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Promoting Meditation and Buddhism As Secular Practices* Charles Day ( / charlesday1@mchsi.

com) Spiritual teachers from many different religious traditions around the world came together recently in Tokyo, Japan, to share their unique meditation and esoteric practices for the betterment of the world.* I shared what I regard as my primarily secular, rather than religious, orientation in teaching meditation and Buddhism in order to achieve this end. Portions of this essay were presented there. I have always taught meditation as a basically universal and humanistic relaxation practice that leads to profound psychological growth, as well as spiritual growth, because it does so regardless of whether one identifies with any specific religion or even spirituality in general. And I teach Buddhism as a philosophy, rather than as a religion, without using any of the rites, rituals, doctrine, and esoteric language associated with various Buddhist traditions. I consider the Eightfold Path and its amplification by Buddha in his 45 years of teaching to be a quintessential set of practical and secular humanistic guidelines for learning to live peacefully and harmoniously. Let me share the reasons why I have adopted this secular approach to teaching traditional religious and spiritual practices. The West differs from the East. Immigration has resulted in multiple religious traditions represented in the West. And while Christianity remains the historically dominant religion, such multiplicity and diversity continues to grow, permitting individuals to identify with a specific religion or denomination within a religion

as an individual choice rather than a cultural choice. In the East, on the other hand, religion and culture are often indistinguishable. Individuals in the West appear freer to change religions or to adopt a second religion without viewing themselves or being viewed by others as betraying their religion or their culture. And an increasing number of individuals who have rejected religion as atheists or agnostics or who have simply turned away from institutional religions are now developing what they perceive as their own individual spiritual paths. In the US it is increasingly popular to identify with "spirituality" rather than with a traditional religion. And paralleling a decline in church attendance is a rise in the number of so-called "New Age" spiritual teachers who don't identify themselves as affiliated with specific religions. In my Midwestern home town an Intentional Eucharist Community was formed a couple of years ago by Catholics who openly rejected the policies of the institutional church and decided to conduct their own lay services. They continue to identify as Catholics while embracing a woman's right to choose contraception and abortion and to be ordained, as well as the right of individuals to fall in love with and legally marry persons of their own gender. Attendance at their Sunday services has doubled in the past year and now includes many nuns and nonCatholics. And the local Unitarian Universalist Church, noted for attracting intellectually oriented persons with divergent belief systems, has begun a "Wellspring" program for those interested in studying its "spiritual" origins. In terms of my own background, I was actively involved in the Lutheran Church while growing up but like so many students became pretty much indifferent to religion during college. It is significant that much later I discovered a renewed appreciation of my Christian roots as a direct result of studying Hinduism and Buddhism and participating in their meditation retreats while

working in India and Thailand as a psychotherapist in the late 1980's and early 1990's. I was especially inspired in India by the revered Hindu master Swami Muktananda and the revered Buddhist master S.N. Goenkaji, and in Thailand by the revered Buddhist master Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. My first introduction to meditation was in 1967 in California where I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM). I thought it was the simplest and most effective technique of all the relaxation methods I'd learned as part of my graduate training in clinical psychology. So I began teaching it as a relaxation technique to my therapy and counseling patients, college students, and anyone else who wanted to learn to relax. In the 60's there was only anecdotal evidence of the value of meditation because its teaching had been pretty much limited to monastics, and it was considered religious and even a little cultish by some scientific professionals. So I called what I taught "relaxation," not "meditation," though now that meditation and mindfulness have become buzz words in mainstream culture, I call it meditation. The early scientific research by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard in the 1970's, and summarized in his classic book, "The Relaxation Response," demonstrated just how powerful meditation was, regardless of whether it was learned in a quasi-religious Transcendental Meditation (TM) context or in a purely secular context. His results showed that meditation/relaxation, rather than affecting everyone similarly, tends to normalize an individual's physiological measures related to heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and moisture rate. These measures increased if individuals were below normal and decreased if individuals were above normal. Other studies showed that psychological patterns related to anxiety, depression, aggression, shyness, and other measures also tended to normalize. Individuals showed similar increases in the brain patterns typically associated with relaxation.

Both the TM group, asked to mentally repeat a Hindu Sanskrit mantra provided by a qualified teacher, and a volunteer group, asked to repeat the word "one" provided by a research assistant, showed equal and statistically significant more relaxation than a group asked simply to sit quietly with their eyes closed but given nothing to focus their attention on. The results demonstrated that equal relaxation benefits were attained, even when the practice was not called meditation, did not involve a sacred mantra, and was not taught in a quasi-religious context by a credentialed teacher. The findings also demonstrated that the critical elements producing the relaxation were focusing the attention on a specific object (mental repetition of a word/mantra) and returning it to that focus when becoming mindful it had wandered away. Both focusing (concentration) and, perhaps even more significantly, learning to "let go" of distractions to concentration were being learned. Herbert Benson later wrote a book entitled "Beyond the Relaxation Response" when further studies showed that those who continued to regularly practice the meditation or relaxation technique showed increasingly substantial psychological, emotional, and spiritual growth. We now have more than 60 years of scientific research validating the benefits of practicing various forms of meditation in physiological, neurological, and psychological growth. Recent research by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin demonstrates significant neurological changes associated with the practice of lovingkindness and compassion meditations by Buddhist monks. I first started teaching meditation to a group in 1994 and taught the breath meditation technique, just as I taught it earlier to individual patients and others. While I now call it meditation, I

continue to describe is as a profound psychological relaxation technique compatible with all religions or no religion. I personally enjoy studying various religious and mystical traditions and greatly appreciate the spiritual growth that I've experienced as a result of regular practice, but in my teaching I'm interested in attracting everyone's attention. And I've observed that many individuals are still resistant for various reasons to exposing themselves to the rites, rituals, doctrines, and esoteric language that accompany the teaching of meditation in a religious context. On the other hand, I'm happy to report that many of those who do develop a regular practice are quite delighted to discover, as I did, spiritual feelings and aspirations that spontaneously arise with regular meditation practice, and I meet individually with them to further their spiritual growth. There are also those who practice and experience increased relaxation in everyday life, as well as increased acceptance of whatever happens in their lives, though they do not identify such as spiritual experiences. In summary I'm advocating that for the betterment of the world we reach beyond our already receptive religious constituents and think about ways in which we can promote meditation, mindfulness, and other contemplative practices as profound secular and humanistic growth techniques to those who don't go to churches, synagogues, ashrams, and temples. These extraordinarily beneficial practices which we've all benefited from and are sharing with each other at this retreat have finally grown beyond their monastic roots and are now being regularly taught to the laity who are part of different religious traditions. It is now time to recognize the value of meditation practices to all humanity and to promote them outside of a religious or spiritual context.

In this regard, religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences can be seen as the fruit of a meditation practice and not as prerequisites to learning it. This is happening, as I've already pointed out, by the fact that meditation and mindfulness are now mainstream buzz words. Let us accelerate the progress and look for ways to promote meditation as a secular practice. Let us encourage and offer our support for the teaching of meditative practices, not necessarily as religious leaders, but as experienced meditation practitioners. And let us train lay persons to teach meditation in schools, counseling centers, social service programs, and nonprofit organizations and, yes, even in for-profit businesses. In suggesting that we focus on promoting meditation as a secular practice, I'm not at all intending to minimize the spiritual value of meditation or the profound value of the rites, rituals, and doctrines of different faith traditions. These clearly facilitate growth toward the attainment of what has variously been called realization, enlightenment, Christ-consciousness, or the ultimate reality. I am not trying to trivialize the spiritual. On the contrary, I am trying to spiritualize the trivial. One final observation in this regard: Meditation and mindfulness practices are being introduced in the West primarily for purposes of developing a healthier, happier, more productive individual, what I call a "new and improved ego/self." This and regarding meditation as a secular practice run the risk of strengthening rather than dissolving the ego and obscuring Buddha's primary teaching - namely that realization of the illusory nature of the ego/self is ultimately necessary to end suffering, to realize one's already enlightened nature, and to spontaneously experience what Buddha considered our innate capacities for lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative and altruistic joy, and equanimity.

We should view the new and improved secular self that results from the practice of meditation and Buddha's teachings as a laudable step in the right direction of both psychological and spiritual growth. But we should not lose sight, for either ourselves or those interested in pursuing spiritual development, of the ultimate goal of realizing the non-dual mystical oneness or pure awareness that manifests as our interdependent, impermanent, awe-inspiring universe and is mediated and experienced through our illusory sense of a separate and personalized self. ________ *Portions of this essay were presented at the Inter-Religious Retreat, Sept. 16-19, 2012, in Tokyo, Japan, co-sponsored by the U.S. Global Peace Initiative of Women ( and Japan's Shinnyo-en Buddhist Center (, entitled "Sharing Meditation Practices and Esoteric Rituals For the Betterment of the World Community."