On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice

So I’ve started a secular meditation practice. As you probably guessed from the title of this piece.

Meditating in urban environment
I’ve been interested in meditation for a long time. It offers, or seems to offer, some things I’m in great need of: peace, calm, the ability to be present in the here and now, the ability to sit still, the ability to not constantly be either in motion or feeding my brain with stimulation, the ability to stay centered and focused and keep my mind from racing in a million directions at once like a hummingbird on meth. I have friends who practice it and find great value in it. And I know there’s research in neurology and neuropsychology supporting the idea that this isn’t just woo bullshit: research supporting the idea that a meditation practice can reduce stress and help in the management of anxiety and depression. The folks who originally came up with this meditation thing do seem to have found something of genuine utility: they framed it in supernatural terms which I obviously don’t accept, but the idea that certain physical and mental practices can alter one’s consciousness, temporarily and longer-term, is pretty well-understood, and doesn’t seem particularly controversial to me.

Am noticing that I’m feeling defensive about this. Am noticing that I’m worried that the atheist/ materialist/ skeptical/ secular community is going to jump all over me about this, and accuse me of getting suckered into pseudo-scientific quasi-religion. Part of this practice is noticing my emotions and physical feelings, acknowledging them rather than fighting them or denying them or trying to fix them, and moving on. Doing that now.

The particular set of physical and mental practices I’m learning is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. I first heard about it at a Science in the Cafe event, a presentation given by a neurologist and neurological researcher (from Stanford, if I recall correctly) who talked about MBSR in a larger talk on current thinking in the science of consciousness. I’ve been interested in meditation for a long time… but I’ve been resistant to pursuing any version of it that’s set in any religious or spiritual setting whatsoever. I do have atheist/ materialist friends who don’t have any problem with that, who can take what they need and leave the rest, who can filter out the supernatural noise or re-frame it in a secular/ materialist framework. But I know myself. I know how irritating I find religion and spirituality, even in small doses. I know that the minute I starting hearing the woo bullshit, I’d be knocked right out of my meditation and into a whole series of arguments and rants in my head. (One of the downsides of being a professional atheist and anti-theist, I suppose.)

So when I heard about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, I got very excited. And when I found out that Kaiser (my insurance company/ health maintenance organization) was offering classes in it, done in a medical setting rather than a religious or spiritual one, I jumped at it.

I’m very much in my baby steps with this right now: I’ve been taking this class for a couple of weeks, and have been meditating regularly — daily — for just a few days. And I’m having a lot of scattered thoughts/ feelings/ opinions/ reactions/ experiences with this, and about this. I’m certainly noticing an immediate benefit: after a session of meditation, I feel calmer, more centered, less jangled, more present in the world and better able to take it in. (Of course, being a skeptic, I know that this could be confirmation bias, placebo effect, any number of deceptive cognitive errors. At the moment, though, I’m willing to trust the current science that I’ve seen, showing that this effect does seem to be real.) I’m also noticing some anxieties about it: mostly having to do with whether the “be here now/ accept reality as it is/ let go of striving” philosophy that seems to underpin the practice is consistent with either my ambition or my passion for social change. I think I’m okay with that, though: I know that self-care is an important part of not burning out on both work and activism, and this practice has potential to be a powerful way to take care of myself. And then of course, this being me, I’m having all sorts of anxieties about whether I’m doing it right. :p

But the thought about meditation that I mostly want to focus on today has to do with how I’m framing this practice in an atheist/ materialist context.

The core of the practice — so far, anyway, right now I’m just in the baby-steps stage — is to sit or lie quietly, focus on your breathing, and then focus your attention on each part of your body in turn: focus your attention on the big toe of your left foot, your little toe, the toes in between, the sole of your left foot, the top of your left foot, your left ankle… etc. all the way through your body and up to the top of your head. (It’s called a “body scan,” and it’s not limited to meditation: I’ve done it in acting classes and other contexts.) When distractions arise, either from the outside world or from inside your head, you acknowledge them, recognize them, accept them without judgment, and then let them go, and return your focus to the body part you’re focusing on.

And what I’ve been noticing, in these baby-steps days of the practice, is how valuable it is to return my attention to my body.

Or, maybe more accurately: How valuable it is to remember that I am my body.

As a materialist, I talk a lot about how we are our bodies: how we have no immaterial souls animating our bodies, how our thoughts and feelings and consciousness and our very selfhood are biological products, constructions of the brain and the rest of the body. But I also have a strong tendency to live in that part of my body between my ears: to live in ideas and abstractions, worries and imaginings, plans and fantasies. (Especially fantasies.) When I’m meditating, and I find myself getting distracted by my own brain — and when I then return my focus to my knee or my ears or whatever part of my body I’m focusing on — the thought that’s been filtering into me as I settle back in is, “I am my body.”

Neck and face muscles
It’s almost becoming a secular mantra. I am my body. I am my knee, my belly, my fingers, my neck, every bit as much as I am my plans and ideas and fears and goals. In fact, my knee and my belly and my fingers and my neck are part and parcel of my plans and ideas and fears and goals: they’re not separate from them, they inform them and shape them, and are informed and shaped by them. They are intertwined, part of the same physical being.

When I spend my time in my head, the experience is often one of feeling very detached from my body. Even though I know, intellectually, that my ideas and so on are products of my squishy biological brain, the feeling is often like having my data stored in a cloud system: off in the ether, accessible by my hardware but separate from it. And among other things, this experience makes it harder to focus: it tends to fragment my attention, jangle my nerves, turn me into a hummingbird on meth.

So I can see how it might be useful, as a materialist, to spend forty-five minutes every day remembering that I am not data stored in a cloud system. I am my body. I can see how it might be useful, as a materialist, to spend forty-five minutes every day returning my attention to my body, and reminding myself that this body — this ankle, this hipbone, this ribcage, this heart, this elbow, this jaw, this scalp, this brain — is who I am.

Related post:
Atheism and Sensuality

<small)("Meditating in urban environment" image by Louwrents.)

On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice

29 thoughts on “On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice

  1. 1

    Yeah, mindfulness meditation is what Sam Harris is into — it’s what he talked about at the Global Atheist Convention. Actually, he didn’t so much talk about it as lead the audience in a mindful meditation while he was on stage.

    It may have virtues for individuals as a personal practice, but I can tell you…it makes for a really dull public presentation. I was alternately made self-conscious because I couldn’t get into it at all, and drowsy whenever I did try to get in the spirit.

  2. 2

    I do tai chi. Even though qi is unscientific bullshit, I find tai chi to be great exercise for me, and the style I do (Chen) is quite energetic. I want to learn the slower Yang style as well. While it wouldn’t be the cardio workout the style I’m doing is, it looks to be very calming.

    Fortunately the school I’m in doesn’t touch on qi except for the occasional substitute instructor. The owner and my regular instructor focuses on body mechanics which works great with the forms.

  3. 4

    Thanks for this piece, Greta!
    I wholeheartedly share your aversion to the spiritual and esoteric woo commonly associated with meditation, and so even though I’m quite curious about meditation, I haven’t tried it yet for lack of a non-woo opportunity.
    It’d be great if you could keep writing about this a little more: What you do with your mind when you meditate, how it feels, and whether it’s really such a different feeling/state of mind as some people claim, especially when you start from a mostly rational basis… Anyway, thanks again!

  4. 5

    1. J Clin Psychiatry. 2013 Mar 13. [Epub ahead of print]

    Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety
    disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity.

    Hoge EA, Bui E, Marques L, Metcalf CA, Morris LK, Robinaugh DJ, Worthington JJ,
    Pollack MH, Simon NM.

    Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, Massachusetts General
    Hospital, One Bowdoin Sq, 6th Floor, Boston, MA 02114 [email protected].

    OBJECTIVE: Mindfulness meditation has met increasing interest as a therapeutic
    strategy for anxiety disorders, but prior studies have been limited by
    methodological concerns, including a lack of an active comparison group. This is
    the first randomized, controlled trial comparing the manualized Mindfulness-Based
    Stress Reduction (MBSR) program with an active control for generalized anxiety
    disorder (GAD), a disorder characterized by chronic worry and physiologic
    hyperarousal symptoms. METHOD: Ninety-three individuals with DSM-IV-diagnosed GAD
    were randomly assigned to an 8-week group intervention with MBSR or to an
    attention control, Stress Management Education (SME), between 2009 and 2011.
    Anxiety symptoms were measured with the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HAMA;
    primary outcome measure), the Clinical Global Impressions-Severity of Illness and
    -Improvement scales (CGI-S and CGI-I), and the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI).
    Stress reactivity was assessed by comparing anxiety and distress during
    pretreatment and posttreatment administration of the Trier Social Stress Test
    (TSST). RESULTS: A modified intent-to-treat analysis including participants who
    completed at least 1 session of MBSR (n = 48) or SME (n = 41) showed that both
    interventions led to significant (P < .0001) reductions in HAMA scores at
    endpoint, but did not significantly differ. MBSR, however, was associated with a
    significantly greater reduction in anxiety as measured by the CGI-S, the CGI-I,
    and the BAI (all P values < .05). MBSR was also associated with greater
    reductions than SME in anxiety and distress ratings in response to the TSST
    stress challenge (P < .05) and a greater increase in positive self-statements (P
    = .004). CONCLUSIONS: These results suggest that MBSR may have a beneficial
    effect on anxiety symptoms in GAD and may also improve stress reactivity and
    coping as measured in a laboratory stress challenge. TRIAL REGISTRATION:
    ClinicalTrials.gov identifier: NCT01033851.

  5. 6

    That was the good news. The bad news is that apparently meditation is not effective as an adjunct to blood pressure control. As noted in:

    Brook RD, Appel LJ, Rubenfire M, Ogedegbe G, Bisognano JD, Elliott WJ, Fuchs
    FD, Hughes JW, Lackland DT, Staffileno BA, Townsend RR, Rajagopalan S; on behalf
    of the American Heart Association Professional Education Committee of the Council
    for High Blood Pressure Research, Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing,
    Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, and Council on Nutrition, Physical
    Activity. Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood
    Pressure: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.
    Hypertension. 2013 Apr 22. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23608661.

    Full text pdf available online. http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf

  6. raj

    Yep, I practiced a lot of meditation when I was younger and I think it has really continued to help me into my adult life, with the ability to focus (I’m a Software Engineer). My understanding is that if you get back to the original Buddhism, as close to the teachings of Buddha as possible, you find that Buddhism was originally all about how to deal with life in the real world. It was (and still is, in most ways) a totally secular practice, simply recognizing that “there is suffering in the world”, etc., and learning how to “release attachments to the world” and “gain peace”. None of this has any religious or supernatural aspects. Meditation falls into this same category. It simply stands to reason that you can “reprogram” your mind to work in a different way, over time, and meditation is a method of doing this. It takes advantage of the elasticity of the brain in order to set down new, more organized, ways of processing information.

    Yoga is also great for stretching your body in ways which it doesn’t normally get in daily life, such that when it’s called upon to stretch in that way, it doesn’t flip out and get strained. It’s, indeed, a good thing. If the “woo” aspect bothers you, just do Pilates instead. It’s the same thing.

    I can tell, however, that I need to get back into doing more meditation. It’s been a while.

  7. 8

    I have been doing something similar for many years. I find it helpful as a way of analyzing things in my life, especially when I am having a depression episode. Learning to listen to my body has also been useful in deciding when I’m really sick, and has let me develop some biofeedback techniques for dealing with chronic headaches caused by TMJ inflammation.

    Sure, there is a lot of woo with meditation; there’s a lot of woo with yoga and tai chi, but that doesn’t stop me from doing those things either. The general practice of mindfulness is a good habit to get into, and you do not need to coat it in BS to make it work.

  8. raj

    By the way, a friend of mine produces these Celtic Knotwork designs. She has been able to repeatably demonstrate how simply tracing the design with a stick will instantly calm down ADD kids in ways which the parents have never seen before. It’s now being picked up and studied by psychologists as a therapy tool. If you’re having problems with meditation and simply want to feel what “restful alertness” really feels like, I think this will give you some instant feedback on that.

  9. 10

    …it makes for a really dull public presentation.

    PZ Myers @ #1: I bet it does!

    I dunno if I could focus on my body cause there are parts of my body I wish I had and parts of my body I wish I hadn’t.

    Katherine Lorraine, Tortue du Désert avec un Coupe-Boulon @ #3: I can see how that might feel like an obstacle. If you’re interested anyway, and if it helps: Part of the practice involves noticing whatever sensation and feelings you’re having in and about that particular body part, acknowledging those feelings, and then moving on. You don’t have to be happy with the body part you’re focusing on, or be comfortable with it, or want to have it. If any of that’s true, you notice it… and move on.

  10. 11

    I’ve worked with pretty much this exact technique–MIndfulness-based Stress Reduction. I came to it by way of therapy, since now mindfulness techniques are frequently being incorporated into treatment for some disorders. In general, it’s very good for me, but the length of the body scan meditation–30 goddamn minutes stuck just lying there–is a little bit much for me when I’ve been out of practice for awhile and I’m in a very anxious place. Right now that’s where I’m at, so I’m working on getting comfortable with shorter periods of practicing before I jump back into the full program. Cause meditating is not supposed to involve giving yourself panic attacks or spiraling into self-hatred for being “bad” at it, and unfortunately a few of my recent attempts at longer practices have headed in that direction.

  11. 12

    I don’t like long ones. 10-15 minutes ones for me. A Yoga Nidra at the end of class or similar guided meditation or relaxation on MP3. I’m also quite liking a biofeedback device that helps you time your breathing with heart rate variability; it’s supposed to reduce stress and I do find that it helps me sleep better. (Or perhaps the practice of focussed awareness of breathing helps me sleep better, and the wiggly line on the device just helps me to do the practice.)

    As to the “be here now/ accept reality as it is/ let go of striving” philosophy – you could consider the main use of that as for the duration of the practice, not forever. Though for some people, it can also work as a life philosophy of activism – be here now, do the good you can do now, don’t fret over what you can’t do, don’t strive, just gently go ahead and do what you can here and now. Since the philosophy also includes practicing compassion, it’s really not about being a self-centred hermit, it’s about engaging with the world in a calmly centred and realistic way.

  12. 13

    Good. In the medium and longer term you will find it helps with the depression, in fact with the “problem” of life in general. Don’t worry about finding the “right” method, and if your practice comes and goes that’s ok too. The important thing is to keep on returning to your practice, just as while meditating the point is to keep returning to the focus of awareness, however much your attention wanders. Meditation is always secular, and anyone who thinks otherwise has been misled: it’s simply an empirical methodology for investigating the subjective. If you get hung up about results, in terms of stress reduction or whatever, you will miss the real benefits. The most useful attitude is to treat your meditation practice as if it has no use!

  13. 14

    I don’t know about MBSR, but I’ve found meditation more interesting than useful. For instance as a teenager I was able to experience whole-body orgasms when meditating in a certain way (breathing, concentrating, allowing one’s tactile sensory input to overwhelm the other senses). Much more interesting and helpful than prayer (which was always only ever a boring pain). I’d say that the only advantage of taking meditation “courses” is that it gets you to do that kind of thing regularly. Otherwise I think calming down, thinking of nothing, concentrating on one’s body is a kind of mental excercise that you don’t have to be an expert to benefit from. I find this a similar experience to doing certain kinds of sports (long distance swimming for example – one can get easily into a state of meditative blankness after 20 laps). But then if MBSR has science behind it I guess you’ve got good reason to give it a try.

    My regular meditation sessions are nowadays alongside a half of beer and a freshly rolled golden virginia cigarette ;).

  14. 15

    I have tried to take up meditation so many times but I never stick with it. I am one of those who has no trouble filtering out the woo, but I just find it’s hard to fit into my schedule (same with running, making healthy foods, getting proper sleep, etc). I’ve even looked up MBSR classes at Kaiser before, but now I’m inspired to look into it again. It does seem like such a simple way to improve life.

  15. 17

    A little late to the post, but… Hopefully I have something to offer.

    Meditation is in sort of a weird place as a practice. It’s very heavily ritualized, even outside of woo. I think you need to separate ritualized meditation from the end state; they’re not necessarily linked, and they have separate benefits.

    I self-taught at an early age, young enough that I didn’t even know what meditation was until years afterward. I’ve been plagued with nightmares from very early on, and trial-and-error taught me I was less likely to if I wasn’t thinking and worrying before I went to sleep. One of my earliest memories is closing my eyes, repeatedly thinking “nothing,” and figuring out how to reach a state of mind-without-mind — no conscious thought. If you’ve done that often enough, it can be reflexive. If I’m not thinking or emoting, I’m in a low-level meditation state. It’s done a lot for my mood, particularly my old problems with temper and anxiety, and if I go deeper into the state, I find offers a sense of emotional distance from yourself that can be very helpful for empathy.

    After a certain point in your practice, the rituals will be a crutch. You won’t need them, and adherence to them is only going to slow your reaching that state.That’s not to say standard meditation teaching is wrong — I’m not trying to shame practitioners of that method or act more-meditation-than-thou. It’s a helpful way to reach that place for the first time and discover what it’s like, and like prayer, ritualized meditation has its place in creating a safe place and adding cooldown time to a schedule. Mindfulness of your body is an end as well, and one I didn’t think of until this piece! But if your goal is the end state, remember to wind down your dependence on the means. You don’t need them any more than you need a magic feather.

  16. 22

    i found this extremely relatable. i’ve used zen for the exact purpose you’re describing here, and in fact this teacher is one whose writings had been discussed at length in the zen group i joined for a few years. i’ve suspected that t’s no coincidence that people like me are attracted to this type of meditation, which is affirmed by reading the comments here, from other freethinkers who also used zazen. my experience was every week, for about three years, i attended a zendo where i’d join others in practicing what they believe to be the purest, most austere form of meditation. they did recommend that we practice at home, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, but i never was able to really establish any real dedication to daily practice. but even still this weekly practice, carried out reliably for a few years quite effectively, i’m convinced of it, rewired my brain in a very positive way. there is a distinct and noticable change in how i approach the world, people who knew me commented on it, even when they didn’t know i was meditating. ultimately though, i could not handle the “woo,” and had to jump ship. now these were very kind, intelligent people with excellent perspective and humor about their religious practice (some insisted that it wasn’t religious, despite the incense, bowing and chanting), and for that reason i was able to stick it out for a while and suspend the mental chatter that results from being around something so incongruent with my way of thinking. at some point a friend of mine, a practining buddhist, gave me a copy of the god delusion, affirming that there was nothing wrong with me, as i was. that being atheist is as much a part of my fiber as my dna or sexuality, i couldn’t change it if i wanted to. ultimately i left that group and its inherant hierarchy, but it’s to my detriment that i also gave up meditation, but lately i’ve been thinking of reestablishing it. thanks to this post i did. we’ll see how it goes.

    personally, i have no interest in following any programme or technique. MBSR seems to be areligious in the way that my well intentioned zendo buddies were areligious. yes, the practice is beneficial, i have to be careful in not looking too carefully into its origins, and the industry surrounding “teaching” it. in reality, any sort of meditation is beneficial. you might argue that prayer is really meditation that uses specific internal dialog. but one need not follow any programme at all. quite literally, the only thing you need to do to meditate is be still. various methods use mudras and chants and affirmations, counting breaths and focusing attention on whatever you deem appropriate. they all work the same way, you just need to find what works for you, making it up yourself if necessary. for me, it’s not just the woo that’s fatally distracting, it’s following, participating in someone else’s program.

    just thoughts. thank you for writing this.

  17. 23

    Well Greta I’m not going to jump all over you.

    However, I do think a lot of people have been led astray by what seems to be a common assumption that meditation is good for you.

    Now I have more experience of meditation than most – at one point in my life I devoted some years to the pursuit of enlightenment through meditation, within the quasi-religious context of Transcendental Meditation, in fact so deep within that context that I spent years working for nothing but my keep and the opportunity to sometimes sit at the feet of the old fraud.

    At least within a secular context for meditation there is less opportunity to pick up on phoney metaphysics than within a religious one. I feel embarrassed by a lot of the metaphysics I picked up at that time.

    It seems to me that there is some variation in the human condition of the degree to which such factors as suggestion, mutual reinforcement and wish fulfilment affect individuals, it strikes me that there is nothing per se that makes intelligent sceptics less immune to it than other people. Look at David Lean and John Hagelin – accomplished people both who got sucked into meditation. Doug Henning, too.

    Lots of people will swear blind that practices like homeopathy and Reiki make them feel better. This is because, as far as I can tell, suggestion, mutual reinforcement and wish fulfilment actually makes them feel better, just as suggestion, mutual reinforcement and wish fulfilment led me to deep unity experiences during my meditation practices.

    Sometimes, I’d suggest, the fact that someone knows that they are clever makes them less able to see that they can be deceived and deceive themselves. Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies springs to mind.

    As regarding the work done which purports to show that meditation is a good thing, this needs looking at very carefully. A lot of it – more than half, I think – comes from within the Transcendental Meditation movement. When I was within the movement I worked for a while in the press, and sometimes even I, a True Believer at that time, was surprised by the weaknesses of some of the methodologies I saw being used, though it was decades ago so I can’t point offhand to chapter and verse..

    Much of the rest seems to start with the assumption at meditation has physiological effects on brain and body – which it does – and the further assumption that these changes are good. Which is more problematical.

    If you look closely at the concept of dissociation, and look at many meditation practices, you will find a lot in common.

    Within a secular context one would be unlikely to pick up much in the way of false metaphysics, except insofar as one might be fooled into thinking it a good thing, but the dissociation can – often does – couple with the metaphysical background of the practices to lead at least some people into the Tao of Physics sort of crap.

    I know, from my experience and to my cost, that meditation can, and often does, make people feel as if, as Maharishi used to say, that ‘Something good is happening’.

    It doesn’t necessarily mean that something good is happening, and there are cases of long periods of meditation leading to severe mental problems.

    I still have the facility, gained by long practise, to go into pretty deep meditation more or less at will, but don’t do so.

    David B

  18. 27

    there are cases of long periods of meditation leading to severe mental problems

    Citation? Seriously, I’d be interested. I learned meditation from the Maharishi’s crowd in the 1970s, and I have found it useful as a means of stress reduction. I was never particularly drawn to the organization beyond learning the method, though. We were strongly advised not to practice for more than thirty minutes or so per day. Ill effects from very long sessions are believable, although very long meditation sessions might just as well be a symptom of an underlying problem, no?

    I think one effect of meditation that is pretty well documented is lowering blood pressure, an unequivocally good thing for many people.

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