Dear Surly Amy,
A lot of my friends are into meditation, and I have seen things in various places that lead me to believe that some of the benefits my friends seem to derive from it have scientific basis.
I’d be interested in adding meditation into my overall mental health routine, but a lot of the guides that I’ve seen recommended seem to come with religion or spirituality mixed inextricably in with practical information on the practices. Can you recommend some secular and/or scientific resources for someone interested in meditation practice minus any proselytism?
Yes, meditation can be an effective relaxation and stress reduction technique but it is sometimes difficult to find a version of meditative teachings or techniques that don’t require one to also practice magical thinking.
But fear not, these techniques exist and are becoming more prevalent!
I contacted my good friend, Sue Gisser who teaches some traditional and nontraditional yoga and mediation classes to get her explanation of some useful non-spiritual meditation techniques.
The way you achieve your meditative state is entirely up to you. Most people actually meditate all the time, they just may not realize that they’re doing it. We can achieve mediative states effortlessly while doing dishes, folding laundry, going for a long walk or driving (my personal favorite) the repetitive rhythm of these activities allows our minds to wander until they find that much needed internal quiet, or they allow our subconscious to bring to mind what it is that is truly important to us, whether it’s something that has been bothering us, tugging on our attention or something that we wish to bring to fruition.
To meditate with purpose you can give your body something to do. Working with clay, knitting, peddling on an exercise bike, doing repetitive flows like Sun Salutations in yoga, walking on the beach, and even laying in the grass and watching each individual cloud roll on by are all effective examples of occupying our bodies with repetitive motion in order to release our minds.
If you take yoga or a mediation class, they may approach meditation in a slightly different way. For example, there may be chanting. Chanting is a way to achieve a meditative state by focusing on the vibration of sound. Keying into that, creating sound with our breath either individually or in a group, is both very soothing and an incredibly effective way to achieve our meditative state.
Try this: Meditating on your breath. Closing your eyes. Tuning in to the steady flow of inhale (clean oxygen rushing into our lungs, filling our minds, nourishing our bodies, acting as a purifier to grab all the physical, emotional, psychological baggage we’ve build up in our system) and exhale, air flowing steadily out again, carrying all that “stuff” away, only to be replaced by new breath. Listening for the moments of in-between breath, witnessing the moment of what it’s like to be completely full, experiencing the moment of what it’s like to be truly empty. Not holding on to any breath. This is an exercise in trust that our body practices approximately 17,280 times a day. Choose to notice and contemplate these moments. It’s the moments of the in-between that can define us. From the moment we are born to the day we die, it is what we do with the in-between, the choices that we make, in each moment that makes up who we are.
Mediate on that!
I do reach what could be defined as a meditative state with my clay work on a regular basis. I also find that focusing on or envisioning a blank canvas or a white sheet of paper has been a relaxing and creative inducing exercise that has been helpful for me over the years.
I also found another explanation (by found I mean Elyse sent it to me) on the Sam Harris website that gives some great examples of current applications of vipassana meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. Click here to read it.
A quick search of “secular meditation” on google came up with this 2010 video from the humanist group at Harvard University that explains some meditative and concentration techniques:
There are lots more resources out there!
Meditation will not cure you of disease, or allow you to leave your body on a magical tour of the cosmos, or purge you of mystery toxins, but it may aid in stress reduction and concentration if it is practiced on a regular basis. Hope this helped in your search!
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