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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Humanists embracing secular meditation

Rick Heller, of the Humanist Contemplatives
Group at Harvard. Photo: (c) HarvardHumanist.
Rick Heller at the Humanist Contemplative Group at Harvard, has just made a ten minute video on secular meditation. By secular meditation, he means meditation without any supernatural concepts. Indeed, the types of meditation he describes are precisely what is practiced by many Buddhists already, but Heller may feel the added term is necessary to distinguish it from other kinds of meditation that naturalists or those of other religions may not find relevant.

The Harvard Humanist Contemplative group was inspired by my own Humanist Contemplative group here in Houston, and I was honored and pleased when that group started. My hope is that more Humanist Contemplatives begin appearing in other areas because these are elements I think could only improve the Humanist movement. So, I applaud Rick Heller for his recent overview of basic meditation!

Rick Heller goes over some basics on 'how to' do breathing meditation. There are many other tips on posture, relaxing before a meditation session, and more which one could also learn. He talks about how meditation is helpful when we are experiencing nagging ruminations over various thoughts, concerns, and worries plaguing us, and how meditation helps to clear our minds and relieve stress. This is certainly true, but I would call this 'acute meditation practice'. Meditation can mean so much more, even for secularists.

Rick Heller also mentions scientific studies that have been conducted, and are being conducted on the effects of meditation on the brain. A top-down functional analysis is interesting, but the real treasure in meditation is being a first-person participant in it over a long-term practice.

In addition to simple momentary stress reduction and calming ruminations, meditation makes long lasting changes in the way our brains (and therefore minds) function. For one, it improves our focus. The purpose of focusing on one thing (such as our breath or a mantra) for extended periods isn't merely to calm our minds in that moment. When the practice is honed over time, it seems to improve our ability to focus on the things we want and need to focus on in a more disciplined manner.

In the calmness of that focus, we become more aware of what's happening around us. Our mental waters are still, and so anything happening around us makes noticeable ripples. Meditation practitioners tell us that quiet sitting meditation is but practice. It is in our everyday lives, as we go about our business, that we can learn to be as calm, as focused, and as mindful - in effect, a sort of meditation at all times.

But the usefulness of meditation doesn't stop there.

I quite often see secularists, or even Zen practitioners assuming the above is where practical meditation ends, and that the rest are simply religious, superstitious, or cultural trappings. But there is more material in between that is still yet salvageable for the modern naturalist, and equally important - that is, at least some of the core philosophical underpinnings of meditative practice. If we attempt to completely divorce meditative practice from that philosophical basis, we are cutting ourselves short.

For example, the basis of Buddhist ethics, the Eightfold Path, is quite different from Western ethics. They tell us that ethics help guide us toward contentment and freedom from suffering, and aid in our practice. When we sit to engage in meditation, if we are beset by the disturbances of the mind caused by our own direct misdeeds, as well as turbulence happening in our lives which were responses to those misdeeds (cause and effect, or karma), this will necessarily disrupt our internal economy. Therefore, ethics and virtue are an integral part of our contemplative practice and our walk toward the good life - for very pragmatic reasons.

Meditation can even change the way we look at our natural universe. There are many ways in which language and our tendency to label and categorize things gets in the way of our perceptions and understanding. Meditation is a time of silent awareness, without verbal thought and without judgment. During these times, we can learn to experience the world in a more phenomenological sense. This means we see the flow of events around us in a bit more detached way, from a more existential perspective. Meditation helps with this, but it takes some understanding and realizations about the world, about change, and impermanence that are not obvious from a strictly bare bones approach to meditation.

Lastly, meditation can help us improve aspects of our character, including increasing of our tendency toward loving kindness or compassion. These forms of mediation are forms of which I'm aware, but have not yet even begun to master. Obviously, one needs some sort of philosophical perspective on why increasing compassion is necessary in the first place in order to reap these meditative benefits.

Of course, Heller only had ten minutes in this video and the intent was a very introductory overview. So, my additional comments are only meant as additional considerations, not as a criticism of the video, which by the way, you can watch here!

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