top of page

Cat and mouse: attention or awareness - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.12.17

The Dalai Lama cat thanks to

(Today's meditation is a repeat of 16th of October 2022, that's of two months ago.)

In that meditation, Sam Harris instructs the listener, when "receiving" breath,

Do not sit like a cat waiting for a mouse to leave its hole

This "cat-inhibition" instruction is typically Dzogchen: go to minute 1:30 in this video by Dilgo Khyentse

Sam Harris in this meditation teaches "open awareness", not "concentration meditation". This entails effortlessness, and a reduction of the felt sense of a Self that is doing the meditation. It steers towards non-duality, where eventually there is no perceiver, but only the process of perceiving.

The "cat and mouse" type of perceiving the breath trains focused attention.

Focused attention, in contrast to open awareness, implies a strong sense of a localised Self that is doing the meditation. It is dualistic: there is a perceiver and a perceived object "out there".

Here is the full instruction how to perceive the breath: don't lean towards, don't overreach. Instead: receive. The cat surely doesn't receive the mouse!

As you pay attention to each breath, see if there's any posture in your mind that is overreaching, you shouldn't be sitting like a cat waiting for a mouse to come out of its hole. You shouldn't be anticipating the breath. Just lean back and receive it the moment. It appears there's like a mirror would.

Stage dependent instructions

However, this is not the whole picture.

In Mahamudra meditation, different types of instruction apply to different meditation stages.

In the beginning, in the phase of concentration training to stabilise the mind, the student may very well have to sit like a cat, or like an owl, waiting for the mouse (the mental event, eg a thought) to appear at its hole.

The "Sit like a cat" metaphor , and the equivalent owl metaphor, is therefore used as instruction by Daniel P Brown in the attention training stage.

Or, to use another Tibetan teaching metaphor, the meditator must "cut the snake's head" exactly at the moment when the snake, representing a thought (just like the mouse), shows its head.

That is also called "sealing" with the seal of awareness each appearing moment as it appears, moment by moment.

The meditation shows that the tasks and techniques of meditation change significantly during the stages of meditation as described by Daniel P Brown in "Stages of Mahamudra Meditation" and "Pointing Out the Great Way". What is appropriate training material at one stage, is discarded into its opposite later on.

In Dzogchen, eventually, the entire project of meditation is stopped:

Don't meditate!

would be utterly confusing at the beginning. "The meditation of non-meditation" would simply not make sense to the beginner.


Brown, D. 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 (Annotated). Wisdom Publications.

Gebel, T. (2022w, October 16). Cat and mouse - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.10.16. Till Gebel.

Gebel, T. (2022a). Catching the snake at its head. Till Gebel.

Gebel, T. (2022i, August 11). Sealing and nailing in Mahamudra - and emotional triggers in Western psychology. Till Gebel.

Gebel, T. (2022o, September 26). Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.26 - Non-localisation as condition to attain freedom. Till Gebel. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from


The llustration is a collage created by . I asked it to create images of a cat dressed like the Dalai Lama, and of a mouse leaving its hole.


A thought on...

bottom of page