I recently picked up a book at our local library called ‘Waking Up – Searching for spirituality without religion’ by Sam Harris. What follows is a sharing of the author’s summary of meditation and some personal reflections. It is not a review of the book, which is a philosophical, scientific and atheist investigation into the cultivation of a spiritual life without religion.
The author, Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published several bestselling books. He keeps a blog that shares irregular podcasts and has written articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Newsweek.
I meditate to support my intention to live a mindful life. Practicing mindfulness in every aspect of life and truly being present with each moment is an undertaking not to be underestimated. That being truly present bit is the challenge: being attuned to what is arising on our consciousness. The greatest challenge we have to this intention is our thinking mind. Try a little test now. Close your eyes and try not to think of anything for 1 minute.
What happened? I would suggest that you started thinking (maybe about noticing your thinking!) almost immediately. If you focused on your breath and tried to follow it for a minute, did any thought arise? Did you notice?
As a regular meditator I am alert to the possibility of developing my practice. I believe that it is helpful to reflect upon how to meditate and I found the summary that Sam Harris shares on pages 39- 40 of Waking Up most useful.
How to Meditate
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 floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting – feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc
Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly – either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control the breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath – or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness – sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves – as they arise, change and pass away.
What I found particularly helpful was the last two points. I would suggest that points 1 – 6 form a solid foundation for a meditation practice. Point 7 then suggests that we start to view the thought itself as an object of consciousness, something that has just arisen in our awareness, much as any external object (sound, sight etc) might. This naturally leads then to the instruction (point 8) to witness all objects of consciousness as they arise, change and fall away.
It is perhaps in this instruction where the practice deep and ongoing practice lies. Where, as we practice, we cultivate a mind that is full of the present moment and aware of our thoughts, habits and behaviours. Here is the ground.
The most helpful aspect of my mediation I can share is that a regular routine is most supportive. It is my intention to meditate for 20 minutes every morning. When I am living a standard 9-5 day this will usually be the very first thing that I do after waking up. Even where the day is more flexible I find that a morning routine is most supportive for the remainder of the day.
I am now nearly three years into this practice and I notice when I miss the odd day. It feels an essential element of my way of being and is particularly supportive at this time of great change.
This morning I was fortunate enough to combine my meditation with Monty’s morning walk. We sat for 20 minutes at the spot illustrated below on Swansea Beach. Monty sat peacefully at my side the whole period, including when I took the photo above. I only realised how unusual this was when I uploaded the photo. The dog being walked directly in front of us is one of a small number of dogs that Monty attacks! I know, not something you would expect of a Bijon, but he really does not like this Staffi. So that he sat peacefully observing, off lead, can only speak volumes for the positive effect meditation is having in his life!