The Atheist and Meditation
There was a point in my life where I put faith in the idea or notion of a god or gods. I’ve met very few atheists who were completely insulated from theistic notions, stories and ideas or who were nurtured in a theistically sterile home, culture or community.
Most of the atheists that I know arrived at their disbelief, or lack of belief in gods, after some process of religious devolution and enlightenment from reason. Atheists come from all different spiritual or religious backgrounds and perspectives.
One thing, however, that we have in common is that we all have awakened, or grew up if you will, to the conclusion that gods, spirits, spooks, nebulous and otherworldly or esoteric invisible deities simply aren’t there. Or if one is an agnostic (an atheist who doesn’t want to wear the label) they haven’t yet seen the empirical proof of the divine.
On the way out of my own particular brand of theism there came a point where I began the practice of something which has been called Insight Meditation. That practice was usually something which was done during or after flowing through a series of Yoga poses.
As an initiate to the practice I employed the use of mantras. As it was taught to me, a mantra was the repetitious chanting or focused thought of a particular word or phrase which was held to be personally significant or sacred. The use of the mantra helped to cultivate a single mindedness, a focus or mindfulness which would steady the mind and the body as well. Others used a mantra to foster a personal spirituality.
Some people would invoke the name or names of their gods or goddesses while others would repeat verses from their particular sacred books, traditions or religious teachers. I really never settled on any of those though I passed through a period of intermittently chanting a Sanskrit word for bliss: “Rama.” I came to learn that this is the name of one of the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. I didn’t feel any particular affinity to this word and neither did I discern any benefit from chanting it other than its simplicity of use. It helped to occupy or steady my mind and served as a barrier to other random thoughts which might otherwise agitate my mind during Yoga practice.
Now every time that I think of Rama or Vishnu I recall the name of a character created by Tim Kazurinsky on Saturday Night Live who was called “Ravi Havnagootiim Vishnuuerheer.”
I left behind all ideas of the possible validity of the Hindu gods in the same way that I left behind the notions of the veracity of other gods. Early Hindus simply described human characteristics and the existential components of their world and lives through the use of stories and figures upon which divinity was imposed. Every god dies when discovery, knowledge and the sciences knock away the props and the facades which had previously supported, personified and gave identity to those idols.
What remained, however, was the real benefit of the disciplined practice of meditation. To this day, without any mantras or syrupy spirituality, I still enjoy the benefits of meditation.
My form of meditation is technically and physically easy. It doesn’t require any formal training or participation in a group. And while I don’t practice meditation with specific expectations in mind, or as my goal, the benefits of meditation just appear.
The benefits of meditation manifest within each person in uniquely different ways though I am certain that if you were to talk to other practitioners you would hear common themes develop.
It is difficult for me to describe just how meditation helps me and enhances my life but I’m going to do my best to do that.
Meditation creates mental and emotional space for me. That is, it helps me to slow down my thoughts so that there are gaps of stillness, gaps of mental rest, and moments of quiet from the mental chatter which can seem incessant.
This slowing of the mental processes helps me to sharpen my focus on one thing at a time and to really give my FULL attention to one thing at a time without being hindered by distractions.
I’ve also found that my emotions neutralize in this slowing process. I can become dispassionate. This helps to clear out any emotional influences which might be impacting my train of thought. This emotional defusing can help give me clearer insight and perspective on issues which might otherwise be unduly and adversely affected by emotions.
Please don’t form the impression that meditation ‘zones’ me out or turns me into some sort of zombie. I’ve never undertaken meditation where there haven’t been a steady train of thoughts seeking to cram their way into my awareness. The key is to find one focal point and regard that as the base or foundation of the meditation.
At this point you might be wondering about HOW I meditate. It’s really quite simple.
I dedicate a place for meditation. Sure, I can meditate anywhere (I’ve meditated in airport waiting areas, in boring movies, as a passenger in a car, etc.) but I have consecrated (yes, I’m going to use that term) a place that is used primarily for meditation and quiet.
In my quiet room I have a very simple table upon which are candles, some stones, sand and a small pitcher of water. These benign elements serve a couple of purposes for me. One, they are good objects upon which to fix the gaze. They aren’t sentient or alive. I have never been distracted by any of these objects. Two, these represent fire, water, Earth and sky. I don’t attribute any sort of personhood or spiritual significance to these objects. They are visual aids to remind me that all of us are of the Universe and the Earth. They help to put things into proper perspective for me.
There are many times where I don’t even look at these symbols due to the fact that I also use my own breath as a point of focus and choiceless observation.
I position myself so that I am comfortable but not so much that I risk falling asleep. If I am so tired that I need more sleep then THAT is the task that I need to undertake. You can sit cross-legged or on a stool or in a straight backed chair.
Posture is important. Try not to slouch. Sit upright. Keep your chin level with the horizon. You can place the back of one hand in the open palm of the other or rest your hands on your thighs or knees.
I usually set a timer. My meditation can last anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. You’d be surprised how often I open my eyes or re-engage my thoughts just as the timer bell rings. Twenty minutes can appear to pass quickly.
There are no hard and fast rules about whether or not the eyes should be open or closed. Sometimes I alternate between the two during my practice.
My own discipline is that if my eyes are closed, then I make my breathing as my focal point. If my eyes are open I focus upon my breath and gaze at a single candle flame.
I bring myself to an awareness of my own breath. I observe the inhalation and exhalation. I take time to consider how the breath is traveling through my nose, down my throat and into my body. I try not to change the rhythm or depth of the breath but simply try to look at it as it is.
That is the place of my focus. That is my center, my foundation and my place of grounding.
There is no emotion involved in such observation. There is no thinking or in depth consideration in such observation. There are no decisions to be made or conclusions to be drawn. It’s just a matter of watching my own breath as the body works on its own without any help from me.
When a thought, any thought, pops into my awareness and drifts or charges its way into my consciousness, I don’t attempt to resist the thought. Anything that we resist will persist. Trust me, you’ll never really know how busy the mind can be until you try to slow down and order those thoughts one by one.
Welcome the thought. It’s not necessary to dissect it or attempt to interpret it, just acknowledge it and bring your attention back to observing your single focal point. I have a little inner dialogue that I use when a thought seems too persistent. I actually speak silently to the thought or, if you will, direct MY thought toward THAT thought and say something like “Hello thought about website content addition (or food, or sex, or reefer, or work, or music, or whatever). I’ll listen to you later. But for now, won’t you join me as I observe my breath?”
Now, I know that seems like a strange thing to do but it works for me. It gives me that ‘break’ or that ‘gap’ that I need to refocus on my breath and return to the ‘no-thinking’ of that moment.
I force nothing. I just relax, breathe and silently observe without making any choices or considerations. If I have an itch, I scratch it. If my butt is falling asleep, I make a subtle weight or posture shift.
Some days are much more difficult than others to slow down and create those spaces between thoughts. Sometimes there are distractions which simply can’t be ignored. If possible, mitigate those distractions and come back and resume your meditation.
Meditation does not require belief in any deity. It does not require the use of a mantra. The deeper and profound benefits of meditation will manifest without a smidgen of anything religious or ‘spiritual.’ It does, however, require disciplined commitment. Things never happen fast with meditation. It’s intended to slow YOU down and help you create space and experience some liberation from the tyranny that can be your thoughts and feelings.
It’s not a quick fix and no one ever really masters it so there is no need to be anxious or driven about meditation. Just be…
Yeah, that’s it, just….Be.
May the peace and joys within you and without abound!