Evaluating the effectiveness of Sam Harris’ Waking Up app in teaching nondual mindfulness
Updated: Jan 7
This article investigates Nondual Mindfulness, a meditation practice that is said to help practitioners transcend suffering and access profound forms of happiness at will. It details the results of a preliminary, pre-registered study we ran on Sam Harris' Waking Up app to determine (a) how easy it is to learn this technique and (b) how it impacted participants' lives.
Summary of this article and the study we ran
Nondual mindfulness is different to conventional (or dualistic) mindfulness; conventional 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 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 that is always available.
We ran a study to see whether it is possible to learn nondual mindfulness from an app, using Sam Harris’ popular Waking Up app as our subject.
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 (a) facilitating easier access to nondual teachers (for direct teaching), (b) incorporating our new Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale (for periodic self-assessment) into apps like Waking Up to help users gauge if they are on the right path and to track their progress, and (c) allowing A/B testing or experimenting with different approaches to teaching the nondual mindfulness to discover which produce the best outcomes.
Mindfulness is definitely in fashion these days. People everywhere report that it has changed their lives, and the scientific research on the practice is booming. But an interesting change is happening in the world of mindfulness. A different type of mindfulness – nondual mindfulness – is growing in popularity. Furthermore, trustworthy scientific people (like Sam Harris) are making incredible claims about it. They are saying it is superior to conventional mindfulness, that it gives you access to a profound form of happiness that is available at will, and even that it is synonymous with spiritual awakening and/or enlightenment! They also claim that this form of awakening can be learned.
These are enormous claims that would have radical implications for humans and the way we pursue happiness. But are they true? Before we explore these claims, let’s define what nondual mindfulness actually is.
What is nondual mindfulness and where does it come from?
Mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years in ancient spiritual traditions such as Buddhism. The practice gradually began to spread more widely when a group of Westerners traveled to Asia, learned the practice, and then brought it back to the West to begin teaching. You may have heard of these teachers: Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, and Jack Kornfield, just to name a few.
What many people took a long while to realize is that these teachers mostly brought back a specific type of mindfulness, which we will call ‘conventional mindfulness.’ Mostly based in the oldest form of Buddhism – Theravada – conventional mindfulness involves 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.
Then along came Sam Harris. The atheist, neuroscientist, and author shocked many people by writing a book on spirituality and mindfulness meditation called Waking Up, despite being a renowned skeptic (e.g., of religion). In the book, Harris documents how he spent a cumulative two years on silent meditation retreat in his 20s. But his spiritual journey is different. Yes, he initially delved into conventional mindfulness and derived significant benefit. However, in the book he introduces the practice of nondual mindfulness, which involves being mindful of the absence of a solid self at the center of conscious experience. In other words, nondual mindfulness teaches you to become aware of the (supposedly intrinsic) nonduality of the 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 conscious experience.
To be clear, Harris is not arguing that nondual mindfulness is merely an alternative to conventional mindfulness, he is arguing that it is superior to conventional mindfulness. Here is the climax of Harris’ spiritual journey as detailed in his book Waking Up:
“Before meeting Tulku Urgyen [Harris' nondual teacher], I had spent at least a year practicing vipassana [conventional mindfulness] on silent retreats. The experience of self-transcendence was not entirely unknown to me. I could remember moments when the distance between the observer and the observed had seemed to vanish, but I viewed these experiences as being dependent on conditions of extreme mental concentration. Consequently, I thought they were unavailable in more ordinary moments, outside intensive retreat. But after a few minutes, Tulku Urgyen simply handed me the ability to cut through the illusion of the self directly, even in ordinary states of consciousness. This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.”
Since Harris wrote his book, at least two others have authored books detailing similar stories of: (1) initially practicing conventional mindfulness, (2) becoming dissatisfied, and then (3) discovering nondual mindfulness and finding that this discovery solved their spiritual problems (i.e., the feeling that their spiritual practice was inadequate and not fulfilling its highest potential).
Loch Kelly wrote The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, in which he describes doing several conventional mindfulness retreats in Sri Lanka, noticing how quickly the benefits of these disappeared, and then gaining teachings from a nondual teacher (interestingly, the same teacher as Harris – Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) and never looking back after having an experience of nonduality with tears of happiness streaming down his face.
Diana Winston wrote The Little Book of Being, in which she describes going down the rabbit hole of conventional mindfulness by embarking on a year-long silent retreat in Myanmar, almost driving herself to a nervous breakdown, and then discovering a nondual meditation book in the monastery’s library. This discovery changed her practice and transformed the nature of the final few months of her retreat, making it a far more pleasurable and meaningful experience.
How do you define nondual mindfulness?
Nondual mindfulness is really hard to define. People often disagree on what achieving it involves – 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 it possible to run our study, we developed criteria for achieving nondual mindfulness largely based on Sam Harris’ descriptions of the experience.
Harris frames nondual mindfulness as the second stage of mindfulness practice “at which the illusion of self gets cut through or the sense that there's a subject at the center of consciousness falls away” (from the What is Mindfulness track on the Waking Up app). Here are the six criteria we developed to define nondual mindfulness:
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.
Why should we care about nondual mindfulness?
From reading the above – Sam Harris’ story and our definition of nonduality – you probably already have some idea about why this skill is important. Who wouldn't want to be able to experience an absence of suffering at will? Plus, nonduality is intrinsically a self-transcendent experience. Across various domains such as meditation and psychedelics, experiences of self-transcendence are described as being at the center of profound experiences that cause lasting positive change. However, the problem is that in most schools of thought, something drastic needs to happen to trigger an experience of self-transcendence. For example, you need to take a large dose of psychedelics, or go on a three-month meditation retreat, or endure many days of food/sleep deprivation. And yet, nondual mindfulness can apparently allow you to self-transcend at will in ordinary states of consciousness – anytime, anywhere, no matter what is happening.
To describe some of the main benefits advertised for nonduality, here are some quotes, mainly from Sam Harris:
“The level of psychological relief [from nondual mindfulness]…is really hard to exaggerate. It is the antidote to almost everything that ails us in terms of our psychological suffering, and our reactivity, our anger or embarrassment, our worry. It is a kind of universal solvent – this practice – which gives us the freedom to do with our attention what seems most useful in any given moment.” [Day 10 of Waking Up Introductory Course]
“If I’m going through life and…something happens that pitches me into a negative state...I’m late for something, I’m kind of stressed out…you’re late and you’re drinking a glass of water… and you wind up shattering the glass…you create some hassle for yourself...there’s this negative ‘oh fuck’ experience. So in that moment where I’m contracted, annoyed… more than one problem has to be solved. Part of my mind now comes online and I think ‘alright you either can be free right now or you can’t be free. Either you can recognize it right now and it really is just as empty of self as it ever gets even in the most blissful, most concentrated, happiest...moment in meditation –either this is as good as that... or you don’t know how to practice.’" [emphasis added – Sam Harris Q&A with Loch Kelly on the Waking Up app]
“Paradoxically I want to tell people not to be satisfied with their practice until they’re actually satisfied with their practice...until mindfulness really seems like an antidote to the illusion of having a problem...until it can really cut through your anger or confusion, I don’t want anyone to come away feeling like… mindfulness doesn’t actually work.” [Sam Harris conversation with Diana Winston on Waking Up app]
“Effortless [nondual] mindfulness gave me a way of relieving my underlying suffering and connecting to an inner joy that I didn’t even know existed” [Loch Kelly from The Way of Effortless 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.
Can you actually learn nondual mindfulness?
Even if you believe only half the claims made about the benefits of nondual mindfulness, it seems incredibly useful to learn. But is it even possible to learn? And if it is possible, how hard is 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.
Consistent with this perspective, many teachers that advocate nondual mindfulness had actually done an enormous amount of prior practice before they grasped nonduality. Sam Harris had accrued a full two years on silent conventional mindfulness retreats. Diana Winston was nine months into a year-long retreat. Stephan Bodian had spent years ordained as a monk. These people were contemplative athletes before they were even introduced to nonduality!
In my (Jeremy’s) personal experience, I have found nondual mindfulness excruciatingly difficult to learn. I first heard about it years ago when I read the book, Waking Up. Since then (as detailed on episode #3 of the Clearer Thinking podcast), I’ve gone on a long journey of meditation retreats, including a couple of month-long retreats and a three-month retreat in Nepal. I have experienced what I believe are states of nonduality, but these have always been contingent on building up concentration and momentum on long retreats.
I’ve also done nondual workshops, retreats, and had individual nondual instructions from various teachers. Although I have felt some sense of progress, I still feel confused. Some of my friends have had similar experiences. They tried to learn nondual mindfulness from apps or teachers and ultimately gave up and lost interest, because they didn’t get it. Furthermore, when I’ve spent time on forums like Reddit discussing nonduality, many people express a similar frustration:
“Every time I hear look for the looker or something to that effect, I feel myself tense up and become extremely frustrated and even angry. Do I physically turn my eyes back into my head? I can’t seem to break the “illusion” of subject/object. I have tried the headless ness course, the spectrum of awareness course and now trying loch Kelly. Any phrasing or framing does not seem to get me into the desired state. I always feel like a self (I think).” – Reddit post
Given this personal and anecdotal experience, I have doubted whether learning nondual mindfulness is realistic.
But in contrast to these experiences, some people argue that it is easy to learn. If you spend time with the Headless Way community (based on Douglas Harding’s secular teachings, which Sam Harris claims are the same as his own teachings), you will be told that if you merely recognize that you can’t see your face, you’ve got it. If you listen to Loch Kelly, he claims that, in 90 minutes, he can get 80% of people to have an initial glimpse of nonduality! Then, he explains that it will take several months of regular practice to readily access the state, followed by 3 to 9 years for this technique to stabilize.
So what is the truth? Can you actually learn nondual mindfulness? If so, how common is it? We decided to put this question to the test in the context of what we believe is the most popular way of attempting to learn it.
Probably the most common way to try to learn nondual mindfulness is through Sam Harris’ meditation app, Waking Up, which has the explicit goal of teaching nonduality. 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.
My (Jeremy’s) hypothesis was that an extremely low percentage of participants would report successfully learning nondual mindfulness. In fact, my initial predictions were that around one in 500 participants would be successful, using the most stringent criteria for nondual mindfulness (that we describe later on).
We recruited from Facebook and Reddit groups focused on nonduality and meditation, some with a specific focus on the Waking Up app. The main inclusion criterion was that participants needed to have at least completed Day One (the first meditation) of the Introductory Course in the Waking Up app. The mean amount of the course that the 347 participants had completed was 87% and the median was 100%. We found that 77% of participants had completed the entire Introductory Course, and only 11% had completed less than half.
Figure 1: The distribution plot of the percentage of the Waking Up Introductory Course completed by participants.
We then asked people whether they successfully learned nondual mindfulness from the app, including a brief definition of nondual mindfulness compared to conventional mindfulness. Only 15 people reported that they did not understand the difference between nondual vs. conventional mindfulness. Our survey included both qualitative and quantitative questions. 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. The scale used 7-point Likert scoring from *Totally disagree* (-3 points) to *Totally agree* (+3 points). To facilitate interpretation, we then normalized these scores so that they ranged from 0-100 (i.e., -3 points becomes 0/100; 0 points becomes 50/100; 3 points becomes 100/100).
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 possibly to think you’re resting in nonduality, but actually be completely lost in thought. I (Jeremy) know 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*. Only people who answered "yes" to the question "Have you completed at least Day One of the Introductory Course on Sam Harris' Waking Up meditation app?" are included in this analysis.
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
*The denominators for calculating these percentages were different because not everyone answered all questions. For criterion 1, the denominator was 305 (the total number of people who gave an answer to the question: “During the Introductory Course of the Waking Up app, did you successfully learn nondual mindfulness?”. For criterion 2, the denominator was 242 (107 people who answered “No” or “I don’t understand the difference between conventional vs nondual mindfulness” to the previous question, plus all 135 people who answered the question “Have you learnt nondual mindfulness to the point that you can enter nonduality at-will?”. For criteria 3-5, the denominator was 226 (159 people who answered “No” or “I don’t understand the difference between conventional vs nondual mindfulness” to either of the two previous questions, plus all 67 people who completed the Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale questions).
For interest, we include below a distribution plot of scores on the Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale. After normalizing the scores, the ‘benchmark’ score according to criteria 3 was 67% (i.e., an average of ‘somewhat agree’ to all questions). The mean was 69% and median was 71%.
Figure 2: Distribution plot of the normalized scores (0-100) of the Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale
We also investigated the relationship between (1) the amount of prior meditation experience (an ordinal variable of the amount of hours) before using Waking Up and (2) nondual mindfulness ability. While we did not find a statistically significant relationship between prior meditation experience and the Non-dual Mindfulness Scale mean scores (r=0.199, p=0.121, n=62), perhaps due to a limited sample size, we did find a correlation between prior meditation experience and some of our criteria for successful learning of nondual mindfulness (as shown in Figure 3 below). And the more stringent the criteria, the stronger a correlation we found.
Figure 3: Relationship between prior meditation experience and successful learning of nondual mindfulness.
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"). To me (Jeremy), that is actually a pretty good level of success, given I was predicting one in 500!
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. People with a reasonable amount of meditation experience know that ‘thoughts’ are often the most difficult object of meditation because we get lost in them in a way that we do not get lost in other objects like sights, sounds, and physical sensations. As such, it is common to think you are having a particular experience when actually you are completely lost in thought - which may have been the case for some of our participants. Due to this risk of false-positives, most Buddhist traditions require that awakening experiences like nonduality be verified by a teacher.
In contrast, other teachers like Loch Kelly have argued that learning nondual mindfulness can be as easy as learning conventional mindfulness. In fact, Loch Kelly has even argued that conventional mindfulness practice can be an obstacle to learning nondual mindfulness because it reinforces an unnecessary and unhelpful type of focused attention. These perspectives would support the idea that the success rate in our study was unsurprising and accurate. It may be that people like my friends and myself are simply poor students of nonduality, perhaps because our over-intellectualization gets in the way of the practice.
Drawing firm conclusions is difficult because this is a preliminary, exploratory study. The criteria we chose to determine “successful learning of nondual mindfulness” were somewhat arbitrary. For example, our most stringent criteria could have been even more stringent. If we required (in addition to criteria 1, 2 and 5) that successful participants scored an average of at least 2 rather than 1 (i.e., ‘Agree’ rather than ‘Somewhat agree’) on the total scale and wellbeing subscale, the number of successful participants would have been 7 (i.e., 3%).
Additionally, our Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale has not been validated (attempting to do so would be a huge project in its own right) and the sample size of important subgroups were small (e.g., the 26 participants who successfully learned nondual mindfulness according to our most stringent criteria), despite starting with a reasonably large sample of 347 users who had done at least Day One of the Introductory Course of the Waking Up app.
Furthermore, there is always the potential for selection bias in a study like this since it is not a purely random sample of users of Waking Up. In practice, for most apps most people try them just once or twice and never come back. Furthermore, we predict that Waking Up users who failed to learn nondual mindfulness would be less likely to spend time on nondual forums. As such, it's better to think of our sample as a set of more interested/motivated Waking Up users who at least started the Introductory Course in the app, rather than a pure random subset of all users.
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). Therefore, we don’t want people to walk away from this study thinking that around 10% of people who use Waking Up will learn nondual mindfulness - the true number would be lower. How much lower? We’re unsure! More research needs to be done.
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). Some of these participants described what nonduality actually felt like, which included descriptions along the lines of:
"unification of consciousness"
"recognizing the illusory nature of self"
"an effortless quality"
Here are some specific examples of what people wrote when asked to describe the nondual state in their own words:
“A closeness and immediacy to perception. Feeling like nothing has to change to be meditating. Very similar to a flow state.”
“Impersonal, metaphysical medium in which lights are changing and unfolding on their own, and there's no "other part" of consciousness (i.e., no spotlight being shone on the medium or satellite tuning-in to data from the medium)”
“Like inverting a sphere, what was 'out' is now 'in', except that what was 'in' becomes infinitesimally small. Or as if my head was a globe, but then sliced longitudinally into multiple segments and then flattened, such that 'the world is where my head should be.'”
“You feel that your sense of self is an appearance in your consciousness, much like any other thought/feeling/sensation, and if you really look at it you recognise that sense of self as a figment of your imagination and it loses its meaning or disappears. As such, you lose the sense that you are a separate entity from your surroundings, as all things are appearances in consciousness. It is usually a feeling I catch in glimpses though there are a handful of instances where I remember it as a prolonged state.”
When we asked the 26 participants the degree of importance of learning nondual mindfulness (selecting only one answer), 13% reported that nondual mindfulness was quite an important skill, 42% reported that it’s in the top five most important skills they’ve learned, and 46% reported it’s 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).
Some of these descriptions sounded truly profound:
“In terms of standard benefits there is a general ease and well-being, an end to social anxiety and mood swings (possibly minor depression). There is a more consistent state of peace and bliss (extending to sleep and dreams), more compassion for all life, an acceptance of things as they are. There is a detachment from personal and world affairs, but I am still able to care for family, perform well at work and fulfil duties. The mind is still busy at times, but there is another plane on which I remain unaffected. The fear of death seems hollow. However, these are all side effects and cannot be the aim. The main 'benefit' is to finally realize what it is that can say 'I AM' (to the extent that it can be known). The impact of such knowledge can be compared to dying and merging with the source of the universe, life and everything. In a subjective, phenomenal universe the true Self discovers that it is the Noumenon.”
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. Here are some quotes:
“Having to go back to live with my unsatisfied self”
“Resisting the experience of selflessness (originally on a horrible trip when younger) have led to occasional depersonalization. Meditation hasn't been the direct cause of this, but when not fully grasped conceptually have increased anxiety.”
“There were two or three terrifying experiences, but they were actually quite useful. If the sense of a body and the world drops off while there is a strong sense of individuality, there can be a palpable fear of death. These occurred while meditating in the dark and on the verge of falling to sleep while practicing self-inquiry.”
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).
We asked participants which techniques were effective and ineffective after prompting them with a list of nondual techniques. For example:
Looking for the self - a technique in which you turn attention back on itself to try to find the apparent self (try here)
Exploring what is that which is aware - a similar technique to above in which you try to find what exactly is aware of everything (try here)
Noticing that you are not controlling the contents of consciousness - a technique in which you focus on how sensations in consciousness (e.g., sights, sounds, physical sensations) are occurring on their own (try here)
Paying attention to physical sensations "behind" your head - a technique in which you switch attention back and forth between sensations on the back and front of your head to experiment with the perception that you are located inside your head (try here if a subscriber to Waking Up app - behind paywall)
Pointing back at your face - a technique taken from the Headless Way in which you literally point back at your own face with your finger to investigate what is there from a first-person perspective (try here)
Being the space in which everything occurs - a technique in which you assume the identity as the context of experience rather than the subject at its edge (try here)
Noticing what consciousness feels like when there's no problem to solve - a technique in which you ask yourself what the mind is like when there is no problem to solve and see what happens without delving into thought (try here)
There were minimal patterns in the reported effectiveness of different techniques, which might be a result of a lack of data. The techniques of (1) being the space in which everything occurs, (2) noticing your lack of control over conscious experience, (3) noticing what consciousness is like when there is no problem to solve, and (4) paying attention to physical sensations behind the head, were all mentioned as effective without being mentioned as ineffective.
We asked these participants if there was anything else that helped them learn nondual mindfulness while doing the Introductory Course on the Waking Up app. The most common response was that accessing teachings by other teachers was helpful. People described getting these teachings from both within the Waking Up app (which has guided meditations and talks by a range of other teachers) as well as other external sources.
Some participants shared interesting additional learning experiences and techniques. For instance, one respondent said:
“I also attended a meditation seminar in which the instructor...asked us to feel the boundary between our body and the world (that energetic, proprioceptive feeling) and note that it feels slightly outside of our body. He then had us play with that sensation, pushing it outward in all directions. That was probably the most 'nondual' I've ever felt, and it was a state that lasted for a couple hours (also highly atypical for me).”
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. Here is one example of some advice:
“It seems like the door to nonduality is different for everyone. If you're starting out, stay within your comfort zone, try different techniques until you find something that works, if only somewhat, and stick with it. Psychedelics are a surefire way to make something happen, but it might not be something that you want to happen.”
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 instructions themselves (e.g., how to look for the self), (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 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.
Here are some quotes from participants that struggled:
“I think I understand as a notion what is Harris means to convey but wasn't able to directly experience or witness the lack of a coherent self. I do get that if I clear my mind, thoughts appear as if from outside. That the thoughts aren't originating in my conscious self is intuitive. But the lack of a self is a step further that I can't take. For example, Harris will instruct the listener to briefly look for the one watching (the illusory self), the implication being that there's not one there to see. But my experience of this instruction is frustration. I can watch a movie even if I'm not *in* the movie. A camera is still a camera if it can't see itself.”
“I'm not sure what you mean by 'successfully' learn nondual mindfulness. I didn't lose my sense of self at any point and, at times, trying to do this and failing made me feel more anxious and confused. Some of the techniques, like 'looking for the self' in the space of a finger snap were especially difficult for me to learn. I think the speed Sam was insisting on was responsible for this. I also think the lack of clarity of what this actually involves was a huge factor. Does '[l]ooking' mean to stop imagining the self? should I be trying to do something with my eyes? Am I supposed to be pinpointing where the sensation of the self comes from? I think its most likely the latter, but I never feel like I know how to even start here, especially within the time frame of a finger snap.”
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 (e.g., less looking for the self) and others requested more detail in the techniques (e.g., how does one actually look for the self?). 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.
One participant made a case for the app facilitating more direct access to teachers:
“My understanding (from reading and listening to various teachers) is that people generally have this insight into non-duality from speaking to and learning from another person in real time. This appears to assist in 'embedding' the insight as the student can ask questions and have a teacher address any doubts as they arise. This is in opposition to an app-based delivery method where a student can practice for a long time without really knowing if what they're experiencing is what is being pointed at by the teacher. With that in mind, I'd like to see Waking Up add a new feature to allow students to book one-on-one in-person or online sessions with teachers who have been certified by the Waking Up team. I think this would greatly help students to check their practice progress and potentially have non-duality 'pointed out' to them in real time.”
Another novel recommendation for improvement was that the app should have more visual content (e.g., animations or graphics) that help to explain the important concepts.
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 we 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? Imagine knowing what percentage of Adyashanti’s retreat attendees actually become awakened or the number of readers of Eckart Tolle who glimpse the true nature of their minds!
And what causes people to learn nonduality? Can we build a detailed model of what this learning involves? There are some conflicting claims about what helps people learn nonduality. For example, some believe that conventional mindfulness can hold people back, while others believe it is a necessary preliminary practice. Which claim is more true? Our own findings seem to (tentatively) suggest the latter. One first step would be to interview students of nonduality in greater detail than we have done here. If Sam started interviewing successful Waking Up users on his podcast, perhaps that would help other users who are stuck!
And what about the knowledge of teachers? Is it time for scientifically-minded teachers of nonduality like Sam Harris to come together to discuss the question of how to learn nonduality more reliably? Perhaps there could be benefits from a conference in which the top people in this area met and spent days on end problem-solving how to optimize their learning methods!
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). We think there could be substantial benefit from a randomized controlled trial comparing nondual mindfulness vs. conventional mindfulness, or comparing different nondual meditation techniques to determine the most effective. There could potentially be great benefits if intervention research grew large enough to create nondual equivalents to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs that were just as easily accessible and affordable. If the teaching of nondual mindfulness was made more robust and methodologically standard, there could be far more teachers trained in it, making it more easily available to a wide range of people. .
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. Loch Kelly has previously claimed that in 90 minutes he can get 80% of retreat / workshop participants to have an experience of nonduality. How that definition of success compares to our most stringent definition (used in this article) is unclear. However, 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).
Indeed, in certain nondual traditions such as Dzogchen, it is claimed that the initial learning of nonduality must occur through ‘direct transmission’ from a teacher. At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge that learning nonduality through an app has the massive advantage of scalability, in addition to lower cost. As such, even if an app teaches nonduality less reliably than other methods (e.g., in-person), it could still be hugely beneficial. But for the vast majority of people like us who simply don’t get it, we need other options!
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 (as one participant suggested earlier). 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!
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Table A1: The questions of the Nondual Mindfulness Ability Scale.
Presence of awareness identity
Absence of small self-identity