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