Is There a Secular Meditation?

By Swami B. V. Tripurari

I was recently asked if there is a form of secular meditation that I could recommend. Perhaps there is, but the reason behind this question is more interesting than the question itself. The question arises out of an understandable frustration with religion—its often dated and written-in-stone moral laws, its infighting, its lack of objectivity, and its metaphysics. But it also arises out of a sense that meditation has something to offer human society if it could be severed from its religious baggage.

However, traditional meditation itself tends to be light on religion. In classical India, meditation was an inquiry into the nature of consciousness by those who had already understood the essence of religious dogma and thus the underlying purpose behind religion’s moral codes. Meditation was to be embarked upon by those of not only good moral character (with a heart relatively free from desires/attachments), but also of the ability to distinguish between relative moral laws and their ontologically grounded principles. Thus meditation’s moral underpinning was one that positioned a contemplative to determine moral law with the ongoing application of reason relevant to time and circumstances. As a result, the mystic was not one burdened by religious law, nor was he or she immoral. The contemplative determined personal moral standards on the basis of accepting as moral that which proved favorable to meditation and rejecting as immoral that which did not. As an alternative, a purely secular morality is illusive at best. Proponents base such a morality on the belief that human life has inherent value, a stance that is no more empirically verifiable than one based upon a belief in God, as value itself lies beyond the purview of empiricism.

Meditation does not foster the kind of religious infighting that turns so many away from religion. While genuine meditative experience is varied, all such experience treads the common ground of ego effacement. It fosters a deep sense of unity with others giving rise to universal compassion. While practitioners experience nuanced differences that give rise to particular disciplines with distinct goals ranging from voidistic to theistic, the common ground of the interior experience is considerable, and all such inner experience also results in a largely unified response to the outer world, such as detachment from the temporal and compassion for all sentient beings. This unifying experience, unlike a strictly religious orientation, does not lend to the kind of infighting and even violence we see among the religious, behavior that is not conducive to the practice of meditation itself. Indeed, ahimsa, or nonviolence, is a cornerstone to the moral foundation of contemplative life. Meanwhile, secular life is no stranger to infighting, as one living being is food for another in the struggle for existence.

While both religion and mysticism are often considered entirely subjective experiences, meditation is at the same time an objective methodology, a science so to speak. It is an effort to understand the actual nature of consciousness as opposed to how one might like it to be. Thus it puts to rest the personal prejudices, emotional attachments, and partisanship that might cloud one’s inner perception of the sky of consciousness by obscuring objectivity. This is the same basic objectivity employed in any scientific undertaking. Sensual restraint and stilling of the mind assist one in turning inward to understand and experience consciousness. Of course, here I speak of a theory-driven objectivity, an effort to verify the postulate of the sacred texts as to the enduring nature of consciousness. However, we should not think that science is not also theory driven in its objectivity. Charles Darwin wrote, “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation [objectivity] must be for or against some view [theory] if it is to be of any service.” Even the process of observation within modern science is subject to subjective human bias. Aside from this bias, which can compromise objectivity in any undertaking, science itself has shown through quantum mechanics that the observer invariably influences that which is being observed. Thus Werner Heisenberg pointed out that science is no longer the study of nature itself, but rather the study of humanity’s “investigation of nature.” So if we are to look for a more comprehensive objectivity, we must look to something that transcends humanity’s inherent biases.

As for meditation’s metaphysics, what do they really say? While different traditions may have different metaphysical ideals, these ideals only create conflict when they have not been arrived at through the common foundational experience of meditation. Thus the idea of meditation is to rise above carnal drives—to control the mind and senses in a manner that appears superhuman, if not supernatural. Its ground is pure objectivity, which gives the necessary footing to climb the mountain of spiritually subjective experience. Such attainment is tantamount to a philosophical transcendence of death. It is an ego death to be sure. And if the material ego, or identification of self as Finnish, Indian, male or female, black or white, Lutheran, Hindu, and so on is slain on the altar of meditation, we have reasonable philosophical grounds to say that self has died, while life of a different kind altogether continues on. In the words of Thomas Merton, “To renounce the pleasure of one’s dearest illusions about oneself is to die more effectively than one could ever do by allowing oneself to be killed for a clearly conceived personal ideal.”

For that matter, it is really only the philosophical arguments based on scientific materialism, as opposed to the empirical science itself, that the secularist can use to counter the transcendental claims of meditation. Surely there are many such philosophies: physicalism, epi-phenomenalism, functionalism, etc., but there are also equally credible empirically based hypotheses for an enduring consciousness.1 Still, there is ultimately no conclusive empirical evidence that supports the idea that consciousness either does or does not transcend biological death.2

So is there really a need for a secular form of meditation? Some may still desire one and attempt to strip meditation of its metaphysics for their purposes. But that raises the question as to whether such persons are actually practicing meditation at all. In the least, meditation is aimed at ego death, nothing less. Therefore one might argue that employing meditative techniques for something less than this is not meditation at all. And if ego death is objectively desirable, giving rise as it does to compassion and other universally supported qualities, why argue with the success arising out of a religious context? If a light form of religion has proven useful in helping to foster ego death and the deathless mystic experience, what is the need to discard them?

Talk of secular meditation is one thing, but we are still waiting for the first secular mystic to arrive, one who upon attaining ego death makes no metaphysical claims about the nature of the experience. Even though Zen Buddhism and Vipassana are sometimes thought to be forms of meditation that one can engage in without attaching any metaphysical beliefs to the process, there have been no Buddhists adepts to date who, upon attaining the Buddhist goal of enlightenment, have taught us that the ego death experience itself dies with biological death. Meanwhile, from the nonsecular quarters every adept to date has described his or her experience of enlightenment as one of transcending death as well as religion.

  1. The work of physicist Henry Stapp is an excellent example of credible science. His quantum interactive dualism posits a causal, non-local consciousness that arguably survives biological death. His hypothesis is well explained in his books Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer and Quantum Interactive Dualism: An Alternative to Materialism. []
  2. It is worth mentioning that the research of Pin van Lommel documented in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience offers considerable evidence that consciousness is non-local and that is has no biological makeup. For more than twenty years van Lommel systematically studied near-death experiences in a wide variety of hospital patients who survived a cardiac arrest. In 2001, he and his fellow researchers published his study on near-death experiences in the renowned medical journal The Lancet. The article caused an international sensation, as it was the first scientifically rigorous study of this phenomenon. His study was later published in Consciousness Beyond Life. To date there has been no credible refutation of the study’s conclusion: that consciousness is ontologically independent of the brain. []


About the Author

25 Responses to Is There a Secular Meditation?

  1. Aside from this bias, which can compromise objectivity in any undertaking, science itself has shown through quantum mechanics that the observer invariably influences that which is being observed.

    In psychology, if we apply the same principle, it is easy to see that in the case where the observer and the observed are human, the presence of the observer can greatly influence the psychic movements in the mind of the observed. To put it in lay terms, how one interacts with other/s can affect positively or negatively the thoughts and actions of the subject/s who is/are being observed, guided and influenced. Naturally, the observer will be affected too. It is like is an interactive dance, the dance of existence… a dance of creation or a dance of destruction? Therefore, our sense of responsibility in our response to others is incalculable.

    It is possible to think that this principle is found is all spheres; that is the nature of consciousness.

  2. Dear Guru Maharaja,

    Given that Gaudiya Vaisnavism advocates mantra meditation, as opposed to empty or silent meditation, I must first ask if the two forms are essentially empirically equivalent, even though mantra meditation clearly has a mystical quality, due to the influence of the sound vibrations of the holy names.

    Secondarily, is it possible that Freud’s “pleasure principle” could eventually drive a secularist to seek out meditation for the bliss of its emptiness, having reached a point of satiation with instant gratifications, or perhaps as a balancing mechanism for an intense lifestyle of sense gratification?

    It seems to be an evolutionary maxim that materialists eventually adapt (or pervert) scientific, mystical or religious disciplines for material motives in the service of advancing the longevity and potency of hedonism. In such a progression, one would hope that the WHY (or the reason) of the byproduct of the practice, such as secular meditation, would produce at least the seed of mystical perception. However, with untrained sight, what is the likelihood that practitioners of “secular meditation” will recognize the symptoms of a mystical experience.

    I perceive that ultimately the secularist who pursues meditation for purely material motives will either be incapable of maturing the practice or they will persevere such that their victory over their own senses unwittingly polarizes the practice negatively for the aggrandizement of false ego. This phenomenon, if axiomatic, could reasonably be viewed as the poor man’s entry to black magic or to the virtues of selfishness. Through devotional service to the false ego, it would not surprise me that mystical experience of materialistic self-mastery and evil might usher the secular yogi into an awareness that there is a metaphysical plane of exploitative energy that can be harnessed for (false) self-gratification, much as deity worship even in Karma Yoga is known to be for material gain, according to the Bhagavad-gita.

    If the above makes sense, is such a question as was posed to you in fact a respectful query to make of a sadhu? Why should anybody ask a mystic for a practice that will bring about material gain? It is vastly magnanimous of Sri Guru to entertain mundane matters for our spiritual edification.

    Hare Krisha!

    • I can’t quite follow all of this, but a few thoughts:

      Not sure what you mean by “empirically equivalent” in regard to mantra and silent meditation. Obviously they are not the same practice, as one is uttering or meditating on mantras and the other attempting to empty the mind. If you mean to ask if, for example, brain scans of two people doing the two practices would be similar, I would think potentially yes, but that says little other than both practices (when done at a quite developed level) quiet the mind and yet give the brain satisfaction or some kind of bliss. While silent meditation tends to stop there, mantra dhyana/smaranam goes further into a spiritual experience of activity and meditation upon the lila. But I don’t think we could assume that this further dynamic experience would show on the brain. So in both cases the brain might show only symptoms of stillness and some kind of blissful satisfaction/non-participation with the outer world, but internally the two experiences may be very different. Furthermore, even the stilling of the mind for the bhakta is somewhat different than that of the jnani, Buddhist, etc. We seek to still the mind by absorbing it elsewhere, by petitioning that which is transcendent for the grace by which we move closer to it. Thus we call it a descending path. Other paths seek to still the mind by the strength of the practitioner. Thus they are ascending paths.

      I think materialists can and have sought out meditation, as you suggest. But as the article points out, it is questionable whether meditation merely for the mind’s happiness (as opposed to intending to transcend the mind) is really meditation. Interestingly, Epicurus, whose name has become so associated with sensual hedonism, was practically an ascetic. He was a materialist, but recognized the maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain was best done through a simple lifestyle, recognizing that indulgence led to more suffering.

      More thoughts but gotta run for now….

      • Madhurya Kadamibini has me seeing rag and dvesa here.

        • …mainly here: He was a materialist, but recognized the maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain was best done through a simple lifestyle, recognizing that indulgence led to more suffering.

        • My point was related to Ananda Gopal’s concern that materialists are attracted to spiritual (secular) practice for material purposes. Here living a life of asceticism is being advocated simply because it is viewed as the most successful means to enjoy. The epicurean philosophy is interesting.

          “The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.” (Epicurean maxim)

          So if asceticism is not necessarily the same as detachment, what does detachment actually mean?

          I have always thought that asceticism implied things like ego death…

          • Most commonly asceticism is practiced in a religious, and therefore ideally ego-effacing context, but it need not be. People may live austerely and very disciplined for any reason under the sun, including ego-aggrandizement. What’s more, it is primarily within the religious context that ego-indulging asceticism appears, because it is religious people who tend to value simplicity, discipline, etc. In these cases asceticism (renunciation) becomes an opulence itself (as it is said to be one of the 6 opulences) and can pull one down into pride. Such is the nature of real spiritual progress, very hard to determine on the outside.

            As the famous Bhagavatam verse says:

            ye ‘nye ‘ravindaksha vimukta-maninas
            tvayy asta-bhavad avisuddha-buddhayah
            aruhya kricchrena param padam tatah
            patanty adho ‘nadrita-yushmad-anghrayah

            O lotus-eyed Lord, although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for your lotus feet. (10.2.32)

            Detachment, on the other hand, is a lack of exploitation. One can be disciplined in the context of self-surrender or they can exploit discipline and renunciation for name and fame. But both could look the same on the outside, therefore the need for introspection in oneself and generosity with others.

          • Madhumangala wrote,

            So if asceticism is not necessarily the same as detachment, what does detachment actually mean?

            I have always thought that asceticism implied things like ego death…

            ,

            to which Nitaisundara replied,

            Detachment, on the other hand, is a lack of exploitation. One can be disciplined in the context of self-surrender or they can exploit discipline and renunciation for name and fame. But both could look the same on the outside, therefore the need for introspection in oneself and generosity with others.

            And I think this brings us to an essential point. What, indeed, does detachment actually mean? In the context of Gaudiya vedanta, it ultimately means attachment–to Krishna, to his service, and to the company of those dedicated to that service. Sadhana is meant to bring us ultimately to bhava, in which state our hearts become soft. (Bhava, in turn, is meant to bring us to prema, in which state our hearts melt.) We would do well to cultivate introspection, appreciation for the experience of others, and the generous spirit which is characteristic of bhakti. We can’t do so artificially, of course; these come when we open our hearts to the influence of Krishna’s svarupa shakti. I think that such an approach may be difficult to find in other pursuits, including other religions, although not impossible, as we see in the character of St. Francis and St. Teresa.

    • Ananda,

      To the extent that a practitioner is chanting suddha-nama or perhaps even namabhas one could argue that it is not empirically equivalent to silent or materially-motivated meditation. Since Krishna is non-different than his name, the object of meditation is consciousness himself (see translations of the verse begining “nama cintamanih krishnas caitanya-rasa-vigrahah“).

      Also, along the lines of Nitaisundara’s point that bhakti is a descending path, I think one could also argue that Krishna nama appears in our mind by his own accord, with his own agenda. So from this angle there is no empirical equivalence either.

  3. Great article, Maharaja, and an interesting subject matter. Yes, many people turn away from religious thought and practice due to frustration with it’s dogmatic nature, lack of objectivity, and inability to admit to it’s imperfections, as well as due to bad experiences with religious leaders and practitioners. Some people seek to transcend these limiting factors of religion because they still feel a deep desire for true spirituality. Helping such people has to be a very valuable thing for these are the true seekers of Absolute Truth.

  4. Thank you Swami for this thought provoking article.

    Materialists are always focusing on the brain because they think that is where consciousness lies. Of course, we have read in Srila Prabhupada’s books that the materialists are actually missing the point and are merely riding on the chariot of the mind (mano rathena). By Sri Guru and Sri Nama’s grace Vaishnavas know that we live in the heart not in the brain. So rather than measuring brain waves to measure consciousness, we follow Lord Caitanya by cleansing the heart with the Lord’s sweet Holy Names.

  5. Proponents base such a morality on the belief that human life has inherent value, a stance that is no more empirically verifiable than one based upon a belief in God, as value itself lies beyond the purview of empiricism.

    This point stood out the most to me and leads me to think of Sam Harris and his dream of creating a pill that makes you moral. One thing I like about Sam though is that he makes it fairly easy to go from atheistic agnosticism to theistic agnosticism.

    To date there has been no credible refutation of the study’s conclusion: that consciousness is ontologically independent of the brain.

    From what I’ve heard, the skeptics point to the fact that no one has come back from being actually dead (after “the point of no return”), but only from being very close to death. Obvious, but weak.

    • From what I’ve heard, the skeptics point to the fact that no one has come back from being actually dead (after “the point of no return”), but only from being very close to death. Obvious, but weak.

      The point of the NDE research I referred to is that if the brain is dead, as it was in this study, the NDE conscious experience is independent of the brain and thus consciousness cannot be reduced to brain/matter. Note that the patients’ hearts were also dead. So what is the point of no return? When one does not return? How convenient.

    • Many people during NDE have seen things not visible from their physical bodies normally. No doubt they were perceiving not using their brains so the fact they returned doesn`t matter.

      • Perhaps so, but still some NDE researchers think that such visions do happen when brain is put under severe stress. Shermer has talked about such cases. Anyway, it is easy to blame the other side and say that they just take what is convenient. However, we have a lot of different theories about consciousness , different subtle elements in each religion that in many ways do not map to modern findings. It is still an open topic. While the ancients know a lot about the subjective experience and hence create entities (7 layers, 3 layers or 11 layers of elements), the moderns know much more about the tight coupling between brain and mind, which the ancients were hardly aware of. To just dismiss each side according to one’s convenience may be the convenient thing to do.

        • Again, the study I mentioned involves dead brains and hearts. And Pim van Lomell himself was converted by it to his surprise. So it is a notable piece of evidence. It is also notable that the vast majority of people don’t change their opinions despite evidence. So chalk one uo for his character as well.

          But given that the argument will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, it seems useful to simply acknowledge the human value of mystic experience. It is arguably the full measure of the experience of consciousness since one who experiences it also has experience of waking, dreaming, and deep dreamless sleep states of consciousness as well.

          Then again, a person with experience of all four dimensions of consciousness is of course in a good position to speak about which state is foundational. Back to Plato’s cave.

  6. “So it is a notable piece of evidence. It is also notable that the vast majority of people don’t change their opinions despite evidence. So chalk one uo for his character as well.”
    I agree. It is brave for him to change because people on either side don’t ever cross the fence.

  7. Saying everything is caused by the physical brain appears sensible in our waking state, but it might appear untrue if there are higher dimensions of consciousness that subsume the waking dimension. In other words, even if we were absolutely convinced by observable evidence that our self-awareness arises out of matter, we could still be wrong. Plato’s allegory of the cave speaks to us about the idea of multi-dimensional consciousness, and the waking dimension of consciousness seems the most real until we fall asleep. Similarly, a lucid dream appears real until we wake up. So given that this is the case with these two dimensions of consciousness, it is not at all unreasonable to think that a higher state of consciousness, the mystic experience, would from its perspective, demonstrate the relativity of our present waking dimension.

    The fact is that when one enters into the mystic dimension of consciousness, the experience is that the waking state derives from it and is but a shadow of itself. From that perspective it appears that neuroscience and physicalism are but logical extensions of Edwin Abbot’s Flatland thinking. The bottom line is that we know that higher dimensions of consciousness exist and can be accessed. They also offer great value to human society, giving rise to compassion, self-satisfaction, etc. The only thing that is not agreed upon is what these higher dimensions portend. Given their demonstrated value, it’s quite reasonable to pursue them wholeheartedly, without concern for what they “mean”—whether they constitute the transcendence of biological death or the plasticity of awareness located in the brain. At the same time, it is quite reasonable to maintain that those who have experienced these mystic dimensions of consciousness are in a better position to talk about their actual meaning, especially when we can observe that they have achieved a sense of satisfaction and meaning that everyone is arguably looking for. Indeed, what is holding one back from pursuing this other than the quest for satisfaction and meaning through experiences that we know objectively, upon having, will not bring the same sense of self-contentedness?

    • Thanks for this comment. It is an eloquent statement (in the sense of the Bengali aphorism–concise and essential) statement of what I feel is the most reasonable perspective on this. I have always felt Abbott’s Flatland to be an apt analogue when considering this topic. It may help us understand positivism’s limitations. There is much about consciousness, after all, that is simply beyond the mind and senses’ ken.

  8. Thank you for your comprehensive answer.

  9. Regarding neuroscience’s mapping of the correlation between brain events and mind experiences and the sense that correlation between the two will lead to proof that the brain causes mental events including an illusory sense of self, it is perhaps worth noting that Gaudiya Vedanta acknowledges a qualified unity of brain and mind. Both are matter, gross and subtle. And the “I am American” or whatever that is the reflection of the deeper “I am” of consciousness proper is only an illusion of self.

  10. Very informative article, thanks for writing it 🙂

    And if ego death is objectively desirable, giving rise as it does to compassion and other universally supported qualities, why argue with the success arising out of a religious context?

    As an atheist, I can say that there are probably two main reasons. You’ve already stated the first one, because we (atheists in general) have an emotional bias against religion. Although it would be better if we didn’t, it’s undeniable that this is true.

    The second reason is essentially a slippery slope. As an atheist, I’m fine with people being religious, however I’d rather not support anything that relies on mysticism. Mysticism tends to lead towards more mysticism, which is exactly what I don’t want for humanity. I’d rather have a purely scientific method of meditation than something watered down with religion.

    The Science of the Near-Death Experience offers considerable evidence that consciousness is non-local and that is has no biological makeup

    I’ve done some research on this book, and it is simply not good science. The things that you see in people with near death experience can be nearly exactly mirrored with the exact same chemicals released during sleep.

    • Jace,

      Atheist’s emotional bias against religion is a subjective experience. Yet, mysticism is also a subjective experience that leads to a different theistic conclusion.

      I’m curious about why you would give more weight to one subjective experience over another.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe without commenting

Back to Top ↑