Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Book Available In Bookstores and on Kindle

Praise for Secular Meditation 

“Meditation is as important for the mind as exercise is for the body — and Rick Heller offers many simple, powerful ways to get the benefits of this profoundly useful practice. Grounded in solid research on the brain and physical and mental health — and full of practical ideas and methods — this friendly, down-to-earth guide is a wonderful resource for both beginners and longtime meditators.”
— Rick Hanson, PhD, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence

“I love that this book begins with kindness practice! Everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, can develop happiness and wisdom. In Secular Meditation, Rick Heller and the Humanist Community at Harvard offer a straightforward way for nonreligious people to connect with their inner capabilities for compassion and clarity.”
— Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Happiness


Learn more about the book

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More Radio and Podcast Interviews

I’ve been doing more radio and podcast interviews about my book, Secular Meditation.

I was interviewed by Ted Meissner for the Secular Buddhist Podcast. That was a return appearance. I was also on the podcast back in 2012.

I was interviewed by Andy and Jack for the Naked Diner Podcast. As you can imagine from the title of their podcast,  it’s a more irreverent interview than most.

I was interviewed by Todd Alan and Debby of Life Mastery Radio.

I was interviewed by Paul John Roach on Unity Online Radio.

I was interviewed by Drew Taddia of the Exploring Mind and Body radio program.

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The Deep Lessons of Ambient Sound Meditation

It’s common to meditate while listening to beautiful music, but I’ve found that meditating to ambient sounds — whatever sounds are present at this very moment — is not only a wonderful meditation, it provides a deep insight into where we can find joy in our lives.

ear wide

Photo: freeimages.com/lucy bonakovska

I lead weekly meditations at the Humanist Community at Harvard, and one of our mainstays is the ambient sound meditation. I first learned it myself when I attended a workshop by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. The idea is to pay attention to all the sounds around you with a friendly welcoming spirit. This includes the sounds of trucks and buses going by, sirens, coughing, rustling and other sounds that we typically label as “noise.”

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what is going on in the present moment with a nonjudgmental spirit. When we describe a sound as “noise” we’re applying a judgment. In a mindfulness of sound meditation, there is no such thing as noise — only sound. The amazing thing is that when we welcome “noise,” our perception of it changes into something stimulating and absorbing.

Try this:

  • Find a comfortable place to sit and close your eyes. Take a deep breath or two and relax. After that, there’s no need to follow your breath.
  • Now, start paying attention to sounds. If meditating indoors, you may hear creaks, rustling, and sounds from electrical appliances. If you’re outside, you’ll probably hear a cornucopia of sounds — wind, birds, traffic. For as long as this meditation lasts, there are no bad sounds.
  • When you hear a sound, don’t merely note it and shift your attention away. Try to follow the sound for its entire duration. Notice the hiss, rumble, whine, screech, and whoosh. When you focus on sounds with nonjudgmental attention, what could be irritating becomes enlivening.
  • Try to focus on the bare sound itself without attaching a narrative to it. So if you hear a siren, notice how the sound rises in volume and pitch as it approaches and falls as it grows distant. Try not to elaborate on your perception of sound with thoughts like, “I hope no one’s house is on fire.” If you notice that you are attaching a narrative to a sound, gently let that go and pay attention to any new sounds that may appear.
  • The sound of an overheard conversation is perhaps the most difficult to let go. If you overhear people talking, focus on the speakers’ vocal qualities rather than on the content of their speech. Listen to individual words and let them go without trying to assemble them all into a meaningful sentence.
  • In a lull during which there are no sounds, you can shift your attention to your breath — perhaps to the sound of your breathing. But if other sounds do arise, turn your attention back to them.

The joy one experiences when being mindful of stereotypically unpleasant sounds demonstrates the principle that nothing is disagreeable until we judge it so. The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “What disturbs people’s minds is not events but their judgments on events.” Similarly, Buddhist philosophy holds that suffering originates in our aversion to what we experience in the present moment. When we engage with the present moment mindfully and without aversion, the sense of suffering fades.

This may seem counterintuitive, but this principle is consistent with what neuroscientists have learned about the brain’s salience network — the network of brain regions that monitor how we’re doing compared to our goals. The feeling of suffering is in essence a feedback signal warning us that a gap has opened up between our desires and reality. If your goal is to study for a test, the sound of a siren outside conflicts with your desire and is therefore unpleasant. But if you are doing an ambient sound meditation, the very same siren helps you toward your goal and you may perceive it as pleasant or even enthralling.

This insight extends well beyond the realm of sound. Just as we can transform “noise” into something positive, through mindfulness, we can bring a sense of friendliness and acceptance to any difficult circumstance. There are, of course, cases of injustice that ought to be resisted rather than accepted. Present moment acceptance is not a panacea but a tool to be applied wisely. But, as we go about our day, we may encounter moments of minor irritation that are best treated as the noise of daily life. Through mindfulness, we can transform our reaction to them and experience that moment as something wonderful.

Originally published in Huffington Post

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Science Must Always Be Skeptical of Its Own Findings

One of the reasons that science is such a useful guide to reality is that, over time, the body of scientific knowledge updates as new information comes in. So, it turns out that one of the studies I reference in my book, Secular Meditation, has been falsified by the very people who originally produced it.

Failed Replication of Oxytocin Effects on Trust: The Envelope Task Case finds that a previous study, Oxytocin does not only increases trust when money is at stake, but also when confidential information is in the balance cannot be replicated.

In Secular Meditation, I refer to the falsified study in the context of loving-kindness meditation in this paragraph:

“Feeling love toward dangerous individuals may, in fact, be dangerous. Scientists find that feelings of love dampen activity in brain areas that make negative judgments about other people. Researchers in Belgium found that subjects who were given oxytocin in a nasal spray took fewer pains to secure a questionnaire containing confidential information about their sex lives compared to subjects who were given a nasal spray with no active ingredient. This was measured by having the subjects submit the questionnaire for computerized scanning either in a sealed or unsealed envelope. Leaving the envelope unsealed was interpreted as a measure of the subjects’ trust in the researchers’ promise not to peek at the information.[23]”

Mikolajczak et al attempted to replicate the envelope task to build a foundation for further studied. But their replication failed. One key difference is that the original study was single-blind, but the replication was double-blind, which means that in the first study the experimenters might have unconsciously primed those who received oxytocin to behave as they did.

In the new paper, the experimenters call into question not only their paper, but others finding a connection between oxytocin and trust, particularly those studies that rely on the administration of oxytocin through a nasal spray. They question whether oxytocin administered in this fashion really reaches the brain, and even if so, whether it influences behavior. Graduate student Gidi Nave casts doubt on the whole enterprise and twitter even has a hashtag, #schmoxytocin to collect the doubts.

As I interpret it, based on animal studies, there continues to be strong reasons to believe that oxytocin influences social bonding behavior in mammals, including humans. However, even if social animals bond with each other, I’m not sure that the word “trust” can be applied to them (there are cases of cooperation among species but they may be instinctual.

So trust really needs to be studied in humans, and perhaps infusion of oxytocin through the nose isn’t a tool that works so well. But on the other hand, if it doesn’t work, how come so many studies (not just the nonreplicated paper) seems to show that it does? Could it all come down to unconscious priming? I don’t know.

Clearly, the envelope task doesn’t work, but I’m skeptical that all this intranasal oxytocin research needs to be thrown out. Just as research sometimes gets overhyped, critiques of research may also get overhyped. A few years ago, there was a paper critiquing Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. Some of those critiqued hit back with Correlations in Social Neuroscience Aren’t Voodoo. Another paper argues that the critique had some validity but was overstated. I’m not sure what the final state of play is with regard to this debate, but I believe that much though not all of the original findings are still considered valid.

Yesterday, I came across a book The Myth of Mirror Neurons. I jumped to the end and it seemed to undermine the title by conceding that there was indeed something to “mirror neurons” but they had been overhyped. And yet the title of the book contained its own kind of hype.

It should also be noted that there is a so-called replication crisis not just in oxytocin studies but all of psychological science, where only a reported one-third of studies replicate. My guess is that when the dust settles, there will still be some reasons to believe that social bonding and trust go together, and endogenous oxytocin and related brain hormones have something to do with it.

My overall point in the paragraph still stands, based on common sense if nothing else. Whether mediated by oxytocin or not, when we like people, when we bond with people, we becomes biased toward them and give them the benefit of the doubt. In loving-kindness meditation, we cultivate warm feelings toward an expanding circle of beings, eventually extending our circle of concern even toward people who may be harmful. There is evidence that loving-kindness meditation actually changes feelings and behavior. We should be cautious, however, that we don’t allow this warmth to cause us to trust harmful people and overlook the damage they may cause to ourselves or others. Our compassion should not blind us but rather, go hand and hand with reason.

[23] Andreas Bartels, and Semir Zeki, “The Neural Correlates of Maternal and Romantic Love,” Neuroimage 21, no. 3 (2004): 1155–66; Peter Kirsch, Christine Esslinger, Qiang Chen, Daniela Mier, Stefanie Lis, Sarina Siddhanti, Harald Gruppe, Venkata S. Mattay, Bernd Gallhofer, and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, “Oxytocin Modulates Neural Circuitry for Social Cognition and Fear in Humans,” Journal of Neuroscience 25, no. 49 (2005): 11489–93; Matthias Gamer, Bartosz Zurowski, and Christian Büchel, “Different Amygdala Subregions Mediate Valence-Related and Attentional Effects of Oxytocin in Humans,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 20 (2010): 9400–9405; Moïra Mikolajczak, Nicolas Pinon, Anthony Lane, Philippe de Timary, and Olivier Luminet, “Oxytocin Not Only Increases Trust When Money Is at Stake, but Also When Confidential Information Is in the Balance,” Biological Psychology 85, no. 1 (2010): 182–84.
Originally published on Patheos

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H.H. Richardson – #93 Among Best Bostonians

Boston magazine has published an issue listing the Best Bostonians of all time, based on expert consultation and reader votes. At #93 comes the architect H.H. Richardson.

Back when I was in BU journalism school, I visited the empty personal home of H.H. Richardson in Brookline and did a little story based on an interview with preservation activist Allan Galper. The video includes some still pictures of the exterior and interior of the home.

 

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Mindful TV Watching

As winter chills set in, it’s tempting to stay inside and watch TV. Although television provides ample opportunity for mindless entertainment, we can also watch it mindfully. Yes, watching TV can be a kind of meditation.

Not, of course, the sort of meditation you do with your eyes closed. It more resembles eyes-wide-open practices like mindful hiking, gardening, or housework (yes, mindful vacuuming is a thing). In these practices, you pay close attention to each and every movement. It is surprisingly rewarding.

What I’m suggesting, though, is that you can experience mindfulness by paying close attention to someone else’s actions. Not only that, you can do so by watching them through the medium of television.

I discovered this one afternoon while watching soccer. Even though I enjoyed playing soccer as a kid, like many Americans, I have found watching soccer to be boring. There is not a lot of scoring. But one day, while scanning channels, I came across a game of the English Premier League, and I wondered what would happen if I watched the game mindfully.

I started paying close attention to the players, and not just the one with the ball. I paid attention to their individual steps, their slightest movements along with the passing of the ball from player to player. I found myself surprisingly engaged. Instead of thinking, “Wake me when they score a goal,” I was actually enjoying the game. Later, some Europeans I knew told me that for them, much of the pleasure is in observing good play, even if it does not lead to a goal.

More recently, I had some friends over to watch a game of American football on TV. I had the idea to watch part of the game with the sound off, so we could focus on what we were seeing in the present moment without the chatter of the announcers to distract us.

I felt an emotional resonance with the athletes. I could feel my own body mirror an athlete’s motion, tensing muscles similar to those used by the athlete on the field. This was probably due to mirror neurons in the brain, which fire when we pay attention to another person performing an action. We feel what another person feels because we imitate it with our own bodies. This is how we feel empathy. So watching TV mindfully can be an exercise in empathy.

When one meditates–for instance on the breath–one often finds that it quiets the mind’s inner chatter. When watching an athletic event, the incessant chatter of the TV announcers can be just as distracting. Watching televised sports with the sound off is almost like being present at the game. Being present with a friendly, welcoming attitude is what mindfulness is all about.

I’ve found this technique works nicely with dance performances like Dancing With The Stars. Although music is often an inherent part of a dance program, it’s a revealing experience to watch dancing with the sound off. Without the distraction of music, the mind focuses on a dancer’s every movement. I’ve found myself mirroring a dancer’s hip movements with subtle tension in my own hip muscles.

Once a performance is over, we tend to shift our attention to other things. But it can be interesting to “hold the shot” longer and continue to watch the athlete after the whistle has blown or as dancers leave the floor. Once they are no longer performing, you can see the authentic emotions they express in their face and posture and empathize with them.

It’s often interesting to focus on one of the bit players instead of the star performer. In a dance performance, try focusing on a single member of the chorus line. If you are watching a baseball game, spend some time observing a fielder away from the ball, preparing, for instance, to receive a cutoff throw.

Mindfulness can help us make an emotional, empathic connection with others, and it can do so even though television. So as the winter of 2016 unfolds, if you find yourself stuck inside and reaching for the remote, take a breath and make the choice to watch TV mindfully.


Originally posted at the Huffington Post.

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Mindful Eating during the Holidays

The holidays are a great time to take up mindful eating, one of the practices I share in my recently published book, Secular Meditation. With so many goodies on the table, there is a temptation to eat until we burst. Mindful eating can be helpful in preventing overeating.

In a group, mindful eating can also serve as a sort of ceremony or ritual, taking the place that grace does in religious households. But I don’t consider it a ritual because it’s not an arbitrary convention. Mindfulness actually does something to the brain.

Some time ago I organized a “mindful brunch” for the Humanist Mindfulness Group at a taqueria in Harvard Square. The rule was that we could chat while the food was being prepared, but once it arrived, we would spend ten minutes in silence, focused on eating. I pulled out a timer and told people to start. We dug in. My burrito was nice and spicy, but my focused attention elevated it into something memorable. After the ten minutes were up, a fellow diner noted with surprise that he’d not completed his meal. Rather than gobbling it up, he ate slowly and, unusually for him, left some uneaten that he took home in a doggie bag. He also reported a growing sense of fullness in his stomach as he ate and a lessening desire to keep eating. If he hadn’t been eating mindfully, he would have blown past those subtle signals and kept eating until he was stuffed.

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Cultivate Kindness this Holiday Season

Though this is the season for good will, holiday shopping madness sometimes points people in another direction. Then there are the family gatherings that bring loved ones together to dredge up arguments about who said what in 1987. In such times, it’s good to have a tool that helps you cultivate good will.

One way to do this is through loving-kindness meditation, also knows as <em>metta</em>, from a word in the Pali language of ancient India that means friendliness or loving-kindness. This practice, derived from Buddhism, is something we do regularly at the Humanist Mindfulness Group, a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard.

We don’t see metta as a religious practice. It’s simply a way to trick your brain into caring about someone you didn’t care for before. Here in a nutshell is how it works. You generate feelings of love by thinking about someone who loves you. Then, while in the warm glow of love, you think about someone you dislike, and the love overflows, transforming your feelings about this person.

You first think about someone who has helped you in some way, visualizing them if you can. You then express your good will toward that person in words that stir your emotions. The traditional wording sounds a bit like a prayer, so in our remix, we use words such as:

I’d like her
to be safe,
to be healthy,
to be happy,
to be at ease in the world.

These words don’t have magical powers that reach across space, but they do have the power to change your brain. The first thing you notice when you think these words this is that it feels really good. Even though that person is not present, you begin to feel the warm glow of an emotional connection.

The next person you express warm wishes to is yourself. We can be self-conscious about this, but there’s nothing wrong with caring for yourself. You can say:

I’d like
to be safe,
to be healthy,
to be happy,
to be at ease in the world.

Now here’s the trick. You turn your attention toward someone whom you do not love. You typically start with someone you barely give a second thought to—say the person at Peet’s who served you coffee this morning. You think about that person and repeat the metta phrases. Because of the “emotional momentum” from the prior steps, you may feel a surprising amount of warmth toward this person.

Now here comes the challenging part. You think of a difficult person—perhaps a relative you’ll be seeing in a few weeks—and repeat the metta phrases. This will likely soften your feelings toward this person.

This trick works most likely because of lingering effects of hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin that are released in the brain when people feel love and connection. These brain chemicals can persist in the brain for minutes after being released, so when you shift your thoughts from a loved one to an unloved one, they can bias your feelings in a positive direction. According to the neuroscientist Paul Zak, who gave a talk about the science of love to the Humanist Community at Harvard, oxytocin also has long-term effects on the brain. Thus, if you practice shifting your feelings toward the difficult person right now, they might not “push your buttons” when you next see them in person—perhaps at your next holiday meal.

Here is a video with instructions on how to do metta meditation:

This blog post was originally published on Patheos.com

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Radio and Podcast Interviews

I’ve been doing some radio and podcast interviews lately about my book, Secular Meditation. Here are a few that have been posted online. Note that the interviewers themselves are not necessary secular, but our conversations were focused on secular methods of meditation.

Here is my radio interview with Darien Marshall of It’s All about You. I was particularly taken by Darien’s observation that in listening to my actual voice, he was reminded of the literary voice of my book, which he said was friendly and conversational.

My Interview on the Spiritual Naturalist Society podcast.

My Interview with Gio of Chi For Yourself

My interview with Beverly Molander of Unity Radio

My interview with Michelle Skeen of Relationships 2.0 can be found on this page once you page down to the Nov. 19 show.

Interview with Kimberly Rinaldi of Lessons in Joyful Living I am the second guest on the show. (download here)

My interview on Conscious Talk radio with Brenda Michaels and Rob Spears (I come in around 30 minutes in)

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Religion as a Habit

Hemant Mehta photo


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Back in 2007, I interviewed Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for an article I was writing for a journalist class at Boston University. The class was taught by Mitch Zuckoff, whose book 13 Hours, is considered, I believe, to be a fairly reported account about Benghazi, and is now being made into a movie.

The short audio clip is noisy, because it was just meant for my private use at the time, but with Hemant’s permission, I’m publishing it here. In it, Hemant discusses his deconversion from the Jain religion, one of the religions that came about in India in the same milieu as Buddhism.

Hemant credits his family’s move from Tennessee to Chicago when he was in eighth grade for disrupting his belief in religion. The move was initially painful and it caused him to question heavenly justice. Now that I know about how our habits system work, I wonder is something else may also have been at work.

In chapter 34 of my book, I write about how to break bad habits using mindfulness and I interviewed the psychologist Wendy Wood, then at Duke University. In the interview, she mentioned a study she and her colleagues did about students transferring schools and how it disrupted some of their habits.

Because habitual behavior is something we do without paying attention, it has to be triggered by something. It’s cued by our environment, including the people we’re with and the locations themselves. When we move locations, the habits that were triggered by the old location (e.g. stopping at the donut shop on the way to work) are disrupted. This gives us an opportunity to mindfully choose new habits. I asked Wood for advice on how to change habits, and she told me:

Take advantage of naturally occurring changes in your everyday context. When you move. When you change a job. You’re faced with new options and you may not have old habits for them.

This obviously applies to the habit of going to religious services. People grow up in a religious community and may have a habit of going to their church or temple, say, even if their faith has weakened. But if they move to a new community, they have to make a conscious choice to re-engage or not with a religious community. I was told by MIT researcher Ann Graybiel that habits don’t just apply to our physical behaviors but to our thoughts. We have habits of thought and being in a new location can help us look at things differently. That is one reason why travel is broadening.

This may also account for why students often lose their faith when they go to college. It may not solely be the intellectual challenge they encounter, but simply the loss of a familiar environment that triggers habitual attitudes.

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