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Self-liberation - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.08.26

Sam Harris

Awareness itself is wide open and totally undefined. Simply rest as that and watch your thoughts liberate themselves.

How can thoughts "liberate themselves "? Are thoughts Houdinis of the mind? What is this process of "liberation"? Who is liberated from what?

(Pictures: the master of self-liberation, Houdini)

With "self-liberation", Sam Harris references a Mahamudra / Dzogchen concept. In essence, it means that thoughts (and other mental events) lose significance and lose their hold on the meditator.

The meanings of "self-liberation" in concentration and insight meditation

The specific meaning of the term depends on the stage of meditation in which it is used. The difference is whether thoughts are seen as enemies or as friends:

Stage (or type of meditation)

​Meaning of "Self-Liberation"

​Concentration meditation (shamata)

​As soon as the meditator recognises a thought as an object, it dissolves (in the tradition this is metaphorically expressed for example as "like morning mist in the sun"; Sam Harris uses the neutral expression "they unwind"). In this stage, the goal of meditation is to calm the mind. Thus, self-liberation "gets rid" of thoughts, ideally as soon as the meditator notices their first subtle stirring.

​Insight meditation (vipassana)

​As soon as the meditator recognises a thought as an object, it is seen as "empty" (as fabricated, as not having a self-existence). In this stage, the meditator has no need to get rid of thoughts ("thoughts are your friend"). The mind has been trained to be "mirror-mind" at all times, regardless what happens. The mind just stays in full awareness of the mental events as they arise, stay and disappear. Thus, self-liberation consists in giving mental events a specific interpretation (they are "empty") rather than getting rid of them.

Automaticity of self-liberation

A common characteristicum for both types of "self-liberation" is that the meditator, with training, does not have to "do" anything. It happens automatically. Hence also the term "automatic emptiness".

"Once the correct view has been established, nothing needs to be done to bring about liberation from emotional suffering. Emotional states become self-liberated (rang grol) as they arise. As emotions arise, awareness-itself shows them to be nondual, relative manifestations of awakened wisdom" (D. P. Brown & Thurman, 2006, p. 514)

Some quotes from the literature

In this classical book, the method of "resting in a thought" (the seventh method to rest the mind in concentration meditation or shamata) two meanings of "self-liberation" are explained.

Question: What is the difference between the self-liberation in the seventh stage and the self-liberation in the mahamudra tradition?
Rinpoche: As you mentioned in your question, the term self-liberation is used in both cases, but it has somewhat different meanings. In the case of the seventh of the nine methods of resting the mind, it refers to the fact that without one’s having to get rid of the thought, it simply dissolves naturally of itself. In the context of mahamudra, self-liberation refers to the irrelevance of thought because there is recognition of the mind’s nature. L. T. Namgyal & Rinpoche, 2011, p50)

The(seventh) method for resting the mind in concentration meditation consists in "resting in the thought".

In this method you recognize one particular thought that has arisen—and here you are not treating thought as an abstraction or a generality, but you are working with one particular thought—and you rest in that thought. When you rest in that thought, you are not attempting to fight the thought. You are not attempting to get rid of it, stop it or suppress it. You are resting in it, and when you rest in it, the thought dissolves. Now in the text it says that, if through resting in a thought you succeed in thoroughly recognizing its nature, the stuff of which it is made, it will be self-liberated. This method of resting in the thought rather than attempting to suppress it is the seventh technique, thorough pacification.(L. T. Namgyal & Rinpoche, 2011)

When a thought self-liberates, it doesn't mean that it will never reoccur

What you are experiencing both in meditation and post-meditation is a type of self-liberation of thought. In fact, for a thought to be considered to be self-liberated, it does not necessarily follow that it will not reoccur. The self-liberation of a thought does not necessarily entail the permanent liberation or permanent cessation of that type of thought or that particular content. It means that a thought dissolves without your having to get rid of it intentionally, because you see its nature. In the beginning, even after one is able to see the nature of thoughts, and is able thereby to allow them to dissolve naturally, they will reoccur, but over time they will become weaker and weaker and will reoccur less and less.(L. T. Namgyal, 2011)


Tbd! Refer to Michael Taft´s interview with chandaria (see Resources)


Brown, D. P., & Thurman, R. (2006). Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition (Annotated ed.). Wisdom Publications.

Gebel, T. (2022a). Automatic Emptiness. Till Gebel.

Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.

Namgyal, L. T., & Rinpoche, K. T. (2011). The Ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning (New ed). Snow Lion.

Taft, M., & Chandaria, S. (2022, December). Meditation and the Bayesian Brain with Shamil Chandaria. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from

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