Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

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.

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.


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!

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.”