Book Club: Unlocking The Mind With Meditation

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 27 2014 @ 2:18pm

A reader introduces another main theme from Sam’s book:

I wrote in earlier to share my excitement over atheists breaking into the discussion of spirituality. To that end, I think Waking Up is a valuable read. I walked away appreciating a bonafide atheist’s taking on the subject. Having sat on the fence for my whole life on the subject of God, I’ve found writing that approaches atheism as a negative definition (what we are not) but a positive one (what we are) essential in becoming more comfortable joining a small minority of non-believers.

bookclub-beagle-trI’ve been meditating for over a year now. It is perhaps the most substantial and rewarding thing I’ve done for myself and I plan on continuing the practice for the rest of my life. I can’t quite explain the growth that sitting in silence every morning has given me. It’s almost like I’m playing a bit with the dials of life, turning up my attention to the essential and the hidden while turning down some of the noise that can make listening to it all difficult, like my tendency to argue or having my thoughts spiral out of control.

As one might imagine, I was very receptive to the chapters on meditation. The discussion of the lack of self is certainly worth a re-read. I know that I, for one, want to circle back on the neuroscience to make sure I caught everything.

Ultimately, I felt like Waking Up was an invitation to discuss as opposed to a deep dive. I understand why. The typical person reading the book might need a little convincing. However, in making the basic case for 51dolkylmindfulness, I think Harris understandably did not chase any specific points to anywhere too arresting. I hope that Harris continues to write on the subject. It’s clear that he has more to offer and I think he would have receptive audience having argued the basic case.

I’d be interested in reading more about spirituality interfaces with morality, the day to day, and broader constructs of society. Andrew and Sam had a great discussion re: religion a while back. I think it would be great to dive to the same depth and explore some of those questions with the new book in mind.

Another reader:

I just finished Waking Up. The book has some fascinating things to say about the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the “self,” but I see it primarily as an invitation to the reader to begin a meditation practice.  As Sam writes, “I am suggesting an experiment that you must conduct for yourself, in the laboratory of your own mind.”  So I have a question for you, Andrew: Have you taken him up on this invitation?

Have you begun a meditation practice?  I don’t mean, “Do you engage in activities such as yoga or jogging or dog-walking that you might describe as meditative.”  I mean an actual, daily practice of mindfulness meditation, such as Sam is describes on p39 of his book.

If you have, I’d be curious to hear how your experience accords with Sam’s.  As a practicing meditator myself, I can confirm that in my experience, meditation has effected a profound and apparently lasting transformation in the way I experience and engage with the world, entirely for the better, and more or less exactly as Sam describes in his book.

I am more content, more positive, happier, and both physically and mentally healthier.  Moreover, I feel confident that these transformations will last, because they are built on real insight – on seeing for myself The Way It Is (the title of an excellent book by the Theravada Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho), rather than on anything taken on faith.

Every week, I read your Sunday postings – that fascinating, diverse, often heart-wrenching compilation of spiritual yearnings, conjectures, arguments and analyses, and I am reminded of Eckhart Tolle’s poignant question: “Why are so few seekers, finders?”  Or the complementary observation of Hubert Benoit on man’s search for meaning, particularly in the West: “With regard of the wealth of diagnosis, one is struck by the poverty of therapeutic effect.”

Meditation offers that therapeutic effect.  It transforms seekers into finders.  And as Sam points out, it does this reliably enough to be considered a “best practice,” or as the Buddhists call it, “skillful means,” for effecting this transformation.

As much as I have enjoyed the discussion surrounding Sam’s book, I would caution that to read it and walk away with nothing more than opinions or criticisms would be to miss the point entirely.  This is a book that leads to a door.  Meditation is the way to open that door.  If you haven’t taken Sam up on his invitation to do so, I would strongly encourage it.  The results can be … enlightening.

I took a course in Transcendental Meditation a few years’ back. And I do indeed meditate – but not regularly enough or with sufficient dedication and discipline. For a while, I combined it with a more traditional Christian prayer: I’d spend twenty minutes meditating, and then ten minutes saying the Lord’s prayer, slowly, methodically, contemplating and thinking through each phrase and then examining my conscience. I found the calm and composure after meditating helped dispel all the anxieties and distractions and thoughts that impeded prayer. And, yes, it really did help restore some balance to my life – an equilibrium and calm that is nonetheless hard to sustain when you do what I do every day and are constantly absorbing news, news, news, and opining in a raucous and rhetorically polarized public arena. I even asked Sam to recommend a teacher – but any serious attempt to get to grips with it would require at least a month’s retreat – and that was close to impossible given the blog.

And then the nervous energy of my job, and my own natural restlessness would take over. There are many times in the day when merely the idea of meditating seems so out of place, and so out of tune with the frenzy of Internet life. There are more emails to read, more links to  cover, more decisions to make about the Dish, more chores and tasks to accomplish. It feels at times as if modern life both makes meditation more essential and yet also extremely counter-intuitive. I suspect it’s the beginning of an answer to much of what ails us – and yet I cannot seem to muster the discipline to do it as I should.

The reader follows up:

I’ll share an old line I found somewhere which you might find apropos, given your schedule: “Everyone should practice meditation for ten minutes a day.  And if you don’t have time to do that, then you should practice for 20 minutes a day.”

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