Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

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:

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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)