Many people are nervous about the idea of meditation; they see it as a religious practice and would rather steer clear.
But meditation has plenty to offer for even the most diehard atheist.
Meditation: Not Just a Craze for Spiritual Fanatics
Meditation has been practiced in India for centuries as a way to achieve physical and psychological wellbeing. But in the skeptical West it has often been regarded with suspicion, as an exotic path to spiritual enlightenment. Why does a practice that has brought emotional and physical benefits to millions of people provoke such negative responses?
There are many schools of thought about meditation in India, most of them connected to various religions or individual gurus. As well as the undoubted physical and psychological benefits the practice brings, it is also an essential part of the religious observance of, say, Buddhists.
In this secular world, many educated Westerners have a knee-jerk skeptical reaction to any suggestion of spirituality. Major religions have largely been discredited over the past century and the prevailing humanist zeitgeist is wary of embracing anything connected to them.
Anyone who practices meditation regularly will be familiar with the response of others when they speak about it. It can range from outright sneering or mocking, through skeptical amusement to a patronizing attitude and rapid changing of the subject.
In the context of the Abrahamic religions, meditation means a deep examination of the mysteries of their faith. It’s at the heart of the believer’s acceptance of that faith and the full embracing of their religious beliefs, a conscious decision to accept the sometimes outlandish “truths” that they are required to believe in.
So it’s hardly surprising that modern humanists who have rejected the practices and beliefs of the Western religions are reluctant to accept a new spiritual practice that they see as modelled on the same, worn-out religious model.
Meditation: spiritual or physiological?
But is meditation in its most basic form a religious practice? It would seem not, although the great Indian gurus have taken pains to connect it to spiritual beliefs.
Transcendental Meditation became enormously popular in the West during the 1960s and 1970s, when millions of people flocked to TM centers to be given a “personal” mantra and learn how to use it for meditation. The psychological, emotional and even physical benefits of meditation were analyzed, praised and propagated world-wide, along with the spiritual baggage of the movement. The battle lines were drawn between the new adherents to “Indian spirituality” and the humanist sceptics who dismissed it all as “New Age mumbo jumbo”.
However the divide between secularism and meditation soon proved to be a false one.
In 1975, a Harvard physician named Herbert Benson published The Relaxation Response. The book came after Benson agreed to evaluate TM practitioners for physiological changes in meditation. He also met the Maharishi to secure agreement for publishing his findings.
Relaxation Response: Non-Religious Meditation
Benson came to the conclusion that the TM technique elicited a simple physiological reaction in the body which he dubbed the relaxation response. In his book he described four simple steps for achieving that response and taught how anyone could do it without the religious – and commercial – trappings of the TM movement.
According to Benson, the technique, like TM, counters the human fight-or-flight response in which stress causes the body to release epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. This hormonal overload leads to high blood pressure, headaches and a host of other undesirable effects. It’s what we call stress and it can ultimately lead to heart disease stroke and cancer.
You can learn Benson’s technique easily and a lot more cheaply than the thousands you may pay for the same training in a Transcendental Meditation center. There are just four steps and his book sets them out clearly and in an easy way to follow.
In recent years, some physicians have gone even further and say that a deep relaxation response can be elicited by sitting quietly and taking twenty deep breaths with the intention of relaxation.
So give meditation a second thought. It’s not necessarily some religious hocus pocus that isn’t for a sceptic like you. It’s now a well-documented way of solving mind and body problems and it’s been shown to have a simple physiological basis.
History of meditation in the West
The trailblazer for the mass introduction of meditation to the West was the Transcendental Meditation organization and its guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
When the Maharishi was “discovered” by Western celebrities seeking enlightenment, he became an international star, famous as the spiritual advisor of the Beatles and other famous figures. This led to a massive growth in his organization, with trained teachers of his meditation techniques in TM centers around the world.
Transcendental Meditation is a mantra-based meditation technique in which the practitioner focuses on a repeated series of syllables. The TM organization gives students the impression that each of them has their own unique mantra and this is bestowed in a series of private training sessions for which the initiates may pay thousands of dollars.
Is there more to meditation than simply a technique for calming and focusing the mind? The Transcendental Meditation organization certainly claims there is and its centers charge hefty fees for training in such skills as levitating and walking through walls. Most of these skills, or sidhis, have been discredited by science.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi also claimed a spiritual aspect to his training, and the organization continues to teach programs based on his interpretation of India’s ancient Vedic traditions. The Maharishi, who died in 2008, also asserted in the 1960s that if a proportion of the world’s population practiced advanced TM techniques simultaneously, this would have a positive effect on the environment and world peace. The organization still refers to this as the “Extended Maharishi Effect”.