Is ‘Secular’ Meditation Possible?

While meditation has religious roots, the practice has become increasingly secularised, particularly in the past 50 years. While in contemporary religious studies, the term ‘religion’ is viewed as problematic and vague, a distinction is commonly made between what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘secular.’ Secularism is differentially defined depending upon the context within which it is discussed (for example, secularism as a philosophy versus secularism as a political stance). However, it is broadly identified as a separation from, and movement away from, religion. There is statistical evidence of secularisation in almost all European countries since the end of World War II, a trend which has developed alongside modernisation.[1] Some sociologists of religion debate whether ‘secularisation’ has been happening or whether there has been a return of religion, or a turn towards ‘postsecular’ themes.[2] Nevertheless, in the modern West, secularism is a widely accepted paradigm, and mainstream meditation is presented primarily as a secular activity. For example, a 2014 study by Sharon Lauricella demonstrates that meditation is presented by the news media primarily as a secular activity, with 87% of the news articles in her data demonstrating a secular tone.[3] As a result, a growing number of people practice what is commonly described as ‘secular’ meditation.

The distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ meditation is, of course, partially an arbitrary one.  The only way to distinguish between secular meditation versus religious meditation is to focus on the end goal of the practice (that is, whether it is a religious goal or a non-religious goal), and on claims to secularity (that is, what different scholars, teachers and religious practitioners have claimed about both meditation practices and their end goals). For example, contemporary meditation teachers and practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn (founder of MBSR), who apply meditation in a purely clinical way, view meditation practice (in this case mindfulness meditation) as secular simply because it is employed towards clinical goals (such as the alleviation of chronic pain). Likewise, the Transcendental Meditation technique created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is defined as secular because its goals are this-worldly, physiological and health-related; for example the alleviation of stress.[4] Further, TM adherents are “free to follow other religions, are not given a dogmatic code of ethics to follow and do not belong to a “real” or visible “community,” but rather seek to benefit themselves through their practices;” all factors which have been used to support its purported secular status.[5]

While there has been much debate regarding whether meditation can ever be truly removed from its religious context,[6] it is useful to distinguish between secular meditation and religious meditation to the extent that it helps to identify a particular discourse, while also keeping in mind that the boundary between the secular and the religious is both arbitrary and porous. Three types of meditation practice that are commonly presented as ‘secular’ are listed below: Transcendental Meditation (TM), mindfulness, and vipassana. These are the meditation practices that are most commonly practiced by modern Western ‘laypeople’ and that have been studied the most in Western clinical and research settings.

‘Transcendental Meditation’

Transcendental meditation (TM) is a form of meditation that uses a mantra to centralise cognitive focus.[7] Research studies on TM often define the technique as a concentration practice, however the TM organisation states that TM is not a concentration practice, but rather a ‘self-transcending’ technique. The TM technique is associated exclusively with the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is derived from Vedantic Hinduism, and references texts such as the Rig Veda and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (a foundational text of yoga, one of the six orthodox systems of Hinduism).[8] Despite its Hindu roots, TM is described as a secular practice that is not associated with any religion or belief system.  The TM website states: “The TM technique is not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle. No belief or expectation is needed for it to be effective.”[9]

‘Mindfulness’

Mindfulness derives from Theravada Buddhism, and is usually associated with the teachings of the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), and the canonical text Satipatthana Sutta (the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness), Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) and other Pali sources.[10] The Satipatthana Sutta is generally regarded as the canonical Buddhist text with the most comprehensive instructions on the system of mindfulness meditation. In its clinical use, mindfulness is conceptualised as a type of ‘open monitoring’ practice whereby the practitioner is attentive, moment by moment, to anything that arises in experience, without focusing on any explicit object.[11] Open monitoring involves non-reactively monitoring the contents of experience, primarily as a means to recognise emotional and cognitive patterns. While there are disagreements regarding how to operationally define mindfulness, a commonly accepted definition is taken from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, where mindfulness is described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”[12] However, it is important to note that, when considered in the format of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness also includes influences from Mahayana Buddhism, Zen, Vedanta and select Neo-Hindu gurus.[13]

‘Vipassana’

Vipassana’ refers to residential vipassana meditation courses, which teach mindfulness meditation. The vipassana course is a standardized, residential 10 day course that is presented in a secular retreat format.[14] It is based on Buddhist philosophy and practices derived from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Szekeres and Wertheim offer a brief description of a vipassana course:

Participants meditate 10 h[ours] daily, refrain from reading and religious practices, eat vegetarian foods twice daily and remain silent during the course (except during question periods). These processes eliminate distractions that could prevent being present to moment-to-moment experiences, thereby helping to settle the mind and fostering openness to the meditative practices. During the first 3 days, students observe the natural flow of incoming and outgoing breath to develop focused attention and present-moment awareness. From day 4, students practise Vipassana. On day 10, loving-kindness meditation is taught.[15]

The vipassana tradition could be said to exist on a spectrum of secularity, with claims to secularity varying according to the specific vipassana organisation. For example, the American organisation Spirit Rock,[16] is explicit regarding its connection to Buddhism, but it also draws on a number of other spiritual and psychological traditions and has what could be described as an East-meets-West integrative approach. The Insight Meditation Society[17] has a reputation for being more conservative and preserving their Theravada lineage, but notes on their website “While the context of our meditation retreats is the Buddha’s teachings, the practices are universal.” Finally, vipassana in the tradition of S. N. Goenka[18] claims to be completely non-religious and refers to its teaching as an “art of living.” In general, vipassana meditation articulates a relatively secular approach to Buddhist philosophy and practice. As scholar David Treleaven notes:

Judging by the infrequent number of times the word “enlightenment” appears in WVM [Western Vipassana Meditation] texts, it appears that most WVM teachers, while still drawing upon foundational teachings such as the Eightfold Path, deemphasize the term in lieu of secular values that can inform and improve the quality of one’s life.[19]

Hence, there is an argument to be made that vipassana is a secular meditation technique.[20]

As meditation gains mainstream popularity, it is important to consider the origins of the practices and what they were originally intended for. Personally I am a fan of the pragmatic dharma approach combined with an understanding of, and respect for, the religious traditions from which these practices originated. While I do not believe you have to be “religious” in order to meditate, I believe that the practice of random meditation techniques without an understanding of some sort of overarching system (that contains a philosophy/cosmology, some form of ethics and a path/goal) can be both confusing and a waste of valuable time. For those of us who are rationalist/secular, perhaps science/neuroscience will provide the philosophy, humanism the ethics, and psychology the goal (although I don’t think Western psychology is currently quite there yet – the Transpersonal psychologists are probably the closest). Either way, I believe modern meditation practitioners, secular or otherwise, must have an understanding of what it means to be practising Eastern religion-derived contemplative techniques within a modern Western scientific/psychological worldview.

[1] J. Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2006): 2.

[2] Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” 1-25.

[3] S. Lauricella, “The Ancient-Turned-New Concept of ‘Spiritual Hygiene:’ An Investigation of Media Coverage of Meditation from 1979 to 2014,” Journal of Religion and Health 55, no. 5 (2014): 1748-1762.

[4] Transcendental Meditation Australia, website accessed 23 October 2018: https://tm.org.au/benefits-of-meditation.

[5] R. Lockwood, “Religiosity Rejected: Exploring the Religio-Spiritual Dimensions of Landmark Education,” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2 no. 2 (2011): 232.

[6] As Lockwood notes, “the purported position of a group does little to silence the debate surrounding its religious elements.” Lockwood, “Religiosity Rejected,” 248. See also, R.H. Sharf,”Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and Why it Matters),” Transcultural Psychiatry 52, no. 4 (2015): 470-484.

[7] Transcendental Meditation website, accessed 27 October 2018: https://www.tm.org/meditation-techniques.

[8] Williamson, Transcendent in America, 95-100.

[9] Transcendental Meditation website, accessed 27 October 2018: https://www.tm.org/wellness-program/what-is-tm.

[10] Sharf, “Is Mindfulness Buddhist?” 472.

Thera, The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1998). Accessed 12 April 2018: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wayof.html.

[11] Lutz, et al., “Attention Regulation,” 163-164.

[12] Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, 4.

Kabat-Zinn, “Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skilful Means, and the Trouble with Maps,” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 1 (2011): 289.

[13] Kabat-Zinn, “Some Reflections.”

[14] R.A. Szekeres and E.H. Wertheim, “Evaluation of Vipassana Meditation Course Effects on Subjective Stress, Well-being, Self-kindness and Mindfulness in a Community Sample: Post-course and 6-month Outcomes,” Stress & Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress 31 (2015): 373–381.

[15] Szekeres and Wertheim, “Evaluation of Vipassana,” 376.

[16] Spirit Rock website, accessed 27 October 2018: https://www.spiritrock.org/about.

[17] Insight Meditation Society website, accessed 27 October 2018: https://www.dharma.org/about-us/.

[18] Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka website, accessed 27 October 2018: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/qanda.

[19] D.A. Treleaven, “Meditation and Trauma: A Hermeneutic Study of Somatic Experiencing and the Western Vipassana Movement,” Unpublished PhD Dissertation (California Institute of Integral Studies, 2012): 78.

[20] However, it is important to acknowledge that a strong argument for the opposite position – vipassana as religious – can, of course, also be made.

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