Written by Zach Grossfeld
Since December of 2018, I have been using Sam Harris’ app Waking Up designed for meditation. The following piece represents part of my experience meditating with the app. Of course, not everyone will follow the same path. To get the full picture you must actually try Waking Up. I’m in the beginning stages of meditation with a basic level knowledge of the practice. For a more in depth analysis and discussion of meditation, I highly suggest checking out Sam Harris’ works in the form of his podcast, articles, and books. If you’ve never meditated before, I hope that this helps you start your journey. And if you’ve tried meditation and given up, I hope that you give it another shot:
Legs crossed on a meditation pillow, I stare at a white outlet in my apartment wall. Snap! In a flash, I search for myself. Sounds weird, I know. "Look for the one who is looking," Sam says. I squint my eyes like Cyclops from X-Men preparing to floor a building with a red beam. I don't see anything. "Make your effort the length of a finger snap, then rest your mind," Sam says. Okay, I'm trying too hard. Snap! I ease my brows, look inwards, and rest.
"This feels good," I think. "Meditation is going well. I'm a beast at this shit. I can't wait to tell my friends about how meditation is changing my life. Maybe we'll meet at Belfry this weekend. They have great pickle backs; I'll order The Classic...Shit, I'm supposed to be meditating, wait don't say 'shit,' it's okay to get lost. Don't judge yourself." Breathe. In...out...I come back to my breath and notice the buzzing of the AC unit.
In December of 2018, I downloaded the Waking Up app designed by neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author Sam Harris. I had experimented with various meditation apps before and made some progress, but never felt a deep connection to the teachers or the platform. Fast forward about a year, and I come across Waking Up. As a listener to Sam's podcast, I heard him unpacking the app on one of his intros. That day, I downloaded it. It's $14.99 per month or $119.99 per year. The first five meditations are free.
I used to spend over $150 on coffee every month. The return on investment from everyday purchases like coffee does not begin to compare to the return from this app. Without exaggeration, I would pay five times what Sam currently charges to have the same access to Waking Up that I do now. He even offers a full refund of the course if not satisfied.
Through the introductory 50 day course, Sam gradually introduces the skills and mindset needed to meditate effectively. Before Waking Up, the biggest mistake I made as a virgin meditator was to jump into 20-minute, even 30-minute meditations. Doing this is like walking up the big league plate and chopping at 97 mile per hour fastballs with a little league swing. Now, I know that sitting unconsumed by thought for just thirty seconds is a tremendous feat.
Again without exaggeration, this app has transformed my life. For about 10 minutes, every morning, sometimes twice per day, I sit on a pillow with my legs crossed, AirPods in, and listen to Sam's semi-psychedelic voice separated by gaps of silence. Never, not once, have I gone ten minutes straight without the chatter in my head rushing back in to thrash a session. Even ten back to back breaths represents a monstrous period to be free from the endless cycle of thought.
Plan the grocery list. Worry what the doorman thinks about you. Feel worthless, for no reason. Play a conversation with your ex over in your head. Don't walk into a new coffee shop because you're afraid to order like a fucking idiot. Did I reply to Tom?...The Waking Up App is the first tool that has given me separation from my thoughts. I am not my thoughts. I can observe the thoughts that run through my head without letting them color my consciousness.
For example, maybe you are nervous about running into your ex at the corner bar. You can let your mind run wild, imagine the worst situation encounter in your head, or you can observe the thought for what it is, a thought. The reality that you occupy, the sounds, the smells, the touches against your skin all exist as objects occupying the same space as that thought. You can notice these things and watch them wither away.
Not only can you notice thoughts, but you can notice physical repercussions of them. Does your throat tighten? Maybe the cheeks warm slightly. You feel pressure on the chest. Noticing your physical state without trying to change the situation can diffuse the tension.
Staring Into The Darkness
As this app has taught me, meditation is a practice that can develop over time, but the freedom from the cycle of thought rests always at your fingertips. Whether you are tripping on LSD at Coachella or sipping tea on the couch, you can always come back to your breath and simply notice. Feel the weight of your body. Follow the nuance of a single breath from the first sip of an inhale to the last whisper of an exhale, then do it again. No gradual application of effort is necessary. Being mindful of the present can happen instantly, eyes open or closed.
For me, one of the most helpful cues from Sam has been to stare into the darkness behind my eyes. Before Waking Up, I had never tried to stare into the vast expanse of my eyelids the same way I would gaze upon the NYC skyline. There's a shapeshifting depth of color and movement that exists behind closed eyes in the same way that it does with eyes open. Throughout each meditation, Sam often shifts between eyes open and closed to make the point that reality exists just as entirely in both stages. Although all of the light and color may seem to come rushing back in as the eyelids crack open, the same spacious experience can be perceived looking deep into the darkness. Eyelids are windows.
This Isn’t Doing Anything
In your meditation journey, not all sessions are created equal. Some will feel like a waste. You may go minutes lost in thought, forgetting that you are meditating. Other sessions spark about pockets of clarity, real presence. Meditation is not supposed to have a “goal,” but for me, a “good” meditation is marked by stretches of presence unclouded by thought, sometimes thirty seconds, other times a minute if it’s a spectacular day before the distractions rush back in. And this cycle may recur five to six times within a ten minute span before Sam thanks you for meditating with him that day. Presence doesn’t feel like an existential washing over of your soul, like a beam of sunlight shining through your chest. It’s not emotional. Bliss is different than being present. Bliss is being overwhelmed by happiness. Being present is noticing the bliss.
Also, don't let the ups and downs determine the frequency of practice. Sitting down daily and pressing the next meditation within the app is the key. The times you feel most wound up are the times you need to practice the most. Give this app a good two weeks before you decide to call it quits. As someone who went 24 years without noticing perpetual onslaught of thought, I can tell you that it takes time to feel the effects of meditation. Distraction seems like the only option until you momentarily break free. As Sam writes in his 'How to Meditate' blog post:
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.
The magic of the Waking Up App happens not only in the meditations but in how it starts to affect life outside of the practice. During moments of transition, like getting up from my desk or walking across a threshold, I often stop, notice five to six breaths, then proceed.
You Have The Right To Remain Silent
Earlier today, I thought, "No one gives a shit about my podcast, and other people make better ones. What's the point?" Before Waking Up, that thought probably would have taken root in my mind and flooded my soul. Now, I still have these thoughts, but meditation has given me a space between the stimulus and reaction. I no longer feel as much of a slave to the constant barrage. It's a new freedom, like having a pause button to notice the bullshit instead of operating on autopilot, knee-jerk responses.
Since downloading Waking Up, I kiss more passionately. I feel more like a kid. I notice the way my hand slices the wind as I walk. It took me 25 years to realize that you can feel the slight graze of wind as your hands cut through the air, even at a walking pace. Everyday experiences inspire me in ways I never before let them. I didn't have the circuitry for it.
Sometimes, I want to grab strangers on Court Street and ask them, "Can you feel that? The wind, on your hands, isn't that insane, you can feel the wind on your hands when you walk?" I'm glad that I don't because I'd probably get arrested. I wonder what it feels like to get arrested — the cold clasp of the handcuffs locked against the wrist. Tightness in the shoulders pulled back by the cuffs. Sinking into the backseat of the cop car. The faint smell of the officer's morning instant coffee. Breathe.