A few months ago Sam Harris finally released his highly anticipated meditation app called Waking Up. I decided I wanted to keep a journal of the first thirty days and share my experience with all of you. As I write this I am currently on Day 32 in the app, and I can definitely say that it has lived up to my expectations. Sam was actually my initiation into the world of meditation four years ago through his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Since then, meditation and mindfulness have become an integral part of my life.

Although I did find time to meditate somewhat regularly over these past four years, I was definitely missing the structure of a daily practice. There would often be weeks at a time where I would lie to myself and say “I’m just too busy to meditate right now”. Many apps can provide the structure of a daily practice (Headspace, 10% Happier, etc), and Sam’s app is probably not for everyone. But for a certain type of person, I think the Waking Up app can cut through in a way that other apps cannot.

In this post, I want to describe how I think meditation can be so life changing as well as to lay out my case for why I think Sam’s Waking Up app is unique. As a supporter of Sam’s podcast, I got grandfathered into a membership on the app, but for everyone else the price is pretty steep at $14.99 per month. However Sam has emphasized multiple times on his podcast that for those who cannot afford this, they can simply send an email through the waking up website and receive one year of full access to the app for free ($120 value). I found this touching, and proof that he really believes in the power of this material to change people’s lives for the better.

The Woo-Woo problem

Meditation and mindfulness definitely suffer from what is known as a woo-woo problem. In the skeptical community, woo-woo is basically the catchphrase for anything outlandishly mystical or unscientific that gets peddled onto gullible people who might not know any better. It is commonly found in the space of anything new age or spiritual. Because of this, the smallest scent of woo can turn scientifically literate and skeptical people away from exploring the world of meditation. If this is you (I used to be an overly skeptical ass-hole myself), then I think Sam’s app is exactly what you need. Sam has a PhD in neuroscience and has made a career out of being an outspoken atheist who grounds his opinions in a strictly materialist viewpoint. But he has also studied and practiced meditation for most of his life, and he has even spent many months on various silent meditation retreats. He believes that there are profound realizations and states of mind that one can discover through meditation, and that these need not be stuck to or muddied with ancient religions or irrational viewpoints. For me personally, the idea of meditation coming from a person like Sam is what convinced me that there might be a there there. After four years on and off and now thirty days of consistent meditation, I feel confident saying that exploring the world of meditation will probably be the biggest life discovery a person can make. If you are worried about woo, then I think you will particularly like Sam’s app.

Definitions

Notice what you do in fact notice in each moment.

Sam Harris

Some of the terms surrounding this topic tend to get used haphazardly. They can seem to all have a similar and vague definition. I think this is part of the reason why a lot of smart people assume that the world of meditation must be mostly woo-woo. “Meditation” and “mindfulness” , for example, are often used interchangeably even though they are different. This can lead to a confusion about what meditation even is. So here are the definitions I’ve arrived at through my research and my experience with meditation. A lot of people think that the goal of meditation is to sit and breath while trying to clear the mind. This is not quite right, and I think having accurate definitions is important because it will help you to frame the concepts involved in meditation properly. Without some conceptual framing, meditation can seem like a terrifying and confusing endeavor. So here are the two basic definitions to get you started:

  • Meditation:  According to French author and Tibetan monk Dr. Matthieu Ricard, this word can best be translated from Tibetan to mean “familiarization”, as in a way to get to know your mind. As said by one of my favorite teachers Joseph Goldstein, “If you want to understand your mind, simply sit down and observe it”
  • Mindfulness: This term, originating from the ancient languages Sanskrit and Pali, can be defined as “remembering”, “awareness”, or “knowing”. It refers to remembering the object of our attention or having awareness of what is happening in our minds.

So you can think of meditation as being a method, and mindfulness as being a quality. In the scientific literature, the quality of mindfulness is defined with the word meta-awareness. With meta-awareness, we have a flexible yet focused awareness of the objects and processes arising in the mind. Experientially it feels as though we are watching the thoughts arise from a distance, and we do not identify with or get lost in the thoughts. As Sam says throughout his guided meditations, “notice what you do in fact notice in each moment”.

Why Bother Meditating?

This is a fair question. Life is short so why should one waste their time just sitting down with their eyes closed? Well without meta-awareness, not only are we lost in thought, we are often acting out those thoughts. When we are aware of thoughts, we can put a distance between them and ourselves. This space allows us to choose whether we act on those thoughts or not. Thoughts also tend to follow automatic trains of association, and just like we all have negative physical habits, we all have negative psychological habits as well. These habits are patterns of thought that we tend to fall into such as worrying, daydreaming, or overanalyzing. We may not be able to break these psychological habits, but when we learn to recognize them and become mindful of them, they lose their power over us.

The practice of meditation can also help us treat those around us in a more loving and consistent way. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, coined the term window of tolerance. This window is the range of our nervous system’s arousal in which we can calmly and flexibly respond to difficult situations. Everyone has a different range that works for them, and it is important to know your own nervous system. Inside of the window we don’t blindly react because we are able to more easily take the time to respond with wisdom and compassion. Outside of this range, however, we tend to make snap judgements and react in rigid and angry ways. Absorbing and being open to new information is also very difficult in this state. Sometimes this window of tolerance is quite wide and expansive, but stress, hunger, sickness, and many other things can shrink it down. A small window of tolerance means that the smallest trigger can set us off into a fight or flight type mode where meta-awareness is nearly impossible.

Modern life tends to keep us distracted as it constantly puts pressure on our window of tolerance. Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain, called this constant arousal “life on simmer”. The perfect example of this is driving. In a car our nervous systems are already in a heightened state, and traffic, being late, or other angry drivers can easily set us off. I’ve actually found that driving is the perfect laboratory for testing my mindfulness skills. Mindfulness allows us to notice when we are exiting our window of tolerance so that we can purposefully decide to quiet our nervous systems. A few long out breaths will send a calming signal down the vagus nerve to put the body into more of a rest and digest mode (the parasympathtetic nervous system). It won’t always work, but when you start to implement mindfulness during difficult situations it can feel like a super power.  

Sam’s approach and “not-Self”.

Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.

Sam Harris

Lastly I want to outline the specifics of Sam’s app and its approach to meditation. At approximately ten minutes per day, it really is easy to fit into your schedule. In addition, he is quite skilled at providing a simple and accurate framing for what we want to experience during meditation. For fans of his work (scientific/analytical type thinkers who don’t like the woo), I think this is especially helpful. Other apps that I have used have definitely been helpful (I still use 10%Happier pretty regularly), but only Waking Up has helped me to build a framework of conceptual understanding. The app also contains a separate lessons section in which Sam dives deeper into topics and concepts that relate to meditation and consciousness.

Sam’s basic approach centers around a type of meditation practice known as Vipassana. This ancient Pali word translates as “insight”. It begins with the simple anchoring of attention onto the breath, but in a deeper sense it refers to an insight into the true nature of reality. Fans of Sam will be familiar with this idea which he speaks about often (for example here): “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion”. It means that no matter where consciousness actually is (it could theoretically be a simulation on an alien hard drive somewhere), the feeling of any experience at all means that it exists. And the fact that everything, and I mean everything (thoughts, sounds, sensations etc), arises in the space of consciousness is a running theme throughout his guided meditations.

Another important running theme throughout the course is the shifting between focused attention on one object in consciousness and open awareness of all objects arising in consciousness. These are two different ways of paying attention, although in the end he says they are ultimately unified. Precise focus, such as keeping attention on the breath, trains our concentration. Open and effortless awareness allows us to step back and see everything as it arises into the space of consciousness. Susan Greenland, in her book Mindful Games (Sam’s wife Annaka Harris is actually the editor of this book), describes these two modes as the spotlight of attention and the floodlight of attention.

The spotlight of attention is a clear, stable, narrow beam that lights up a single object. The floodlight of attention is a wide, receptive beam that lights up a broad field of changing experience.

Susan Kaiser Greenland from Mindful Games

Perhaps the most unique aspect to Sam’s approach is his emphasis, from early on in the practice, on the Buddhist concept of Annata or not-Self. It is probably the central thesis to his book Waking Up as well. Without getting into the philosophy of Buddhism, the aggregates, and the meaning of “Self” (Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True does a good job of that), we can think of the self as the feeling you have of being behind your eyes. It is the feeling that there is a center to consciousness that is the subject, and that this subject looks out at objects. Paying attention in the right way, however, can cause this centered feeling of subject to drop away from consciousness. So not only do thoughts, sensations, and emotions arise in the space of mind, the very feeling of being a self behind the eyes is also arising in the mind. It is yet another layer that, when examined closely, can be peeled away and experienced more nakedly. It’s not the case that consciousness is in your head, but that everything, including the feeling of having a head, is inside of consciousness. I have only experienced this feeling for fleeting moments during the course, but the idea is that with deeper concentration one can maintain this insight into the reality of the mind for longer periods. It is unique for a meditation app to try and tackle this deep insight. Sam cleverly sprinkles this concept of not-Self throughout his guided meditations in a way that is accessible, and it allowed me to finally experience what he has been talking about all these years.

Other than Vipassana, Sam also integrates other approaches and styles of meditation into his course such as compassion, gratitude, and loving kindness (Metta in Pali). You don’t have to worry about understanding the philosophy of Buddhism or squaring reality with any of its ridiculous religious aspects. Sam has exported the relevant information for you into one balanced and easy to follow course.

On day 31, Sam ended the guided meditation by asking us to reflect on and appreciate the fact that we are even trying to improve ourselves in this way. It is proof of our good intentions to help ourselves and others suffer less. These intentions can feel far away during day to day life, but a daily meditation practice can help us to regularly connect with them. If you’ve never tried meditation, especially because you are overly skeptical, this app is worth your time.

Thanks for reading!    -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast


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