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Witnessing and non-reactivity - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.08

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Sam Harris

You can drop back and merely witness what´s arising before you react

I mean, this is not spiritual rocket science. It is good practical advice even if it uses the terms "to witness" and "to arise" which are strongly associated with the spiritual community.

It´s the old "Take a deep breath before you say something". Or "Think before you act". Or even "Think before you feel [insert feeling here, eg anxiety]".

Sometimes that´s easier said than done, in particular when we are flooded by some old sadness, anxiety or whatever.

But then, meditation aka mindfulness is an excellent tool how to enable oneself to follow this good advice.

Thereby, it is also a statement about how to improve relationships. It can be relationships with other close or distant people, or with animals.

It is also a statement about the relationship with oneself; with the inner child, the fearful grownup, the abandoned or abused part of oneself.

Reactivity = suffering

The meditation teacher, psychologist and translator Daniel P Brown translates the Pali term dukkha (usually translated as suffering) differently from others: he translated it as reactivity.

There is much truth to it. Much of our individual or relational suffering comes from the consequences of over-reactivity. A reaction that comes uncontrolled, automatic, too fast or too intense can have very destructive consequences. And thus, it will result in suffering.

For example, during a relational conflict, I may feel compelled to leave the room furiously, banging the door behind me. This can be experienced as a threatening shutdown of the relationship by my partner. My trigger made me do it!

Or, as an extreme, I may even react by telling a partner that I will leave them. Just because my own anxiety of being abandoned by them "makes me" leave them first. And then, all hell breaks lose because no one wanted this. It may damage the relationship deeply.

Meditation trains the witnessing of one´s inner landscape and thereby slows down one´s reaction time. It may prevent a catastrophe (perhaps together with other tools like therapy).

Non-reactivitys in science

Practical benefits for me

For example, after two years of meditation, I now can literally "see" a trigger arising, without giving it the power to grab me and arouse my nervous system into a state of fight or flight.

Unfortunately, it doesn´t work every time. It´s a matter of slowly getting better by practice.

The other great effect is improved state switching, through shorter recovery time and through reduces stickyness of the mind. This is for other Daily Meditation.

A new kind of automaticity

A trigger is an automatic reaction. Unfortunately, it is an automaticity of the wrong kind.

Tibetan Buddhism knows another kind of automation: it is called called "automatic emptiness" , also known under the name "self-liberation".

What is this automatism? In short, it means that whenever a thought, sensation or emotion begins to stir, the meditator´s "meta-cognitive awareness" (the awareness of what´s happening on one´s mind) will automatically turn the attention to it. The earlier the better.

This "recognition" will automatically turn the thought off, or at least, dampen it or turn it down. Thus, any previously automatic trigger reaction will be converted into a recognition reaction. The result is "self-liberation" of this thought: it melts like a snowflake in a warm ocean (to use a standard metaphor).

Witnessing , reactivity and trauma

Something may have to be said here, but I wait for a suitable Daily Meditation. Meditation is not all that there is to it.

What meditation?

There are 300 ways to meditate..growing by the day.

I found most useful the somewhat "heady" traditions of Vajrayana, or the Tibetan versions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Sam Harris comes from that corner. They are for a good reason often the favorite traditions for therapists and coaches.


One of the most well known researchers, therapists and authors who talks about the value of witnessing before you act is Daniel Siegel, for example in his book "Aware".

Siegel, Daniel J. (2020, September 1). Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence--The Groundbreaking Meditation Practice. TarcherPerigee.

Vervaeke, J. (2019a). Ep. 13 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Buddhism and Parasitic Processing. YouTube. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from


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