Sunday, January 22, 2012

Meditator Gets Hoodwinked by Religion

I recently tried to set up an introduction to meditation during lunch hour at my work. I found myself contemplating how religion and meditation are related because I had to assure people that this was not a religious thing. Of course, there doesn't have to be anything religious about meditation, but people tend to worry that they are about to get hoodwinked.

At the end of the day, all forms of meditation have origins in the world's wisdom traditions or religions. If you haven't signed up for membership in one of the world's religions, don't worry! You don't have to join a religion to get something out of meditation, but allow me to expound on the relationship I see between meditation and religion.

Buddhism does not have a monopoly on meditation. Lots of wisdom traditions practice meditation, including Hinduism (where Buddhism came from) and Taoism, as well as Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In the American world view, Eastern religions are more associated with meditation than Western religions, but when we talk about meditation, we could be talking about a lot of things.

I recently listened to a podcast with meditator and brain researcher Richard Davidson in which he said that talking about "meditation" is  like talking about "sports," because there are so many different kinds of meditations, and they all serve different purposes. For example, Christians often talk about contemplative practice, which I think means prayer. Muslims pray 5 times a day, which is a kind of meditation. Then there is the Sufi tradition in Islam, which has all kinds of meditation practices, including the zikr, practiced from Central Asia to the Middle East, but made famous by the whirling dervishes (see video).

In Buddhism, there are meditations that focus on appreciation and gratitude,  meditations that calm the mind, meditations that develop sensitivity in the body, meditations that cultivate compassion, and meditations that build courage. There is also prayer, such as the dedication of merit in which you offer your practice for the benefit of all beings.

The term yoga covers a wide range of Hindu-based spiritual practices. The kind of yoga we associate with stretching, asana yoga, is a type of meditation in which you work to synchronize the mind and body.

You could do any of these types of meditation without calling yourself a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Muslim. Therefore, when people get squeemish about meditation I'm always a little confused and curious about what the fear is.

In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham says that we are meditating all of the time. We might simply be meditating on how to get a promotion, or how to get revenge, or how much we want ice cream but don't have it.

If we completely divorce religion from the discussion on meditation, we would still find lots of value in the practice of meditation. Brain imaging has shown us that the mind can be rewired. In other words, people can change. Contrary to popular belief, people can reduce neurosis, build courage, develop compassion and reduce their attention deficit though meditation. In fact, research suggests that people can learn to be happy and that happiness is a practice, which we develop by learning to work with our minds. Most of society is running around looking for happiness in other people or in material things, even when they know this is ridiculous.

Pleasure is nice, but happiness is something you develop from within. Meditation, according to lots of smart people, can help us develop from within. When you learn how your mind works, it is kind of like getting the user's manual for your life, after many years without one.

So here is how you might get hoodwinked by meditation; here is how you might end up turning to a "religion" in order to find happiness... You might meditate for several years. You might reduce all of your neurosis, sleep better, laugh more, make decisions with a clear mind, etc. You might find that you can rest in the "8th level of consciousness."Meditation could make you feel super-human if you go far enough. You could even use it to become the calmest, most clear-headed bank robber in the world. But at some point, you may realize that you are never going to be happy, as long as you put your self or your ego first. At that point you might realize that submission to a teacher and to one of the ancient traditions of wisdom, which have been studied and refined by countless individuals, may actually be useful in the pursuit of happiness.

Or maybe not, and that's cool too!


  1. As an atheist and new dabbler in yoga and meditation, this explanation is illuminating.

    My own first yoga experience made me a little uncomfortable, but I have since found a less spiritual instructor. I've heard the valid argument that it's not "real yoga" if it's not religion. Obviously I'm fine that I'm not doing "real yoga" since I'm in it for the health benefits and not trying to be a good Hindu. We can take what is useful to us and leave behind what we don't need. Maybe some people are more wary of meditation because their own experience with religion has been dogmatic (imagine that).

    I'm curious about the last paragraph! Has your research into meditation shown that it's not happiness if you don't destroy your ego? Or that one cannot let go of ego without the aid of religion or religious teacher?

  2. Hi CJ, thanks for the inspiration! I tried to address your questions in the newest post called "practicing happiness."

    You brought up dogma yourself, and I think it is very interesting that you see the spiritual side of yoga as akin to practicing being a "good hindu." Having been squeemish about dogma and religion for most of my life, I can definitely see where you are coming from. But I'm not sure that this kind of dogma exists in Hinduism, and certainly not in Buddhism.

    Joseph Campbell explains that in Western religions, you sin and penitence, but in Eastern religions you have ignorance and enlightenment. In other words, Buddhists believe that we are good, but confusion clouds our goodness. You seek enlightenment, which is getting back to your natural state, rather than becoming something greater than what you are.

    As for the ego, there is no need to destroy it. The approach would be more gentle. It might be more like dissolving it, letting it go, or asking it to stop confusing you. There is sense of love that needs to go with it, otherwise this process becomes more aggression, hence it becomes more neurotic behavior. In Buddhism there is no sense of evil, therefore, there is no sense of banishing the ego.

    But to answer your question, I don't think you need religion to be happy. Its just that I think it would be a shame to pass up all the wisdom that enlightened individuals have brought us. I can name individuals in the Western traditions that inspire me like Catholic Thomas Merton, or Islamic saints Hafez and Rumi. They seemed to have a lot to say about happiness.

    The other thing about religions that I like to consider is that they are human things, and like all human things they can fall prey to corruption and politics. That is no reason to banish all humans, so why would we banish all religions?

    At the end of the day, religion is just a word. I would not get hung up on it. We should be curious and take an honest look at things beyond labels and see if they speak to us. If they don't, then there's no reason to linger. Just move on to what does speak to you.

    1. Wow, thanks for the thoughtful response! What a tolerant and beautiful place the world would be if most people shared your perspective.

  3. I hope it is helpful!

    Next time your yoga teacher or someone talking about religion makes you feel squeemish, I would recommend just staying with that feeling. There is nothing wrong with feeling squeemish. Feel where it shows up in your body. Where is the discomfort? You might end up having a laugh over it once you realize how "empty" the whole situation is.

    The usual response would be to escape from it, but we can interact with more courage than that. We just need to practice getting comfortable with the experience of being human.

    1. That's good advice about sitting with the feeling, thanks! I did have to fight the giggles during parts of my first class which made me feel silly. Of course, the entire idea of being in a room with people dressed in funny clothes, doing synchronized movements is silly in and of itself. Humans do funny things...

  4. CJ, I serendipitously got turned onto this TED talk, which you may like. It is about what atheists can learn from religions. It really resonated for me.