What is it like to be alive? Sam Harris’ Waking Up app

Among the multifude of meditation apps available, Sam Harris’ Waking Up app is different, very different, and is one I can whole-heartedly recommend without reservation. 

First, the overall purpose of Waking Up is not about finding peace or touching bliss, although those things may indeed happen. It is about the adventure of discovering the nature of your own mind. Harris’ approach is mindfulness, punctuated by Dzogchen techniques, and goes beyond simple present-moment awareness into a gentle exploration of consciousness and your mind’s relationship to it. The goal, Harris frequently reminds practitioners, is never to become “a better meditator,” but to become more present, resilient, and compassionate throughout the situations of the day.

Secondly, although carefully curated, Waking Up has a wide variety of meditative approaches. Yes, Harris’s daily guided mindfulness practice dominates the app, but the “Practice” side of the app also includes meditation courses in the amazing “Headless Way,” metta (compassion) meditations, Zen koans, meditative poems from a Christian contemplative perspective, meditations for children, and more.

Thirdly, Waking Up isn’t just about the practice. There is a “Theory” side of the app, featuring  “Conversations,” a podcast full of interviews with fascinating people with penetrating insights into human nature and cultivating happiness, from Mingyur Rinpoche (Tibetan lama) to Leo Balbauta (blogger), to Laurie DiSantos (professor), David Whyte (poet) and an ever-increasing roster of others.  

“Theory” also has “Lessons,” a series of insights by Harris on consciousness and spirituality. The two lessons on free will alone have the potential to change your life, and I say that with all seriousness from my own experience. 

Waking Up also has a feature for tracking days used, which helped me truly establish a daily habit of meditation, something that eluded me even after 12 years of studying with a Zen master. In addition, you can invite others through the app to join you in a session. 

One caveat: please do not check out the “Daily Meditation” when you first open the app, it will likely feel off-putting and not make sense. Listen to the “Start here” instructions, and then go to “Practice,” and begin the Introductory Course. After completing that, the instructions in the daily meditations will make superb sense.

Waking Up is the next best thing to having a spiritual teacher of your own, and is an excellent resource even for those who do. Its subscription price is $100 / year, which is barely a quarter a day, but I find it invaluable. It has helped me maintain my mental health during the challenges of the pandemic and, I believe, to become a somewhat better person.

Get it from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Also, see the Waking Up website.

Centering Prayer:

Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form

by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
©1980 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.
An Image Book, published by Doubleday, 254 pp.

an introduction and guide

Father Pennington builds upon the spiritual practice of The Cloud of Unknowing, and makes it not only perfectly understandable, but irresistible. He starts off from a place to which none of the other classics (at least which I’ve read) on contemplative prayer ever went, a historical overview on contemplation. He briefly recounts how strains of silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, developed and intermingled from the “Desert Fathers,” the earliest Christian monastic tradition, the lectio-meditatio-oratio-contemplatio tradition of later Western monasteries, the “Jesus Prayer” and hesychast traditions of Eastern Christianity, the Cloud of Unknowing, up to the Carmelite saints of prayer, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He also gives an overview of how these traditions continued into modern times, and how growing awareness of Eastern methods of meditation increased interest in Christian meditation to the Christian laity everywhere. This of course, is all preliminary, but interesting.

Next is the presentation of “Centering Prayer,” what he calls a new “packaging” of contemplative prayer. It’s the approach of The Cloud of Unknowing, but distilled into three simple “rules.”

Rule One: At the beginning of the Prayer, we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” or some other prayer.

Rule Two: After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.

Rule Three: Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by use of the prayer word.

Pennington’s rules for centering prayer are helpful and brief. I found that I was soon doing centering prayer, rather than just thinking about doing it. Nevertheless, there are many challenges: distracting thoughts, consistency of practice, fitting centering prayer into the larger whole of one’s day-to-day living, service, and the larger whole of one’s spiritual life, for instance. The majority of the pages here are about these concerns—this is a how-to book for busy Christian laypeople, and Pennington beautifully addresses all of these items and more.

Fr. Pennington writes from the perspective of having given workshops and retreats on centering prayer for several years, with experience of helping thousands of people overcome these obstacles. Furthermore, he also brings his perspective as a religious priest, with years of ongoing training in daily deep prayer. The result is a how-to book, describing a practical method for the most elusive of all spiritual disciplines.

ancient and modern voices

Yet on my second reading of Centering Prayer, I find I prefer The Cloud for its emphasis that the true method of contemplation is essentially love, far more than it is a prayer word. There is an analytical tone to the book, which is helpful in some respects, but it seems to me now to quench the infectiously loving and passionate spirit of contemplation as exemplified by the author of The CloudThe Cloud is far more open, far more passionate, far more joyful, and at least after a decent time of becoming familiar with this “contemplative work of love,” more helpful. And as one continues on the path, Privy Counseling may well become the most treasured of all three of these works.

However, I’d urge anyone interested in Christian meditation to read both modern books like Centering Prayer or Open Mind, Open Heart, and classics such as The Cloud and Privy Counsel. Also, check out the Centering Prayer website at http://www.centeringprayer.com.

The Book of Privy Counseling

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

book cover

Although not even mentioned on the cover or spine, the greatest advantage of Johnston’s edition over others is its inclusion of another work by this nameless abbot, The Book of Privy Counsel. (Strangely, its title is altered here to The Book of Privy Counseling.) To me, this lesser-known, later work is if anything, even more valuable. Johnston’s decision to include it in with this translation of the Cloud was a stroke of genius and love. With only twenty-one micro-chapters versus the Cloud’s seventy-five, Privy Counseling is shorter and pithier. Radiating an even more mature and transcendent faith, it dispenses with apologetics for contemplation and descriptions of errors, and simply presents sound advice on doing “the contemplative work.” Also gone is the feeling of any halfway or introductory steps; for instance, the author here does not even mention the use of a prayer word as in The Cloud, nor does he forbid the use of words when praying. He simply cautions, “do not pray with words unless you are really moved to this,” and gives the soul its freedom to respond to the Spirit as it will. And while not specifically recommending it as a prayer word, he extols the singularity of the word is:

There is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. (p. 158)

contemplation as the awareness of isness

Perhaps it was this passage which inspired Meister Eckhart, the mystic genius to use the word “Isness” for God. Privy Counseling’s technique is quite different from the Cloud’s. No doubt from both his own growing intimacy with God, and his studies of Pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denis) whom he quotes, the author relies simply on a calm certainty of God’s panentheistic Presence as the “Ground of Being.” The method can be summarized as follows:

  • Become aware of your own being, “do not think what you are, but that you are.” (p.152) Do this not with thoughts, but just the “blind, general awareness of your being.” (p. 156) (This point is striking in its similarity to the Buddhist technique of vipassana, non-judging awareness on one’s being in the present moment.)
  • Knowing that God is “the ground of being,” that “he exists in all things as their being,” that “he is your being,” (p.150) offer your being to him “in words or desire” thus:

That which I am, I offer to you,
O Lord, for you are it entirely. (p.151)

The pure offering of your being to God’s being is considered the most effectual supplication, as it imitates Christ who gave “himself without reserve that all men might be united to his Father as effectively as he was himself.” (p.157) “Conceived in an undivided heart, [it] will satisfy your present need, further your growth, and bring all mankind closer to perfection.” (p. 157)

  • As your practice develops, let your will long “to experience only God…. as he is in himself.” (p. 172)

the work of rest

 Is it difficult? It truly seems easier for me than the methods of Centering Prayer and the Cloud, but Centering Prayer is certainly easier for a newcomer to contemplation to understand. This is an advanced practice, intended for someone with at least a bit of meditative experience under his belt, who doesn’t need an explanation to know the importance of embracing God within the self. It’s contemplation, and contemplation is far from easy. In the final chapter, the abbot addresses the situation with an honesty that will surely make every contemplative and meditator smile:

You may say, “All I feel is toil and pain, not rest. . . . On the one hand, my faculties hound me to give up this work and I will not. On the other, I long to lose the experience of myself and I cannot. . . . If this is rest, I think it is a rather odd kind of rest!”

Yes, I know it is painful and toilsome. And yet I call it rest. . . . Persevere in it with humility and great desire, for it is a work which begins here on earth, but will go on without end into eternity. (p. 188)

Indeed it will. Although I have given a lengthy summary here, please don’t depend on my sketch. Get all the insights of this wonderful teacher for yourself, and let it guide you into the wonder of touching God in this deepest of prayers. It will likely become one of your most valued books, one of the few which may truly change your life.

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

The Cloud of Unknowing

two historic jewels of christian mysticism

This translation by William Johnston contains not one, but two of the great books in the literature of contemplation, , the well-known classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and its lesser-known sequel, The Book of Privy Counsel(ing). These 14th century classics by an unknown English abbot have long been among the most respected and beloved texts on the subject, and had a profound influence upon St. John of the Cross’ writings on contemplative prayer. It has received renewed attention in the last few decades as interest in meditation and contemplation has skyrocketed.

Fr. Johnston’s superb translation makes these 700-year-old manuals feel almost contemporary. There are no anachronisms, no words that make you run to the dictionary, nothing that takes you from out of your living room to medieval England. You feel almost as if a living person is teaching you about this wonderful method of prayer. The Cloud is far more readable than other contemplative works I have read, such as Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, and Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross.

the cloud: meditation as concentrated love

Yet it is every bit as passionate. The title comes from the author’s metaphor of contemplative prayer as struggling to get beyond a “cloud of unknowing” which separates us from experiencing God’s presence. He dismisses the idea of using understanding as a means of reaching God, since God is unfathomable; instead, he suggests, we embrace God with our love. Having established that love is the means of going through “the cloud,” the author urges the reader to “beat upon the cloud of unknowing with the hammer of your love,” and to “pierce the cloud of unknowing with the arrow of your love.” The author’s passion for God is contagious, and his prose is inspirational. The Frimster could easily find a year’s worth of profound and moving quotes for the home page here!

As for technique, the author urges the reader to dispense with meditations (visualizations), petitions, and so forth during the time of contemplation, in order to be present to God alone, not God and meditations, etc. He suggests the use of a short word like “God” or “love” to bring one back to being alone with God whenever distracting thoughts intrude, which is central to the Centering Prayer method.

There is a dull middle zone of around twenty short sections dealing with errors to avoid, which will not speak effectively to most modern readers. Nonetheless, upon reading The Cloud again, I’ve understood and appreciated it far more than I did upon my first reading. Its method really comes down to one word: Love. Over and over, the author describes the quiet prayer as love: “this contemplative work of love,” “lift up your heart with a blind stirring of love,” and “each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

There are few books which radiate such a powerful and infectious love of God. The author really is driving home one thing: Love is the beginning, end, and means of deep prayer. Nothing else is necessary, but a willingness to spend time alone with God in love.

Go to page 2: The Book of Privy Counseling.