This is a guest post by atheist philosopher Rae Williams.
I just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastery nested in the mountains outside Gyeongju, South Korea. I woke at 4 a.m., chanted, and spent several hours a day in meditation. The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, but it was not heavily emphasized. I’ve been a meditator for several years and looked forward to advancing my exploration of the mind.
Instead of attending the obvious tourist fluff I meditated my own. I snuck up to the temple on one occasion and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.
I think setting is important. At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m. It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found. So these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful. That’s part of what I learned; the time may come when I need to deepen my practice with a retreat, but for now sitting in my apartment is working just fine. The most powerful meditative experience I’ve ever had was in my living room.
You may be asking yourself what use an atheist has for meditation.
Quite a bit. I think much of what we call “religion” needs to be rejected, but religion is complex and sometimes beautiful. To reject a god is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions. There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like how to live, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy.
Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in religion and are worth salvaging. I’m drawn to it in part by two things: one, it can be pursued in a secular context and requires no faith. Two, even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.
Watch your own thoughts unfolding for a few minutes and you’ll see that your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like an avalanche perpetually bearing down on him. That sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate. First, the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche. Then I returned to focusing on my breath. I smiled because the metaphor seemed clever. Back to breathing. Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrasings. Back to breathing.
Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years. Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.
What I’ve studied of philosophy suggests that Buddhism and Hinduism begin from a different point of departure than Western science. Buddhism takes introspection as the empirical exploration of the mind. In the millennia since this project began, numerous mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much religious baggage.
In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized and there are thinkers who believe that the introspection itself is incoherent. I can sympathize. Psychology has revealed that introspection is profoundly susceptible to error, and of course we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward. But that doesn’t mean meditation is useless. On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion. It appears that meditation, stripped of religion, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.
What’s more, it may indeed turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness. If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way we have of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.
Regardless, meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience. It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment. Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness to be found in the landscape of the human mind.
Or so I’ve learned while sitting.
Rae writes about issues of consciousness, belief, and spiritual practice sans faith.
Is Rae right that most of religion can’t be “salvaged” for use in a scientific worldview? And how do his claims stack up against nature-based, immanent religions?