How to Meditate: Sam Harris

From time to time, I like to pass on any interesting articles on the topic of meditation. As I’ve written many times before, meditation is a very useful adjunct to psychotherapy – and like psychotherapy is a practice that has the potential to improve quality of life. (I would not recommend it as replacement for psychotherapy – that would be just as silly as recommending psychotherapy to someone interested in meditation.)

I’m not that familiar with Mr. Harris, but he’s written a number of books with intriguing titles and I was immediately struck by his clear, straightforward, pragmatic and informed meditation instructions. He strikes a very nice balance of both committed and skeptical, one many writers on the topic should be envious of.

Here’s the link to his article, How to Meditate. Definitely worth a click.

And here’s a brief excerpt in which he compares learning to meditate with learning to walk a tightrope:

As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

How to Stay Motivated and Committed to Your Mindfulness Practice

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photo by JD Hancock (creative commons)

Piece at PsychCentral has some useful tips I thought I’d pass along. This is my favorite, but there are some that are equally useful!

Start meditating for short periods.
The best way to start a meditation practice is simply to start meditating. You’d be surprised at how difficult this can be. We often procrastinate until we find the perfect time. Don’t wait. Start immediately.

Find a quiet place where you can sit for a few minutes without being disturbed. Close your eyes and begin following your breath. Focus your attention on the sensation of the air passing through the tip of your nose. Count your breaths one through five silently in your mind. When you get to five, simply start over again. When you get distracted, immediately bring your attention back to your breath, and continue counting. The counting helps you stay focused.

After a few minutes, stop counting and begin observing the entire breathing process mindfully. When you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.

Start with about a 10-minute session, then work your way up to about 20 minutes or more. It may be a challenge to sit still in the beginning, but it will get easier as your mind settles down over time.

Sit Like a Buddha

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photo by Phil Warren (creative commons)

I’ve been reading a charming little book by Lodro Rinzler, Sit Like a Buddha. When I say little, I do mean little. The text itself runs a scant 90 pages, but it is pithy. I haven’t finished it yet, but it strikes me as the kind of book you might re-read every now and then. In particular, I like the fact that it addresses some of the emotional obstacles to meditation. Worth a look.

Jay Michaelson On Being Weird

“Sometimes, sitting there on the cushion failing to watch your breath, it can feel like you’re the only weirdo weird enough to be wasting your time in this way. But you’re not! There are generations of weirdos, monasteries full of them, and we have the benefit of their accumulated wisdom.”
― Jay MichaelsonEvolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Concentration

“Concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. Your mindfulness will only be as robust as the capacity of your mind to be calm and stable. Without calmness, the mirror of mindfulness will have an agitated and choppy surface and will not be able to reflect things with any accuracy.” ― Jon Kabat-ZinnWherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

Two Guided Mindfulness Meditations from Sam Harris

Harris also has a fairly thorough, if fairly typical, overview of Vipassana meditation (the link is below). The two guided meditations are in the Vipassana (mindfulness) style, and appropriately, Sam focusses on the the arising and passing away of the self. While that may sound a little odd to some, he seems to be a very down to earth guy.

The meditations can be found here: The Mirror of Mindfulness.

I wrote an article on meditation two years ago, and since then many readers have asked for further guidance on how to practice. As I said in my original post, I generally recommend a method called vipassana in which one cultivates a form of attention widely known as “mindfulness.” There is nothing spooky or irrational about mindfulness, and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. Mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. I will cover the relevant philosophy and science in my next book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, but in the meantime, I have produced two guided meditations (9 minutes and 26 minutes) for those of you who would like to get started with the practice. Please feel free to share them.

Pessoa on Existence

This is actually meditation in the other sense, of pondering great questions. But it’s focus on the flux of life is not so far off from the concerns addressed, in say, Buddhism:

“Sit still with me in the shade of these green trees, which have no weightier thought than the withering of their leaves when autumn arrives, or the stretching of their many stiff fingers into the cold sky of the passing winter. Sit still with me and meditate on how useless effort is, how alien the will, and on how our very meditation is no more useful than effort, and no more our own than the will. Meditate too on how a life that wants nothing can have no weight in the flux of things, but a life the wants everything can likewise have no weight in the flux of things, since it cannot obtain everything, and to obtain less than everything is not worthy of souls that seek the truth.”
― Fernando PessoaThe Education of the Stoic