top of page

A Sam Harris meditation - a line by line analysis and comment



This post analyses one full Sam Harris Daily Meditation from his "Waking Up" app.


To make it short: it´s quite a lot of advanced Mahamudra/Dzogchen stuff! All compressed into 10 minutes.


I have no clue whether these meditations are useful for the novice meditator. I came to them with the background of Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated", a 6-day retreat with Daniel P Brown (a related background), and lots of reading. So I had some background.


With my background I find them useful.


If one listens day by day to the Daily Meditation, which have a lot of (useful) repetitiveness, one can "get it"after a while.


As Sam Harris says in one meditation: the practice is doing this thousands of times. Repetition makes mastery. That's the principle of Mahamudra and Dzogchen : many short repetitions.


Sam Harris´ meditations

Sam Harris, through his Waking Up app, publishes a daily meditation, which can be used as a 10 minute or a 20-minute version. Both have the same text, but pauses for inner mental processing of the instructions have different length.


Some of the meditations are fairly simple, and others contain a wealth of implicit references to concepts from Mahamudra and Dzogchen (to my modest knowledge).


I believe I can say this, because I recognise much of the explicit and implicit content from my knowledge of the style in which meditation is taught by "Pointing Out the Great Way", my only formal teachers so far who I experienced teaching in a live context.


I highly recommend the Sam Harris´ meditation app "Waking Up". I value it for the immense breadth of content that Sam Harris assembles through the collaboration of many teachers of different traditions and styles. Further, the Waking Up app contains a growing set of dialogues between Sam Harris and luminaries of this or related fields. As an example, it contains a dialogue on psychedelics. Or, the Buddhist nun Samaneri Jayasara contributes her readings of classical mystic texts, and some of her own.


In this post, I will "re-engineer" one of Sam Harris´ highly content-rich meditations by annotating each statement to its source concept in the meditation tradition. The meditation refers to a large number of such concepts, meditation stages, meditation techniques etc.


Note regarding copyright

Here I take the liberty to quote an entire Sam Harris meditation. I have no intention to violate his copyright and do not believe that I do:


  • I only use it for analytical purposes

  • It is only a small fraction of the hundreds of Daily Meditation

  • The full Sam Harris product consists of the text and the vernal delivery in the Sam Harris style, without which this meditation may be quite useless other than as academic text.

  • I believe, that the Buddhist tradition does not encourage a very narrow interpretation of copyright. However, I am also aware that there is at least one organisation which threatens misuse with "hundredthousands of dollars", sadly.

Overall, I believe that my reproduction here falls under fair use. If this is not the case, I will delete this post.


Word for word transcription


Ok, let's begin the session with eyes open. Simply gaze into the visual field. It doesn't matter what you look at. it can be trees or sky. it can be a blank wall. A cluttered desk. It really doesn't matter. And as you gaze into space, See if you can resolve your visual field into an expanse of colour and shadow. Don't fixate on any particular objects. It's as though you were watching a movie and you could choose to focus on the screen itself. It's the difference between seeing people and objects and seeing mere light on the wall. But in this case you ARE that condition. You are not merely looking at it. Consciousness is aware of itself. As a matter of experience everything you see in this moment is made of consciousness, Including the seen. There is just this one condition. Simply rest as that. And thoughts too are an expression of that same condition. They appear like waves on the surface of consciousness. Again keep your gaze very wide and look to see whether you can find the seat of attention. Is there someone or something looking out from behind your eyes? Or is there just this condition of seeing and sensing and hearing? In the last minute of the session close your eyes. And simply become aware of hearing. And sensations. Just let your mind be wide open like space. Now as you go about your day today take a moment to pause before specific actions, and engage your visual field in this way. Seeing it as a totality, you might do this anytime you look at the mirror or brush your teeth or pause before picking up the phone. Just puncture your day with the moment of clear seeing and look for what's looking. In those moments see if there is something to find, and see what the failure to find anything feels like. Does it change your relation to what you see. Is there a relationship with what you see?


Overview of the meditation

The meditation uses the pointing out style, where the teacher gives direct instructions for mental operations , questions and observations about the mind.


The meditation has roughly the following structure


  • Take position

  • With visual sense:

  • Experience a reflected view / mirror mind

  • Experience a view as consciousness

  • Experience mind-only

  • Experience no-self

  • Change from visual sense to hearing and thoughts

  • Experience spacious awareness

  • Close out by suggesting a transfer to daily life in short moments


Overview of some key concepts

It combines a few meditation concepts of Tibetan Buddhism. Here I give a short overview.


Emptiness of Self

This is the key idea and meditative experience, that what we usually imagine to be a solid, self-existing Self is a fleeting construction, a fabrication. The Buddhist term for this is "empty" or "emptyness" . It does not mean "nothing"!


Mirror Mind

This is the concept of the mind/ awareness / consciousness being aware of itself and looking at itself. The mirror is a very frequently used key metaphor.


Mind Only

This is the theory that everything we think we perceive as external objects is our own mind, our own consciousness.


One Taste

This is a late stage of meditation where everything we perceive as experience is basically of the same character (the same "taste") without any selection, evaluation, etc. That is the case because everything is "just" an appearance in consciousness.


Space Meditation

This is a technique of de-focused looking into empty space. The technique is often used, for example, to imagine that the meditator "mixes" his own mind or Self with the outer space, thus creating a single field of one single "substance" (knowing awareness-space)


Search Operations

These are instructions to search within one´s own mental space for certain search targets. One of the most important search targets is the "Self". The point about these search instructions is usually, that nothing will be found - everything is unfindable as a separate, self-existing entity. It is somewhat like searching for an elementary particle. Since each particle can again be divided, eventually nothing is findable.


Ocean and Waves Meditation

This is a meditation technique in which the meditator takes the perspective of the ocean looking at its own waves. It is a so-called "non-dual" perspective.


Self Awareness

In my opinion, the unobtrusive climax (but not the end) is the sentence


"consciousness is aware of itself"-

This is a simple formulation of what in Buddhism is "the awakened mind".


Analysis of each instruction

(The Sam Harris quotes are right-aligned in yellow. Other longer quotes are left-aligned)


Ok, let's begin the session with eyes open

This is an initially eyes-open meditation (eyes will be closed later to allow the hearing and feeling senses to become predominant)


Eyes-open meditations facilitate transition of the formal meditation into everyday life. These meditations foster the ability to eventually be in a meditative state all the time. Open-eye meditations avoid anchoring the meditative state to the sitting position with closed eyes.


Also, only with eyes open will one eventually experience the unity of consciousness, including all external visual perceptions, and thus the everyday world.


For example, some types of advanced Tibetan meditation require that one experiences perceptions not as objects "out there", but as projections on the back side of one's open eyes, as if they were a movie screen. This only works with open eyes.


Simply gaze into the visual field

This is an instruction for a specific way of looking.


This line contains two important terms: simply, and to gaze.


Simply


"Simply" and "just" are two of the most frequently words in Sam Harris Daily Meditations. The "simply" encourages two things


  • effortlessless

  • relaxation

Effortlessness is foundational for Mahamudra meditation. Effort is connected with the efforting self, and with the idea to reach a goal. Below you see a Sam Harris word cloud, generating from a number of meditations.





To gaze


"To gaze" implies a relaxed wide, defocused view. One cannot gaze strenuously at an object.


It doesn't matter what you look at

This instruction releases the mind from the necessity or from the compulsion to judge and to chose.


Sam Harris frequently uses the phrase "It doesn't matter" . It doesn't matter, because in Mahamudra / Dzogchen the content of the experience (mental events, perceptions, sensations..) is, in a way, all the same: it is all appearances in consciousness, and all is of the same nature, of One Taste. In this meditation, Sam Harris will return to this aspect.

It can be trees or sky

This and the following two suggestions of the "meditation object" give the listener options.


This is an option for people who happen to be outside at the time of listening to the daily meditation, or who are looking out of a window . The instruction leaves open the option to chose anything else ("It can be" - but it doesn´t have to). This permissive formulation comes from hypnosis.


It can be a blank wall

This is an option for people who, for example, happen to be in a closed room. Also, no decor is required, no candle or buddha figure.


It doesn't matter. Relax.


A cluttered desk

This is an option for people in some kind of office, who wrongly believe that for meditation the desk must be like a freshly raked Zen garden (clue: messy is ok - everything is ok) that appears in consciousness.


It doesn´t matter. Relax.


It really doesn't matter

Again, the formulation that it doesn't matter. This instruction reinforces the equanimity towards everything that appears in consciousness. There is no need to chose, to pick, to select, or to judge.


This is an inkling of the "One Taste" Meditation level in Mahamudra . All appearances are of the same taste - the same nature - namely an appearance in consciousness.


It becomes obvious here, that Sam Harris strongly reinforces a sense of equanimity in many instructions of this meditation. Some texts describe this equanimity as "indifference", although it is a special kind of indifference.


And as you gaze into space

This is an instruction for space gazing.


Gazing into the space in front of you is a very specific extensive old Tilopa meditation technique which is only touched lightly here. It it not the fully formed version where the meditator then "mixes" awareness with space.


See if you can resolve your visual field into an expanse of colour and shadow

This is an instruction for de-conceptualisation.


"The chair" or "the tree" is a concept, constructed by the mind through a series of abstractions from the lower level senses. The instruction guides the listener to cut through that process, and to come closer to the lower levels of sense perception, such as edges, contours, line orientation, color, form, pitch, volume, and movement. (Note 2)


The instruction is easily given. However, it is a very difficult step to perform in the mind. Overcoming the propensity of the mind for abstraction and conceptualisation is very hard. It takes practice.


In other meditations, Sam Harris frequently uses the kinesthetic, felt sense to achive this de-conceptualisation. He then typically sais: "Let your body resolve into a field of sensations. Pressure, tingling, heat..." etc. This is actually easier to do than dissolving the visual field.


In another field of application, namely in drawing, the non-conceptual way of seeing is skillfully trained in Betty Edwards "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". Through this book, I once learned to not see "a hand" but an abstract pattern of shapes, lines, shadow and darkness. It became the best hand I ever drew.


Don't fixate on any particular objects.

This is an instruction for "de-particularising".


This instruction , a continuation of the previuos, directs the listener to stop "particularising" (yes this verb exists). In Buddhist Tradition, particularising is a process whereby the mind selects something from general awareness, "goes out" and shapes what it will later see as a particular distinct object. This is a very fast, subperceptual process.


In the Buddhist mind model, perception does not start with sensory experience, but with the mind having an intention to go out and "lasso" things in. It directs energy to the world in a pre-perceptual phase. The instructions intends to stop this process.


Also, as Rob Burbea points out, "when we focus on one object, there is usually a tendency to solidify that object" (Rob Burbea 2015)


It's as though you were watching a movie and you could choose to focus on the screen itself

Personal note: I was jumpstarted into Mahamudra through an extremely realistic, livelike and "real" experience of a mirror like way of seeing through a psychedelic substance (Ayahuasca). For a few minutes, the world had turned into a mirror of myself. Thus, I have the privilege of having an "embodied" representation of what this is all about, and not only a conceptual idea.


This instruction is a key instruction to change the perspective of looking from looking at things as outer objects to looking at things as appearances in consciousness.


This is an extremely important key instruction of this meditation. Sam Harris uses a modern metaphor: a screen on which something is projected. The Tibetan yogis had no movie-screens yet, so instead, they used the metaphor of a mirror in which something is reflected.


The mirror (screen) is a central metaphor for directing the mind to not perceive an objective, self-existing world "out there", but as an appearance in consciousness, in a mind-stream of mental events.


Here is a classical description of the significance of the mirror / screen as metaphor:


The mirror of Kun tu bZang Po... is an extraordinary place, the main place that the gods and humans, eternal boddhisatvas, mahasattvas and dakinis aspire to...This is the initial metaphor of all metaphors for pointing out"(The Precious Treasury, p 985)

Daniel Brown refers to the yogic training:


Recall that representation is an act by which the mind takes the shape of or creates the pattern for what it perceives. Advanced Yogis can turn this awareness back on itself. Though they gaze upon an outer object, they perceive only its inner reflected image. At a certain stage of proficiency, all yogis are instructed to dismiss the outer image and focus only upon the reflected image" (Mahamudra Meditation Stages, p. 256)

Culadasa makes the same point. His meditation model makes a clear, neurologically based distinction between focused attention and peripheral awareness. On this basis, he instructs the student to use awareness "meta-cognition" to observe the act of perceiving, rather than the perceived objects.


No matter how you use attention, hold the intention for peripheral awareness to become more and more metacognitive, working toward a complete and continuous observation of the activities and state of the mind itself. You don’t exclude extrospective content from peripheral awareness or attention. Rather, to whatever extent extrospective sensations are present, they’re experienced as part of the activity occurring in the mind, rather than as objects in and of themselves. For example, in the hearing of a sound, the primary object of your observation isn’t the “sound” that’s being heard, but the mental act of “hearing.” This is also true for mental objects. Remain metacognitively aware of them as content of field of conscious awareness, but with the objects themselves being secondary. It’s as much about how you know as it is what you know. [This] can be used for many other purposes in the future as well. (Culadasa, "The Mind Illuminated", p305)

Here another example for how this particular way if looking is practiced. In his introduction to the chapter "The fluid eye lamps of the extensive lasso", Dan Brown describes in the introduction how the meditator doesn´t look "out". Instead, his gaze ends at the back of his eyeballs. Obviously, what changes is not the physical act of seeing, but the mind´s processing of it.


The practitioner sets up the gaze looking out from the universal ground and looks up at an angle..just below the lower boundary of the eyebrows (called the "eyebrow fence"). The distance of the gays is to look far as the outer surface of each fluid eye lamp much like looking at the film projected onto a movie screen or like looking at images appearing on the surface of two crystal balls. It is important that the practitioner not see the visions dualistically as out there, but rather sees them as self-rising and generated inside the eye lamps"(Tapihritsa, p14f) .

Here, the term "eye lamp" denotes the idea, that the eyes "send out" attentional energy before any sense impression is formed.


For those who really want to get the original tone of such instruction, here is one:


The Skillful Means by which Special Insight Arises First, the skillful means by which special insight areis. The rool text says "The great ocean stirs and moves upwards (ie the eye lamps). " With respect to mixing together the eyes (upward) the external ocean (of space) , and awakened awareness internally, move the eyes upward and turn them higher. Awakened awareness moves into the space like planting a spear. The root text adds: "...as does the focus on the domain of space at the fence of darkness (just below the eyebrow boundary)". The eyes turn upwards, so that the irises of the eyes (remain showing) turned upwards , and then focus (just below) the eyebrow fence. Tho sho what "focus on the domain of space at the fence of darkness" means, it means to concentrate on the lamp of the seemingly outer surface (of the fluid eyelamps); focus on the A in the internal lamp of the (eye) sense organ, and activate the secret lamp of awakened awareness" (Tapihritsa, p 174)