Strategies of Secular Buddhist Practice

| January 9, 2013 | 26 Comments

As Ted Meissner and Mark Knickelbine have been emphasizing, practice is an essential part of any Secular Buddhist path. But it took me quite awhile to find my way to a really worthwhile practice. For many years I followed a Zen-based form of what I would term ‘free form’ meditation, oriented around samādhi, or focus on the breath. The main practice issues I dealt with were questions like, should I count up from one to ten? Should I count on the out-breath only, or on both in- and out-breath? Should I internally say to myself, “Breathing in, breathing out”? Or should I follow the breath ‘non-conceptually’, without internal comment?

One of my earliest Zen teachers, from Robert Aitken’s Diamond Sangha, recommended noting thoughts as they arose, as a technique for getting them to cease bothering. The approach was a form of just sitting; non-judgmental focus on the simple act of sitting and breathing. Thoughts were not so much tools to use or data to investigate, as obstacles to overcome.

I think my approach was pretty close to how many secular practitioners enter practice. For example, a recent article in the Financial Times about the growing impact of meditation in the workplace has a good, basic description:

Practitioners sit in a comfortable position, close their eyes and simply notice the physical sensations in their body and the swirling thoughts in their brain. Using moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, the aim is to observe these sensations without reacting to them. By doing so, meditators gradually recognise the fleeting nature of sensations, including pain, anger and frustration. In time, this allows practitioners to quiet the mind.

Had I read that article several years ago, I would have recognized virtually my entire practice: to observe sensations, particularly the sensation of the breath, moment-to-moment, non-judgmentally, in order to cease thoughts from troubling. Indeed, as the article suggests, I found that doing so over a period of time did seem to quiet and focus my mind.

Limitations and the Guru

Over time the approach seemed limited. It became something of a cul-de-sac, as I think it could particularly for someone practicing without a teacher or sangha.

To try to overcome this, I sat in various groups or centers in Princeton, Madison and New York. I had a long preference for Zen, based on its simple, relatively secular approach. The good thing about Zen is that it’s generally pretty loose about doctrine, and members tend not to proselytize even within the group, so I could feel relatively comfortable there. And I find their spare aesthetic to be inspirational.

However, as Mark Knickelbine noted in his recent SBA podcast on the Practice Circle, Zen practice, while beautiful, in fact is also quite religious. It has its hierarchies, its robes, its bowing and prostrations, its bells and incense, its chanting of untranslated Japanese or unintelligible syllables. The Zen liturgy lends it an obscure, hermetic feel that for some no doubt has a spiritual component. I could make my peace with some of it, and even found some attractive, but ultimately it wasn’t what I was looking for.

Zen practitioners will say that these are mere appearances. For one who could overcome the appearances, a way around the cul-de-sac of individual practice on the breath would be to undertake a guru/student relationship with a Sensei at a Zen (or other Buddhist) center, and have him or her guide one’s progress along the path. This is not something I am comfortable with, however.

While there are people who are more advanced in practice and the dharma than I, I remain secular in my outlook on learning. I don’t mind having a Bhikkhu or Sensei as a teacher in a scholarly setting, but practice is another matter. Basically, I am uncomfortable about supposed “religious authority”, and therefore about having someone as a long-term religious guru. And that goes doubly with something esoteric like Kōan Practice (a hallmark of Japanese Rinzai Zen) where it isn’t even clear what one is doing or why one is doing it. Much has to be taken on blind faith, something which I find rationally and even ethically problematic.

But this approach left me stuck for several years in a practice that, while worthwhile, seemed limited. It wasn’t until I decided to give the Pāli Canon another look, thanks in part to Stephen Batchelor, that things began to change.

Satipaṭṭhāna

In fact, the Canon is full of good, useful material for guiding practice. Arguably the single most influential sutta on meditation is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 10, also Dīgha Nikāya 22). I believe it’s the only sutta included in substantially the same form in two Nikāyas. It begins with a description of the very kind of meditation with which I was intimately familiar: meditation on the breath. But that is only the start. The sutta then outlines dozens of different meditative subjects, in four major categories.

The upshot? Although meditating on the breath is perhaps the classic meditative technique, it is not the be-all and end-all of meditation. The point of meditation is insight, not calming the mind. Calming the mind is only a strategy towards gaining insight.

Insight into what? Into the mind’s relation to the body; into mental habits that hinder one’s meditative progress; into one’s likes and dislikes; into one’s perceptions, volitions, consciousness; into the transitory and selfless nature of all phenomena; into states that bring a more lasting sense of equanimity and contentment.

This expansion of my practice took it out of the cul-de-sac, and helped integrate it into a larger schema based on the Eightfold Path. Looked at from a more specifically Buddhist perspective, an approach based solely around non-judgmental awareness of the breath amounts to only one of the eight “folds”. At least as I practiced it, it was a form of “right concentration”.

It has also helped to have found groups of like-minded practitioners, both in the SBA and in a local, relatively secular, insight-based sangha in New York.

A Few Takeaways

First, I’ve found that the path is neither quick nor easy. It’s not the sort of undertaking one can do in a short period of time, or without dedicated, regular effort. Like exercise, it must be done diligently for the effects to be realized. Going to the gym once a week is only liable to produce injury. Similarly, meditating irregularly tends to frustrate.

Second, it’s not just a trackless or non-conceptual path of simply sitting and following the breath. There are cognitive strategies and techniques one should use. The Buddha called “investigation-of-phenomena” (dhamma vicaya) one of the seven factors that bring about enlightenment. A practitioner is supposed to analyze experiences into categories such as perception and feeling, feeling and volition, wholesome and unwholesome, in order to understand how they arise, what they bring about, and how they pass away. This is an active, conceptual process.

Third, some practitioners mistake the non-judgmental approach of mindfulness with a notion that no mental states are to be preferred over other mental states, or that no actions are to be preferred over other actions. Not so. By pre-judging or judging too quickly one risks suppressing the very states one needs to be aware of in order to deal with skillfully. The point of non-judgmental awareness is to enter into the mindset of an objective, empirical observer. But once those states have arisen, one should investigate them, distinguishing those which are wholesome from those which are not. One should work to eliminate the unwholesome.

For example, during meditation one notes non-judgmentally that the sound of a drill outside causes annoyance to arise. But mere noting is is not yet insight, and it changes nothing. To work towards insight, one must distinguish the sound itself from one’s reaction towards the sound. Isolating the ill-will that arises from the sound which itself is neither good nor bad, one knows where to work. For ill-will is a hindrance to meditation. It’s an unskillful mental state. Noticing its arising, knowing it as unskillful, knowing how to counter it, one can put to work various strategies, such as metta meditation.

The whole is a complex cognitive process that is not captured in any simple notion of “non-judgmental awareness of the breath”. So let’s be careful not to limit our practice solely to that technique.

Towards a Useful Secular Buddhist Practice

We’re dealing with Secular Buddhist practice here on the SBA site nowadays. There’s an awful lot that a secular practitioner can do on their own. Even a very simple mindfulness practice, like that described in the Financial Times article, can do stressed employees a world of good. But there are also some subtle pitfalls we should keep an eye out for. A practice that is too narrowly focused risks sterility. What’s needed is something with the breadth and depth to take on a variety of life issues.

A truly engaged secular Buddhist practice should be much more than stress relief. Community and expert guidance, of course, are irreplaceable, but the SBA’s Practice Circle aside, it can be difficult to find something that fits. I would suggest that even those who cannot find a sangha they find welcoming or convenient should nonetheless strive to expand their practice along the lines the Buddha suggested in the early suttas — paring away the unnecessary, of course. We don’t need to include past life regression!

Remember that the path is gradual, and that you should always be able to understand what it is you are doing and why.

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Category: Articles, Weekly Practice

Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

He posts videos at Doug’s Secular Dharma on YouTube.

Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (26)

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  1. mufi says:

    Doug: I get the impression that you use the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta directly as a meditation guide. Is that so? Or did you find guidance elsewhere – say, in a book or in your insight-based group or both?

    Note: I’m not aware of any insight-based group in my part of (Upstate) New York (and the groups that do exist have proven to be either too religious or too expensive for my taste), so I’m more or less on my own. However, I’m thinking about purchasing one or more of Joseph Goldstein’s insight-based publications, having already tried out a library copy of this course, a collaboration with Sharon Salzberg.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi mufi,

      I’ve found meditation guides in lots of places. From teachers, from books, videos, and from the Canon. The reason I focused on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in this post is because it’s the most famous, most complete, most compact single place to find such information. I suspect that many meditators will find that its suggestions are too brief to understand completely; in that case they’ll need to use it as an introduction or compendium for study.

      There is such a mass of meditation techniques out there that it can also be good to find a place that shows the forest as well as the trees: Satipaṭṭhāna shows how they fit together into a single program for developing insight. It’s kind of the basis for everything in the Buddhist tradition, which after all is the most worked out meditative tradition.

      I’m not familiar with the course you mention, though Salzberg and Goldstein are two of the top lay practitioners from a Theravada perspective, and are associated with the group I go to in NY. If you have the money, I would also highly recommend Prof. Muesse’s Introduction to Meditation from The Great Courses. Though NB: all their offerings go on sale in rotation over the course of the year, so wait until you can buy it at a sale price.

      It surprises me that an Insight group local to you would require expensive payment. If they look good, you might want to ask whether they can work with you on that.

      • mpettengell says:

        doug (and others)—have you thought of starting your own secular group for meditation and discussion meetings? a good friend and i, after attending several buddhist groups here in kansas city, were at a loss to find one that was geared towards secularism…..so we started our own and we are having some success with it. if secular buddhism is going to be a viable force in this country, shouldn’t we try to be as organized as possible? (although i do understand that ‘organizing’ may not be the strong point of many who go in for the secularist approach…: ) )

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Well, I think it’s early days yet. There’s a Secular Buddhist Meetup group just getting formed now in NYC, and may be others around the country. (I don’t know). But that said, I think you’ve got the right idea: if there isn’t one near you, start one up. Likely it’ll be a long process, so I’d be prepared to be patient, unless you’re in a large, urban area.

          Mark’s SBA online practice circle is meant to accompany that, or substitute for it in case nothing else is available, which is also a great idea.

        • andrewp says:

          this comment is obviously old but in case it triggers an email notification – I am in KC and looking for a secular buddhist group. please let me know if yours is still organized.

  2. mufi says:

    Thanks, Doug.

    Just to clarify my situation: I’m not aware of any insight-based groups in my area.

    There is an insight-based retreat in Barre, MA, which is just over an hour’s drive away, but my personal responsibilities do not currently afford me the time or money for that. (Sitting for 10-40 min. a day in my bedroom is about the most that I can muster these days.)

    The “expensive” reference was actually to the mindfulness-based groups in my area (as in: within a 40 mi. range – either in Albany or Western MA), which are led by trained instructors. They charge more than my current budget allows, as do the retreats. (They also tend to have a New-Agey feel to them, based on their advertising, but maybe that’s just me.)

    The other options are the local “religious” ones that I alluded to, which I’ve already explored more directly. Not for me, I think.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      FWIW the Barre group is one of the premier in the US, so definitely worth attending if and when you get the time and money. I don’t know if they have scholarships, but they might. (Fortunately they are closely associated with the group I attend in NY).

      I wasn’t distinguishing “insight” from “mindfulness”; in my experience these are often used as synonyms for Theravada based meditation groups. In practice, “mindfulness” is supposed to lead to “insight”.

      • mufi says:

        I wasn’t distinguishing “insight” from “mindfulness”; in my experience these are often used as synonyms for Theravada based meditation groups. In practice, “mindfulness” is supposed to lead to “insight”.

        Right. But, if that’s in reply to my “mindfulness-based groups” reference, then “non-Theravada-based groups” works just as well. IOW, my impression is that their focus is on the “non-judgmental focus on the simple act of sitting and breathing” practice that you found so limiting – the same practice, BTW, that I use currently (although perhaps I haven’t been doing it as long or as regularly as you have, as I’m not yet feeling those limitations).

  3. mufi says:

    PS: I just fact-checked myself. Barre, MA is actually more like 2 hours’ drive away (although distance still isn’t the main obstacle there).

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Great piece, Doug! As you point out, practices that aim to calm and concentrate the mind are only the first step. If we aren’t using that concentrated awareness to carefully observe our experience and cultivate wholesome states of mind, we’re missing out on the whole point of formal practice. What I have always appreciated about the mindfulness groups I’ve practiced with is that this is the focus, and becoming adept at formal meditation techniques is not allowed to distract from it.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, Mark! Yeah, I think there’s probably less of an issue for folks that have good mindfulness/insight groups they can attend, with competent leadership. But I think secular folks are liable to have trouble finding such groups. They may, indeed, prefer to study alone. That’s fine, but they should be aware of the spectrum of practice.

      I imagine also this is part of the concern some of those of a more conventionally Buddhist bent might have when they worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a secular context.

      I should add re. mufi’s comment about finding breath practice limiting: breath practice is a great place to start, and indeed is something that one should probably always cultivate. (I think the Buddha or Ananda said this somewhere). My point isn’t to denigrate it, it’s to put it in context. Anyhow for beginners to meditation, no worries. Do breath practice and build up some concentration first, then deal with the other stuff here.

      • mufi says:

        Some of us might just end up being “beginners for life.” I think that’s OK, too – particularly in relation to the zero-practice alternative. Still, I do hope to progress to more insight-based practice at some point (maybe when the kids are all grown up).

  5. mckenzievmd says:

    Great post, as always, Doug. I have experienced exactly the sense of hitting a wall with breath-centered meditation, at least in those periods when I have been able to do it consistently and regularly for a while. I will look closer at the texts you mention the next time I find myself in that spot.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, Brennen. Just to be clear, there are lots of good texts that are relevant to practice, both in the suttas and out. I hesitate to make a list, because it gets overwhelming pretty quickly, but another one is definitely the Ānāpānasati Sutta, or the Sutta on the Mindfulness of Breathing. There the Buddha basically says that you can pursue Satipaṭṭhāna while doing breathing practice, though it’s not simply non-judgmental awareness of breath in that case. Once again, there are lots of sub-practices.

  6. jet3rry jet3rry says:

    Hello, Doug,

    Thank you so much for this – very helpful. Especially appreciate the comments on non-judgment, which helped clear up my confusion on this.

    Jane

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      You’re very welcome! I’ve been thinking a bit about why it seems rare to hear the point I made, at least outside of the suttas. I think it may be that non-judgmental awareness is so difficult to do right, that it’s best to emphasize it, particularly for those of us who aren’t yet expert.

  7. Pete strawdog56 says:

    Great piece Doug. I was wondering if you had any info on Vipassana practice, and the retreats they offer. Ten day retreats, no up front costs.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, strawdog. As for Vipassana retreats, it depends on where you are. There are any number of places offering Mindfulness- or Vipassana-based retreats. Not sure about costs, though. Usually payment is up-front, though I think Goenka’s may be entirely by voluntary donation.

      Others may know better than I, though.

  8. ATLmeditator says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m about a three-week old newbie to all this. I’m happy on the cul-de-sac for now, but I’m sure I’ll want to expand my horizons later.

  9. NJK says:

    Hi Doug,
    I can relate though the introduction about religious/obscure/limited forms of practice, to more toward the suttas and more serious teachers.
    The part that most stuck out to me, and that I’d be careful of, is this passage:
    “The point of meditation is insight, not calming the mind. Calming the mind is only a strategy towards gaining insight.”

    That would seem to be in line with consensus, but after some things I’ve come across I’m doubtful this is accurate/a correct historical reading.
    “According to the contemporary Theravada orthodoxy, samatha is used as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight, which leads to liberation.” (wikipedia)
    Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassana_movement
    Since you seem to be in this mindset and culture, allow me to present a different look as food for thought.

    Start with this essay:
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/onetool.html

    Check out Sujato’s book (free) “A History of Mindfulness: How Insight Worsed Tranquillity in the Satipatthana Sutta”
    http://sujato.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/a-brief-history-of-mindfulness/
    See if his argument comes together, “In the early teachings satipatthana was primarily associated not with vipassana but with samatha. Since for the Suttas, samatha and vipassana cannot be divided, a few passages show how this samatha practice evolves into
    vipassana. In later literature the vipassana element grew to predominate, to the extent of almost entirely usurping the place of samatha in satipatthana.” … “In making such claims, claims that will inevitably be perceived as an attack on the authority of some of the most respected 20th Century meditation schools, I cannot say emphatically enough
    that what I am criticizing here is not the teachers of vipassana, or the meditation techniques that are marketed as ‘vipassana’, but the textual sources of the vipassanavada, the doctrine that vipassana is the central meditation taught by the Buddha.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for that, NJK. It’s interesting reading. I think the basic issue is that calming the mind cannot by itself permanently remove defilements. What it can do is to temporarily put them into abeyance. One needs insight into the nature of reality, in particular impermanence, dukkha, and non-self, to eliminate the defilements. This is the teaching I get out of the suttas, and it makes some sense as well.

      But that said, you’re right to note I should be careful about not demoting ‘calming the mind’. In order to do proper insight meditation, calm is essential. So really, the two must go hand-in-hand, as Thanissaro says in the piece you cited. (Or at least, that strategy has worked well for me so far). Though my understanding is that jhana is not a requirement for reaching nibbāna, which he seems to suggest.

      • NJK says:

        As Sujato concludes in the book, at least it is interesting to see how teachings evolve over time, and that jhana, and the samatha/vipassana divide are among the most controversial. There are significant differences that are not easy to resolve.

        A good book for a look into these differences that has a balanced take is The Experience of Samadhi by Richard Shankman.

        For Thanissaro’s case for jhana as necessary see the appendix in his book right mindfulness:
        http://dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/right_mindfulness_120810.pdf

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Thanks again, NJK. I’ll put Thanissaro’s book in the queue. My understanding came from Bhikkhu Bodhi I think; he says in some of his lectures that Jhana isn’t essential, or that at least it’s a matter of real controversy and that you may only need to achieve the first.

          My point in the piece was more that my own experience had been all about calming the mind and not much about anything else, and that that wasn’t best practice.

  10. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Thank you so much for this article, Doug. I very much relate, and suspect many others do as well. My exploration of Buddhism was exciting, confusing, and at times overwhelming. There is a lot of translation out there, and I felt drawn to how practical Buddhism is but repelled by the contradictory beliefs of rebirth.

    Meditation was also confusing, as many who write about it seem to combine it with their own experimentation, or mix it with other types of meditation.

    In the end, I pushed all the books aside, except for my big Middle Discourses book, and I decided to read and interpret on my own. When I did that I found the concepts were far simpler and more digestible than many people made them out to be. I found exploring the 8 fold path to be a good start for intellectual exploration and practice. I also found I was trying to hard to quiet my mind in meditation.

    This is a wonderful article for those starting on the path as well as good advice for those of us on it already.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, Dana! Glad it was helpful to you. I think we’re all trying to find the best way forward. What surprises me is how the suttas manage to be both practical and insightful, though one does have to do some digging since they are written in a style that is somewhat alien to us nowadays.

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