The above video contains an explanation and demonstration of secular meditation, which is meditation stripped of any supernatural references. Last summer, the Harvard Humanist chaplaincy started a meditation group. We meet twice a month to practice secular meditation.
The meditations are derived from religious traditions like Buddhism or Quakerism, but stripped of any kind of supernaturalism. We're even skeptical of ideas that may be natural but not proven, like the Buddhist idea of letting go of the sense of being separate from the world. We think of meditation as a form of mental exercise suitable for Humanists.
We mostly practice simple breath meditations, in which one concentrates on the breath. We've also experimented with paying attention to images, mantras (words or phrases), and ambient sounds like traffic noise.
Why do it? Doesn't our ability to think in words distinguish human beings from other animals? Meditation is worth trying once, to learn that the brain can operate in different mode. The experience itself is intellectually enlightening.
But many people turn to meditation when suffering. Meditation has been shown to be useful in dealing with stress. Slow breathing in particular has been shown to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the stress response. Meditation is a good skill for Humanists to have.
Because it quiets inner thoughts, if you're ruminating or grieving about past events, upon emerging from meditation you will likely ruminate less—at least for a while. The same is true about anxious thoughts about the future. There's a time and place for planning and for reviewing past performance. But it's useful to learn to shut it off at times.
Hospitals increasingly use meditation to help patients with stress and pain. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist, wrote a bestselling book in the 1970s called the Relaxation Response. Nowadays, there is growing use of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program created by John Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, which combines meditation with yoga.
There is now lots of scientific research on meditation. Meditation seems to work by temporarily deactivating parts of the brain. By focusing on one particular activity—like paying attention to the breath—brain areas not involved become quiescent. Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania scanned meditators, and found the loss of the sense of self correlated with deactivation of brain region that defines where the body is in space.
When emerging from meditation, people find mind is quieted—inner speech is silenced. There is often sensory amplification for a few minutes. Sounds seem a little louder and one is more aware of space and 3-dimensional stereoscopic vision.
The theory is that perception involves a balance between raw sense data and patterns stored in memory. Meditation seems to deactivate the cortical areas that access stored memory patterns, so that the sense data comes in with less shaping and is more vivid and immediate.
One caution: For victims of trauma, it might be best not to meditate, or only to meditate under close guidance. Tibetan monks who were victims of torture by the Chinese authorities sometimes experience flashback images when they meditate. Meditation can silence brain areas that repress traumatic memories. So if you meditate and experience disturbing thoughts, you can stop. But this is unusual.
Now for a 15-minute meditation.
First, get comfortable. You might loosen your belt, take your shoes off. You should sit fairly straight. You can use a cushion or a chair, but if a chair, it should be one that gives firm support, and not a comfy, plush chair that makes you slump. You should place your arms comfortably in your lap or one on each thigh with the palm facing up. You can close your eyes or just narrow them and stare blankly at what's in front of you.
Now start focusing on the breath, in and out. You don't need to force yourself to breathe slower. That will happen naturally as you observe the breath. Eventually you will want to breathe so that the air is coming not just into your chest but also lifts your abdomen.
It's actually quite hard to concentrate fully on the breath, so just concentrating while you're inhaling…or while you're exhaling….is a good way to start.
And if you find yourself thinking about something else between breaths, just go back on the next inhale…or next exhale… and concentrate on the breath.
Many people find it useful to count the breaths silently.
So we'll start with five
And now four
Back to five
And so on
Now see if you can put it together
Concentrate on the inhale
And space in between
And if you can do that for five breaths in a row, you're doing fantastic
If your mind wanders
Just go back to the breath
Focus on the inhale
And keep doing it for fifteen minutes...
The Humanist Contemplative Group meets at the Democracy Center at 45 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, Mass. on 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month at 10:30 am. We are affiliated with the Harvard Humanist Community but open to all. For more details about upcoming events, visit our Facebook group.