Blog Site

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Humanist Meditation 101 (part 1 of 3)

(cc) Mitchell Joyce (HckySo),
I recently spoke, as part of a panel on meditation and Humanism, at the American Humanist Association's annual conference. I will be providing more details on that presentation soon. However, for now I thought I'd share a little of something I'm writing on meditation basics. This explanation will take place over a few parts. Here is the first part for today:

Humanist Meditation 101

Breathing meditation is the most general kind of attention practice, and necessary in order to perform other kinds of attention practice. It will therefore tend to be the most commonly practiced and introductory of forms. However, foundational though it may be, mastering meditation requires just as much discipline and skill as mastering any other practice, so it would be a mistake to consider it necessarily easier or less advanced than other practices.

While meditators may appear to the outside observer to simply be relaxing, very specific mental exercise is taking place within. A person may seem exactly the same in two sessions but may have had a wonderful success in one session, and performed poorly in another. It is normal for beginning meditators to find meditation trying and difficult. At first, they may even wonder what the big deal is. But over time, noticeable improvement is made, and you will know it in your session as you attain deeper levels. The improvement will also manifest outside your session in the form of greater attention span, depth of attention, focus, and peace of mind. The ability to focus attention and increase awareness is what allows for greater inner and outer mindfulness – and these abilities are foundational to many other practices, as well as the overall endeavor to internalize many philosophic teachings from mere knowledge to a more intuitive level.


The basic premise is simple: our untrained minds generally tend to bounce from topic to topic, state to state. This sort of associative jumping about is called ‘monkey mind’ by the Buddhists. It is very noticeable in children, but adults usually suffer from it as well. Even very intelligent people (sometimes especially intelligent people) will tend to ruminate over all kinds of things endlessly. This is seldom a matter of efficient ‘multitasking’. Rather, it is a sort of daydreaming that, at best, results in a lack of focus and being ‘someplace else’ than present. At worst, ruminations can be a source of great frustration and stress. In either case, mindfulness is not possible in such a state because mindfulness involves constant awareness of one’s self, one’s thoughts and feelings, one’s environment, and one’s situation in the present, both internal and external.

Meditation allows us to improve our ability to consciously direct our attention where we decide it will go, and for how long. This is done much like working out a muscle. In meditation, we select something constant upon which to focus. One of the best and oldest things to select is the breath – because no matter your circumstances, your breath is always with you as long as you are alive.


First, it is important to consider your body position. Most people have seen meditators seated with legs crossed, hands either folded in the lap or upturned and resting upon the knees, and a straight posture. These traditional positions may work for many people but we are not so concerned with any one specific position. The key concern, rather, is this: you should sit in a manner that (a) allows you to breathe easily, (b) allows your body enough comfort that you can remain in that position throughout your meditation without your body becoming a distraction, and (c) is not so comfortable that it encourages you to fall asleep.

It is therefore not recommended that you meditate while lying down. Some may choose to sit in a chair, but the chair should allow your posture to be straight enough to breathe well – not slouched. Sitting up straight is one area where initial muscle discomfort will be worth the practice of learning to maintain the posture. As for legs, conditioning over time may enable you to become capable of sitting on the floor with them crossed if that is currently uncomfortable. However, that is a separate physical practice and endeavor - distinct in many ways from the practice of meditation per se. Thus, a seated meditator can become as proficient at meditation as a cross-legged meditator. Again, regardless of the position, the essential matters are that it allows good breathing, is not distracting, and will not make you fall asleep. Essentially, you should use a posture that will allow you to ‘forget about your body’ during the duration of your meditation.

People meditate with eyes open or shut, but shut is generally the preferred. Further, when shutting your eyes, it will be important to learn not to visualize various imagery (something that can be challenging at first for visual thinkers). Instead, the vision should simply be ‘switched off’, even including internal ‘mental visions’.

The mouth can be slightly open with the jaw hanging loose. A good position for the tongue can be let loose, but touching the back of the two front teeth and roof of the mouth, but this may vary for individuals. Again, the key should be relaxation and no distraction.

In the next articles I will continue with notes on body scanning, focusing, going deeper, immediate after effects, and long-term effects.


No comments:

Post a Comment