REVIEW: Waking Up – A Meditation Course
Sam Harris suggests at one point in his Waking Up app that what he is trying to teach is “non-dual awareness without the bullshit”. Which is precisely what he does.
Non-dual awareness? Essentially, you sit down to meditate; you observe your breath, sensations in your body, the fluctuations of your mind; and then you notice the part of your mind that is doing the observing, as if that too were simply like the breath and sensations; and finally you start to get a feel for the fact that there is something beyond all that, and yet part of it, a deeper layer of awareness that is aware of everything – including the observing mind – as “appearances in consciousness”, to use Harris’s phrase.
It sounds complicated, and if you’ve ever explored this via yoga – as I do, because I am a yoga geek – it is in fact fantastically complicated. In yoga, whole cosmologies of deities and myths are used to try and convey competing variations on the idea, often held up as “enlightenment” or “liberation”; in the Tantric view, say, we and everything and everyone around us are expressions of a universal consciousness symbolised by the god and goddess Shiva and Shakti.
The practices designed to help you experience this – for example, meditatively moving energy through “channels” in the body that no scientist has ever found – certainly have their appeal, and I enjoy them simply as exercises in being present. But really, while Harris doesn’t point fingers at any particular tradition or philosophy, I think this is the kind of stuff – a lot of it faith based – that he’s talking about when he hints that non-dual awareness is often served up with bullshit.
Harris is a neuroscientist and while also a meditation teacher who has deeply explored esoteric practices, his Waking Up app is magnificently hokum free. You start with a 28-day introductory course of 10-minute guided meditations. Their brevity is one of their great strengths; 10 minutes a day is sufficiently short for anyone to commit to, so there is no excuse not to at least try the practice (if you can’t find 10 minutes a day, really, you owe it to yourself to look into that).
The meditations are simple and powerful, starting with standard mindfulness practices such as observing the breath, but swiftly and effortlessly, as the days pass, stretching towards non-dual awareness. Harris conveys the idea very simply and while at first it might feel a little slippery to grasp, through practice, it slowly begins to take root.
I am an experienced meditator who has explored many traditions, but I have been blown away to discover that an app on a phone, delivered by a brain scientist, has taken me much closer, much more directly, to states of awareness promised by countless ancient texts and modern spiritual teachers but which somehow seem ever out of reach beneath layers of arcane, religious dogma.
When you have completed the introductory course, the app provides a daily guided meditation, different each day, with the choice of doing it as a ten or 20-minute session. There is also a small selection of longer meditations and loving kindness practices, a potentially saccharine area that Harris covers masterfully, and a growing library of mini-courses and meditations provided by other teachers including Henry Shukman (with a lovely introduction to Zen koans), Richard Laing (on the fascinating Headless Way) and Loch Kelly (covering Effortless Mindfulness).
The app also contains a “theory” section that presents a brilliant collection of short lessons exploring a broad range of topics related to the art of living a considered life; they are an inspiring accompaniment to the meditations. In addition, there are a number of succinct question-and-answer recordings, as well as a series of deeply interesting interviews with expert guests from a broad spectrum of fields (a few pulled up at random: James Clear, Laurie Santos, Judson Brewer, Jack Kornfield). As a well-established podcaster, Harris is an accomplished interviewer with superb taste in guests – truly, never a dull moment in these conversations.
You probably get it by now. I love this app, and recommend it unreservedly; it really stands out from other guided meditation stuff I’ve checked out for sheer originality and depth. You insist on at least one criticism? The subscription is steep – £11.99 a month; I couldn’t really afford to sustain that long term, but for at least a while, I’m more than happy to cut my cloth to pay for the huge surge of inspiration this app has brought to my various practices, including yoga.
Since first posting this review, a reader has got in touch to remind me that Harris is keen not to exclude those who don’t have the means to pay, so there is a subsidised option if this applies to you. As the Waking Up website says: “If you would like to use this app but truly cannot afford it, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can give you a free account.” They take this very seriously and don’t attempt to hide it; I know of a few people who have benefited from and are immensely grateful for this.
The app also begins with a trial giving a handful of the first lessons of the introductory course free. Even better than that, though, if you are tempted to try it, you can use this link to get a full free month, which should be enough to at least do the introductory course (previoiusly 50 days, now 28). Check it out; it could very well change your life.
The Waking Up app is available for phones via the App Store and Google Play, as well as through the dedicated website here.
You can learn more about Sam Harris, who also hosts the excellent podcast Making Sense, at his personal website here.
- Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor working in East London; more information here.