I once read that for some people, trying to meditate only makes them more anxious. The thing is, the anxiety may be a result of trying to do something alien that, at first, makes no sense at all in the context of one’s life.
Not that I’ve given up that theory, but after reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (coming out September 9) by bestselling atheist author Sam Harris, 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?
In fact, I began reading Harris’s latest book with a bit of skepticism. What’s he doing now, I wondered, jumping on the “spirituality” bandwagon? Harris, in fact, is shortly to deliver a series of lectures that he will have professionally recorded for future sale (it makes sense to provide something of higher quality than the usual YouTube version).
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. 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.
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.
DOES IT WORK?
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.