Is Meditation Buddhist?

One of the most common misconceptions holding back the widespread adoption of meditation into the western healthcare & education systems is that meditation is seen, in some way, as a “religious” activity, a “Hindu tradition” or “Buddhist ritual” of some kind.  In truth, meditation (as it’s used today) is simply an exercise to strengthen the brain.

In the USA, our Constitution is centered around the Separation of Church and State, which is one of the core values of the American People.  Any time religion seems to be creeping its way into the public school system, healthcare, or public policy, alarms go off in peoples’ heads, and citizens rise up to protect their constitutional freedoms.  This is a testament to the values of us freedom lovin’ Americans.

In the 1960s, when a few crazy hippies made some waves in the American “scene” by sitting around cross legged wearing tie-dye tunics and chanting “Ohm, Ohm,” the more conservative population (and popular culture in general) naturally came to view meditation as some type of foreign “Buddhist ritual,” or some weird “airy-fairy hippie crap.”

Over the past half century, the fog of this misunderstanding is being cleared away by scientific research and the independent reports of thousands of “normal” people who have experienced the benefits of meditation.

Meditation is a mental exercise, in the same way that jogging is a cardiovascular exercise.  The process of jogging strengthens the heart, the lungs, and the circulatory system of the jogger.  The process of meditation strengthens the mind of the meditator.  Jogging and meditation are both scientifically proven to improve physical and mental health.  As an exercise for decreasing stress, increasing mindfulness, increasing happiness, et cetera, meditation has no more to do with religion than jogging does.  The “sharp mind” that comes with meditation can be used for purely secular ends, like getting better grades in school, making more money, creating a beautiful piece of art, or even just laying back and enjoying the subtle colors of an autumn sunset.

So, if meditation is just an “exercise for the brain,” where does this whole “religion” thing come into the picture?  To understand the source of this misconception, it is useful to look at the interplay of meditation and religion over the past few thousand years.

Over the past several millennia, spiritual leaders from religions all around the world have used the process of meditation to deepen their spiritual lives.  The cultivation of high states of concentration through meditation has been incorporated into all of the major western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as being fundamental to all of the major eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc).  In this regard, meditation is not inherently connected to any one particular religion; it is an independent mental exercise that has been used by members of all faiths to explore their own, personal, senses of spirituality.

In certain sects, however, religious leaders have used meditation as a way to strengthen their followers’ belief in their own particular dogmas, philosophies, and/or belief systems.  They have done this by making meditation into a kind of two-step process:

  • Step 1: Quiet the mind, and allow it to develop a deep state of concentration.
  • Step 2: Use this super-concentrated mind to contemplate one particular set of ideas, religious beliefs, and/or philosophies.

In my writing & teaching (and in my own meditation practice), I try to focus solely on Step 1.  This step (developing concentration) is the one that leads to all of the health benefits that you have been hearing so much about through the mass media.  This step is the one that develops the mind’s ability to focus, relaxes the body, reduces stress, cures anxiety/depression/ADHD, etc.  This type of meditation (quieting the mind, developing concentration) is inherently “secular” because it has nothing to do with “believing” one thing or another.  It can be used by religious people and atheists alike to achieve the same benefits.

People (religious and atheistic alike) are often tempted to use Step 2 to reinforce their own personal belief structures.  They develop deep states of meditation, and then allow their minds to become absorbed in “deep insights” into their own, personal, pre-existing paradigms of reality.  Personally, I think that this is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive.

What many secular (Step 1 Only) meditators find is that through the simple act of quieting the mind, the simple and fundamental nature of reality is revealed.  It’s like watching as the fog clears from the windshield of your car; you’re not learning anything new, you’re just seeing everything more clearly.  The great truths of the Universe are things that you have always known, but that you cannot often see because of the fog that is constantly clouding your mind’s eye.  Allow the fog to drift away, and all will become clear on its own.

The way I see it, the act of engaging in Step 2 is the act of taking a step back into the fog after having finally taken a step out of it.

To some people, who have spent their lives clinging to one way of looking at the world, this practice of “letting go” and “freeing the mind” can feel very frightening.  For this reason, I would like to say the following.  Let your mind be at ease.  Religious meditators are often glad to find that when the fog of thought finally clears out of their minds, their hearts are suddenly flooded with a profound understanding of the very coreof their own religions.  How awesome is the astounding realization that, at the core, all man-made truths are actually one and the same.  We are all looking at the same thing from different angles, and confusing ourselves by using different words to describe it!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  These are things that you will discover for yourself, and I don’t want to be the one who spoils the surprise.  Forget I said anything!  Just go and meditate 😉

TO SUM UP

If you’re religious, you don’t have to worry about meditation clashing with your religious beliefs.  All of the major eastern & western religions not only permit, but encourage meditation.  Meditation is a secular exercise that is intended to strengthen the mind and improve health and well-being.  It is not fundamentally connected with any particular religion, but can often intensify your own religious experience.  So go meditate.