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Residual thoughts - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.07

Sam Harris

And you think "well, there it is, meditation is finally working".

The quote is an example of a "residual thought" (in Dan Brown´s language).

These are particularly difficult to recognise type of thoughts. Not being recognized, like gross thoughts, they impinge on experiencing what´s called "the natural state of the mind" in Tibetan Buddhism, and therefore are kind of nasty.

Of course, "nasty" can only be said tongue in cheek with Mahamudra and Dzogchen in mind: here, thoughts are not the enemy. Thoughts are actually your friend!

They are the "lively awareness" part of the "inseparable pair" of awareness and its content. A chapter in a Tibetan Bon book that I like is called "Taking the mass of conceptual thoughts as the path". One meditates with the thoughts, not by suppressing them.

Two types of residuals: conceptual thoughts and feelings/states

The expression "meditation is finally working!" can be seen in two ways:

  1. as a conceptual thought, arising as language

  2. As a state or feeling (e.g. a positive feeling of satisfaction). In this view, the term "thought" really encompasses more than thoughts. The correct name should therefore be "residual thoughts and states"

In Tibetan Buddhism, the term "thought" is sometimes also applied to feelings, emotions etc. An example is the above phrase: "Taking the mass of conceptual thought as the path", which then goes on to use examples like anger or hate etc.

Residual thoughts are the hardest to catch

Residual thoughts are a class of thoughts that challenge even advanced meditation practitioners: these are especially hard-to-notice thoughts or feelings about meditation itself. They are a kind of "meta"-thoughts/states.

For example, I by now easily recognise a thought like "oh shit I have to make that payment" very early, before it evolves into long trains of thought or story. But the residual thoughts are very pernicious due to their ability to cloak themselves.

Here is the difference, again, as example:

  • Thought A: "I have to make this call"

  • Residual thought B, after I have recognised thought A: a feeling of smug satisfaction, and/or "great, I just caught a thought early. In which stage in Culadasa's stages of meditation am I?"

The good news: with increasing sophistication, in particular through the stage where all thoughts are "self-liberated", or appear as "automatically empty", the residual thoughts are hopefully automatically "cleared" in the same way as all other thoughts.

Automatic emptiness serves as a clearing agent for all residual instances of doing anything during meditation, and all residual attempts to conceptualize about state or outcome. (Brown, 1981)

Wangchung Dorje (hope and fear)

The following is a Tibetan source text, showing some examples for "residual thoughts".

Wangchun Dorje (in Namgyal, T. D., & Callahan, E. (2019a)) binds such thoughts to hopes and fears, and thus, to outcomes such as the avoidance of fearful things, and the hope for good things to happen.

Within a state free from any fixation to meditation, arouse your perseverance and fortitude, but do not harbor the signs of hopes or fears, such as thinking, “I am meditating,” “I will meditate,” “I was meditating,” “It would be good if something happened,” or “If nothing happens that is bad.” Being free from hopes and fears is the immediate condition. Therefore, practice within an uncontrived state. Namgyal, T. D., & Callahan, E. (2019a, p 499)

In another work, he gives instructions to the teacher of meditation how to deal with unease a particular type of residual thought:

Some practitioners feel uneasy as soon as they begin to meditate and think they should change it. It they get lost in the attempt to change it or, in subconscious gossip, they feel even worse. They are told: "If you look precisely at that feeling of unease without altering it, you experience utter ease and relaxation as if a know had been untied" (Wangchug Dorje, 2017, p 160)

The remedy, as so often, is to turn around and take those thoughts of feelings as meditation object.

Here another example

If you think that you must hold on to the mind, not letting it escape anywhere, this thought form itself causes mental activity.

And this is something that Sam Harris very frequently does. For example, he points to mental events like a feeling of obscuration of awareness as just another event that appears in consciousness.


Brown, Daniel P. (1981). Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Dissertation). This dissertation is a free download. It is a massive, highly technical volume that nevertheless gives an unparallelled insight into the education of a yogi.It draws on the knowledge of cognitive science as of the late 1970s, so it is not the newest in this regard.As compensation, Daniel P Brown gives some insight into the experiments with tachiscopy. to which he still referred in his retreats in 2021.The Universits of Chicago library entry:

Brown, D.P., & Thurman, R. (2006). Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition. In No Title (Annotated). Wisdom Publications.

Khamtrul , Rinpoche, & Abboud, G. (2020). The Royal Seal of Mahamudra, Volume Two: A Guidebook for the Realization of Coemergence. Snow Lion.

Namgyal, T. D., & Callahan, E. (2019a). Moonbeams of Mahamudra (Tsadra). In No Title. Snow Lion.

Wangchug Dorje. (2017). Mahamudra - The Ocean of True Meaning (1st ed.). BoD – Books on Demand.


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