Can you experience enlightenment through Sam Harris' meditation app?
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
You’ve probably heard of meditation – maybe you even have a meditation practice – but you might be less familiar with which types of meditation are thought to be best. Most people these days practice conventional mindfulness meditation – the type of meditation you see in the well known apps like Headspace.
However, there is growing interest in a type of meditation called nondual mindfulness, a practice that some say is superior to conventional mindfulness because it teaches you to transcend suffering and access profound forms of happiness at will. Those who master nondual mindfulness are sometimes described as spiritually awakened or enlightened. These radical claims are made by seemingly scientific people, but are they true?
To find out, we ran a pre-registered study on an app that teaches nondual mindfulness – Sam Harris’ Waking Up app – to determine how many users successfully learned this technique and how it impacted their lives. This blog contains a summary of our findings, using a new nondual mindfulness scale that we developed.
If you’re especially interested in this topic, you can read the full version of this article (which includes a lot more detail about our study) here. We think you’ll find it valuable if you want to know more about meditation, personal wellbeing, or if you’re a user of the Waking Up app! Below is a quick summary of our takeaways (keep reading for a lot more about what we learned):
Takeaways from our article and the study we ran on Sam Harris' meditation app:
Conventional (dualistic) mindfulness involves paying attention to the contents of consciousness (e.g., sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts) with an attitude of acceptance. In contrast, nondual mindfulness involves paying attention to the absence of "a small sense of self", such that the feeling of separation between subject (you) and object (the things you perceive) temporarily collapses (i.e., "self-transcendence").
Certain meditation teachers, like Sam Harris, claim that nondual mindfulness is superior to conventional mindfulness and that its benefits are remarkable. For example, it's claimed that nondual mindfulness gives you access to a profound form of wellbeing whenever you choose.
We don’t know whether it’s possible to learn nondual mindfulness from an app, so we ran a survey study of users of Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, which teaches nondual mindfulness
We found that about one in ten study participants (most of whom had completed all or nearly all of the Introductory Course of the Waking Up app) appeared to successfully learn nondual mindfulness and almost half of these people said it was the most important skill they’ve ever learned in their lives.
Some future directions for better teaching nonduality within an app context could be to facilitate easier access to nondual teachers (for direct teaching). Additionally, an app like Waking Up could incorporate our new Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale (for periodic self-assessment) to help users gauge if they are on the right path and to track their progress, as well as allowing A/B testing or experimenting with different approaches to teaching the content (measuring which produce the best effects).
What is nondual mindfulness and where does it come from?
Mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years in ancient spiritual traditions like Buddhism. What many people took a long while to realize is that most of what we practice is a specific type of mindfulness, which we will call ‘conventional mindfulness.’ Conventional mindfulness is mostly taken from the oldest form of Buddhism – Theravada – and involves cultivating a type of attention that contains:
an attitude of equanimity (i.e., equally accepting both pleasant and unpleasant experiences)
a meta-awareness (i.e., being aware of what you are aware of; a higher-order level of awareness of the processes of consciousness such as sights, sounds, and thoughts) which, by definition, involves being present (i.e., not being lost in thought)
We estimate that conventional mindfulness constitutes roughly 95% of what the West gets exposed to through apps like Headspace and Calm, meditation courses like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and organizations and retreat centers like the Insight Meditation Society.
Thanks to the promotions of educators like Sam Harris, Loch Kelly, and Adyashanti, a different type of mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity in the West – nondual mindfulness. Nondual mindfulness involves being mindful of the absence of a solid self at the center of our conscious experiences. In other words, nondual mindfulness teaches you to become aware of the (supposedly intrinsic) nonduality of the human mind – the lack of subject / object duality (i.e., the lack of distinction between “you” and what you perceive) – which is how we typically perceive our conscious experiences.
Nondual mindfulness is really hard to define. People often disagree on what it is to achieve it – describing it as beyond words, impossible to articulate, not even a “state,” or not even an experience (i.e., it is a ‘non-experience’)! To make our study possible, we wrote definitions for the criteria that make up nondual mindfulness that were largely based on Sam Harris’ descriptions of this practice.
Table 1: The criteria for nondual mindfulness in our new Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale.
Presence of awareness identity
There is a fundamental shift in your identity such that you feel identified with awareness rather than the conventional separate sense of self (where the conventional self is defined as the feeling of a solid and stable entity located behind your eyes and inside your head, separate from the world and staring out at the world from the edge of consciousness)
Absence of small self-identity
The sense of separation between you and the world drops away
Always and already available
Nonduality can be recognized at will in ordinary states of consciousness (i.e., it is not contingent on being highly concentrated)
The recognition of nonduality is clear and conclusive
In the moment of recognizing nonduality, there is a profound sense of wellbeing or complete absence of, or freedom from, suffering
Absence of seeking
In the moment of recognizing nonduality, there is a complete lack of seeking, especially spiritual seeking - you have found what you have been looking for all along
Not everyone will agree with this definition, which is fine. But it is a definition that a prominent nondual teacher, Loch Kelly, largely confirmed when we interviewed him on the Clearer Thinking podcast. And let’s be clear from the beginning: people like Sam Harris are not just arguing that nondual mindfulness is merely an alternative to conventional mindfulness, they are arguing that it is superior to conventional mindfulness. Many people pursue happiness by trying to arrange the conditions of their lives in particular ways. We try to develop good relationships, find meaningful work, pursue interesting hobbies, and maintain healthy lifestyles, among a myriad of other things. Of course, these are all worthy investments of our time, but they are inherently unreliable. Conditions are always changing, and sometimes these changes are for the worse. But nonduality is seemingly different. Its proponents claim that we can access a profound form of self-transcendent wellbeing that is always available because it is intrinsic to consciousness. In fact, some people consider nonduality to be synonymous with spiritual awakening or enlightenment, which, by many accounts, is the highest form of wellbeing we can achieve. But is it even possible to learn to experience this kind of wellbeing? And if it is possible, how hard is it to achieve? Could most of us do it? In some spiritual traditions like Tibetan Buddhism, nondual mindfulness is only taught once you have done years of preliminary practice because it is considered very advanced – the highest teaching. In contrast, meditation teachers like Loch Kelly believe it is easy to learn. These were the questions we wanted to answer with our study, and we chose what we believe to be one of the most popular ways of learning it – the Waking Up app – as our subject.
Sam Harris’ Waking Up app has the explicit goal of teaching nondual mindfulness, and this app is perhaps the most common way to learn this technique in the West. While the app has many glowing reviews, its effectiveness, specifically with respect to teaching nonduality, is unclear. So we designed a survey-based study (pre-registered here) to determine the percentage of Waking Up users who have successfully learned nondual mindfulness. For those who had successfully learned the skill, we wanted to explore what nonduality is like and what had helped people learn it. For those who hadn’t succeeded in learning nondual mindfulness, we wanted to explore what made it difficult. We recruited study participants from Facebook and Reddit groups focused on nonduality and meditation, some with a specific focus on the Waking Up app. All 347 participants had started the Waking Up Introductory Course and the majority had completed it. You can preview the study here (which was implemented using GuidedTrack), and see the code here. To measure nonduality quantitatively, we created a Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale (which you can try here) based on the criteria outlined in Table 1, which resulted in six sub-factors.
How many participants said they successfully learned nondual mindfulness?
In Table 2, we use increasingly stringent definitions of “successful learning of nondual mindfulness” and show the frequency of each. We were particularly interested in the wellbeing subscale of the Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale because many consider the improvement of wellbeing to be the whole point of mindfulness! We also wanted to know whether people described having this ability for more than a month, given it’s entirely possible to think you’re resting in nonduality, but actually be completely lost in thought. The author of this study (Jeremy) knows this from personal experience! Table 2: Percentage of participants who learned nondual mindfulness, using increasingly stringent criteria, expressed as a percentage of people who answered the relevant questions.
Participant answered "yes" or "somewhat" to the question: During the Introductory Course of the Waking Up app, did you successfully learn nondual mindfulness?
Participant met criterion 1 and also answered yes or somewhat to the question: Have you learnt nondual mindfulness to the point that you can enter nonduality at-will?
Participant met all of the above criteria, and also scored an average of at least 1 ("somewhat agree") on the total Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale score
Participant met all of the above criteria and also scored an average of at least 1 on the wellbeing subscale of the Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale
Participant met all of the above criteria and also reported being able to successfully practice nonduality for at least a month
If we take these findings seriously, then it seems at least one in ten people who have completed at least Day One of the Introductory Course of the Waking Up app are learning nondual mindfulness to a competent level (or an even higher proportion, if we use less stringent criteria for who has "learned it"). How do we make sense of this result, given that (1) these 26 participants had a relatively low amount of prior experience (discussed later), and (2) in Tibetan Buddhism, the nondual teachings like Dzogchen are often considered the most advanced teachings and kept secretive until a dedicated student has accrued thousands of practice hours? This traditional perspective of nonduality would suggest that the success rate in our study was exaggerated, which is a valid possibility. Our study involved self-reports, which could mean that at least some of the successful participants were mistaken about their progress (e.g., they were lost in thought without realizing it). However, other perspectives would suggest that our findings were not exaggerated. For example, Loch Kelly has argued that learning nondual mindfulness can be as easy as learning conventional mindfulness. Drawing firm conclusions is difficult because this is a preliminary exploratory study. The criteria we chose to determine “successful learning of nondual mindfulness” were also somewhat arbitrary. Additionally, our Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale has not been validated (attempting to do so would be a huge project in its own right). Furthermore, there is always the potential for selection bias in a study like this – we did not recruit a purely random sample of users of Waking Up. It is likely that the success rate in our study would be much lower if we used a broader selection criteria (e.g., people who merely downloaded the app - for most apps the percentage of people who stick with it among those who download it is very low, often just a few percent, whereas our study focused precisely on those who DID stick with it). If Sam and the Waking Up team are interested, they are in a position to do similar research to ours that compensates for the limitations described above. They would be welcome to use our Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale and could even consider including it in the app. If such a scale were incorporated in the app, it could help users tell if they are on the right track, and could provide a way to track their progress. An additional advantage of adopting a scale like ours to measure users’ progress in the app is that it would allow A/B testing or experimenting with different approaches to teaching the content to see which produces better effects.
What was the impact of nondual mindfulness for successful participants?
When examining the impact of nondual mindfulness, we focused on the responses of the 26 participants who met the most stringent criteria (i.e., criterion 5 in Table 2). When we asked the 26 participants the degree of importance of learning nondual mindfulness, 46% reported that it was the most important skill they’ve ever learned. These participants reported numerous benefits from nonduality, including increased positive feelings (like calmness and peace), improved resilience to external stressors, improved emotion regulation with particular references to ‘freedom’ (e.g., from suffering), increased clarity (e.g., about reality and identity), improved empathy/compassion towards others, increased productivity, less fear of death, and reduced seeking (e.g., spiritually). Most of the 26 participants (87%) reported that nondual mindfulness did not have any negative effects, while a small number (13%) reported negative effects, mainly referring to anxiety about selflessness.
How did the successful participants learn nondual mindfulness?
Most of the 26 successful participants did not have much prior meditation experience. For context, in some research, a meditator is considered ‘experienced’ if they have accumulated more than 1000 hours of practice. In our sample of successful participants, approximately 80% had 500 or less hours of prior meditation experience. In fact, about a quarter of these participants had accrued only 100 hours or less of practice, which would classify them as ‘beginners’ in some research! Most successful participants reported prior experience in meditation that was mainly dualistic (i.e., not of the “nondual” variety), often involving other apps (especially Headspace). Several reported having done retreats and also using other practices such as loving-kindness. Six reported having prior nondual experience (e.g., sitting a retreat with Mingyur Rinpoche) and only two reported having received personalized meditation instructions (e.g., pointing out instructions). When asked what advice they would give others trying to learn nonduality, the most common advice by these participants was to use the Waking Up app and to have patience and be consistent with practice. Several of the 26 participants reiterated the value of experimenting (e.g., with different teachers and techniques) and even using psychedelics. Some participants spoke about the value of relaxing or letting go of effort.
For unsuccessful participants, why was it difficult to learn nondual mindfulness?
For those who failed to learn nondual mindfulness, the most common response of participants was a lack of understanding. This lack of understanding frequently referred to either (1) not understanding the nondual instructions themselves, (2) feeling that the learning curve was too steep, or (3) not understanding what nonduality actually feels like, and therefore not knowing whether they had glimpsed it successfully or, rather, it was some other experience. Numerous participants reported applying the instructions but not experiencing the purported outcome of nonduality. The most common form of “failure” reported was that, when trying the nondual techniques, the sense of a “small self” still remained. There were also numerous people who said they understood nonduality conceptually but not experientially. Another difficulty was that they simply hadn’t put in enough time into consistently practicing the techniques.
How could Waking Up improve how it teaches nondual mindfulness?
Many participants were unsure about how the app could improve. Quite a few suggested that the app could describe in greater detail or in different ways what nonduality actually feels like (e.g., to know if you are ‘getting it’). Some proposed that the app could use greater variety in the nondual techniques it uses and others requested more detail in the techniques. Other participants wanted more detail about the process of learning nonduality. For example, how much daily practice and whether time on retreat is strongly recommended. Some participants requested more access to other students’ experiences to learn things like how long it took them and what helped.
Future directions and recommendations
The potential benefits of nondual mindfulness appear strong enough to warrant further scientific research into this topic. Many fascinating questions are yet to be answered comprehensively. Is there a definition of nonduality that experienced practitioners can agree on? Are the benefits of nonduality as enormous as many claim? Is there a measure of nonduality that we can start using to determine the success rate of other learning methods? And what causes people to learn nonduality? Can we build a detailed model of what this learning involves? Is it time for intervention research into nondual mindfulness? One potential study idea would involve a prominent nondual teacher running a retreat and measuring pre and post nondual mindfulness ability (ideally with a control group of people learning more standard techniques for the same length of time with an equally experienced teacher, and making measurements at the beginning and end of the study for both groups). It’s not too early to begin trying to answer some of these research questions. Even if we accept that one in ten users who start the Waking Up Introductory Course successfully learn nondual mindfulness, it still raises the question of whether apps are the best way to teach this skill. Although learning nonduality through an app has the massive advantage of scalability and lower cost, it seems highly probable that learning nonduality through direct interaction with personalized instructions from a qualified teacher is a more reliable learning method (as is true for most skills). What does this all mean? In addition to providing standardized nondual teachings such as recorded guided meditations, it may be wise for Sam and the Waking Up team to also facilitate users to access qualified nondual teachers. They already do this indirectly to a small extent by interviewing a range of nondual teachers whom listeners can then investigate themselves. But many of these teachers are either difficult or impossible to access (for one-on-one or group based help) because they are too popular or expensive or rarely do retreats. For example, Loch Kelly is doing just two retreats of five days or more in 2022, and he no longer does any one-on-one teaching. One idea would be to have a centralized database of vetted nondual teachers who are actually accessible that is continually updated (e.g., containing new retreat dates and whether they are available for individual teachings). Another idea would be for the Waking Up team themselves to train a larger group of teachers who would be available for teaching nonduality.
Should the purported benefits of nondual mindfulness be true, it may be one of the most important skills we can learn in our lives. But it has so far been unclear to external observers whether people can actually learn it. According to our results, it does seem like nondual mindfulness may be learnable, even through an app (though these results should be considered highly preliminary). One in ten participants who completed the Waking Up Introductory Course appeared to learn the skill successfully by our most stringent criteria (the number would, of course, be much lower if we considered anyone who downloaded the app). Furthermore, most of these participants had a relatively low amount of prior meditation experience. Although there is a significant risk of false-positives (people being mistaken about their progress), and there are limitations with our methodology (including the fact that results are self-reported), these findings are encouraging. Yet, the path to learning nonduality is far from optimized. Promising future directions include combining apps like Waking Up with greater opportunities for direct communication between students and teachers, as well as building in tools for measuring progress (such as our Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale introduced in this article). We look forward to seeing how the teaching of nonduality continues to develop!
We also have a full podcast episode about Meditation and Enlightenment that you may like:
Click here to access other streaming options and show notes. This article was written by Jeremy Stevenson and Spencer Greenberg, with thanks to Troy Wardle and Clare Diane Harris for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article. If you have any questions about this article, or want to contact the authors, you can reach them by emailing email@example.com