in Life, Thought

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.

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  1. I’ve been meditating (or something like it) for about 2 years. I’m not very good at it but would like to be. I’m going to check this out. Thanks for the recommendation!