An Introduction to Secular Meditation


I have changed this site to focus on questions and issues not normally dealt with in the growing literature on meditation. There are ample and readily available reference materials from reputable sources in both the scientific and Buddhist positions, which need no addition from me.

I will discuss how the average Westerner can use their common sense reasoning to determine whether meditative practices might hold any benefit for them.

The first question in this series is how to assess the claims made on behalf of the practice.

When the content of our mind is at issue, as it is in meditation, science can offer little by way of empirical support. We are critical of recommendations supported by nothing more than another’s word. For many, this makes for a full stop and we move onto a myriad of other employments and distractions. But when ill health arises, particularly, the lasting variety in ourselves or those close to us, we are forced to turn our attention inward. We look to draw on our internal resources to bear this burden. There was a time when we looked for a doctor’s prescription as an assist but over the long term, questions have arisen as to the efficacy of such dependence.

Most of us have had little occasion for such an internal inspection. We are told meditation has a calming and peaceful effect, but is this all we can have by way of endorsement, someone’s word?

In the following article, I suggest each one of us can employ the principles used in the scientific method, to determine the truth of the claims made for meditation. I believe this is as objective an assessment as we are capable of at present.

With this change in focus, the other categories in this blog will be emptied.

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This article is an attempt to demonstrate how the pursuit of meditation can be undertaken in a manner consistent with the experimental model used in the physical sciences. We owe our control of the world about us to the scientific method. We are justly skeptical of claims to knowledge that cannot be proven using this model. This work endorses meditation using the scientific method in the context of an experiment on the one who has the most to gain, namely, you, the reader.

Currently reputable medical professionals are endorsing the practice of meditation as an assist to our mental, emotional and possibly, physical well-being. The experimental evidence in its favor comes from a variety of sources including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which show an association between meditation and heightened neuronal activity in sections of the brain associated with positive states of being. On the other side, there is a considerable body of anecdotal evidence as to the benefits of regular meditative practices. Such commentary is not open to the kind of direct experimental testing that science uses in assessing the truth of any statement of fact.

This leaves us questioning whether to take up this practice. The experimental evidence available to the scientist cannot show the thought contents of the meditating mind. The research scientist may never have such access. Regarding anecdotal evidence, we have learned the prudent course is to be wary of taking up practices solely on the basis of another’s testimonial. This assessment leads many to defer taking any action. For some time, we held to the belief that any stressful situations we were forced to deal with could be lessened with the use of drugs. Our confidence here has been shaken as of late.

The choice here is to take up a practice on the basis of anecdotal evidence along with a smattering of scientific support or do nothing. The majority of those of sound mind and body in our midst are largely passing on meditation. But few will remain pain free until the moment we pass on. And if our faith in a pharmaceutical “silver bullet” continues to fade, we are left exposed to varying degrees of physical and mental discomfiture. We can only hope our exposure will be brief. We will welcome opiates to see us through these times at the end of our days. But we have learned to be wary of their use for on-going chronic conditions and are left to wonder “Is there a credible alternative?”

Along with science, we have another resource to prevent ourselves from misadventure, namely, our common sense. With common sense as our guide, how do we determine the merit of a personal practice? Why do we engage in a practice considered to be healthful and disengage from one deemed to be risky? We use science for sure but we also expect the practice makes sense on another ground, namely, our personal experience.

When available, we start with scientific evidence as to the efficacy or danger of a substance or practice. In the case of practices such as aerobic exercise or substance such as cigarettes, there is a convincing body of scientific evidence, which supports an individual’s decision to exercise regularly and give up smoking. But is this all we require to change our behavior patterns? With regard to foregoing smoking, there is nothing more required. With regard to a practice such as exercise, the engagement must yield positive results that are discernible by the practitioner. Our common sense tells us that if we regularly exercise and over time experience no change in our well-being, we’ll soon stop. With no change in my cardio-vascular system, no enhancement to my muscle tone and strength and no improvement in my flexibility, I’ll rightly judge my efforts to be wasted. But the fact of the matter is that we do see improvements which validate, on a personal level, the results that science tells us we can expect.

With regard to the practice of meditation, we are told by its practitioners that they are benefiting. But these benefits are not as manifest as the changes we can observe in someone who has gone from being over-weight and out of shape to being lean and muscled. The claims for meditation do not extend to any physically obvious transformation.

Using our common sense as a guide, there is an approach that can be taken that will yield as much confidence as our current circumstances will allow. The approach entails taking the scientific method and conducting an experiment of one. A scientific approach would start with the theory underlying meditation and then go on to test that theory in the real world to determine the value of its explanatory power. This is a harmless exercise as it does not involve anything other than a willingness to discipline your thinking and observe the consequence.

The following is my understanding of the theory behind many meditative practices:

• We are born with certain inherent tendencies, the strongest being our survival instinct.

• The survival instinct manifests itself in our sense of being a unique individual.

• For our species to survive, each member must look to the survival of their own; their own person and their dependents.

• Our survival instinct leads us to do all we can to protect ourselves from harm and to gratify our needs and wants.

• Psychological experiments have shown our survival instinct is not in perfect harmony with our condition. It leads us to over react to threats and pleasures. We become unnecessarily anxious, angry or depressed when confronted with threats and overly craving when given the opportunity for pleasure

• Meditation calms the mind and allows us to better balance our reactions to life’s stress and pleasures.

• Meditation succeeds by revealing our thoughts and emotions as being transitory conditions that flow through us.

• This observation leads us to appreciate there is no underlying substrate to our persons, commonly referred to as an ego.

• Without this substrate there is no “place” for our negative and positive thoughts and emotions to attach. We abide the negatives and enjoy the positives without identifying with either. We are free.

The next step in determining the efficacy of the claims made for meditation is to engage in the practice. This entails looking inward, an exercise Westerners are not accustomed to doing on a regular basis, if at all. When we stop and observe our thought processes, our minds’ natural state is one of free association. We want to turn this process into a focus on something that is physically present in the moment. There are many references on U Tube and in libraries on practical steps to employ to assist in this focusing (I recommend Mathieu Ricard’s book, “Why Meditate”). My personal experience suggests attaining this state of being fully engaged in the present for any length of time is much harder than it would seem.

The practice of having your mind identify with something physically present, like your breathing for example lessens the grip any mental or emotional state can have on you. If the emotion or thought re-appears during the meditation, your assessment of its force will be reduced. You have found a way of freeing yourself temporarily of its hold by no longer identifying with it. Your personal experience should show that repeated practice will continue to weaken any unwelcome mental or emotional state.

Our Western culture has a myriad of distractions to engage us when we are not involved in tasks. These distractions will quickly lose their appeal when we are under physical or emotional stress. Happily for most this stress is generally short lived. But we know this will not always be the case. Chronic stress is the norm for many and it is these individuals who may most benefit from meditation. Given the nature of our minds and the economics behind doing purely mental discipline research, we may be a long time waiting for the kind of recommendations that experimental science has been able to offer for things like aerobic exercise. If we believe there are benefits to be gotten through meditative practices, a credible proof, and the only one available at present, will be found in each of us performing their own experiment of one.

If relief can be gotten, if that painful inward gaze can be turned off, for however limited a time, it will free us to pursue the best joy that life has to offer, namely, wishing for the happiness of others.