How to Meditate: Sam Harris Edition

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.




Even More from the Mindfulness Blog

  • Mind Training “Many of us are slaves to our minds…” Sound familiar? You might want to click on the link to read the rest of the quote.
  • Happiness Beyond Thought – Gary Weber Weber is an interesting guy who claims to have reached a “nondual state”. For some, that may provoke eye rolling. For others, just a blank look. Weber is down to earth and describes his remarkable experience of stopping much of his thinking.
  • The Mighty Avalanche of Hype: Does Mindfulness Mean Anything? Mostly a link to a great NPR article in their Cosmos and Culture section about the hype surrounding “mindfulness”. Methodically addresses the key issues.
  • How to Get Into Jhana. That’s one of the initial stages of bliss that is commonly referred to in the “maps” of meditative progress. Here meditation teacher Bodhipaksa matter of factly describes a method for attaining this state of bliss.
  • The New Wave of Meditation Teachers. If you associate meditation with aging hippies, the fetishizing of Eastern culture, and similar trappings — meet the new folks. Meditation 2.0.
  • Is Meditation Narcissistic? A pithy quotation from Ken Wilber on a question always worth asking. One of the key questions that keeps people away from meditation. And, oh, it *can* be true. But it isn’t *necessarily* true.
  • Impermanence. A simple story about Ajahn Chah related by Mark Epstein. If you’ve ever read about this Buddhist idea and found it too philosophical and vague — give this a quick read.
  • Loving Kindness. A practice that gives many people trouble. So many of us have trouble directing affectionate feelings toward ourselves. So how to sidestep this?


Some Recent Highlights from the Mindfulness Blog

  • When Meditation Becomes Problematic. Interview with Leigh Brasington about what happens in meditation when emotional issues come to the foreground, and the problems that can pose.
  • A brief profile of Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) an influential Buddhist meditation teacher. Links to a number of his books and writings in pdf form, for the interested. Includes Practical Vipassana Exercises and a link to a Buddhist Geeks piece.
  • Kenneth Folk coined the phrase “contemplative fitness.” Here he Takes A Stab at Defining Meditation. Short and sweet.
  • Shamatha Retreat with B. Alan Wallace an accomplished author and interpreter to the Dalai Lama. Here are roughly 12-hours(!) of instruction on this concentration meditation. Each session is separated into bite-size files.
  • Something Lacking in the Secular. A first-person musing on not being religious, but finding secular meditation somehow disappointing.
  • A brief profile of and quote from Bhante Gunaratana, author of Mindfulness in Plain English. The post includes links to this and titles by the author, in free, downloadable pdf format. The aforementioned text is a great place to start.
  • Positive review of Pema Chodron’s How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind. The subtitle is the key to the book. Recommended.

Recently on the Mindfulness Blog

At the meditation blog I’ve gathered a grab bag of mindfulness related links, reflections, resources. There’s a real attempt to forward material that I’ve found to be practically useful or at least intellectually stimulating.

The Mindfulness Blog

Well, maybe not the mindfulness blog. Since much of it falls outside the realm of psychotherapy and mental health, I write about things related to mindfulness at this blog, LA Eastsider Mindful.

Some recent posts:

Perhaps you’ll stop by for a visit.

Your Brain on Meditation: Role of the Posterior Cingulate

If this topic interests you, I recommend you click on the “mindfulness” tag at the end of the article to bring up other posts on this and related topics.

What if you could enhance your well being? Just published by Judson Brewer, PhD, MD, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, a solid piece of exploratory (and confirmatory) research on the role of a part of the brain called the posterior cingulate in meditation.

Meditators have been speculating about the states of mind evoked by meditative states and various relationships between meditating and well being. Turns out, the posterior cingulate is implicated, mostly negatively, in the subjective well being of meditators. What makes this interesting, is that the meditators could control the activity of this part of the brain, through real-time feedback.

There have been a number of studies that have shown that meditation lights up certain brain regions, that it’s associated with changes in brain thickness, and that it alters the way our brains respond to stressful stimuli. But meditation is complex, and it involves processes like attention, working memory, and self-monitoring. So, which components of meditation actually line up with specific brain regions?

Researchers found that the posterior cingulate increases activity during states of distraction, discontentment, and a particular kind of mental effort — all states implicated in unhappiness. A decrease in posterior cingulate activity was associated with states of effortlessness and contentment.

The implications of this are great. Not only does it mean that meditation can be used to enhance well-being, but eventually the technology could be used to help people to learn to meditate more quickly. Learning to meditate more efficiently also potentially means strengthening the “wiring” in those parts of the brain that bring about well being.

If you’re curious about Judson Brewer’s work, here’s his TEDx talk on meditation: You’re Already Awesome. Just Get Out of Your Own Way! which touches on the effects of tracking and training flow states, turning off the blah blah blah part of the brain.

Or an interview at Buddhist Geeks, Mapping the Mindful Brain.

Your Phone vs. Your Heart

If you’re interested in mindfulness practices, such as meditation, you might find this article, from the New York Times, of interest.  Researchers had one group of subjects perform the fairly well known mindfulness practice lovingkindness, which encourages one to “develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.”

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

The curious twist, is the writer suggests that lack of face-to-face interaction, as can sometimes happen with extensive smart phone use, might be problematic to our mental health. Some more on the health benefits:

To appreciate why this matters, here’s a quick anatomy lesson. Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. Subtle variations in your heart rate reveal the strength of this brain-heart connection, and as such, heart-rate variability provides an index of your vagal tone.

By and large, the higher your vagal tone the better. It means your body is better able to regulate the internal systems that keep you healthy, like your cardiovascular, glucose and immune responses.

Beyond these health effects, the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

The article ends on a striking note: “Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.”