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Effort versus relaxation - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.19

Sam Harris

See if you can find the balance between effort and just spacing out.

Sam Harris talks about a core advanced meditative skill: the skill to hold the right balance between effort and relaxation of the mind.

This instruction finds an equivalent in the method of Pointing Out the Great Way (Tibetan Buddhism) and Culadasa´s neurologically informed method.

The overall point of this is to allow the meditator to keep an awareness of the inner space in which every thought, sensation etc occurs, and the event itself. Neither should the meditator become drowsily lost in the space of pure awareness, nor lost in agitation in the waves of events

Easing up and letting to as key tool in Tibe

Daniel P Brown specifically mentions easing up and letting to as a key tool in Tibetan meditation.

By comparing the descriptions of our Western students’ problems to those found in the indigenous Tibetan meditation texts, I began to appreciate the wide range of very specific methods that the masters had developed hundreds of years earlier in India and Tibet to correct and even to prevent such problems. For example, I began to see how skillful practice of “intensifying” and “easing-up” enabled the meditator to stay more continuously and completely on the intended meditation object. I also began to appreciate a range of methods that had been developed to prevent subtle laxity or dullness of mind, such as the use of intelligence to self-monitor the quality of the meditation and the use of shorter meditation sessions to insure depth of concentration and brightness of mind during meditation (Yates and Immergut 2017)

Effort and relaxation: characteristics

So, here are the characteristics of easing up (relaxing) and intensifying (focusing). Source: retreat material Pointing Out the Great Way (2020)

​Intensifying (Effort)

Easing up (Relaxation)

​Supplies more energy to the concentration after directing mind to the intended object

​Relaxes the energy supplied to concentration

​Is like using an accelerator while driving

​Is like letting up on an accelerator

​Makes mind stay close to intended object - Like holding the reigns tight on a horse -Like driving through fog with intense focus -The "on watch" metaphor

​Heightens clarity of mind/object

​Causes agitation if too much.

Causes scattering, coarse drowsiness and subtle laxity if too much

So, here is a POGW pointing out instruction equivalent to Sam Harris´instruction. requesting a balance between being too tight (effort) and too lose (getting lost):

Don´t hold the mind too tight. The ocean can view its own waves, so ease up enough so that all the relative content occurs. Thoughts, emotions, sights sounds etc. Like waves arising in this vast ocean of changeless boundless awareness. But don´t ease up so much that you forget the vantage point and get lost in the waves. Maintain this perspective of being this vast ocean of changeless boundless awareness viewing its own waves, moment by moment. (Source: retreat memorization)

Dan Brown compares this skill with sailing a boat before the wind under race conditions: when the sail is too tight, the boat may capsize. When the sail is too slack, the boat slows down (in the section Culadasa, the metaphor of riding a bike is used).

Holding tight and easing up : event view and mind view

In the POGW method, the skill of balancing focus and openness becomes important when the student learns to hold a simultaneous representation of space AND events arising in space. Various metaphors describe these as the inseparable pair, as mother and son, as sun and sunrays, or, as ocean and waves.

In different terminology: the student learns to hold a simultaneous representation of the boundaryless, changeless, timeless space of awareness, AND the constantly arising events. This is the core of the ocean and wave metaphor: "be the ocean watching its own waves".

To do this, the student learns to differentiate between the mind view (space in foreground) and the event view (events in foreground).

These have different characteristics and effects during meditation.

Mind view

Event view

​Vantage point

Events are seen from the perspective of the mind (space)

​Space is hanging in the background of events


Events are suppressed, dullness

​Getting lost in thought





Easing up (let events arise)

Intensify (increase awareness of space)

Culadasa: combating dullness

Culadasa in "The Mind Illuminated" also makes intensifying and loosening up a teaching point when it comes to combating dullness and agitation.

The formulation "allowing a little dullness in" shows the degree to which the meditator must be in control of those normally undetected background processes. Like Daniel P Brown, he posits meta-cognitive awareness (Brown: "Intelligence") as precondition.

If you recognize the presence of progressive subtle dullness early enough, you can raise the energy in the mind just by strengthening your intention to observe the sensations of the breath clearly and in more detail. However, this will only work for very subtle dullness, identified very early on. And remember, if you make your attention too intense for too long, mindfulness will fade. Also, focusing too intensely can make you overly energized and agitated. If this happens, relax the force of your attention to allow a little subtle dullness in, decreasing the energy level of the mind. The key to using close attention is to strike a balance: you don’t want your focus to be too intense and tight, nor too relaxed and loose (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p227)

Learning to control focus and relaxation is one of the ways to achieve effortlessness of meditation. Culadasa uses the bike-riding metaphor.

Effortlessness is like learning to ride a bike. There’s that moment when you realize that if you just keep pedaling, the bike stays upright by itself. In meditation, you learn to let go when the time is right, moving into effortlessness (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p449)

In Culadasa´s method, this balance is represented right in the definition of mindfulness, and will eventually lead to an overall higher energy level (power) of the mind.

(Mindfulness is) an optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness. This type of optimization requires increasing the overall conscious power of the mind. (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p455)

In terms of neuroscience, the "open / space" aspect is a feature of the awareness subsystem. The "focus/event" aspect is a feature of the attention system. The meditator must keep the relaxation aspect (space) and the effort/energy aspect (focus on object(s)) in balance.


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

Pointing Out the Great Way. (2020). Level 1 Retreat, Mahamudra Meditation, Pointing out the Great Way (D. P. Brown & G. Nelson, Eds.). Kein Verleger.

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.


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