Contrary to popular perception (perhaps), mindfulness and meditation are not Eastern spiritual or ‘religious’ traditions to any degree of exclusivity. The image of the holy man has been around for millenia, and without any supernatural connotations, special powers of their minds had been generally attributed to the act of meditation to a large measure. An often quoted 2007 study (1) by the US government showed that nearly 10% of Americans had meditated within the past year or so – and that it was rapidly on the rise.
As we are entering the era of personalised forms of religious practice, as well as organised atheism, meditation and mindfulness have acquired a progressively secular identity. In a 2004 interview (2) , even an atheist as hardcore as Sam Harris admitted that meditation “constitutes the only rational basis upon which to make detailed claims about the nature of one’s own experience.” In general, atheist practitioners of mediation have generally offered more neuro-biologically oriented justification of this age-old traditional practice. Recent scientific literature has reported the effects of meditation on our brains, heart, lungs and blood pressure, in an overall effort to understand the effects meditation in an observable and measurable way.
In religious practice however, the focus is rarely on such material benefits – meditative contemplation is aimed at achieving a better understanding of ourselves either in a theological or non-theological context. Prayer power, which has been relied upon for centuries, can be viewed not as an act of reaching out for help from the supernatural, but more of an act of giving our thoughts, intentions and desires an altruistic and compassionate form. There are many shades of religious meditative practice, and the general underlying theme can be summarized as an effort to improve ourselves psychologically (or spiritually) or to give our altruistic nature some shape and form. In this respect, the Buddhist practice of loving kindness meditation, (metta), is in no way different from the Christian prayers aimed at the holy Father ‘ to forgive our trespasses.’ Similarly Jewish and Islamic meditation also aims at achieving greater clarity and peace of mind through meditating in a theological context. Scientifically therefore, the neurological observer would perhaps come to similar conclusions about the physiological end points of all variants of meditative practices.
Does that therefore provide some objective goal to the practice of mindful meditation ? In some ways perhaps, but the notion of trying to justify religious practice through studies of human physiology is somehow nonsensical, although these days scientific papers on meditation are coming in thick and fast. The religious motives for meditation were not designed for altering our brainwaves or achieving freedom from depressive illness; the aims were far more holistic than that. It was more aimed at personal transformative experiences, achieving newer metaphysical and spiritual insights into far more important matters like existence, life and death, compared to trivial issues like better control of blood pressure and cutting down on anti-depressant pills.
Thus it is likely that in the future, where religion and spiritual practice is likely to become more personal and more focused on getting in touch with our own patterns of consciousness, meditation is likely to become a common platform relating our spiritual experiences amongst each other irrespective of our religio-cultural backgrounds. Even perhaps bridging atheism and non-atheism.
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