Secular Buddhist meditation: cultivating virtues and insights to promote human flourishing

The purpose of this article is twofold. My first aim is to contrast meditation as practiced in traditional Buddhist lineages and meditation based on a secular Buddhist approach. I argue that traditional Buddhist meditation has as its ultimate goal what I call an ‘embodied wisdom breakthrough’ in which an individual gains access to an ultimate reality and thus experiences nirvana, full and complete freedom from suffering. On the other hand, secular Buddhists view meditation as a process of cultivating certain virtues and insights which are crucial to promoting human flourishing in this world. The ultimate goal of secular Buddhist meditation is not access to ultimate reality and complete freedom, but the maximization of human flourishing; that is the summum bonum of this practice.

The second purpose of this article is to delineate the specific virtues and insights which both traditional and secular Buddhists believe are essential to a radical transformation of individuals. These virtues and insights are based on the teachings and pragmatic injunctions for living skillfully which the historical Buddha, Gotama, offered to his contemporaries. In response to the objection of traditional Buddhists that these virtues and insights are cultivated as part of the process of achieving an embodied wisdom breakthrough, I argue that their cultivation is for the end of promoting human flourishing at both an individual and collective level.

A shared framework for meditation practice

Let’s start with what traditional and secular Buddhists have in common: the notion that progress in meditation is based on the progressive and interrelated development of three components. The first is the set of mental skills which make meditation a unique practice. There are many ways of describing them, but, for simplicity, I’ll call them the ‘four C’s.’

  • Calming
  • Collecting/concentrating
  • Centering/embodying
  • Connecting mindfully with experience

Each of these skills plays a crucial role in helping us move away from our tendency to relate to life’s experiences based on habitual reactions dominated by either desire and/or aversion, combined with distorted perceptions and views due to an overly ego-centric perspective.

In combination, the four C’s push back against this natural tendency. Meditative practices which cultivate calmness allow us to slow down and begin to still the constantly rushing whirl of sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Techniques for increased concentration or, to use a better term, collectedness of the mind, build our capacity to focus steadily so that we can actually be aware of what we’re experiencing. Centering techniques help us to avoid the tendency of blindly following the trail of proliferating thoughts in our mind and losing the sense of our embodied presence in the here and now. Mindfulness promotes the capacity to be with whatever we are experiencing in a non-reactive, non-judgmental way, creating a space which allows us to experience things more clearly and to respond more skillfully.

However, the 4 C’s have a more important function than allowing us to destress. These skills are a necessary condition for and, at the same time, enhanced by the development of the second or “wisdom” component.

The foundation of this component is Gotama’s teachings and pragmatic injunctions about suffering and human flourishing. Specifically, Gotama’s teachings on what Stephen Batchelor calls the fourfold task (in traditional Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths), the principle of conditionality or dependent origination, and the three aspects of experience – unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca), and not-self (anatta) – are the basis for the virtues and insights which are essential to the Buddhist path.

While the cultivation of certain mental skills and the progressively deeper understanding of Gotama’s core teachings and the virtues and insights which flow from them, are crucial to developing a meditation practice, both are, in turn, dependent upon and enhanced by a third component: the commitment to and practice of an ethics founded on care and compassion toward oneself and others.

Thus, common to both secular and traditional Buddhists is the notion that developing a meditation practice requires us to cultivate progressively and in an integrated way certain mental skills, virtues and insights, and ethics.

Traditional Buddhist meditation: the pursuit of an embodied wisdom breakthrough

The key difference between traditional and secular Buddhists with respect to meditation is that traditional Buddhists believe that progress in meditation leads toward an end point. As practiced in the various lineages, all forms of traditional Buddhist meditation have as their ultimate goal an embodied wisdom breakthrough leading to nirvana, full freedom from suffering. However, the breakthrough is understood somewhat differently in Theravada and Mahayana (including Vajryana) Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhists understand the breakthrough as the culmination of a path marked by an increasingly deep cultivation of mental skills, a strict adherence to ethics, and gains in the depth of understandings of the foundational notions of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, conditionality, and the three aspects of experience. When these factors are sufficiently developed, then it is possible to attain ‘penetrative wisdom,’ the breakthrough moment that leads to nirvana, the complete and permanent cessation of suffering.

Mahayana Buddhists also incorporate the three components in their notion of an embodied wisdom breakthrough, but they tend to emphasize not the series of steps or path to nirvana, but an opening toward nirvana that is already present. In this sense, Mahayana Buddhist meditation is not about the striving to access the unconditioned, something beyond what we experience day to day. Rather, the development of the three components culminates in a kind of receptivity or openness to nirvana, which is understood as an ultimate reality already present in the world.

Whether as a path to the unconditioned beyond experience or an opening toward emptiness within our experience, both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists believe that nirvana is accessed via an embodied wisdom breakthrough.

That traditional Buddhists understand the ultimate goal of meditation in this way is not particularly surprising. After all, the story we have of the founder of Buddhism, Gotama, is that he achieved awakening precisely through such a breakthrough moment. Gotama is said to have sat under the Bodhi tree determined to reach enlightenment and that he heroically did so, vanquishing the attempts of Mara to turn him aside from the final goal. Gotama’s great achievement then became the model for his followers and the various Buddhisms which emerged.

Virtues and insights which promote human flourishing

In rejecting the notion of an ultimate reality and complete freedom from suffering, secular Buddhists are not just concerned with using meditation to become calmer and more skillful at dealing with psychological distress. Like traditional Buddhists, we, too, believe in the need for radical self-transformation and understand that such a change goes ‘against the stream’, that it involves complex, difficult challenges requiring a sustained, lifelong commitment.

Where secular Buddhists differ from traditional Buddhists is in the belief that the goal of meditation is not to gain access to an ultimate reality but to cultivate certain ways of thinking and being in the world that facilitate human flourishing. Based on Gotama’s core teachings about suffering and human flourishing, these ways of thinking and being are constituted by an interrelated set of virtues and insights which are central to the dharmic path.

I see each of the virtues and insights as flowing from one or more of the core teachings. As noted above, the core teachings include the fourfold task, the principle of conditionality or dependent origination, and the three aspects of experience – unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca), and not-self (anatta). I include as a corollary of not-self the notion of interconnectedness, which extends the quality of “emptiness” (lack of permanent, self-sufficient essence) of the self to all phenomena.

In the list and very brief description of each that follow, I discuss the virtues and insights separately. The former involve ways of being, of relating to ourselves and the world as expressed in attitudes which have a strong affective/emotional content. The latter are ways of understanding and perceiving ourselves and the world. However, like the three components, they mutually interact and depend upon each other to develop progressively.

Virtues

The list of virtues needs to begin with the four immeasureables (also known as the Brahmaviharas) of traditional Buddhism, the quintessential “heart” qualities of someone journeying on the Buddhist path and an essential aspect of human flourishing.

  • Loving kindness – a general, unconditional sense of friendliness toward ourselves and other sentient beings based on our shared, existential experience.
  • Compassion – an attitude of care and concern for ourselves and other beings in response to the difficult challenges that we face in life.
  • Sympathetic joy – a positive feeling and sense of appreciation in relation to another being’s happiness and good fortune.
  • Equanimity – the sense of being balanced and unshaken (‘OK’) in the midst of whatever we experience in life.

There are other essential virtues which we need to cultivate to flourish as human beings.

  • Acceptance – not a sense of passivity and going along with whatever we experience, but an ability to be present and recognize whatever we experience even when the experience is unpleasant or not to our liking; this is the essential starting point for responding wisely.
  • Patience – the related ability to recognize and accept situations that are not what we want them to be at this moment, to allow time for causes and conditions (including our own intentions and actions) to unfold.
  • Perseverance and commitment – an attitude of “stick-to-it-ness”, of being on the path for the long haul despite its ups and downs.
  • Less judgmental – an ability to be less reflexively negative toward ourselves, another person, or an experience that does not please us or causes us to feel fearful, anxious, out of control.
  • Sense of wonder – an attitude of openness to the mystery and richness of life’s experiences, a sense of its unknowability’ what Stephen Batchelor calls the ‘everyday sublime.’

Insights

The key insights are closely linked to the virtues and flow from the core teachings as well.

  • Ego-centrism leads to suffering – a recognition that we increase our own suffering and the suffering of others when we view ourselves as isolated and self-sufficient beings.
  • Interdependence and mutual interaction – the understanding that we are intrinsically connected and dependent upon other beings and the world.
  • The complexity of life – the notion that the causes and conditions of life’s experiences are multiple and complex, that rarely is there some mono-causal explanation which provides a correct answer or complete explanation.
  • Limited personal control – while we have some ability to effect changes and shape our lives, much of what we experience internally and externally is beyond our control.
  • Pervasiveness of change – the view that change is inevitable and that it is a mistake and a source of suffering to try to hold on to what we experience as pleasant or push away what we experience as unpleasant.
  • The limits of sense pleasure and external rewards – a recognition that what is pleasant or appealing to us at the moment, based on a particular confluence of causes and conditions, will not remain so and may in fact become unpleasant
  • Discernment, not judgment – the understanding that we need to distinguish between the valuable and skillful ability to make important distinctions and evaluations and the reflexively negative judgments based on our dislikes, fears, and anxieties.
  • Beginner’s/know-nothing mind – the cognitive correlate to the sense of wonder, the notion that, in the face of the complexity and mystery of life, we need to hold views less rigidly and be as open as we can to life’s experiences.

The virtues and insights listed above can be cultivated in several ways. Certainly, it’s valuable to learn about them through reading and studying, thereby gaining a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of their role. At the same time, the virtues and insights are cultivated and clarified through our activities and relationships with others. The value of participating in a community of practitioners (sangha) and engaging in social action is not just that we improve the lives of others, but that we cultivate and strengthen these virtues and insights within and for ourselves. In this sense, individual and collective transformation are inseparably linked.

In meditation, the virtues and insights are cultivated as we experience in an embodied way and with increasing acuity and depth the moment-by-moment interplay of the contingent, complex, and unsatisfactory aspects of life. Meditation provides us with an invaluable, challenging forum to be present in a skillful and compassionate way with all that we experience, the pleasant and unpleasant, as a means of cultivating the virtues and insights crucial to human flourishing.

How virtues and insights are cultivated in meditation

As anyone who meditates regularly knows, meditation is rarely a peak experience in Abraham Maslow’s sense of a moment in which we have the highest happiness and fulfillment, suffused with a magnificent feeling of calm, peace, and insight. Whatever particular meditation practice we’re engaged in – sitting or walking, following our breath or noticing whatever arises, exploring the flow of experiences or concentrating the mind – meditation often involves periods of boredom or restlessness, as well as dealing with all sorts of difficult sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Yet, all these experiences have the potential to facilitate the cultivation of virtues and insights essential to human flourishing.

Some forms of meditation directly support particular virtues and insights. For example, each of the Brahmaviharas has an associated concentration meditation practice which develops the virtue. By internally repeating certain phrases specific to the virtue, we cultivate the capacity to relate to ourselves and others with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

Mindfulness meditation practices which include an anchor or primary object, such as noticing the movement of the breath in and out, can also help us to cultivate these virtues. When, as often happens, we drift away from the anchor, carried away with a stream of sensations, emotions, or thoughts, we recognize that we have drifted away and come back to noticing the breath. As Sharon Salzberg has emphasized, this moment of recognition is actually the crux of mindfulness practice – ‘the moment you realize you’ve been distracted is the magic moment.’ At that moment, we ‘remember’ to be mindful and stay in the present. However, the moment of recognition, to be really fruitful, needs to be more than just a bare awareness of ‘whoops, drifted away;’ it must also be suffused with a sense of compassion and loving kindness toward ourselves based on the recognition that we don’t have some absolute control over our mental processes, that drifting away is just a natural aspect of being an “imperfect” human being.

As we experience this process over and over again, other virtues are cultivated: patience, acceptance, perseverance, less judgment, etc. Important insights are reinforced as well: the understanding of the limits of our personal control, the causal relationship between egoic identification with our experiences and unnecessary suffering, and the ways in which our experiences are the product of infinitely complex causes and conditions.

In addition to the moment of recognizing the loss of mindfulness, another basic aspect of meditation practice helps us to develop virtues and insights. As we become more skillful in meditation practice, we become increasingly adept at noticing the ubiquity of change.  Whatever we experience – a particular sensation, an emotion, or a thought – comes and goes, and the truth is that we have little control over the process. Really noticing the process of coming and going, developing the ability to experience this in a fully embodied way, is crucial for cultivating the virtues and insights.

This aspect of meditation practice provides an incredibly rich context for gaining greater wisdom. We experience on a micro level our basic situation as human beings; we want our life to be pleasant and rewarding, but we can’t hold on to that which we like and desire. Those objects aren’t permanently ‘graspable’; they will be there and then they will be gone. Conversely, fully realizing the ubiquity of change, we understand that we only cause ourselves and others more suffering when we harden ourselves to or push away from what we consider to be unpleasant and painful, whether it’s a painful knee or a troubling thought that just won’t go away. Just as the pleasant can’t be held on to, the unpleasant and painful are not permanently affixed to us. Like pleasant phenomena, they will come and go, depending on the complex web of causes and conditions.

The ability to be present in the midst of all aspects of life, pleasant and unpleasant, depends on developing the whole array of virtues and insights, from an understanding of the causes of suffering to becoming more patient and accepting to recognizing the complex web of causes and conditions of which we are just one part.

Finally, meditation puts us into direct contact with the mystery and unknowability of life, what Stephen Batchelor calls the everyday sublime. Meditation is a humbling experience in that we learn over and over again that our control over our own experiences is quite limited. We also learn that, despite our human capacity to gain increasing knowledge in the physical and social sciences, to create ever more advanced forms of technology and culture, we have a limited understanding of ourselves and the world; the ongoing of web of causes and conditions is so complex that we cannot grasp it fully.

Some meditation practices focus on cultivating this sense of wonder and the value of the ‘beginner’ mind which is open to the mystery of life, which are important aspects of a Buddhist approach to human flourishing. In the Korean Sŏn (Chan/Zen) school the centrality of doubt and the injunction to be open to experience is encapsulated in the practice question ‘What is this?’. The question is not posed to spur one to uncover some understanding of the nature of reality but is intended to instill a profound sense of doubt.

A transformative process

Through meditation, we can develop deep insight into the forces of reactivity and clinging, as well as the ways in which we are deeply connected to other beings in the ever-changing web of causes and conditions. We can also begin to appreciate the ways in which our world is mysterious and unknowable, to encounter the everyday sublime. In this process, we are increasingly able to move from unskillful to skillful modes of thinking and being in the world; and with this shift, to promote the flourishing of ourselves and all other beings.

This is truly a transformative process, but it does not lead to an embodied breakthrough moment in which are free, either temporarily or permanently, of all causes and conditions. However skilled at meditation that we become, we remain human beings firmly embedded in the natural world. There is no nirvana to reach in meditation, but in the process of shifting toward more skillful ways of being, we can fundamentally change ourselves and contribute to social transformation.

Taken together, the key virtues and insights discussed above are the basis for living a calmer, happier, and more fulfilling life in this world, whatever the causes and conditions that we experience. As secular Buddhists, our purpose in meditation is thus to cultivate these virtues and insights to the extent that we can. For they are the key to living a life of genuine happiness and fulfillment, one in which we and others are able to flourish as human beings.


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One Reply to “Secular Buddhist meditation: cultivating virtues and insights to promote human flourishing”

Colette

Mike, this is the best analysis of meditation I’ve read anywhere – thoroughly well-researched and presented in a crystal clear synthesis for the practitioner. Your piece will add valuable depth and understanding to my practice, and will be a font of inspiration for a guiding my meditations with more direction and focus. Thank you for all the work you’ve done to present us with this very rich resource.

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