Searching for Secular Meditation

Spring Shadows (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s been a number of years since I was last interested in meditation. I first encountered it as a student, when wandering through the stacks of the university library, looking for something for a literature course I was taking, I peeked through the bookstacks and saw a book with an intriguing title, The Way of Zen, in the next aisle. I’d heard of Zen of course. The Beat poets were fond of it and I’d seen some beautiful Japanese prints that were described to me as in the Zen tradition of art, but I didn’t know much about it. I checked out the book, by Alan Watts as it turned out, and entered what was then a new chapter of my life.

Like many a youth I was on something of a spiritual quest and the slippery Zen koans and the discipline of meditation appealed to me. I’d rather outgrown the Christianity I’d been raised with (both Protestant and Catholic) and this seemed a more sophisticated and interesting kind of spiritualism. Not that Zen should be called “spiritual” but that was my youthful take on it. A little Zen, a little pot, a little acid, a little Taoism, a little Carlos Castenada — it was the 60’s of course, and it marked a deep collective inturning toward mysticism and magic.

After I shed the 60’s, I found myself still interested in meditation and for awhile I linked up with a California-based group called Self Realization Fellowship. I joined them once a week for guided meditations and I practiced meditation on my own. At the time Carl Jung was probably my greatest influence and I sought some kind of oneness with the cosmos, at least symbolically.

I look back with fondness on that period of my life, however non-critical my thinking was then. It was a poetic period. Later I gradually became more secular and more agnostic in my beliefs. What started me in this direction was the study of natural history. I became intensely interested in birds, plants, and the world around us. As I learned about ecosystems and the evolution of life on earth (something I never doubted for I was always of a scientific persuasion that favoured evidence-based conclusions), I gradually came to see my earlier mindset as, well, youthful. I had matured, developing a humanistic, secular viewpoint that was skeptical of spiritual claims and highly doubtful of anything that smacked of the supernatural, including a belief in a god.

These days I call myself a “friendly, non-militant atheist”. In other words, I’m not a hard-core Dawkinsian type of in-your-face atheist. Although I see evidence of many of the horrible things religions have wrought, and are still wringing, I experienced its comfort and solace at a younger age, and would not dream of challenging anyone’s personal belief in something they hold sacred. As long as it doesn’t cross over into public policies and legislation. Church and state must be kept separate. Religions have no lock on morality. There are good people among the religious and non-religious alike, and evil people in both categories. We are all humans, capable of greatness and capable of atrocity.

With that background, you may understand why I have been seeking a secular form of meditation. Anything that smacks of Eastern religions or New Age mumbo-jumbo gives me the fantods. Unfortunately, most guided meditations fall into these camps. The reason I’m interested in meditation is simply for its acknowledged contribution to good health. I tend to have a streak of anxiety in my nature and I think meditation would be good for me.

To that end I downloaded some meditation podcasts. One, which I shall not name, claimed to be unaffiliated with any religion or school of thought so that’s the one I started with. When I first played it I thought something had corrupted the download, for the host’s voice sounded sibilant and distorted. Then I realized that it was a deliberate sound effect, resembling, to me, the cheap audio distortions used for aliens on the older Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. I suppose the host wanted to sound mystic.

But I tried to persevere. The music was relaxing, creating a dreamy mood. I had no problem with that — it was rather nice. Then the host said (and repeated this several times), “feel yourself filling with infinite peace, infinite joy, infinite love.” Infinite? Crikey, not even the universe we inhabit appears to be infinite. If I recall correctly, its size has been estimated — something you can’t do with something infinite. As the host repeated this injunction my distress rose. Why infinite? I could certainly envision my heart filling with peace, love, and joy, but not the infinite variety. It’s a meaningless term.

The host then used an image that was the worst he could have picked for a recovering heart surgery patient. “Look at a lit candle. Now imagine the candle in your heart.” I could imagine it all right, and it elicited horror. End of meditation.

As I thought about this for a day or two, I recalled a book I’d read years ago called The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson. What I distinctly remembered about it was that although the controlled experiments confirming the efficacy of meditation were initially run on students of Transcendental Meditation, the same efficacy was found to be significant for test subjects who simply relaxed for the same period, rather than meditating on a TM mantra.

I did a little googling and found a website for Benson. In it he had a little “Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response” piece that was just what I was looking for. Sitting calmly, letting the muscles relax, then concentrating on breathing. No more, no less. Yes, this is what I was looking for. A simple, secular meditation technique with no spiritual strings attached. I don’t need my chakras to glow colourfully or white light to emit from my head to enjoy a good meditation. Nor could I believe they would anyway. Likewise I’m not interested in references to Buddha and Bodhisattvas, supposed individuals who returned from a cycle of reincarnation to be spiritual teachers to mankind. Give me a break. Meditation should be no more special, or spiritual, than taking a walk.

I should add that, for me, taking walks is very special indeed, but not for spiritual reasons, unless by “spirit” you mean that aspect of mind, a percept of the brain, that allows us to reflect on the world around us, and take joy in being one of the earth’s creatures — one that walks bipedally during its short but sweet lifetime.

Breathe in, breathe out, relax. Life is precious. As far as I can see, you only have one, so live it well. Don’t plan on an afterlife. Focus, instead, on the current, and likely only, one.

7 thoughts on “Searching for Secular Meditation

  1. Well written, Gene. There was a psychologist in the GTA whom I heard on Radio Noon many years ago who focused on relaxation and breathing. I can’t remember his name, but I will find out. He may also have some helpful books.

    I have a different take on the existence and nature of spirituality, but it certainly doesn’t exclude those who differ. In any event, you have nudged me to start a meditation practice. OMmmmmm.

  2. Gene, I see that you haven’t mentioned yoga in the article. It’s a very powerful medition tool. I believe you should try it.

    Meanwhile, here’s a link on meditation. – ” think of that form which brings divinity to your mind. It could be your ‘Ishta Devata’ ( e. g. Krishna or Rama) – that form which you have been worshipping over the years. It could be a symbol of divinity that you identify with. It could be the form of a person that evokes reverence and devotion in your heart, or it could be any scene from nature that brings a sense of divinity, peace and happiness to your mind. Consciously, try to create that form or scene in front of your inner eye and mentally take your offerings of love to that form of divinity. Use your imagination; visualise that beautiful form. Do not allow anything to disturb your mind. Revel in that form and pray that it may ever remain in your heart and keep enchanting and thrilling you.”

    I like their teachings because they do not adovcate following a particular faith.

  3. @Earl: if you come across the psychologist’s name, I’d be interested. There is at least one program in meditation offered by a hospital in the GTA and covered by OHIP. It’s definitely secular.
    @ashwin: thank you for your comments. As with meditation, my sole interest in yoga is secular — I’m aware of the physical stretching and strengthening of muscles and improvement of body joints it provides. The spiritual side of yoga is something I eschew.

  4. Gene,
    As always, I enjoyed your writing today. Your thoughts about meditation and the walk through life brought back many pleasant memories.

    Like you, I also came across Alan Watts in the early 70’s. Recently I heard a replay of one of his “lectures” and I realized how much I miss the weekly dose of his thought-provoking assessment of the daily life we lead.

    In the late 60’s, I had a life-changing chance encounter with a fellow student at my university. He seemed “different”… not the typical fellow one would meet at that time in Nevada. We had many interesting conversations about living a full life. Looking back on those conversations, I later realized they were based on his practice of zen buddhism (which he never mentioned). Just as he was about to graduate, he said he wanted to give me a “gift”. It turned out to be just a simple breathing excercise to use whenever I found myself under stress. That simple gift has remained with me throughout the subsequent 40 years, providing a constant reminder of what’s important in life and what can be let go of. And I think this gift also opened me to my addiction to “the simple walk”, walks with my senses and heart open to whatever the daily life has to offer… and of course the occasional excellent photo opportunity! 🙂

    Stay well, Gene and keep the excellent writing coming.

  5. Jamie,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting story. I really like your idea of a ‘simple walk’ with senses and heart open. It’s easy in life to get overly focused on the wrong things. Breathing exercises and mindful walks help restore a balance.


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