Over the past few months I have gone back to school by doing the entire sequence of lectures and exercises presented by two mindfulness meditation apps. The first of these these, the HealthyMinds App
, I have mentioned in a previous post
. It derives from a collaborative effort at the Center for Healthy Minds
at the University of Wisconsin, headed by my former colleague Richard Davidson. It is a friendly, approachable, lite version of material covered with greater intellectual depth by the second App, Waking Up
, which is done by author Sam Harris and based on his book titled "Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
" I became much more immersed in Harris' program, finishing all of the mini-lectures or 'lessons' and the 50 guided 10 minute exercises. Harris' presentation was a catalyst for me, allowing the material I have been writing about
since my 2002 I-Illusion web/lecture
to actually gel into place as lived daily experience.
Below I pass on an idiosyncratic sampling of clips or paraphrases of material from Harris' exercises, lectures, and book. For some readers there might be a flash of recognition, for others the following might make no sense at all.
The pronoun I is the name that most of us put to the sense that we are the thinkers of our thoughts and the experiencers of our experience. It is the sense that we have of possessing (rather than of merely being) a continuum of experience...this feeling is not a necessary property of the mind...the experience of being a self can be selectively interfered with...people can report losing their sense of self to one or another degree
...the present centered expanded awareness that is seeing or feeling fear, anger suffering or pain is not fear, anger suffering or pain. The same is true for happiness, joy, contentment. It is not these things but the calm presence that surrounds them.
What do you take yourself to be in this moment? Is it the sensation of your face? Or your head? Resolve that these too are appearances in consciousness, consciousness is prior to them, a mere witness of them. Fall back into that position, being the screen on which the movie of your life is being played...This introduces a new capacity to respond differently to experiences. To notice first what it is you are experiencing, and then to introduce an option beyond merely reacting, being captured by the next thought that rises in consciousness.
...rest as that condition in which everything is just appearing...Feel the energy of your body, notice how sounds appear and disappear. And let your mind be like a mirror. It doesn’t move to reflect what is in it. Everything simply appears on its surface... Now, periodically, gently, don’t make a struggle, look for the one who is noticing. And in that first moment of turning, see if you can observe what noticing is like. What is hearing like in the first instance of looking for the one who is hearing? What is sensing of breath like if you look for the seat of attention?
..There is no state that you are producing that by definition excludes any other experience. A goal is to make features of consciousness obvious, so that they can be obvious in other moments of your life.Your mind is always with you, practice develops a range of insights into what it’s like before it becomes cluttered by concepts, and judgements, and reactions, and other contractions in consciousness.
Kindle a negative feeling, bore into it with your attention, feel it as closely as possible, its energy. This kind of attention robs it of meaning. It is simply an appearance in consciousness at this moment. How could this arising in feeling be what you are? You are simply noticing it. And it passes away on its own...the half life of any negative mental space is remarkably short. And just noticing that, apart from any insight you might have into the nature of consciousness, can be freeing.
It’s almost like you’re watching a film, and consciousness is both the screen and the light projected, the entire substance of experience. The sense that there is a self, a seat of attention, a subject in the middle of experience, that is yet another appearance on the screen, that’s part of the movie. That is part of what is being experienced and what may yet be witnessed from the point of view of open awareness.
...consciousness is different. It appears to have no form at all, because anything that would give it form must arise within the field of consciousness. Consciousness is simply the light by which the contours of mind and body are known. It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret, amusement, and despair. It can seem to take their shape for a time, but it is possible to recognize that it never quite does. Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it. The goal, thereafter, is to cease to overlook what is already the case.…we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.
Everything we take ourselves to be at the level of our subjectivity—our memories and emotions, our capacity for language, the very thoughts and impulses that give rise to our behavior—depends upon distinct processes that are spread out over the whole of the brain. Many of these can be independently interrupted or extinguished. The sense, therefore, that we are unified subjects—the unchanging thinkers of thoughts and experiencers of experience—is an illusion. The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances, and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others.
Harris notes a motivation for his writing on spirituality and self transcendence:
Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science—apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms—acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence—our world will remain shattered by dogmatism. This book has been my attempt to begin such a conversation.
(I should mention that a few users of the Waking Up App have found the exercises to be disorienting and stressful, and the App contains a fascinating two hour discussion between Harris and Willoughby Britton and Jarred Lindahl, who have done research on 'The Dark Side of Meditation.' A google search on their names will take you to their publications on this issue.)