contemplative expert is someone who can help you realize certain truth about the nature of your own mind.”
  • “We need not come to the end of the path to experience the benefits of walking it.”
  • “Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious.”
  • “Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.”
  • “Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wonderfully at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of those deeper possibilities."
  • “It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness—to our thoughts, mood, and desires—that we make progress.”


  • “Most people still believe that religion provides something essential that cannot be had any other way.”
  • “During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.”
  • “Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary.”
  • “every present moment of consciousness is profound.”
  • “However numerous your faults, something in you at this moment is pristine—and only you can recognize it. Open your eyes and see.”

Related Resources

Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in Waking Up, which might be helpful for further learning.


  • Meister Eckhart
  • Pyrrho
  • Joseph Goldstein
  • Kurt Gödel
  • Alan Turing
  • John von Neumann
  • Claude Shannon
  • Matthieu Ricard
  • Genghis Khan
  • Thomas Nagel
  • Colin McGinn
  • Steven Pinker
  • J. S. Haldane
  • J. B. S. Haldane
  • Christof Koch
  • Roger W. Sperry
  • Sir John Eccles
  • Lee Silver (biologist)
  • Roland Puccetti
  • William James
  • Derek Parfit
  • V.S. Ramachandran
  • H. W. L. Poona
  • Ramana Maharshi
  • Tulku Urgyen
  • Tsoknyi Rinpoche
  • Mingyur Rinpoche
  • Douglas Harding, architect
  • Daniel Dennett
  • Douglas Hofstadter
  • Chögyam Trungpa
  • Osho
  • Henri Bergson

Books, Publications, and Groups

  • Theosophical Society
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris
  • Pali Canon
  • Satipatthana Sutta
  • The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
  • On Having No Head by Douglas Harding
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
  • Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck