Sunday, 22 May 2011

Meditation, Hold the Deity

Andrew Sullivan's blog pointed me to a post, a very good post, by Sam Harris. Harris is best known as a prominent member of the so-called "New Atheists," who I guess are like the Justice League of America to the old atheists' golden age Justice Society.

Like Harris, and, in fact, like many nonreligious people I know, I practice meditation - the exact type of meditation that Harris recommends, in fact:

[Despite its roots in Buddhism], this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.

The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is generally referred to as “mindfulness” (the Pali word is sati), and there is a quickly growing literature on its psychological benefits. Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness.

This type of meditation is amazingly beneficial: I have had more than one professional suggest I try mindfulness meditation, and when I finally did, I became quite the convert. I don't like the word "convert," however, as it smacks too much of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. Harris has something to say about TM as well;

Even an organization like Transcendental Meditation (TM), which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can’t overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays several, odious signs of being a cult).

Like Scientology, TM is a borderline-cult that hunts for big game in Hollywood: to my shame and embarassment, they've bagged David Lynch.

I'm glad that Sam Harris is speaking out about this. Too often, us atheists let believers get away with dismissing us as incapable of having lives with deeper and richer meaning than sheer materialism or cold logic. Next, I just need Bucky Sinister to admit that there are other ways to recover from addiction than twelve step programs, no matter how contorted you get yourself trying to take the "G*d" out of "Higher Power."

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