Freeimages/"Landscape in the Lake"
Source: Freeimages/"Landscape in the Lake"

I’ve always been one of those for whom the effort to meditate causes increased anxiety. Still, I read Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by bestselling atheist author Sam Harris and tried to contain my skepticism. What’s Harris doing now, I wondered, jumping on the “spirituality” bandwagon?  

But I actually “got” it. I can now, for very brief periods, in a very shallow and still distractible way, focus on my breathing and recognize my thoughts as they float by and I let them go without pursuing them. For me, that’s actually quite a revelation. How did Harris manage to help me finally accomplish such an odd (to me) state of mind?


It turned out that I was able to follow Harris’s narrative, and I especially enjoyed his outright rejection of the religious accoutrements that typically go along with many discussions of meditation. As for the word spiritual, Harris writes that he will

address the animosity that many readers feel toward the term spiritual. Whenever I use the word, as in referring to meditation as a ‘spiritual practice,’ I hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.

For now, I’ve simply put aside whether or not we need to use the word spiritual to explore going deeper into one’s own mind. But do I agree with Harris’s view that the self is an illusion? I don’t think so. Here he speaks for himself:

But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being. Consequently, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. And yet, I glimpse what I will call the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness every day, whether at a traditional holy site, or at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned. This is not an accident. I’ve spent many years practicing meditation, the purpose of which is to cut through the illusion of the self.


This next excerpted paragraph is, for me, the key (though you ought to read the book because this is only the beginning of the part that changed my own thinking about meditation):

There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant. One of the great strengths of this technique of meditation, from a secular point of view, is that it does not require us to adopt any cultural affectations or unjustified beliefs. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment.

Book cover used with permission.
Source: Book cover used with permission.

Harris tells us that, after years of experimenting with different kinds of meditation under numerous teachers, he prefers and recommends a particular kind:

Dzogchen is not vague or paradoxical. It is not like Zen, wherein a person can spend years being uncertain whether he is meditating correctly. The practice of recognizing nondual awareness is called trekchod, which means “cutting through” in Tibetan, as in cutting a string cleanly so that both ends fall away. Once one has cut it, there is no doubt that it has been cut. I recommend that you demand the same clarity of your meditation practice.


I also recommend Harris’s essay, written for his blog after Waking Up was complete, in which he shares his own recent struggles with tinnitus and an as-yet-undiagnosed dizziness:

The point of this essay is to report that the case I make in the book still stands: Meditation really works—at least at my current level of inconvenience. It is possible to accept the present moment fully, even when it isn’t the present one wants.

For me, that makes this whole meditating endeavor that much more human and worth pursuing.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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