Los Lunes Son Para Libros: 6th Edition

The book I would like to briefly discuss in this edition of Los Lunes on Para Libros is titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and is authored by a man named Sam Harris. Harris is a super interesting man and draws from an incredibly impressive background. The dude studied philosophy at Stanford and then went on to get a Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA. I must say that both his alma matter are quite agreeable to me because my sister is also a graduate from both those institutions. Go Bruins! Go Cardinals! Sam Harris is also a boisterous atheist. He is very open about his secular beliefs in all his books and discusses deeply many religious and non-religious topics on his podcast also titled Waking Up. With that being said however, Harris also practices Buddhism. He believes that there are elements of Buddhism — primarily meditation, mindfulness and morality—that can be taken out of its original religious pretexts and practiced in a secular manner, essentially reaping the benefits of the ‘good parts’ and not following the ‘bad parts’.  This is a really interesting idea and informs his thinking and his writing. Hence the whole spirituality without religion subtitle of this book.


His book Waking Up was recommended to me by a friend in the Peace Corps after a conversation we had about one of one of the other books I reviewed.  We often get to chatting about the books we are reading on the approach trail or as we are flaking the rope and tying in. But have no fear, despite our other-wordly and completely cerebral conversations, we always remember to double check our knots and belay systems before we start climbing.


On the inside cover of his book, a small blurb reads as follows: “For the millions of Americans who want spirituality without religion, Waking Up is a guide to meditation as a rational practice informed by neuroscience and psychology.” After reading the book, I’m not so sure that it was. In fact, the book seemed disjointed to me is multiple chapters, falling short of any comprehensive guide. With that being said however, Harris had plenty of interesting things to share. Almost all of which were completely new to me. I read a lot but it’s rare that I delve into the depths of neuroscience. And because of that, I did not completely understand certain portions of Harris’ book. I found myself rereading a lot and losing track of my concentration. This I think, is both my fault and the authors. My fault because perhaps I wasn’t placing enough emphasis on being present while I was reading (which is entirely comical especially considering a large part of the book is about mindfulness). But I also think Harris could have done a better job at making his book more digestible. If he really wanted to reach “millions of Americans”, many of whom probably have not received any formal training in neuroscience or psychology, then he should have written in a way that was a little bit more comprehensible for the average layperson. Nonetheless (and thankfully), I’m not a complete idiot and I did absorb some really interesting stuff. But to do honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this book. In fact, I finished it quite a while ago but haven’t mustered up the desire to write about it until now. The empty Word document I’ve had waiting for text has been hanging over my head so I’m finally putting words to page so I can move on to the next book. I’ll do my best to share a few things below:


A little way into his book Harris begins talking about the ancient mystery of consciousness. To broach the topic, he quotes a famous philosopher Thomas Nagel and his discussion about bats. Nagel believes that an entity is conscious “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something that it is like for the organism.” In other words, Nagel is proposing that we try to imagine what is must be like to be a bat. If you are left with an experience, emotion, sights, sounds then that is what consciousness is in the case of a bat. Harris uses this long winded allusion to explain that consciousness is completely subjective. And that at some point it emerged in complex organisms like ourselves. Where, or why or how this emergence came around isn’t completely clear. But Harris believes it to be a matter of organization. Harris admits that this is as far as he will go with a hypothesis about the source consciousness. The man doesn’t know either. But what he does know is that the mere fact that we are having an experience is all that really matters. “Consciousness” then, “is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.”

sam harris consciousness quote

Later, Harris goes on to add complexity to our traditional understandings of consciousness. He shares that for the most part, it is widely known and accepted that our brains are divided into two hemispheres. Connecting the two sides are nerve tracts called commissures. The main commissure for mammals like us is called the corpus callosum. Harris explains, “the unity of every human mind depends on the normal functioning of these connections. Without them, our brains and minds are divided.”  In the brains of some people however, the functioning of these commissures is exactly what causes unregulated brain activity and severe seizures. So back in the 80s it was found out that by severing the commissures, a person with severe seizures could live more comfortably. Well, turns out that these split-brain experiments helped discover a lot more about the brain than just seizures. Through a serious of experiments, it was found out that the two hemispheres of the brain, once disconnected through a procedure called a collosotomy, “display an altogether astonishing functional independence, including separate memories, learning processes, behavior intentions, and –it seems all but certain—centers of conscious experience.” In other words, Harris is arguing that our idea of a human being having a single consciousness or conscious experience may be short sighted. And rather, it might be more accurate for us to think of our consciousness in two parts.


Furthermore, “what is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious.” The right hemisphere is dominant for cognitive abilities. It has “an advantage when reading faces, intuiting geometrical principles and spatial relationships, perceiving wholes from a collection of parts, and judging musical chords.” It is also better at displaying emotions and detecting emotions in others. The two sides of our brain have different temperaments and make different contributions to our emotional life. Therefore, Harris argues that “much of what makes us human is generally accomplished by the right side of the brain. Consequently, we have every reason to believe that the disc

onnected right hemisphere is independently conscious and that the divided brain harbors two distinct points of view.” So then is a complete right hemispherectomy merely a therapeutic intervention or murder?  Do we have one or two consciousness? Are we one or two people? Is our peoplehood even a determined by our consciousness? From where in my brain am I looking out? Am I just my brain? Or am I the body that’s writing this blog post? Or am I just a series of neurons blasting off this way and firing off in that way? It is clear that Harris’ book has got my mind(s) all bottled up. What’s cool and cryptic about it all, and what helps me from spending too much time thinking about it, is what Harris has to say to close this section of his book. “All brains—and persons—may be split to one or another degree. Each of us may live, even now, in a fluid state of split and overlapping subjectivity. Whether or not this seems plausible to you may not be the point. Another part of your brain may see the matter differently.”


According to Harris, consciousness is what matters. “Despite the obvious importance of the unconscious mind, consciousness is what matters to us— not just for the purpose of spiritual practice, but in every aspect of our lives. Consciousness is the substance of any experience we can have or hope for, now or in the future.” Harris goes on to argue that consciousness is what provides the moral dimension to our lives. In other words, we have moral and ethical responsibilities to other conscious creatures (and them to us) precisely because our actions can negatively or positively affect their conscious experience. In other words, Harris says we don’t have ethical obligations to rocks, but we do have such obligations to anything that can suffer or be deprived of its happiness. Harris writes, “I take it to be axiomatic, therefore, that our notions of meaning, morality, and value presuppose the actuality of consciousness (or its loss) somewhere.” This is to say that any definition or understanding of what morality or ethics actually mean that does not include or necessitate the experience of conscious beings is extremely hard to come by, and probably impossible. And even if you were to find an example, all your philosophizing would truthfully not matter because by definition it would have to be outside the experience of any and all conscious beings now and forever. “Although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our being itself. That doesn’t leave much scope for conventional religious beliefs, but it does offer a deep foundation for a contemplative life.”


Yeah…well… if you’re not atleast a little bit confused that blog post then either I did an amazing job at synthesizing my favorite parts of Harris’ book, or you’re too damn smart and need to stop reading my blog and pick up the book yourself. Either way I hoped you enjoyed it and that it made you contemplate hard. Because that’s what it’s all about. Why spend millions of years evolving if we aren’t gunna use the (brain) power that was bestowed to us?

waking up face


Frigg Yeah Friday, #4

Look at these friggen colors!

This woman knows how to raise a friggen family AND take care of a gringo

Marco has better friggen jokes than I do

3 months ago Shirel was a blob of a baby. Now she’s playing the friggen piano and trying to walk!

This plaza is friggen sweet

About Me, 6 Month Check In

So I’ve been in country for about 6 months. This is by far the longest time I have been out of the country. And I think the longest time I’ve been away from my family. I am no stranger to living on my own, but I always make it home for a week or two during the holidays. One part of me deeply misses my family and friends. The other part of me feels like it is just hitting its stride and getting comfortable. Now for an update on who I think I am in this moment.


1.) The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I’m sick. I wouldn’t consider this to be a part of my identity, however it’s the lessons I learn that I think change who I am. I get sick about once a month either from food, water or travel. That’s an obnoxious amount of sickness compared to what I am used to. My body feels like it is constantly battling something. Because of that, I spent a lot more time with myself– breathing and waiting to heal. I am more patient now and I am more grateful for the times when my body is 100%.

2.) Developing fanatic of huayno music. My family has 2 channels on their TV. One for news and one for music. Huayno is the typical music of the Andean sierra where I live. Most of the times I do not enjoy it. Especially when its blaring in the morning to wake me up and blaring at night to put me to bed. However, sometimes, I catch myself singing along and tapping my feet. Here is a sample. Enjoy!

3.) Still a poet? I haven’t felt inspired to write poetry in a while. Normally I wait for experiences or certain thoughts to spur the creation of a poem. As of lately though, I’ve only been writing longer blog posts and personal diary entries. I identity strongly as a writer, but not so much as a poet right now.

4.) Along the same lines as #3, right now, the part of me that is an ethnographer is strong. My master’s research is in full swing. So far I have collected 3 interviews and have 3 more scheduled for this month. I’ve also logged about 4 months of observations. It is exciting for me to chip away at this process. I look forward to learning more and writing something interesting about my community.

5.) I identify as a rock climber now more than ever. The fact that I have been able to continue my passion for rock climbing in Peru has been incredible. Rock climbing allows me to see beautiful places, meet awesome people, get stronger in new gyms and push the limits of my physical and mental boundaries. Just yesterday I came down from my first multi-pitch in Peru. In total, the climb should have been 3 pitches, but at the top of the second pitch, we got forced down by rain. After some wet and muddy rappels, we were on the ground and racing for a bus ride home.

6.) Practicing yogi. My yoga practice has been developing for about 2 years now. Before that however, I have specific memories of thinking and saying that I would never enjoy yoga. I’m not sure what changed, but something just clicked while I was living in CO. The practice became a perfect counterbalance to the other aspects of my life such as skiing, rock climbing and cycling. Just last month I completed a 30 day commitment to yoga with my sister as part of the new year. I used downloaded videos to guide me through the process. The process helped me realize how much I enjoy a personal home practice as opposed to public classes and how much I prefer slow and gentle yogic styles as opposed to flowy and sweaty vinyasas. With that being however, limb of the yogic process serves a very valuable purpose. Use this link to check out videos from the teacher I enjoy. She is kind of a legend in the online/video/home practice world of yoga.

A Lesson Learned: Carnaval, Part 2

As you will notice from the title, this is part 2 of a longer blog post I wrote. Where is part 1 you ask? Well, it’s not public. I’ve decided to not put it on the interwebs in order to avoid judgment and potential problems from my audience (Peace Corps, future employers etc). In other words, my grandparents read this blog and there is no need for them to read an entirely vulgar and embarrassing blog post about poop. With that said, if you want to read it, just leave a comment on this post or let me know on WhatsApp and I’ll send it to you privately. Now on to the blog post…


My carnaval  experience came when my family invited me to the local yunsa festival. The yunsa festivities pop up all over Peru during the month of February. Individual communities all prepare their own party but the origins tend to be the same. As it would turn out, this was the only event that I was able to attend. I’m missing a lot of the parties because I need to go to Lima for early in-service training. This is definitely a point of frustration. The PC preaches a lot about cultural integration and experiencing as many local events a possible, yet they schedule training during one of the biggest cultural events for the entire country. Nonetheless, the PC schedule is busy so I like to believe that there is a legit reason why they did it (besides just behavior management of their new volunteers during a fun and exciting time).

The yunsa is a celebration of the campesinos— the people/farmers who live in rural parts of Peru. Yunsa has to do with the changing of time and is a celebration of the new harvest. Traditionally, it’s called cortamonte which roughly translates to ‘short mountain’. In general, a tree is cut down and dragged down to the location of the party. Later it gets ‘replanted’ in the ground and decorated with gifts like a Christmas tree. Blankets, purses, clothing and other decorations are hung in the tree until the weight of all the items looks like it will topple over. Once the tree is armed and ready to go, the dance party ensues until the wee hours of the night. Once everyone is good and liquored up, the tree cutting begins. Community members take turns dancing around the tree and taking hacks at the trunk. Eventually the tree falls and gets raided for its gifts. The last person to chop the tree then becomes the mayordomo and is responsible for organizing and financing next year’s yunsa festivities.



My host family took my to the yunsa party specifically so I could experience it. It was a beautiful evening when we took our walk down to the party. It was located in a nearby annex in my district. From up on high on my hill, the colors and music from the party could be seen from a far distance. As we arrived, all the normal party arrangements were already there. A señora selling her fried chicken, mobile kioskos selling toys and candy for the children, and some man selling beer out of one of the houses.

It was really nice to show up to a local event and see so many familiar faces. It almost felt like I was supposed to be there. But still a certain part of me felt out of place. I look forward to the moment where that uncomfortableness melts away. As we strolled through the party, I greeted as many people as I could. The parents and families were excited to see me, and the kids from the colegio acted like they were too cool to interact with my in public. Classic teenagers. It didn’t take long for me to get invited into a beer circle. I hung out and chatted for a few rounds until the beer ran out. These dudes hadn’t yet upgraded to the box of beer, just a few bottles.

My host-dad and I decided to move in a littler closer to the tree and dance party. In my eyes (and ears), there were two bands. I quickly learned that one was a banda and the other was an orquesta. The difference is that the band has a horn section, while the orquestra has a harp player. The two groups took turns playing songs.  It seemed to me like the band was more popular, but after a certain amount of beers, Peruvians will literally dance to anything.

On the far side of the cornfield, I saw a few of my counterparts from the school I work with. I made my way over and joined their group. It felt good to feel like I had some co-workers and people to spend time with because to be honest, my host-dad was strangely not very exciting or sociable at the party. We hung out, shared beers and had good conversations. Everyone rotated in and out of the dance, always coming back for a ‘water’ break. We ourselves didn’t have a box, but the beer still seemed endless. The Mayor of my community and another man kept coming over to bring us beers. I found out that if you hangout with the right people, and are well respected,  people love to share their drinks with you. So there we were, watching the sunset, enjoying cheap Peruvian beer and observing as the party evolved.


Eventually the sun went down. Everything got real dark, real quick. I guess nobody to take the time to figure out the lighting, but it really didn’t matter. The band and orquestra continued duelling and the people continued dancing.  Eventually is was time to cut the tree. Out of the darkness a man came with an axe and began chopping. A circle formed around the tree and people began scoping the items they wanted to score. I’m not sure how long it took but the tree fell a lot earlier than I thought it would . I really wanted to get in there and give it a few chops, but I’m glad I didn’t. As the tree fell, chaos happened. Lots of dust, yelling, pushing and shoving. I think even one dude was underneith the branches somewhere. People were fighting over blankets and arguing about who grabbed it first. Luckily for me, no body saw the two items I pulled out. I got a shirt that doesn’t fit and a women’s purse.

We regrouped after the tree fell to talk about the gifts we pulled out. I decided I would try and gift the purse to someone in my family and the shirt to my little host-brother. Shortly after, it was time to go home. I was glad because I was exhausted and had to go to work the next day. However, no end was in sight for the rest of the party. We strolled out of the party and went to find a car to take us home. We tried to buy some chicken but she was all out– which, if I am being honest, I was also glad for also. A neighbor picked the family up and shoved us all in. We bumped along dark roads until we were let out in front of our house.

In general, the event was really fun. I was grateful to experience a small amount of carnaval  before I had to travel to Lima for training. I am hoping that next February I will have the opportunity to attend more events. The yunsa party was a nice reminder of the integration I am experiencing. The familiar faces and friendly greetings I received reminded me that with time, one can feel like they belong. Reflecting back, the event didn’t seem as daunting as other social events in the past. Most of me was excited to see what the night was going to have in store for me. It feels like little by little, I am garnering more confidence and confianza with the members of my community. That really feels good, and is perhaps the favorite thing I learned from the entire experience.