The Unfortunate Secularizing of a Sacred Practice: Meditation
by Dena Merriam
There is growing debate within the spiritual community about the pros and cons of secularizing meditation practices. In order to reach more people – and generate more money — these sacred practices are being reduced to a means of stress reduction and mental focus. At GPIW and the Contemplative Alliance we have long warned about the downside of this trend. A recent op ed in The New York Times entitled “Can We End the Meditation Madness,” expressed all that we have feared. If meditation is no more than a stress reduction technique, why not go for a jog, or a swim, or take a glass of wine. The author argues that there are many activities as effective at relaxing the mind. He misses the whole point. Meditation was never intended as a stress reduction practice! It is being misused and misappropriated by commercial enterprises, the whole money-making mindfulness training industry that has developed. How sad that our society has come to abuse practices that have been developed over the millennia for attaining deeper realization of the Self, of shedding all that is non-essential and coming to know one’s true nature, the ultimate reality of all that is. It is time that spiritual communities step forward to reclaim the true purpose and goal of all meditative and contemplative practices. It is not time to “end the meditation madness,” because we should all be filled with a madness, an urgency to know the truth. But it is time to end the secularization, commercialization and misuse of these sacred gifts. Let us state once and for all, if you want to reduce stress in life, you can find many activities to help you achieve this end. But if you are compelled to understand the nature of life and to know who you truly are, meditation can surely lead you deeper into that journey.
Kevin Fisher lives and works as activist for global HIV treatment and prevention access in New York, but has begun the feel the pull of climate protection advocacy.
To experience the natural world in 2015 is to experience simultaneously its beauty and the stress, loss and pain caused by human action. How can we react? Is outrage consistent with contemplative practice? Is change possible without outrage?
On a warm Saturday night in September a few hundred people came together in New York City for an evening of singing, chanting and teaching entitled “Mindfulness – Stop Waiting and Start Living” organized by Senior Monastics in Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition. The evening’s program, with its very “American” title as one monk wryly noted, had special significance coming during a month when Thich Nhat Hahn had spoken his first words after a year of debilitating illness. It was a time to stop waiting and to start talking. As we entered the auditorium and walked to find our seats, the monks exhorted us to sing with them immediately. We sang as we moved quickly to our seats. There would be no waiting.
The path to COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December, has been the story of talking and waiting over 20 years of UN negotiations. The aim of COP21 is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate among as many as 25,000 delegates from up to 190 countries to keep global warming below 2°C. An essential and critical goal, but how is consistent with mindfulness and living in the present. COP21 will come together to agree on a course of action for the next century that will engender conflicts of interpretation over decades. It would be difficult to envision a less “present” undertaking.
Yet if we engage and participate and contribute, is that work alien to contemplative practice? This issue was on the minds and the audience the monks shared their own experiences that night at “Mindfulness – Stop Waiting and Start Living.” Can mindfulness co-exist with social activism. How does one bring oneself back to the present while also projecting out into the world? And what to do with anger that is so much a part of activism? The conversations that night left the impression that activism is one end of a seesaw that has at, it’s other end, mindfulness. This balance is one to be watched, managed and ultimately accepted. One thing is clear, a contemplative practice that embraces the notion that there is no waiting, is necessary, right and overdue as we approach COP21.