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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?”

No Comments

  1. Michael Finley on January 21, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Sounds like (as the phrase goes)a must read. The emphasis on loving kindness is a good thing, I think. Seems to me that a danger of some secular/non-religious meditation instructions is that they can taken in a way that is too self-focussed, too exclusively concerned with just the meditator’s problems. Of course it isn’t that way for many people or for good teachers, but a built-in corrective seems very useful. Helps, I think, produce a humanist, not just non-religious practice, not to mention encouraging the radical critique of the concept of self that separates our practice from self-help knock offs.

    Metta

  2. Gregory Clement on January 23, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks for an interesting review Mark. You refer a number of times to spirituality without religion which set me thinking about what it means.

    A lot of people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. The word makes me uncomfortable because of its origin in the word spirit which sounds like a religious concept. Perhaps it is roughly equivalent to the word soul, that which persists after death. If one doesn’t believe in spirits then how does one use the word spiritual?

    My sense is that the word spiritual is used to stand in for other words like psychological, emotional, ethical and so on. These are all words that can be used without bringing a blush to the cheek of a philosophical naturalist. Why does the word spiritual retain some popularity amongst religious sceptics? Perhaps it has an aura of depth or seriousness that the ordinary workaday words seem to lack. It is almost as though we want to retain the glamour of religion while distancing ourselves from traditional religious beliefs.

    So, what would you say? Is secular spirituality an oxymoron? If not can you clarify what it means?

  3. Mark Knickelbine on January 25, 2016 at 8:50 am

    Gregory, let me try. I’m certainly aware of the origin of the term, the breath of life, the mysterious non-physical something, etc. The reason why I’m moved to recycle it is because it refers to what we receive, how we are implied by our environment, other people, and the whole universe, and how we in turn imply those things. Every cell in our body is informed by the evolutionary development of all life, of the development of elements and molecules, of our social interaction with other people, and on and on. All that represents itself in our lived experience moment by moment. It expresses itself in the wisdom of the body, and the emotions and meaningful sensations that communicate that wisdom. Understood this way, spirituality encompasses psychology, ethics, our desire for emotional fulfillment, and much more. It exceeds all of them, and it exceeds our capacity to perceive, conceptualize and rationalize it. One doesn’t need supernatural beliefs to recognize how we engage with this in our practice, and we need a word big enough to refer to it with. Unless we want to coin something, “spirituality” is a useful candidate. It has its baggage, but one could also argue that this realm of lived experience is what humans have always been referring to as spiritual. I’m not sure this counts as clarification, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.

  4. Gregory Clement on January 25, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Well thanks for trying Mark but I’m afraid I understood almost none of what you wrote. I have a dull and plodding approach to language.

  5. Mark Knickelbine on January 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Gregory, this is a challenging topic to write about and my attempt to summarize the idea briefly probably doesn’t help make it any more comprehensible. I’ve written an article about it that I’ve been holding on to for a while now — maybe I should publish it.

  6. Gregory Clement on January 26, 2016 at 5:34 am

    Come on Mark, let’s see the article. The big issue for me is that words should have a clear meaning so that we know when to use them and when to refrain. Without clarity, any debate that uses the word becomes futile.

    You can tell I’m pretty sceptical about the usefulness of the term ‘spirituality’ but I’m always keen to learn.

  7. ricardofranciszayas on February 20, 2016 at 4:24 am

    I think of the word “spiritual” as the “inner life or inner world” of a person, its perception and examination.

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