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Do You Need To Be A Buddhist To Practice Meditation?

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).

I think Dan Harris put it best when he said:

Despite what you may have heard, meditation does not involve joining a group, paying any fees, wearing any special outfits, sitting in a funny position, or believing in anything in particular. 

It is simple, secular, scientifically validated exercise for your brain.

The Scientific Power Of Meditation

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.

"The essence of meditation practice is to let go of all your expectations about meditation."
How To Be More Present And Alive In The Moment

We spend most of our time sleepwalking through life. Which is a shame, because it’s short. Leo Babauta from Zen Habits brings us a great list of practices to help us be more present. My favourite was the very first on the list:

Practice fully pouring yourself into every act. This is a Zen practice — being fully in every task you do, every act. If you’re sitting in meditation, be fully in your seat, not have your mind be somewhere else. If you’re brushing your teeth, just brush your teeth — and be completely immersed in that. This is a practice, of course, which means we’ll forget to do it most of the time, but it’s an incredibly rich practice. Fully express yourself in everything you do.

Making Anger Your Teacher

Norman Fischer from Ten Percent Happier on anger:

Now, in meditation circles, anger often gets a bad rap. We imagine that we aren’t supposed to ever get angry, or if we do, we’re bad at meditation.

But trying to never be angry won’t work. If you think about it, we can’t make anger go away any more than we intentionally produced it in the first place. So, when are angry we just have to be angry.

Instead of fighting with anger, we have to turn toward it, to experience it without affirming it and waving it around, and to investigate what it really is. It turns out, the closer you look, the more anger can teach us.

As Norman points out, anger is often seen as a failing in meditation circles, whilst happiness or sadness are not. But why is this? Do we choose to be happy or sad any more than we choose to be angry?

Emotions are unavoidable aspects of the human experience, and anger, in particular, indicates our desire for something to change.

Maybe it’s unreasonable for us to expect this change, in which case our anger can only cause us suffering. Learning to let go of needless, unproductive anger is perhaps the greatest gift that meditation and mindfulness has to offer us.

But maybe the changes we want are realistic, and anger motivates us to achieve them. Perhaps anger is the catalyst we need to go out and protest, or to start a difficult conversation, or to take a good look at ourselves.

Because above anything else, anger can teach us about what’s going on inside us. If we can examine the source of our anger, rather than helplessly reacting to it, anger can be a great source of insight into our beliefs, our values, and our fears.

Anger can be a great teacher, but it’s not an easy one. Learning its lessons requires patience, humility and wisdom. All of which should helps us to be angry less often.

Who Am I?

There’s been a lot of talk about the nature of the self here, but perhaps none of it has been presented more beautifully than in this video from The School of Life. Do yourself a favour, make yourself comfortable, and hit play. Mind-blowingly good.

Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

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.

The Most Important Skill You Can Develop

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.

5 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Daily Life

With life being what it is, starting in the moment can be difficult. Most of us are just too busy moment to moment to actually be in the moment. Luckily, as with anything else, we can develop mindfulness habits, moments when we deliberately stop for a second and take in what’s going oil a conscious way.

Here, Mindful.org brings us five mindfulness practices that we can integrate mindfulness into ordinary activities like exercise, eating, and even waking up:

1. On waking, sit in your bed or a chair in a relaxed posture

2. Take three long, deep, nourishing breath

3. Ask yourself: “What is my intention for today?”

There’s more detail in the full post, but I think this by itself is already a far better start to the day than most of us are getting. Better yet, it doesn’t require a lot of time or any special effort of willpower to do. Best of all, you can do it when you’ve got your full drool-covered zombie face on and nobody will know.