I’ve just finished Sam Harris’ book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. I highly recommend it, as it contains important insights both for materialists who would normally dismiss meditation/contemplation and for supernaturalists who mistakenly think that their inner experiences furnish evidence for metaphysical truths.
As Harris concisely and eloquently argues, attention to the details of our inner lives is of supreme importance to human beings. Learning to pay attention to consciousness gives us insights into the fact that consciousness by its nature lacks a self: that is to say, our felt sense that we are “separate” from our experiences is not true and isn’t even an illusion – because if one looks closely and carefully enough, that sense is not there to be found.Harris points out that such attention loosens the shackles that our emotions place upon us (he points out, for instance, how it is impossible to remain angry for more than a few seconds if one is actually paying attention to the experience of the present moment, instead of continually manufacturing anger by rehearsing a mental story about grievances). He further argues that experiences of self-transcendence have ethical implications – and while Harris is not a Thelemite and does not use the jargon of Thelema (“True Will”), his observations that attention to the present moment naturally settles the clutter of one’s mental life can easily be appropriated in a Thelemic context. With a mind thus settled, an aspirant will find it easier, practically by definition, to perceive his or her authentic inclinations (i.e. “True Will”).
Harris also points out the logical flaws in using such inner experiences to justify metaphysical claims, exploring the evidence that indicates that minds arise from brains and investigating how physical changes to brains – including during near-death experiences and drug trips – can cause experiences that resemble trances that meditation can induce more gradually and safely. He also discusses how unscrupulous gurus can take advantage of people and justify this behavior with some of the insights generated by meditation.
Some of the ideas covered in this book – and a short guided meditation – are presented in a very interesting talk Harris gave about “Death and the Present Moment,” which you can view here.
I highly recommend both the video and the book.