“We become what we pay attention to”: Sam Harris on meditation’s transformative power

Mindfulness and meditation practices have for some years received much public attention. Headspace.com and Calm.com are two among many websites and smartphone apps that have beckoned my attention in recent years. They tout the benefits of learning how to meditate, dangling an often unspoken proverbial carrot before those, like me, who stumble along, striving to achieve great outcomes.

You might be wondering what the purpose of meditation really is, and feel skeptical about the process that so many (including world leaders and Hollywood A-listers) endorse. Fed-Ex Canada CEO, Lisa Lisson, wrote in her recent memoir that it took a full year’s effort before she noticed the benefits of her meditation practice. Reading that admission alone felt defeating to me.

But then American neuroscientist, philosopher and (best-selling) writer, Sam Harris, started a course of meditation that he figuratively calls “Waking Up.” With it, he says he can transform the minds of both skeptics and fresh-faced beginners (www.wakingup.com).

After studying and practicing mindfulness over 30 years with many Tibetan, Indian, Burmese and other meditation teachers, Harris distances himself from those promoters who say that the practice is “good for you.” Yes, he says, it can cause structural changes to the brain, as well as functional changes that increase with the time you invest in it.

But he adds that is true about learning anything. Acquiring new knowledge will change your brain structure—both for good and bad. We can use meditation to reduce stress, halt neurodegeneration and improve our immune functioning. But meditation is not unique in bringing such benefits. Other healthy practices can do the same.

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the examining of one’s life through meditation, one can (Harris says) “open doors you might not otherwise know exist.” That can’t generally be said of other healthy practices.

In his recording, “Don’t Meditate Because It’s Good for You,” Harris says that meditation is a profound life process, analogous in some ways to reading—“one of the most important skills our species ever acquired.” Meditation, like reading, has “sweeping implications” for human life, so that over time, “almost everything we care about depends on it.”

In reality, our daily working lives find ourselves “always meditating on something”— habits, worries, desires, obsessions, expectations, insights, prejudices and the like. He emphasizes: “We become what we pay attention to,” so that we are effectively changing our brains in each moment. Mindfulness is “the ability to notice this process with clarity and to then prioritize what you pay attention to.”

“Why not focus your attention on things important to you,” he asks, rather than on a host of “trivial things that clamour for it?”

Harris shares a “30 second slice of life” story that substantiates just how crucial meditation can be, to ourselves and to those with whom we live. It goes like this: A father reaches for his phone to check his email and, at the very same moment, his five year old daughter comes to him with a story she wants to share. In so many cases, the father will give priority to the dinging phone and rebuff the child so that she feels terrible.  Meditation offers unique freedom from such moments and such outcomes.

How?  Harris says that it allows you to feel the lure of that cell phone as a pattern of energy which you can choose to let go, directing your attention instead to your five year old daughter. Mindfulness allows you to “break the connection between the feeling and the behavioural link it seems to communicate.” In the moment, you can let go of the email, direct attention to the child in front of you, feel “aware” of her and of “the poignancy” that what she has to say may be the only story she tells you that day.

Meditation allows you to “ingrain” this moment, this new habit. When you become “fully present” to that loved or valued other person, you change your brain structure and also change theirs.

For most of us, there are “hundreds, even thousands, of moments like this one, throughout the day.” Harris calls them “choice points” that exist because of meditation, and describes them as “paths taken and not taken” for good reason that populate your day: “Without free [and freeing one’s] attention, there’s no place for good reasons to land.”

He suggests that mindfulness allows you to begin to notice “the lies you can no longer tell” about yourself, so that insights become “motivation” for better behaviour that will ultimately make you a better person. 

So don’t meditate “just because it’s good for you,” Harris implores. “It’s more important than that.” Mindfulness is for people who understand that it “should transform one’s view of the world” and yourself and others in it.

And now it’s your turn:

What are your motivations for undertaking meditation?

What does the truth that “we become what we pay attention to” prompt you to think or do? Can you think of even one “slice of life” recently, when you failed to be fully present to someone or something important? How can you start over, taking an opportunity to change your brain and that of another who matters?

Please write in, on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.