THE PRACTICE OF MEDITATION CAN — AND PROBABLY SHOULD — BE SEPARATE FROM RELIGION AND DOGMA.
In his affected mea culpa speech of February 2010, golfing legend Tiger Woods cited how he had strayed from the practice of his mother’s faith, Buddhism, as he pursued his now-infamous marital infidelities. In fact, the degree of concentration for which he is known when playing golf was frequently cited as coming from the practice of meditation, a faith to which he has returned.
But are meditation and religion inextricable? Can one be an agnostic or an atheist or a member of a faith tradition that does not recognize meditation and still achieve the physical, mental and emotional benefits of the practice?
“Meditation is not religion,” says Ed Shapiro, who with his wife, Deb, is coauthor of Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World (Sterling Ethos, 2009). “It’s a way to make friends with ourselves. For many people, it’s important to take it out of the little box of religion.”
A history of meditation, spirituality and religion
And yet meditation’s roots go pretty far back in many faith traditions. The largest denominations that officially embrace the practice are generally from the Far East (the Baha’i faith, Tibetan Bon, Buddhism, Vietnamese Cao Dai, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Taoism, as well as adherents of the Chopra Center). Clearly, the Buddha icon is that of its deity meditating. Arguably, the repetitive praying in Islam and in Catholicism (recitation of the rosary), Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s hesychast tradition, the Kabbalah tradition of Judaism and the American Quakers who meditate on the “inner light of Christ” all involve some form of meditation.
Outside of organized religion, meditation is pursued as a secular practice. Researchers at Harvard Medical School (Herbert Benson et al.) and other institutions study forms of the practice, including transcendental meditation, for its biophysical effects. Various academic institutions around the world investigate or promote meditation’s role in thought clarity, improved productivity and overall health. Stress relief is a near-universal goal of these ardently nonreligious research protocols.
In Be the Change, the authors quote Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center: “There are different meditation techniques that suit different temperaments. There is contemplative meditation, where a practitioner takes something from one of the scriptures of the world’s wisdom traditions, or a poem by Rumi, Hafiz, or Kabir, for example, and contemplates it in silence, until the silence becomes stillness out of which insights begin to be perceived about the piece’s inner meaning, to receiving its gift of beauty.
Then there is existential meditation, like Ramana Maharshi’s question Who am I? A person may be a plumber or a doctor or a schoolteacher, but encoded within them is the desire to discover their original face, their pure essence before the influence of their socialization took place and labels became attached to their simplicity of being. The third meditation practice is what I call spiritual meditation, where the practitioner’s specific purpose is to enter a state of pure awareness, a consciousness of oneness with God.”
Meditation is what you are
Ultimately, delineating between meditation as a spiritual pursuit and meditation as something else is rather difficult. The same can be said about drawing a line between some forms of praying and meditation. But on an individual basis such distinctions may be irrelevant. It can be considered a tool, just like a hammer or a bicycle or a toaster, that anyone can learn how to use for whatever purpose he or she chooses.
You can live your life without meditation just as you might exist without ever riding a bicycle. Or you could jump on both to see where they take you.