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Mind is Matter: Why Meditation Is More Humanist than You Might Think

A lot of atheists, humanists, and other nonbelievers are leery or dismissive of meditation and mindfulness. Some see it as an irretrievably religious or spiritual practice, and want no part in it. Others are put off by the faddish, overused, buzzword quality of the practice and the terminology. And I can understand that. For years, I stayed away from trying this stuff out, for exactly those reasons. I was interested in the practice—I had friends who did it, and who seemed to get a lot out of it. But I couldn’t find anyplace to learn that didn’t base their teaching on Buddhism or some other religion. And I’m too ardent an anti-religionist to “take what you need and leave the rest,” the way many nonbelievers do with religion. After all, I literally wrote the book on angry atheism. For me, trying to learn meditation in a Buddhist center would be like trying to learn meditation in a room full of fingernails scraping on blackboards.

But these practices are being increasingly secularized. It’s certainly true that many meditation techniques and approaches originated with Buddhism and other Eastern religions, and have been refined by these religious traditions over centuries. But the version I’ve been learning—mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—is evidence-based; its techniques have been researched, and continue to be researched, using good, rigorous scientific methods, examining which effects these practices actually do and don’t generate. It’s commonly taught in medical settings, presented not as a method for spiritual enlightenment, but as a set of physical and mental techniques that can produce specific physical and mental effects. (Much in the way that, say, physical exercise is considered.) MBSR has been shown to help alleviate depression, anxiety, anger, high blood pressure, and other symptoms of extreme or prolonged stress—and can also improve focus, concentration, pain management, self-esteem, the ability to consciously respond to life’s events instead of reflexively reacting to them, and some other effects.

In my experience—which, admittedly, has been brief (as of this writing I’ve been practicing MBSR for about six months)—the secularized version of meditation and mindfulness is not just vaguely compatible with a humanist outlook. It is, in many ways, humanist to the core.

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Thus begins my most recent column for The Humanist magazine, Mind is Matter: Why Meditation Is More Humanist than You Might Think. To read more about what makes this practice humanist — or at least, what makes it dovetail nicely with humanism — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. grumpyoldfart says

    Me? I just plod along, doing what comes naturally, and things work out eventually.

    [Maybe that’s just laziness on my part. I think it probably is.]

  2. says

    I agree that MBSR is appropriate for humanists and atheists. The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts puts on an annual scientific conference to discuss research on mindfulness. I’ve been to it a couple times and its done at a very high, thoroughly academic level.

    For those in the Boston area, the Humanist Community at Harvard offers free secular meditations every week. See:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/harvard/humanist-mindfulness-group/

    On the Internet, the Secular Buddhist Association does online group meditations. See

    http://secularbuddhism.org/2012/09/11/introducing-the-practice-circle/

    Secular Buddhism is kind of like Humanistic Judaism, in that it takes practices from a culture and puts them on a secular humanist basis. Besides rejecting anything supernatural like rebirth or karma, it also passes a skeptical filter over other Buddhist practices, like an excessively deferential attitude toward teachers. Yet after much is discarded, much remains, including the practice of meditation and mindfulness, cultivating compassion, and an attitude toward suffering that has some similarities with Greco-Roman Stoicism.

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