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

Greta ChristinaA 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.

When I was learning MBSR (I took an eight-week course—shorter courses are also available), the instructor taught us basic techniques of meditation: directing our awareness to some focal point in the here and now (such as our breath); noticing when our attention had been pulled away from this focus by some distraction; accepting this distraction without judgment; and gently returning our awareness back to its focal point. He didn’t just teach us how to do this in a meditation session: he taught us how to carry these techniques and philosophies into our daily lives. We learned ways to approach eating, driving, conversation, boredom, the experience of joy and sorrow, and so on with a more focused awareness on the here and now, and with less mind-drifting or perseverating into plans and worries for the future, or guilt and resentment over the past.

And it struck me: experiencing this life, each moment as richly and thoroughly as we can—this life—this very moment, and then the next moment, and then the next—being all that we really have… the purpose simply being the living of it, and helping others with their living of it…

Gee, I thought, that all sounds really familiar! Learning this meditation and mindfulness practice has been like a practical course in an intensive, highly focused version of a core humanist philosophy: the philosophy that this life is all there is. It’s an intensive practical course in creating one’s own meaning. It’s an intensive practical course in fully experiencing life, in small moments as well as big ones: recognizing that most of our lives are made up of mundane, undramatic experiences, and seeing all of it as an opportunity to embrace the magnificent improbability of being alive.

There are other things that are humanist about this practice as well. Certainly there’s a long humanist tradition of taking the good stuff that religion offers—community, social support, rites of passage, seasonal celebrations, and such—while extracting the religious or dogmatic elements out of it. Taking the supernatural out of meditation and transforming it into a secular technique for mental and physical healthcare isn’t that different from taking the supernatural out of christenings, confirmations, and bar/bat mitzvahs, and transforming them into secular baby-naming and coming-of-age ceremonies. Or, for that matter, having a Christmas tree without going to church.

In addition, the body-centered versions of this practice—the ones that involve focusing your awareness on your breath, or on different parts of your body in gradual succession, or on the feel of your legs and feet as you walk slowly and deliberately, or on your whole body in movement-based meditations such as gentle yoga—serve as a powerful reminder of the essential physicality of our lives and our experience. For someone like me, with a strong tendency towards abstraction and living in my head, a daily return to the reality of my body brings me back to the materialism that’s at the core of secular humanism: the understanding that everything we are, and everything that everything else is, is entirely made up of physical matter, physical energy, and empty space.

Plus, the whole aspect of consciously responding to life’s events instead of reflexively reacting to them—that’s a very humanist concept as well. A big part of the humanist philosophy has to do with accepting responsibility for our own lives and our own actions, and taking responsibility for how we choose to give our lives meaning and purpose. Making decisions with more awareness and less impulse, based more on our genuine values and less on our adrenaline-fueled lizard hindbrains, feeds right into that philosophy.

And the philosophy of accepting the realities of life, rather than letting ourselves be entranced by a delusion of some hypothetical perfect other life, is very humanistic as well. When I let myself simply sit with discomfort or sadness or anxiety or restlessness or grief or guilt or itchiness, instead of constantly fidgeting and tinkering under the delusion that my life is somehow perfectible, I’m not just practicing mindfulness. I’m practicing humanism. And indeed, when I accept the reality that my brain is going to drift into distracting thoughts—that distraction and perseveration and fidgeting is an inevitable part of how my brain works—and when I accept this reality without judgment, and move on from it, I’m not just practicing mindfulness. I’m practicing humanism.

I’m not proselytizing for the mindfulness-based stress reduction technique. I’ve found it useful for me; I have no idea if it would be for you. But I was surprised at how consistent this practice was with my humanism, and how naturally they folded together. I’d hate to see nonbelievers stay away from a set of techniques that they might find valuable and meaningful, simply because they see it as religious. Food for thought.