Meditation for Non-Dummies: The Sam Harris brand of mindfulness

I have “meditated” and failed at meditation and actually meditated or done something like it, in fits and starts, for many years. I haven’t ever been “good” at it. My mind is too easily prone to distraction. But I feel like I’ve been doing something calming and productive, something that generally makes me feel better and may have some more durable effects on my state of mind.

But right now I am using Sam Harris’s meditation app, Waking Up, going through its daily practices almost daily, and I’m getting intimations of a different, wider, and in some ways more difficult kind of practice, and it makes me wonder what I was doing before.

A real orthodoxy has formed around the basic practices for mindfulness meditation: You pay attention to your breath, you gently but firmly dismiss thoughts that form, you pay attention to the sounds around you, also the sensations in your body. Breath, sound, sensation—these are the three things that can guide you into an awareness of the present and evict your errant thoughts. Every approach to mindfulness meditation I know of uses some combination of them.

Waking Up uses these as well. But about this and every other received truth around mindfulness, Harris is more…I don’t know…more methodical, discerning, and illuminative than anyone I’ve heard on the subject. Meditation is “easy” but it’s hard! There is a real method here, based on real insights about how the brain works, how it conceives of the world and its self. You can’t simply barge into meditative states by having someone say in your earphones, over ambient music, and with a reverbed-out voice, “pay attention to your breath”. Or at least I couldn’t. And I tried a bunch.

Waking Up builds. It instructs. The daily lessons and practices are meant to subtly introduce, then accustom, and then educate your brain to the work of mindfulness, in a particular order, and at a slow steady rate, as Harris himself says. It’s a little strenuous! And very, very gradual. But for me the combination of practice and lesson, of feeling and knowing, is perfect.

Just as one example of an area where Harris’s method builds some real support for the meditator, consider the practice of opening your eyes during meditation. To broaden your awareness, you may very well want to include sight, to be mindful about what you see as well as the other contents of your mind. But blithe recommendations about this practice—or no guidance at all—pretty much insures that you’re going to get lost–in these bright objects, or thoughts about them, or the screen near by. For Harris, opening your eyes is a discreet, mapped milestone in your practice (maybe around day 10?), for which he has experiential, practical and even neurophysiological advice to share—during the practice itself. Other areas: The difference between attention and consciousness. The problem(s) of free will. It’s weird. You’d think that his practical, rational, and repeated inputs would distract, but for me they deepen awareness. And reform it.

I was already a super-fan of Sam Harris’s, so maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m seeing things. I’ve thought of his work in neuroscience, political thought, debate, atheism, spirituality and meditation as separate, distinguished contributions. But on Day Fifteen or so in Waking Up, which is the name of the meditation app discussed here, and his neuroscience-inflected in-app lessons and his podcast interviews, all of which I support through his Patreon, I think you can see a synthesis of a lot of these separate projects, a fusion of rationality, spirituality, and the science of mind that really works.

“NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER rent to her”: The found art of negative Airbnb reviews

We needed to flee when Hurricane Florence landed on our home town of Wilmington, NC, last month, and came upon this unhappy but perfect exchange in our searches—a dismissive Airbnb review of a cottage on farmland near Odessa, FL, a sharp reply from the host, and then an assertive personal review about the renter herself on her profile page, the only one about her.

One-star reviews 1 with real content in them—such as we pored over as we travelled in our Travato last year, looking for RV parks up ahead that weren’t too dicey—are a form of pop art without equal. You can laugh until you cry, discuss the merits of the claims, think of counter-arguments, try to piece together the story. Almost always we felt the harsh reviews made the reviewers seem much worse than the offending teen-aged receptionist or breakfast bar or RV park that didn’t let your Chihuahua shit its little turds on the Astro-turf after 10PM.

In these and in so much online writing, what you’re really often seeing is an epidemic sense of entitlement and aggrievement. You’re seeing people disqualify themselves as judges of what’s good or decent or helpful for others with their smug tones and haughty wounded-ness. The whole world is not a stupid movie megaplex for your thoughtless angry “reviews”!

This is an example of the form, sort of. Seems like this girl, Jenny, rents out the Odessa cottage—which looks lovely and seems to have attracted nothing but really neat renters up until now because of the care the host puts into it, its charm, its chickens. Then the girl throws the kind of giant rager party where you pile furniture, install black lights, stamp hands at the door and admit packs of under-aged drinkers. This is in the back yard the cottage shares with the host’s own home. Then, when it comes apart Jenny leaves this flippant, tiny comment—which is the kind of thing that can tarnish an Airbnb host’s reputation and rental income:

Be sure to triple confirm if you’re throwing a party and advise if people will be outside.

The nerve of that host, Laurel, not letting her cottage be trashed at a party Jenny was printing flyers for and didn’t show up at!

Response from Laurel:
I want to respond this review because her comments are bold-faced lies. They were not having a graduation party. First, she NEVER told me that she was having a party. Two teenagers showed up and I asked them who they were. They said they were here for the party. I called Jennifer and she told me that they were having a family get together. Well that family “get together” turned into a RAVE. They were charging money and stamping hands at the door . They had removed all my furniture and piled it on top of each other in the bedroom and bathroom. They removed all my lightbulbs and replaced them with black lights. And the most disturbing thing was that they were serving alcohol to minors (beer from a keg in my refrigerator and shots – all the liquor bottles were strewn around the house). The new wood floor was soaking wet. I asked two of the teenagers who were standing outside how they knew the people who rented and they said that they didn’t know them. The party was posted on Instagram and kids from all over the county were there. II made them leave because IT WAS ILLEGAL ACTIVITY, How dare Jennifer say that it was a family get together and children were outside!!!!! SHE NEVER EVER SHOWED UP AT THE PROPERTY.

And over on Jenny’s profile, Laurel posts this TKO as well. Read on. I think I’m fully on the side of Laurel and the chickens.

This was the most upsetting experience I have ever had with my vacation rentals. I have been renting for over 4 years and nothing like this has ever happened. Jennifer instant booked and I had not communication with her about her stay. (Be careful about instant booking). The day of “her” arrival, two teenagers were sitting in my driveway in a truck. I asked them who they were and they told me that they were renting my house. I asked where Jennifer was and they said that Jennifer’s husband was coming to stay. Then they said they were having a small graduation party with family and a few friends. I called Jennifer and told her that she should have told me about the party. She said it would be very small. I saw kids and older people early in the evening and it seemed harmless. At around 9:30pm I went to let my dogs out. There was a full-blown rave going on in my house. An “adult” who said he was a friend of Jennifer’s husband was stamping KIDS hands and using a black light to see if they had paid. YES PAID!!!! I went in the house and all the furniture was gone from the livingroom/kitchen. Black lights had replaced all my lights bulbs. There was a keg in the refrigerator. Liquor bottles and shot glasses were strewn around. The wood floors were wet. All the furniture was tossed on the bed in the bedroom. The bedroom furniture was in the bathroom. I almost had a stroke. I called Jennifer who was at home sleeping. I told her what I thought of her and her disrespect. I talked to one of the kids and asked how they knew the graduate kid. They said that didn’t know him. They said that someone had posted on Instagram that there was a club party at my address. Strangers from all over the county were there. I shut down the party and made the “guests” leave. Fortunately the graduate and the adult friend stayed to clean up. Soon after Jennifer’s husband arrived and helped clean also. I didn’t call the police, but in hindsight I should have. UNBELIEVABLE. This woman is he most disrespectful liar I have ever met. NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER rent to her.

From Odessa, FL · July 2018

Notes:

  1. One of the common tropes in this medium is that the reviewer ‘would have left zero stars’ but needed to leave at least a star to tell others how terrible their experiences were