Are you familiar with the writer Sam Harris? In 2005, he wrote a bestselling book The End of Faith that, in a nutshell, portrayed religion as little more than a collection of myths and superstitions that could be blamed for much of the world’s ills.
It was with some trepidation that I picked up his more recent book Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion—but I knew that Harris was an excellent writer and the title grabbed me. And in this fascinating study of meditation and consciousness, my only difference with Harris is this—where he finds self-transcendence, I sense the presence of God. (Which, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, I see not as a being, but being itself.)
It turns out that Harris spent much of his young adult life traveling the world and studying with some of the best meditation teachers of our time. (His main focus was Buddhist meditation due to its relative lack of religious content.) Harris shares with us his own 8-step guide to meditation, similar to one I shared on these pages, with a few nuances. It’s as good as any I’ve ever read, and it appears in a lightly edited form below:
An 8-Step Guide to Meditation.
- Sit comfortably with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or cushion. Notice the sensations of sitting—pressure, warmth.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to where you feel the breath most, either in your nostrils or rising and falling in the abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest on your breath, as you let it come and go naturally.
- Every time your mind wanders, gently return it to the breath.
- As you focus on your breath, you may perceive sounds, bodily sensations, emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear and return to the breath.
- The moment you find yourself lost in thought, observe it as an object of consciousness, release it, and return to the breath.
- Continue in this way until you merely witness objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts—and allow them to rise and pass away.
If you try this and are still struggling, see my story here.
Harris sees meditation as creating a deeper sense of well-being and inner peace. He strongly believes that we need to overcome the conventional sense of ourselves, which is an illusion. We can do this by taking a pause from our jittery, overthinking selves and paying closer attention to the present moment.
He relates our lives to watching a film in a movie theater. When we’re totally immersed in the film, we forget our surroundings and the fact we’re merely looking at light on a wall. In Harris’s words: “Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movies of our lives.” Meditation allows us to step out of the movie, return to our seat, and observe our lives from a distance. It helps us overcome the illusion of the self, by placing us squarely in the present moment.
The reality of your life is always now.
But Harris points out that we often forget or overlook this truth. We become preoccupied with thought, dwelling on the past, pondering the future, questioning, analyzing everything, until we are “spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.” He self-effacingly points out that:
It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditation, suggests that an alternative exists. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.
What’s important to note here is that a regular meditation practice can also extend benefits into our everyday lives, not just at the moment of meditation itself. This ability to calm and unclutter our mind becomes an attribute we can always fall back on, merely by remembering to breathe. Harris refers to this as “mindfulness” and a “state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention”.
When we reach this state, Harris tells us that what remains is consciousness itself, with “its attendant sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts appearing and changing in every moment.” In the book, Harris takes a deep dive into the meaning and mystery of consciousness, a heady subject we’ll look at in the future.
This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, April, 26, 2017.