A review of the Sam Harris meditation app Waking Up, a nonsense-free route to non-dual awareness

Heisenberg on meditation cushions

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 Tantrik 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.

Waking Up appHarris 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 50-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 nonsense.

When you have completed the introductory course, the app provides a growing library of daily guided meditations, including a selection of loving kindness practices (a potentially saccharine area that Harris covers masterfully). It also contains 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, you get two succinct question-and-answer recordings, as well as a series of interesting interviews with expert guests (I was particularly grateful to discover Loch Kelly this way; the latest update of the Waking Up app also includes a few guest meditations by this very interesting teacher).

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. You want a criticism? The subscription is steep – £11.99 a month; I can’t really afford to sustain that long term, but for now, I’m more than happy to cut my cloth to pay for the huge surge of inspiration this app is bringing 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 info@wakingup.com so that we can give you a free account.”

The app also begins with a trial giving a handful of the first lessons of the course free, so if you’re interested, you have a number of options to at least check it out.

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.

Functional foot yoga that anyone can do (and so much better for you than Instagram-friendly contortionism)

Foot yoga

Here’s a tasty little movement practice that you can incorporate into a yoga or Pilates session, or simply use as a standalone practice even you’ve never done, or plan to do, a single moment of yoga or Pilates. It’ll bring you a lot more functional benefit – ie, helps you in your everyday life – than any “journey” towards an extreme backbend, contortion or headstand etc.

Stand barefoot, take a few slow, deep breaths, take a few moments to feel how your feet feel – really feel, don’t analyse – then scan slowly up through your legs, same thing, just noticing how you feel. Now lift all ten toes off the floor, spread them as wide as you can, hold for a few seconds and notice everything – physical sensations from the feet rippling up through the legs and higher into the body, also mental reactions. Release, relax, stand with no particular engagement in the feet. Notice the contrast with the toes-up experience.

Now press the pads of your toes more strongly into the ground. Hold for a few seconds and feel what you feel, all the way up from the feet. Release. Feel the contrast. Now lift each big toe individually while leaving the four outer toes of each foot on the floor. Hold, feel, notice (this really is the heart of the practice). If it’s easy it’s easy; if it’s not, notice your reactions and smile. Stand neutral again. Observe. Now keep each big toe grounded while lifting the four outer toes of each foot. Hold, notice everything: physical sensations – maybe your hands are doing some interesting things – as well as mental reactions. Just notice. Neutral again, observe the contrast. Now go nuts… Keep the big toe and little toe of each foot grounded while you lift the three inner toes simultaneously. There’ll be plenty to observe here.

It doesn’t matter if your toes don’t do the things you’re asking them to do: simply by trying to do all this stuff, you’ll be activating neural pathways that may have grown rusty through years of shoe wearing; you’ll be engaging muscles and tendons in the feet and legs that may be underused; you’ll be able to look your ego in the eye, maybe laugh a lot; you’ll be more grounded. Do each exercise once, do each one a few times; doesn’t matter, just use whatever time you have – three minutes while waiting for the kettle is fine, longer is fine too.

A baffled cat and yoga mat are not obligatory.