Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Book Now Published, Available In Bookstores and Online

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

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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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Loving-Kindness Meditation Video and Script

Loving-kindness meditation is a practice done regularly at the Humanist Community at Harvard. Although derived from Buddhism, we have secularized it so that the meditation is suitable for people of no religion or any religion. From the humanist perspective, loving-kindness practice is simply a technique to trick your brain into caring about someone you may not have cared for before.

The video above will lead you through a loving-kindness meditation. Below is a script you can use.

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Mindfuless Failure with Leaf Blowers

I do try to be mindful, but even though I’ve written a book about it, it can be challenging at times.

In particular, today I’ve had a mindfulness failure due to leaf blowers.

I enjoy raking leaves, and can be mindful of the sights of the fallen leaves themselves, the smell of the leaves and the sounds of raking. But when I went outside today to rake leaves, I was assaulted by the sound of leaf blowers. A team of landscape workers were using at least two gas-powered leaf blowers two houses away from me, and the sound overwhelmed my senses. I could think of nothing else. I could tell they were gas-powered as well, because from time to time, I could smell gasoline.

My mind was reactive. It was hard to think of anything but the leaf blowers. At times the drone would lessen, but then it would start up loudly again. I tried to think kindly toward the sound, but it didn’t work. I was able to summon up some metta toward the landscape workers, because after all, they need to earn a living to support their families. But I’d rather their employers paid them to rake leaves, as I was doing, rather than blowing them with loud machines that interrupt the peace of the neighborhood.

After filling just one bag of leaves, I gave up and went inside. I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities to practice mindfulness of leaf blowers and try to experience them with equanimity.


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Gena Bean of Mindful Boston – Interview


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In this interview with Gena Bean, we talk about the programs that Gena is developing at Mindful Boston, which include and go beyond Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I was especially taken with Gena’s description of learning “mindful vacuuming” at the Kripalu Center (about 2 minutes in).

As yoga practice, we were cleaning bathrooms, we were vacuuming and it was a form of yoga because we were integrating present moment awareness. I was literally trained on how to mindfully vacuum and it was one of the most profound spiritual lessons of my life.


Mindful vacuuming is a form of mindful manual labor, which I present in chapter 16 of my book, Secular Meditation. This time of year, the need to gather up leaves provides an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness. If you use a rake (emits less carbon than a leaf blower), you can hear the crunch of the leaves, the scratching of the rake’s tines, and observe the colors, shapes and aroma of the leaves. What a pleasure!

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Book Release Party on Nov 22

Join me for a reading (and meditation) from my new book, Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy — A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard.

The event will take place:

Sunday, November 22
The Humanist Hub
30 JFK St
4th Floor
Harvard Square
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Humanist Hub is accessible through an elevator.

Parking is difficult in Harvard Square, though on Sundays, parking is allowed in residential areas. There is a parking garage two blocks away at 65 JFK St.

The book arose out of the Humanist Hub’s Mindfulness Group (aka Cambridge Secular Buddhists), and presents meditations we’ve done in the group and reflects our discussions after the meditations. It includes the personal stories of several members of the group who agreed to interviews. I have led many of the meditations at the group over the last five years.

The book has been endorsed by a number of meditation teachers, including Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach and Rick Hanson. From the book’s description on Amazon:

Meditation is a form of mental exercise with numerous scientifically verified physical and psychological benefits. As meditation teacher Rick Heller shows, meditation’s benefits extend beyond the personal to enrich relationships with others, with one’s community, and with the world. In Secular Meditation, step-by-step instructions, personal stories, and provocative questions teach empathy for others, stress reduction, and the kind of in-the-moment living that fosters appreciation for life and resilience in the face of adversity. Heller simplifies what is often found mysterious, describing and providing detailed instructions for 32 different practices, ensuring that anyone can find the right one.Heller simplifies what is often found mysterious — “If you have ever loved or even liked another person, you have the prerequisites for learning kindness meditation” — and invites all to partake in “awe and wonder at the rich experience of being alive.”

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Nobelist Angus Deaton and a Noble Truth

In my forthcoming book, Secular Meditation, I discuss what leads to life satisfaction. I refer to a paper by Angus Deaton, who just received this year’s Nobel Memorial prize in Economics and co-authored by Daniel Kahneman, a previous recipient of the prize.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Memorial prize in Economics for his contributions to the psychology of economic decision making. In a 2010 paper, Kahneman and the economist Angus Deaton asked the question, “Does money buy happiness?” They concluded that it was impossible to answer the question without distinguishing two factors that make up happiness: emotional well-being and life satisfaction.[1]

When I attended a talk by Kahneman, I asked him about these two factors. He described emotional well-being as corresponding to ongoing experience from moment to moment. By contrast, “Life satisfaction is much more of a judgment,” he said. “This is what happens to you when you think about your life. You don’t think about your life all the time.”

Clearly, mindfulness can affect moment-to- moment emotional well-being. Intriguingly, Kahneman and Deaton found that once a household had an income above $75,000, further income made absolutely no difference in people’s emotional well-being. It seems to me that, once your basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and health care have been met, mindfulness can be the secret to moment-to-moment emotional satisfaction. It provides a tool to shift negative emotions into neutral and shift the neutral toward the positive. So that’s half the secret to happiness right there.

[1] Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 38 (2010): 16489–93.

It might seem like the mindfulness approach, which is nonjudgmental, would ask us to avoid evaluating our lives. But perhaps it’s too much to expect people to never compare themselves to others or to their life goals. Indeed, mastering meditation might be a goal, and wouldn’t it be useful to take stock once in a while to see whether you’re on the right track?

But clinging to goals can be a major source of suffering. This is the wisdom of the Buddha’s “Second Noble Truth,” which I believe is perfectly valid on naturalistic grounds. Have goals, try to achieve them, but hold onto them lightly, and if it seems a goal is unachievable, don’t torture yourself over it.


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Self-Compassion For Wedding Guests

It’s June, and time for weddings.

This past Sunday, I attended the wedding of a relative of my wife’s. The venue was nice. The bride was beautiful and the ceremony was pleasantly secular. No issues there. I even practiced a bit of loving-kindness meditation during the reception to produce a general feeling of good-will toward all these people I’d never met before who how shared the room with me.

But as relatively distant relatives, we were seated at the “cousin’s table” with a number of people we did not know. I tried to engage in conversation with the women next to me, who, I believe, was my wife’s cousin’s wife’s cousin’s wife. At first, we tried talking about where we were from. That topic lasted for a couple of minutes but was quickly exhausted. After some uncomfortable silence, I turned to converse with my wife and she with her husband.

All the while, I was engaged in some self-criticism about how I was not that outgoing and that other people could easily strike up a conversation with anyone. Then I caught myself in this critical self-talk and decided to offer myself self-compassion, along the lines of that taught by the psychologist Kristin Neff. Just because I wasn’t great at conversation didn’t mean I should beat myself up and have a lousy time at the wedding. That brought me back to equanimity.

A bit later, my neighbor tried to open a new topic of conversation by asking what I did for work. I’d actually avoided this obvious question, because sometimes people don’t really want to talk about their work on a social occasion. However, it turned out well. I mentioned that I was a writer coming out with my first book, which is called Secular Meditation. It turned out that she was very much into mindfulness and we had quite a bit to talk about for the rest of the evening!

When you first meet someone, it can be difficult to identify a common interest. But a willingness to put up with initial awkwardness, with compassion for yourself and the person you are talking to, can perhaps make it easier to eventually find a way to make a connection.

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Russell Simmons – Success Through Stillness

I just read Russell Simmons meditation book. It’s subtitle is “Meditation Made Simple” and it is a nice introduction aimed at people who do not meditate and wonder whether they should give it a try.

It presents useful suggestions on how to carve out time for meditation and even how to find a place to meditate when you have little private space(e.g. the bathroom, a stairwell, your car!)

One of its strengths is Simmons’s accessible, conversational style and his ability to explain how meditation can help people like his younger self who have been involved with drugs or brushes with the law. He explains that drugs often serve as a form of self-medication and meditation can help people deal with their suffering in a much healthier way.

Although the book has “success” in its title and Simmons talks about how a meditative focus can help in business, it’s clear that his vision of success is broader than financial. He talks a lot about how meditation can help people excel in the creative arts.

Another thing that is refreshing is that it takes eclectic view, not entirely secular but not tied to religious dogmas either. Simmons also does a good job presenting a selection of the scientific research showing benefits to meditation. I like his thoughts about nonjudgmental compassion and trying to connect with everyone, even right-wing talk show hosts whose politics he disagrees with.

The book includes instructions on mantra meditation, adapted from Transcendental Meditation. The mantra he presents is “rum,” extending the vowel in length so it might sounds like “ruuuuuum.”

We do mantra meditation from time to time at the Humanist Community at Harvard. The mantra I use is “just love,” with “juuuust” on the in-breath and “looooooove” on the out-breath.


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Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship Conference

I attended the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship biannual conference a couple of weeks ago at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York. The Garrison Institute is located on a bluff above the Hudson River directly across the river from West Point.


The UUBF is a sort of special interest groups for people with a Buddhist meditation practice within the UU Church. For those who don’t know, Unitarian Universalism evolved out of the congregational churches of New England, many of them originally set up by the original Puritan settlers. But UU has evolved a considerable distance, and now is entirely non-credal. You can be a Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, atheist, etc. What is the glue that keeps UUs together is a longer story that I’m not well versed enough to explain.

Some of the attendees were UUs, but many were simply there to learn from the featured guest, Stephen Batchelor. Stephen is the author of a number of books, including Buddhist Without Beliefs, and a pioneer in what has been termed “secular Buddhism.” At the conference, I also met, among others, The Naked Monk, Stephen Schettini, who wrote a blog post about the event.

Both Stephens are quite secular. Both find value in the teaching of “not-self” which I’m still trying to understand. The idea seems to be to think of the self not as a object but as a “process,” not as a noun so much as a verb.

Above are ice floes in the Hudson near the Garrison Institute.


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