Mindfulness meditation is not religiously neutral

Recently I read a blog post by Amod Lee on mindfulness meditation and whether it might be problematic for Christians. Lee notes that some Christian groups have mounted legal challenges to teaching mindfulness meditation in public schools, on the basis that mindfulness meditation is a religious practice, not a secular technique. Lee goes on to say that he is “not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved,” but rather wants to consider this issue “as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation.” Coming from that perspective, Lee argues that mindfulness meditation could be problematic for Christians:

“A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.

“That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian — or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.”

I found this argument helpful for me personally: I meditated for years, and finally stopped because I hated it. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I never like meditation because I felt all the meditation techniques I was taught pushed me towards a negation of the self. By contrast, when I learned meditative techniques of self-inquiry while studying transcendental phenomenology in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, I found those techniques deepened my self-understanding without negating the self. Husserl’s technique led me to an understanding of intersubjectivity — that is, awareness of the self as a node in an intersubjective web of many selves — and eventually this led me to a sense that awareness of intersubjectivity is a highly desirable spiritual outcome. Similarly, meditative practices of observing non-human organisms, inspired in part by Henry Thoreau’s journals, also led me an awareness of my (non-negated) self as part of a web of intersubjective selves, many of which are non-human selves. Rather than negating the self, my own spiritual exploration led me to understand my connection with other selves, an outcome I find personally more rewarding.

My personal spiritual exploration leads me to expand on Lee’s conclusion: mindfulness meditation carries distinctly Buddhist content that people other than traditional Christians might also be cautious of, and even actively dislike. It is, in short, not a neutral practice.

(One last note: I’ve been to Unitarian Universalist worship services and workshops where the minister or workshop leader leads some kind of mindfulness meditation exercise with the unspoken assumption that everyone present will want to do mindfulness meditation. It would be wise for Unitarian Universalists to realize that mindfulness meditation is a practice borrowed from another tradition, to be careful that we do not misappropriate it, and if we do use it to remember that some Unitarian Universalists will find it distasteful or unpleasant.)

Turmoil, part three

Since some people are not able to feel spiritual turmoil, I thought I’d briefly describe what it feels like from the inside. And then, less briefly, I’ll reflect on spiritual turmoil from the perspective of phenomenological investigation.

One of the main feelings I have experienced during spiritual turmoil is a feeling of unease — not a feeling of dis-ease or pathology, but a lack of ease. Things are changing, internal landscape is shifting, a sense of ease is impossible. This feeling is akin to the feelings of unease that arise during other periods of human change: the physical unease that comes after growth spurts in childhood when suddenly arms and legs are longer than they used to be; the unease that comes during the hormonal changes of puberty; the unease that comes during situational changes such as falling in love or losing a job or death of someone close to you or the birth of your child. However, the unease that comes with spiritual turmoil has not, in my experience, been necessarily tied to either physiological changes or situational changes; indeed, in my experience spiritual turmoil can lead to situational changes, and even to physiological changes, especially when someone ignores the spiritual turmoil and tries to get on with life as if it’s not present.

Where, then, does spiritual turmoil come from? I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to that question. The easy answer in Western society, since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, is that spiritual turmoil comes from the gods or from God. I’m not satisfied with that easy answer, but I’ll take a moment to review it.

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According to Plato, Socrates sometimes fell into a trance-like state, when his daimon was communing with him; and his daimon directed him, as it were, to cleave to the truth even at the cost of his life. Continue reading “Turmoil, part three”