Meditation is, for many people, synonymous with spirituality. It is inextricably connected with mysticism, often connected to Buddhism and supernatural beliefs about perception, energy and knowledge.
But why is this? Is there anything about meditation that requires a belief in any of the tenets of Buddhism or Hinduism or any other spiritual ideology? Sam Harris doesn’t think so:
One problem is that most of the people who teach mindfulness…are still in the religion business. They’re still propagating western Buddhism or American Buddhism, the connection to the tradition of Buddhism in particular is explicit. And I think there are problems wait that.
Because if you are declaring yourself a Buddhist, you are part of the problem of religion sectarianism that has needlessly shattered our world. And I think we have to get out of the religion business. That whatever is true about mindfulness and meditation and any introspective methodology that will deliver truths about the nature of consciousness, is non-sectarian. It’s no more Buddhist than physics is Christian.
I think that last analogy really nails it. Attaching a religious ideology to a practice like meditation is exactly as harmful as it would be to attach one to physics. Many people who could benefit from the advances that physics makes possible would be put off for fear of offending their God (as happens amongst Christians who fear that meditation is somehow heretical), and many others who are non-believers would be put of by the prospect of having to adopt a belief system in order to reap the benefits (as is the case with many atheists who worry that meditation is some kind of gateway drug to religion).
In a talk on his excellent meditation app, Sam Harris points out that he would recommend that people meditate even if there were no scientific evidence that it was good for them. I’ll quote him directly here because that’s the kind of statement that could get a meditation teacher in trouble:
There are studies that suggest that meditation improves immune function, or reduces stress. Or that it’s associated with less age-related thinning of the cerebral cortex.
Well, having a good immune system, and reducing stress, and not suffering neuro-degeneration are good things, in general. But those studies might fail to replicate tomorrow, and should that happen, my recommendations in this course would not change at all.
There really are deeper reasons to meditate. And to live an examined life in general.
Sam goes on to make an analogy with reading. Reading certainly can reduce stress, but depending on what you’re reading it can also increase it. But framing the benefits of reading as stress relief is an odd way to talk about it in any case. Reading would be worthwhile even if it was somehow actively bad for you.
Luckily, meditation isn’t bad for you. In fact, the list of scientifically recognised benefits is surprisingly long. In the video above, AsapSCIENCE lays out an extensive breakdown of the benefits of a regular meditation. From the expected changes in brain chemistry, function, and mood, to more unexpected changes such as improved immune and cellular function.
I’m always wary of presenting meditation as a panacea. Meditation won’t fix all of your problems or make you rich or make you more attractive to your gender of choice. But it is a uniquely powerful way of exploring your relationship with the world. And that, in turn, provides the opportunity to make choices which improve that relationship. This is the true value of meditation. All the health stuff is just a cherry on the cake.
"Meditation isn’t an escape from life. It’s an encounter with it."
There’s a persistent notion that meditation is always supposed to be a wholly pleasant experience. That feeling calm and peaceful is the point. But meditation isn’t a mental massage. Meditation is the act of spending time quietly with your thoughts. And depending on what your thoughts are, this can be difficult and even uncomfortable experience.
The point is illustrated neatly in this story from Mindful.org about a meditation teacher’s experience with giving their students more space to sit with their thoughts:
I guided the meditation with fewer words, leaving ever more space. The air seemed to crackle with restless silence. Afterwards, several students said they prefer more guidance—otherwise, they felt they were floundering. I grew curious and asked the group, “What’s wrong with floundering?”
There will be times when there’s nobody to guide you through the difficult moments in life. There will be times when there’s nobody to guide you through sadness or loneliness or pain. There’s no shame in relying on the support of others, but it would be a hame if that was the only lesson learned from a meditation practice.
Life is full of moments when we flounder. There’s no escaping them. But what’s wrong with that? The important thing is that we’ve learned how to right ourself when we do. The job of a teacher is to help their students find solid ground when they first encounter difficulties. But eventually, the job becomes allowing them to find their footing for themselves.
September 15, 2020 10:35 am - Steve Peters
I could sense her eyes on me, waiting for my resolve to crack, but I wasn’t planning to take the bait. We both knew that if I showed the slightest weakness, she’d have the upper hand. I’m not sure how long the stand-off continued for, maybe a minute, but eventually, she broke down and spoke…continue reading on Medium…
September 11, 2020 11:35 am - Steve Peters
Sometimes my friends ask me why I spend so much time writing about meditation and mindfulness. “You’d make much more money writing about sex or business,” they say. Which is true. “You should stop focusing on writing and get a real job,” they say. Which might also be true. “You’re not a very good writer…continue reading on Medium…
It’s uncomfortable to think of ourselves as machines even though that’s essentially what we are. We wake up every day and execute a program which has been written by our past and the beliefs we hold about ourselves.
We take the risks our programming tells us that we can afford to take, we feel the way our programming tells us that we should feel about our bodies and our accomplishments and ourselves, we say the things that our programming tells us are acceptable to say.
Once we’re old enough for this programming to be embedded, most of us never seriously consider doing anything which runs counter to it for the rest of our lives.
The only tool we have for hacking this programming is our attention. The more the programming takes over, the more time we spend operating on autopilot, the less attention we are bringing to the present moment. This is the entire reason that “being present” is considered important.
Being present gives us options. It helps us to be more human because it gives us the chance to choose our actions rather than following a program that was written, perhaps decades ago.
Best of all, we can get better at being present. We can develop our attention just as we develop any other skill. Just as with any other skill, progress can be difficult, to begin with, but it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s no more valuable investment of our time.
The term higher consciousness just sounds smug, right? Not for the enlightened the normal lower consciousness that most people about under. Instead, those who are sufficiently spiritually awakened get to breathe the rarefied air of higher consciousness, in which they can presumably see and understand things that the rest of us mere mortals will never grasp.
School of Life nails it in the introduction to this video:
The term higher consciousness is often used by spiritually minded people to describe important, but hard to reach, mental states. Hindu sages, Christian monks and Buddhist ascetics, all speak of reaching moments of higher consciousness through meditation or chanting, fasting or pilgrimages.
Unfortunately, the way in which these spiritual people discuss their states of higher consciousness, has a tendency to put a lot of secular types on edge. It can all sound maddeningly vague, wishy-washy, touchy-feely, and, for want of a better word, annoying.
I’d second the use of the word annoying, which is a shame, because the states they’re describing are incredible valuable, well recognised by science, and, with effort, is available to everybody, regardless of beliefs or a willingness to dress in long, flowing robes.
Anyway, the video is great and breaks down the topic in a clear, totally non-annoying, and even beautiful way. So if you’re interested in expanding your mind, I highly recommend checking it out.
September 7, 2020 9:39 am - Steve Peters
It’s a common trope for new meditators. They walk into a meditation class or fire up a guided meditation, and they hear something like this: “Close your eyes, breath deeply, watch your thoughts as they move through your mind without grasping.” But what the heck does this mean? As idyllic as it sounds, thoughts don’t…continue reading on Medium…
September 5, 2020 10:15 am - Steve Peters
You’ve definitely seen this before. A little kid is playing on a bright, sunny day. All is right with the world; the birds are singing, the kid doesn’t have a care in the world, they don’t even know what mortgage payments are yet. Then suddenly, perhaps because they’re so used to being carefree, they forget…continue reading on Medium…
September 4, 2020 9:36 am - Steve Peters
There are - obviously - many reasons why we do the things we do, but all of them can be placed into one of four categories: safety, self-esteem, pleasure and “just because”. These categories define what we hope to gain from whatever it is we’re doing and what need it is they’re serving so let’s look at each in…continue reading on Medium…