Secular Meditation: A Review

THOJY_cover_layout.inddWhen I reviewed Sam Harris’ book, Waking Up, in these pages, I lamented that the book failed to live up to its subtitle, “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Indeed, there are a growing number of volumes, from writers like Harris, Stephen Batchelor and others, that discuss the philosophical underpinnings of living a spiritual life without reliance on supernatural beliefs. But, as Gotama is said to have taught, the path is not about what you believe — it’s about what you do, and up to now there have been no books that detail spiritual practice for an audience of religious skeptics. And it’s important that we have such a book, for the reaction of atheists and agnostics to religion in general can lead them to question whether anything that has its roots in religion, such as contemplative practice, can have value for their lives. One could argue (as I have) that the MBIs are essentially secular contemplative practices, but because they typically don’t reflect a skeptical viewpoint on religion, atheists and humanists might not feel that they address their concerns specifically.

That’s why I am so pleased to be able to endorse Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy, by our friend and contributor, Rick Heller. A journalist and meditation teacher, Rick is one of the founders and facilitators of the Humanist Mindfulness Group and the Humanist Community at Harvard, where he had a chance to field test many of the contemplative techniques he shares specifically with a skeptical audience. Secular Mediation is a guide to spirituality without religion, one that will help anyone integrate a non-supernatural contemplative practice into their lives.

The blurb pages of the book read like a who’s who of the worlds of mindfulness and nondogmatic Buddhism, including Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Rick Hanson, Tara Brach, and other luminaries, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Rick does not neglect the theoretical aspects of the philosophy of humanism and how it relates to Buddhism and other philosophical systems, such as stoicism. He also shares neurological, psychological and social research that sheds light on human behavior and the effects of meditation. But the emphasis here is thoroughly on practice, and the result is a compendium of meditation and mindfulness techniques that extend from simple seated practice to integrating present moment awareness in the thick of daily life. Included are a rich bibliography and resource list, and the SBA is mentioned a number of times in the book.

I think my favorite aspect of Rick’s book, besides its comprehensiveness, is its emphasis on loving kindness. In fact, this is the only book on meditation for beginners that I’m aware of that actually starts, not with body or breath contemplations, but with loving kindness and compassion practice. It’s an unusual choice because heart cultivation practices can be quite challenging for many people, experienced meditators as well as beginners. But I believe that these techniques are a powerful source of inspiration and motivation that help us reap the fruits of our practice. As Rick puts it in his introduction:

[M]indfulness must be rooted in love. In the original Buddhist approach, it already is. Mindfulness is about paying attention with a particular attitude. The attitude is frequently described as nonjudgmental, but that doesn’t necessarily mean neutral or clinical. In fact, the attitude that goes with mindfulness is often described as being friendly, kind, or even loving. . . This book focuses on training attention and kindness. The goal is to arrive at a place of nearly universal love, kindness or friendliness to whatever is happening in the present.

Rick brings this heartful attitude to every imaginable kind of contemplative practice: cultivating all four brahmaviharas; awareness of the breath, sound, and body; working with mantras; walking and other movement practices; noting of thoughts and emotions; mindful eating; and even mindful reading, contemplative photography, and just watching TV. If you think you can’t meditate, I think you will find some practice here that you can do.

All of this is presented with a continual sensitivity to the fact that much of Rick’s audience will be highly allergic to religion. Each section of the book includes an FAQ section that answers questions like “What’s with this label ‘secular Buddhism’? It sounds like another religion,” “Is humanism a religion?” and even “Why should I trust what you’ve written?” If you yourself are not that religion-averse, the constant skeptical note can seem like overkill. But many of us come to this practice with an extreme approach-avoidance conflict, attracted to practices that may help us suffer less and lead a deeper and more meaningful life, and simultaneously repelled by the possibility of getting caught up in something that short-circuits our rationality and may leave us vulnerable to abuse. The resulting cognitive dissonance can be a challenge to the kind of loving acceptance that mindfulness fosters, and it’s important for such individuals that these issues be addressed forthrightly.

I know that was me when I started, and I wish that I would have had a book like Secular Meditation when I began walking the path. As it is, I’ve learned much in these pages that will enhance my practice, and I know this is one of the books I will recommend to those who ask, “How do I get started?”