Alternative title: An honest, in-depth review of the Waking Up App
Growing up, I watched my mom’s interest in Buddhism develop from that of a casual student to a serious practitioner. From the time I was in middle school, books by the Dalai Lama, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and other Buddhist authors began lining our family’s bookshelves. When I went on long-winded rants as a young teenager, she would always tell me that I thought too much and explained the Buddhist principles she was learning at the time — the ego was an illusion, suffering was a part of life primarily generated by the ego, karma was like a bank account that you could accumulate over lifetimes. Over the years, her metaphors became more and more sophisticated, my favorite being this one: Consciousness is similar to a deep lake, and if there are ripples or disturbances on the surface of the lake, the bottom remains peaceful.
My well-meaning mother would always advise me to meditate, but as a distracted and angsty teenager with a laptop, sitting cross-legged and staring at a wall for even five minutes sounded like a hellish idea, and the benefits were never really clear to me. Wouldn’t I feel just as rejuvenated by taking a nap? All of her advice made sense in a hazy way, but I never took them seriously enough to put into practice until recently.
After maturing a bit more on my own, I’m starting to think that previously non-religious adults generally don’t become interested in religion or spirituality until their mental health hits the fan. If everything’s going great in your life and you’re a naturally positive person, there’s little reason to examine the voice in your head and begin distancing yourself from it. However, if you’re so stressed that your mind reacts to minor, everyday problems as if they are major emergencies, you may become desperate to find anything that soothes your neuroticism, even for a little bit. I’m not saying that every person who experiences mental illness becomes religious or spiritual, but for some of those who decide to make a change in that direction, suffering seems to play a significant role.
In my case, the stresses of college and work brought me to meditation. As I mentioned in a previous post, reading Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier was the first time the thought “Hey, I should really start meditating” went through my mind. My mother told me about monks going on years-long meditation retreats and how some of them achieved “enlightenment,” but I always figured that happened to special Buddhists who could devote their entire lives to a monastery. Learning that a “flow state” (where one can clearly see the nature of the mind and transcend it) could be accessed by anyone who put a week or two into an intensive meditation retreat changed my entire perspective on meditation. Even if I couldn’t dive in to the deep end of a 10-day retreat like Dan, he took the time to describe the immediate benefits of meditating a few minutes each day. He wrote that he was still distracted by thoughts most of the time, but meditation gave him the ability and space to observe his thoughts, rather than being completely identified with them.
This was all incredibly appealing. Still, just reading the book was not enough for me to start practicing. If I had known that Dan had a meditation app (also titled 10% Happier), maybe I would have tried it out and started meditating earlier.
I could no longer keep making excuses when my boyfriend Brian suggested that I try the Waking Up app, Sam Harris’s (no relation to Dan) meditation app. Brian had done a few daily meditations and listened to all of the “lessons,” short podcast-like talks about different aspects of mindfulness. The app contains a 50-day course where Sam teaches the basics of meditation in 10-minute long sessions. After all 50 days have been completed, the “Daily Meditation” is unlocked, which is a new guided meditation released specifically for that date. This is so that after beginners have mastered the basics, they can continue honing their practice through fresh daily meditations. Aside from the meditations, the app also has around 20 (as of January 2019) “lessons” ranging from 3 minutes to over an hour long. The lessons are meant to supplement the material covered in the 50-day course, ranging in topics from the illusory self to the social self to free will.
I had read Sam’s book Waking Up a few months earlier and really enjoyed it as an exploration of Eastern spirituality. Whereas Dan’s writing was half-journalistic memoir, half-investigation into Western spiritual gurus (such as Eckart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Mark Epstein), Sam described the experiences he had with Eastern meditation teachers while on retreats in India and other Eastern countries.
Although Sam is not a Buddhist, his writing has a closer relationship with a Buddhist understanding of mindfulness, especially when it comes to Dzogchen (a specific tradition of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism). There is a Dzogchen technique in which one can immediately observe the ego-less nature of consciousness, rather than the gradual discovery that is typical of Vipassana, or insight-based mindfulness. Vipassana requires one to meditate for long stretches of time in order to potentially experience “choiceless awareness,” or the feeling of being truly in touch with conscious experience. In contrast, by using the Dzogchen strategy of looking for the self (and being unable to find it), one can instantly become aware of the selfless nature of consciousness. To roughly paraphrase Sam: “If something appears to be there when you’re distracted, but vanishes under scrutiny, it’s likely more illusory than real.”
The Waking Up app applies a mixture of Vipassana and Dzogchen meditation techniques, which I think is a large part of what makes it so effective. On one hand, the introductory meditations simply ask the student to focus on the breath and sensory input (hearing, sensations in the body, the visual field, eventually moods and thoughts). This is all characteristic of Vipassana, which does not have the explicit goal of realizing the selfless nature of consciousness. Rather, it allows the practitioner to become more mindful of what they are already experiencing, and learn to let these things come and go. The traditionally cited benefits of meditation (reduced stress, improved focus, higher quality sleep, etc.) can be obtained from a Vipassana practice, and Sam makes this clear in the course.
However, the Dzogchen elements are what really make this course unique from any other meditation app that’s out there. Vipassana instructions imply that “you” are the one guiding attention from your wandering mind back to your breath, as if there is a “you” controlling everything from behind your eyes. In contrast, Dzogchen offers a nondualistic perspective, in which there is no “you” that is riding in your head thinking these thoughts or experiencing sensory data. There is only the raw data that appears in consciousness; the “thinker” is an illusion. The Waking Up app shows that if you mediate carefully, you’ll see how thoughts arise completely spontaneously. There is no “you” producing them, otherwise you’d have to think your thoughts before you think them. I struggled a lot with the meditation lessons that focused on eliminating the dualistic perspective, and still do from time to time. It can feel like it’s impossible to stop separating experience (the sound of cars outside, my wandering thoughts, the sleepiness in my head) from the idea of “me” experiencing everything. However, there have been brief moments when I’ve been able to see that there is only consciousness and its contents. Sam does this mostly by asking the listener to “look for the thinker” and “look at the thought itself; where does it come from?” He teaches that realizing selflessness does not have to be a long, drawn-out process (like it is in Vipassana). It can happen instantly when you look for something that feels like “I” and fail to find it. Though fleeting, the experience can be repeated over and over until it begins to stick.
As far as integrating meditation into my daily life went, I found that the 10 minute length is perfect. I can easily squeeze it in every morning before I leave for work/class, and I can listen to a meditation lesson during my commute to continue reflecting and learning. For the first five minutes of the meditation itself, I am usually restless and notice thoughts popping up relentlessly, but by the end I’ve achieved a better focus and genuinely do not want to stop. Any shorter length (<5 mins) and I wouldn’t be able to reach this point, but any longer might be too much to fit into a busy schedule. Sam does a great job at encouraging the listener and listing the benefits that this practice will bring to their life beyond the pleasure of increased focus. He reminds us that we are primarily doing this to be a better person in the world, and a less emotionally volatile force to our loved ones. I can definitely say that this has happened to me. Even though the last semester has been extremely stressful, meditating almost-daily has helped me focus on what’s important and suffer less in the process. Instead of being “sucked in” to negative emotions, I can observe them arising and respond instead of react. Paying closer attention to my mind has also allowed me to notice when it’s harder for me to be mindful (usually if I’m sleep deprived, eating a lot of sugar, or not getting enough exercise). If I go a few days without meditating, I notice that I become much more negative and prone to self-obsessed thinking again.
Today, I finished the 50th guided meditation and unlocked the daily meditation! Having started this practice in early October, it took me about 90 days to reach this point. I’ve learned that it’s important to stay committed, but not be too hard on myself for missing a day or two each week.
Right now, I am looking to attend a 10-day silent meditation retreat over the summer. Hopefully that pans out, but if not, I still plan on using this app every day and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to try to start meditating. There are more well-known apps with guided meditations, but I find those tend to address “surface” problems in life. If you are looking for a more spiritual (yet completely secular) meditation experience that not only helps you become more present and calm, but also helps you see the illusory nature of the self, the Waking Up app can point you in the right direction. My favorite lessons are “The Social Self,” “The Illusory Self,” and “Lose the Monkey.”