Meditating in a secular world

January 2, 2020

We live in a complex society, with many conflicting forces and stresses that make it complicated and challenging to follow our best intentions to live a more conscious, wise and balanced life. Thus, many people today look to meditation and other spiritual practices as an opportunity to find meaning in their lives and to answer the deeper questions that the experience of living brings out. But we are challenged by an offer of different paths that has never been as varied as it is today. Technological progress has transformed the world into a smaller place and many of those cultural barriers that once limited an individual’s exposure to one path only a few decades ago have fallen. However, this situation does not necessarily make life easier for us. And this also applies to how we approach meditation.

It is not unusual for those who want to take this path to ask themselves: what kind of tradition or school to follow? Do I have to rely on a teacher or a master or can I manage on my own? And if I really want to go deeper, do I have no choice but to go to a monastery? And again: is Buddhist meditation, mindfulness or yoga better? And then, to really meditate, do I need to embrace radical life choices and adhere to cultural models and forms that come from distant worlds? These and many others are the typical questions faced by every person who, with courage and honesty, wants to take steps towards a more serene life. They can be summed up in one question: what are the characteristics of a meditative practice that are suitable for us today?

The need to recognize the cultural context

The various spiritual paths, both in the East and in the West, have elaborated forms of wisdom and methods of introspection that help humanity to untangle itself in daily life, but also to answer the great existential questions. Many of these paths began in distant times and places and came here thanks to different religious, cultural or philosophical traditions. They are as different from each other as the peoples to whom they were addressed, and as diverse as the languages used in various contexts with their specific range of meanings. They also reflect a sensibility quite different than our modern society and are difficult to translate to our current context without a careful examination and interpretation.

This confronts us with a difficult challenge. We are forced to recognize a limit in our ability to fully understand the meaning given to experience by people so different from us in time and space. Although wisdom does not have a geographical character and the existential condition of humanity, in the final analysis, has universal characteristics, we cannot take for granted the experience of those who have preceded us or their perspective on our existential condition. What might have seemed a priority, more serious or frightening two millennia ago may not have the same intensity for a citizen of New York or Milan of the twenty-first century.

This complex set of elements, experiences and relational dynamics goes under the name of culture. Each era has expressed its own according to the context and historical facts in which it flourished. The reason why, for example, Tibetan Buddhism may seem so different from Japanese Zen or Jewish or Christian spirituality, depends to a large extent on cultural characteristics. For example, the theme of globalization or the climate crisis to an Indian in the Buddha’s time would not have the psychological and practical consequences that these issues have for us.

It would be a fundamental error to think that a spiritual, religious or philosophical tradition emerges out of nothing just because of a brilliant intuition of one or more individuals, disconnected from the context in which it expresses itself. In each tradition there are elements of originality, absolutely necessary for each path to remain alive and able to speak to the present. But these same elements arise in relation to and from a comparison with the context to which they are addressed and following a chain of other conditions that have allowed the emergence of that specific expressive and cultural form of human nature.

A road suitable for us

Precisely because each spiritual path needs to remain open to the cultural context and the continuous process of change, we have the right and also the duty to find and express the elements of originality and creativity that enable these traditions, these practices, these vital and transformative philosophies, to speak to the people of our time.

Having recognized the way in which all spiritual paths are rooted in a distinctive culture and the challenge of finding the living and relevant aspects of these paths for us, how can we find a spiritual path and meditative practice that is suited to our sensibilities? How can we imagine today a secular approach that preserves the profound value inherited from the past but allows us flourish at best in the present? The way is that of a secular practice, where this term is not simply synonymous with secular as opposed to religious, but that means a kind of path that has its roots in this century, in this time and in its vision of the world.

Meditation or contemplation?

Let us therefore begin with defining what, in general, meditation is not and does not do, especially if we look at it from this contemporary perspective. First of all, meditation is not a technique and, just because we meditate, we are not transformed into someone we are not. We do not become better or kinder just because we apply one or the other meditative practices we have chosen. One can become particularly experienced in a particular meditative technique without it really having an impact on the deeper characteristics of one’s personality.

Meditation, in fact, is the starting point from which another kind of work on the mind begins, not the end point. It is a door, not an object of worship and does not deserve a devotional approach. Above all, it is not an instrument for transcending reality and accessing mystical dimensions. It is not an ascetic practice; it does not bring us into a state of trance or into contact with other dimensions even though it has often been developed and used in this way. Above all, it should not be considered as an activity suitable only for the chosen few or that transforms us into gurus or saints. Therefore, it should not be worshipped as a particular spiritual activity, in itself different from any other human activity. All these ways of understanding meditation are part of our way of looking at an imaginary and folkloristic Orient but which have little to do with reality and with the function that meditation possesses.

In fact, to be even more precise, meditation does not serve anything in the ordinary sense of the term. It’s not an Olympic discipline, it’s not a competition with yourself, you don’t win medals. In reality, there is not even an absolute standard for a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ meditation, although there are more and less adequate and useful ways to meditate. What is right or wrong in this perspective becomes so in relation to what facilitates our path of growth, our practice, and our unity. How much it brings us closer to, or moves us away from, a condition of integrity and clarity.

And so what do we talk about when we use this term ’meditate‘? It is perhaps easier to understand it by observing what happens during meditation: in those moments we develop a more present, lucid and conscious connection with what surrounds us, in the precise moment and place where we find ourselves. Meditative practice does not take us beyond that present moment in its totality. If anything, it leads us deeper, in union with it. But it is not a mystical union because there is no ’out there‘ to which we must reunite. Everything happens in our experience. Our awareness passes from the constant attention that consciousness exerts only on ourselves as particular individuals and extends to the context with which we are in contact and whose boundaries become weaker and wider. The very perception of ourselves as individuals does not lose meaning, it does not cancel itself out. We can say that the constant concern we have for our role in the world becomes ’secondary‘ while the deep connection we have with every element that surrounds us becomes more lucid and evident. Therefore, to really understand the broader sense of this practice, rather than meditation, it would be correct to speak more about contemplation, a more inclusive and intuitive term.

Meditation as cultivation

It is no coincidence that the term chosen by the Buddha to indicate meditative practice is ‘bhavana,’ a word that in the language of the peasants at the time meant ‘to cultivate.’ So how today can we approach this path with the concreteness and spirit of those who put their hands in the ground and took care of it to grow a crop? In the same way, thanks to meditation or contemplation, if we prefer to call it that, we have the possibility to cultivate a different sensitivity towards life and the experiences we encounter. That will allow us to grow and flourish as a harvest. Through meditation, we develop a sensitivity that does not discriminate, that does not separate us from experience itself and, consequently, from what is our most authentic nature as human beings. We cultivate a wisdom that enables us to choose the tools and languages that are most functional and appropriate for this purpose and this sensitivity.

Horizontal eyes and vertical nose!

This is why meditative practice does not really need to be colored by formal and ritualistic elements which, in fact, do not really make it more effective. If anything, it helps us to get back in tune with the ordinariness of experience and to live it without coloring it with our preferences or aversions of a psychological nature, but by recalling the present. It helps us to bring to light and to relate with what are our deepest questions. To discover our wisdom as modern human beings.

But simply meditating in itself is not enough. That is why every spiritual or philosophical tradition has created a method of practice to train the mind to remain firmer, more attentive, open, balanced, and inclusive so as not to be carried away by reactivity, habitual mental patterns, instincts, projections into the future or the chains of the past. We must seek our own way, with creativity and without prejudice. Our path must include the wisdom of the farmers’ experiences and keeping our feet and hands firmly planted in the land that supports us, the land from which we come, with our history and culture.

And that is why, although it is easy to be fascinated by what happens in our minds when we meditate, we need to come back here, exactly where we are and how we are. This is the subject matter of our journey and what we relate to and have to deal with. Particular mental states can certainly occur, especially during the deeper stages of meditation. But thinking that the sense of meditative practice resides in these is likely to take us a long way off track.

Dogen, the famous founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, returning from his long research with the masters of ancient China, said that all he had learned about the practice was that the eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical. That in order to understand, that to find the most authentic sense of this path one must look at the ordinariness of experience. Therefore, a modern path to meditation can only begin from there. Let us follow his advice and begin our journey!



One Reply to “Meditating in a secular world”

Rupert Bozeat

Lovely piece Stefano. You have reminded me of the value of meditation and I particularly like the substitution of contemplation for meditation. I enjoy also the emphasis on creativity and the need to find ways of making the dharma work and relevant in and for the modern world and in this culture. Thank you my friend

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