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?
With "self-liberation", Sam Harris references a Mahamudra / Dzogchen concept. In essence, it means that thoughts (and emotions other mental events) lose significance and lose their hold on the meditator. In this sense, it is an early therapeutic / personal development method.
Self-liberation of thoughts in concentration- and insight-meditation
The specific meaning of the expression "Self-liberation of thoughts" 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)
Daniel P Brown: Automaticity and Self Liberation
In the Pointing Out the Great Way system, self-liberation is a term used to describe the third level of automaticity:
You set up your view, the infinite vast expanse. But you add something to it. You know the infinite vast expanse, the ground of being in which everything arises in an unconditioned way as reflected by the brilliant flashes of awakening where ... We call that the inseparable non-dual pair of groundless ground and awakened awareness. Every moment comes up in an unconditioned way and immediately dissipates-. You don´t engage in anything. And one thing that changes: it is no longer an emptiness practice. Everything that comes up is like water and leaves no trace. And the key is things come up in an unconditioned way from groundless ground and disappear in groundless ground without any mental engagement. The technical term is Dzogchen is "don´t accept anything, don´t reject anything". Leave it alone, don´t bother so much. When it goes back there is no ordinary mind engaging with it any more. From: (Brown D.P 2016), ca min 55, transcribed
Dzogchen, self-liberations, and negative emotions
"Thoughts" in the Tibetan system include also emotions. Here, in "Disovering infinite Freedom", Dzogchen´s "self-liberation" is applied to the negative emotions ofignorance, attachment, anger, jealousy, arrogance and doubt .
Dzogchen is the most powerful technique. Dzogchen does not primarily work on the relative phenomenal level. The technique used is known as "self-liberating". Other ways to express this are "naturally liberating", "liberating as it is arising", or "liberating into its own natural state". When the Dzogchen technique is applied, the poison is liberated within its own natural state without leaving any trace. Being practitioners, we have to handle ignorance, attachment, anger, jealousy, arrogance and doubt right away. Whenever the poisons arise from the empty mind, we must remember the powerful message. At that moment we must immediately use this technique and not let the emotions get very far". ...Whenever a negative emotion comes, we have to liberate it quickly into its own natural state" ((Sherab Rinpoche & Dongyal, 2010)
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.
Brown, D. P. (2016). Living Meditations: Three Paths. Pointing out the Great Way.
No longer publicly available as of 2023
Gebel, T. (2022a). Automatic Emptiness. Till Gebel. https://www.till-gebel.com/post/automatic-emptiness
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. https://www.amazon.com/Ninth-Karmapas-Ocean-Definitive-Meaning/dp/155939370X
Peterson, J. (n.d.). Self Liberation in the Great Perfection Teachings. Facebook (Jackson Peterson). https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid029ykaU6yb1P824NU8ZqSFUr4BarMe3N98r1us1zg5WsgXPL4KJp22xuMo1vUzuEkPl&id=100000030222863
A great FB Post!
Sherab Rinpoche, K. P., & Dongyal, K. T., Rinpoche. 2010). Discovering Infinite Freedom: The Prayer of Küntuzangpo: Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche: 9780982092224: Amazon.com: Books. https://www.amazon.com/Discovering-Infinite-Freedom-Prayer-K%C3%BCntuzangpo/dp/0982092229
Taft, M., & Chandaria, S. (2022, December). Meditation and the Bayesian Brain with Shamil Chandaria. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://deconstructingyourself.com/meditation-and-the-bayesian-brain-with-shamil-chandaria.html