Secular versus traditional approaches to meditation

September 7, 2019

In his book After Buddhism (AB) Stephen Batchelor argues that, in traditional forms of Buddhism (and the orthodox Theravāda in particular), meditative practice is based on the mistaken notion of a split between “appearance” and “reality”. The goal of meditation is to pierce the veil of appearance to gain penetrative insight of an ultimate reality.

Stephen contends that Gotama did not make such a metaphysical distinction. Instead, our daily life, including our meditative practice, takes place entirely within the realm of human experience, “...a world intimately tied to the body and the senses” and which is “...complex, embodied, and transient”. (AB, p.179)

In meditation, we cultivate the capacity to be fully attentive to our embodied human experience, recognizing its contingent, complex and unsatisfactory aspects, as a means of becoming less reactive. As we develop our meditative practice, we experience more and more the wonder and mystery of life; we gain existential awareness of the “everyday sublime”, the sense in which life is so precious and mysterious.

The role of meditation in traditional Buddhism

Traditional Buddhism assumes a split between everyday experience and an ultimate reality. The goal of meditation is to cultivate the skills and qualities to apprehend the latter and to achieve a complete release from dukkha.

In Theravāda Buddhism, including the Insight Meditation “tradition”, the end-point of meditation is gaining penetrative wisdom into the three marks of existence: anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Having attained that wisdom, we experience the unconditioned and gain freedom from suffering. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhists view meditation as a means to break through our dream-like existence to experience reality just as it is, gaining access to ultimate reality within our world.

The role of meditation in secular Buddhism

If meditation is not about encountering ultimate reality, supernatural realms, or the unconditioned, what is it? Simply, it’s the process in which we develop an embodied understanding of our experiences from moment to moment. We do so not to gain conceptual knowledge of ultimate reality, but as part of cultivating the fourfold task to reduce reactivity and to flourish as human beings.

This means that meditation is inescapably ethical. As Winton Higgins puts it in After Buddhism: a workbook (ABW), “we’re not learning a technical skill in order to penetrate through to some esoteric truth ... we’re adopting a moral existential and stance in order to seek intimacy with ‘the impermanent, tragic, and empty aspects of life’.” (ABW, p.85)

Mindfulness meditation

The framework for developing an embodied awareness or mindfulness of our experiences is laid out in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In this sutta we are directed to be mindful of various aspects of the body, as well as the spectrum of feelings and mental states that we experience. Finally, the practice of mindfulness culminates in an awareness or recollection of the fourfold task itself.

In developing mindfulness in meditation and in life, we are not only paying attention to what is happening inside of us, but also to what is “external” to us. We’re not engaging in an egocentric, obsessive examination of ourselves, but are becoming intimately aware of the impermanent, tragic and empty aspects of life. With this recognition, we develop a greater sense of compassion toward ourselves and others.

Stephen emphasizes that mindfulness should not be viewed as a mental technique leading to some nirvanic end-state. Mindfulness meditation reduces our tendency to be reactive and makes us more compassionate. It opens us up to the “...unsuspected affective and aesthetic possibilities of experience as well”. (AB, p.242)



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