A secular approach to practicing meditation

August 7, 2020

Secular Buddhists can and do practice meditation in a variety of ways; there is no secular Buddhist meditation practice per se. Instead, secular Buddhists bring a secular outlook and orientation to existing forms of meditation practice. The secular approach to meditation is based on three guidelines:

1) We meditate to cultivate emotional states, thoughts, and attitudes which enable us to become more compassionate, mindful, and wiser in this world.

2) The overall goal of meditation, as well as other Buddhist practices, is to contribute to human flourishing while maintaining a stance of “non-harming” and care to all that exists. We are not attempting to achieve a nirvanic state of unconditioned freedom from suffering.

3) We meditate not only to transform our own lives but to contribute to a culture of awakening, a society based on inclusion, equality, and respect for all people.

Click here to learn more about the distinctive approach and goals of a secular approach to meditation.

Among the most significant forms of meditation practiced by secular Buddhists are Insight meditation, metta meditation, various forms of Zen meditation, and reflective meditation. Here is a brief description of each:

Insight or vipassana meditation

The purpose of Insight meditation is to strengthen mindfulness (sati), the capacity to experience “things as they are” directly, without the filter of discursive thinking, evaluation or habitual reactivity. It consists of bringing a natural and clear attention to whatever occurs in the present moment.

As we learn to be alertly and calmly present, we develop a deeper intimacy with ourselves and attain direct insights into what has traditionally been called the “three marks of existence” or basic elements of reality: impermanence, the tragic dimensions of life, and the empty nature of self.

Click here for a fuller description of Insight meditation and instructions for practice from Spirit Rock, an Insight meditation center.

Zen (Zazen) meditation

As a central form of meditation in Zen Buddhism, Zazen is usually coupled with study and teaching to help develop greater clarity in one’s practice. Zazen often includes a specific practice, such as counting your breaths, to focus your attention and develop your powers of concentration.

Buddhists practice zazen to realize what Buddhism calls our true nature, which is beyond self-identity with its self-imposed limitations. From a Buddhist perspective, our main problem is attachment to our deluded idea of who we are, and what we need to do to maintain this delusion.

Click here for a fuller description of Zazen and instructions for practice from the Zen Mountain Monastery.

Korean Zen (What is this?) meditation

In the Korean Zen tradition, one generally meditates on the koan, What is this? Whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you ask repeatedly, What is this? What is this?

The question is not posed to spur one to uncover some understanding of the nature of reality, but to instill a profound sense of doubt. You are not asking: What is this thought, sound, sensation, or external object? You are asking, What is it that is hearing, feeling, thinking?

Click here for a fuller description of What is this? meditation and instructions for practice from Martine Batchelor’s article in Tricycle magzine.

Metta meditation

This meditation uses words, images, and feelings to evoke a lovingkindness and friendliness toward oneself and others. With each recitation of the phrases, we are expressing an intention, planting the seeds of loving wishes over and over in our heart.

Click here for a fuller description of metta meditation and instructions for practice from Jack Kornfield’s website.

Reflective meditation

While other forms of meditation emphasize focusing on a primary object or on specific ways of being present with mental and physical phenomena, reflective meditation opens to all that we can experience in meditation, including thoughts and stories. After a period of meditation, the meditator recollects and reflects on what they have experienced, whether done in a journal or expressed verbally to an experienced teacher or peers.

Click here for a fuller description of reflective meditation and instructions for practice from Linda Modaro’s Sati Sangha website.



4 Replies to “A secular approach to practicing meditation”

Allen Wilkinson

I think you should have mentioned Jason Siff, who developed recollection awareness meditation

Paul Andrew Powell

Thank you for this.


Can Nichiren chanting be considered a form of meditation?

Mike Slott

Cori – That’s an interesting question. I suppose the answer depends on what you mean by meditation. There certainly can be meditative aspects of chanting. A good article that addresses your question is “Chanting as the Whole of Life,” in Tricycle. https://tricycle.org/magazine/nichiren-chanting/

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