The Tool of Meditation: Buddhism without the Buddha
In this piece I want to convince you that there is secular value in practicing meditation and that as a beneficial exercise is completely separable from its religious origins in Buddhism and Hinduism. When I say meditation I mean it in the general sense – the act of stopping for a few minutes each day to introspect your own mind. Various techniques have been developed to do this, the specific example I will use is ‘Mindfulness’ Meditation, a simple routine. I will argue that Meditation has value primarily as a verified tool for maintaining a healthy mind, with scientific studies backing this assertion up. Emerging out of this primary positive impact there is also, I will argue, a subversive, liberating quality to meditation when carried out in this society in which we live. I’ll start by describing the process of mindfulness meditation and its purpose in reverse order and we’ll go from there.
The function of Mindfulness is to bring you, the observer, entirely within the present moment of experience. It’s a means stepping outside the default of our discursive thinking; that state in which we are constantly shifting our attention and focus between the exterior objects of our sensation. This intolerable situation, in which we are subject to an erratic and unstoppable chain of thoughts beyond our control, becomes apparent almost as soon as you start meditating, recognizing this is the easy bit, the hard bit is simple, but hard.
A version of the process is as follows: Sit straight on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion, close your eyes, take a couple of deep breathes and begin to probe the sensations of your body – heat, pressure, vibrations, sounds, take notice specifically of the breath, follow the rising and falling of the chest without controlling it, merely observe. It is inevitable that your thoughts will naturally veer off in that chaotic fashion to other things, but the crux of the exercise is that when you embark on one of these tangent you become aware, acknowledge this break and gently return your thoughts to the breath, you are not forcing your awareness on the breath for the whole time as this is impossible, you are returning it when it inevitably drifts off. This exercise grounds you in the moment, removing you from the worry and desire of everyday life for a few minutes. This method may sound trivial and in theory it is, but in applying it takes hours and hours of practice, but 20 minutes a day is a good start and brings tangible returns quickly in my experience. A Secular mediator himself, Sam Harris has recorded a much better online guided meditation which I have included a link to1.
Exercises like this, which foster a non-discursive mind-set, have been shown in peer-reviewed scientific journals to diminish significantly both anxiety2 and depression3, it can even reduce the sensation of pain4. Also interestingly there is evidence that it can improve cognitive function5 and perhaps even increase grey matter density6 in the brain. There is a broad field emerging concerned only with the relative health benefits of led individuals like Jon Kabat-Zinn and his “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR) and Sam Harris with his new online lecture series: ‘Waking Up’ concerning spirituality without religion.7
With these sorts of health benefits who cares about the religious origin. I myself am an atheist, I am just as skeptical about the Buddhist belief system as I am about any other religion I’ve come across, its metaphysical claims of karma and reincarnation seem irrational to me. The taints of dogma that persist in the worship of iconography, the cult-like chanting in ancient dialects will ring alarm bells in any self-aware individual’s head, but it is a fallacy to conflate Buddhist Religious doctrine with Buddhist Philosophy. Buddhism’s lasting contribution is its extensive dialogue on the nature of our own mind and our perceptions, along with the practices of meditation developed off of the back of this investigation. The concepts of ‘impermanence’, ‘emptiness’ and ‘selflessness’ are enduring experiential facts of consciousness. The difference between happiness and suffering and their causes are central to Buddhist philosophy and these discussions will be relevant to us as long as we experience anything. It is true that Muslims first innovated algebra and the many original physicists were Christian, but we don’t use terms ‘Christian physics’ or ‘Muslim algebra’. These fields transcend their religious source and are evident in themselves, the same goes for the term ‘Buddhist cognitive science’. Neuroscience is a young subject, why is it illegitimate to mine the vaults of Buddhism for some useful insight into the mind’s nature while we wait.
In the introduction I mentioned the Liberation that Meditation provides. This is because it’s a route to peace and happiness that is achieved by us merely changing ourselves and our perspective rather than us trying to satisfy every desire that emerges, in this respect it seems like a realistic enterprise. Some have argued that Buddhist practices of meditation are in fact immoral because we stop trying to make the world a better place and simply contemplate bad things away, ignoring them. This can only be claimed in extreme cases when we give up all our worldly possessions and desires in the quest for nirvana, I am in no way arguing for this sort of ‘contemplative extremism’. I am merely arguing there is a place for meditation as an active, healthy exercise in our lives.
Yet I still hold that this small daily act is a liberating one when we live in a society embroiled in a capitalist consumer mentality like ours. You are supposed to buy your way to happiness, to be happy is to consume. We are compelled to climb the pyramid, to acquire, to get a mortgage and a pension and after all that nonsense we die. Like addiction, fulfilling desire in itself is no sure way of attaining lasting happiness. The simple activity of peering into one’s own mind for a few minutes each day, quietens the thousand voices of media advertisements. It’s definitely a means of rebellion, call me a nutcase, but do try it out. When you learn to live in the moment for a bit (and no, I don’t mean the tired cliché) life becomes far easier and simpler. Meditation is a worthy pastime for everybody, all that’s required is a brain.
Links and Citations
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