Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Copyright © 2015 by Rick Heller

New World Library

14 Pamaron Way

Novato, California 94949

Table of Contents



Part One: Cultivating Love and Compassion

1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

2. Your Daily Dose of Metta

3. Compassion Meditation

4. Self-Compassion

5. Sympathetic Joy

6. Frequently Asked Questions about Compassion Practices

Part Two: Finding Inner Peace

7. Mindfulness of Breath Meditation

8. Ambient Sound Meditation

9. Mindfulness of the Body Meditation

10. Face Meditation

11. Mantra Meditation

12. Frequently Asked Questions about Mindfulness

Part Three: Cultivating Joy

13. Walking Meditation

14. Walking in the City or Suburbs

15. Mindfulness in Nature

16. Mindful Manual Labor

17. Mental Noting of Actions

18. Mindful Vision

19. What If You Never Saw It Again?

20. Contemplative Photography

21. Mindful Viewing of Museum Exhibits

22. Mindful Couch Potato

23. Mindful Eating

24. Frequently Asked Questions about Cultivating Joy

Part Four: Additional Practices

25. Mental Noting of Emotions

26. Yes, We Have No Bananas

27. Intentional Daydreaming

28. Meditation on Whatever

29. Mindfulness of Thoughts

30. Mindful Speech and Listening

31. Exploring Don’t-Know Mind

32. Meditative Reading

33. Mindfulness of Your Place in the Universe

34. Using Mindfulness to Break Bad Habits

35. Making a Habit of Mindfulness

36. Other Frequently Asked Questions

Tips on Creating Your Own Mindfulness Group

A Secular Invocation




Chapter 1

Loving-Kindness Meditation

This meditation is a loving-kindness or metta meditation. Metta is a word from the Pali language that was spoken in ancient India; it can be translated as “loving-kindness” or “friendliness.” It’s similar to compassion, except that compassion is concern for the suffering of others. You can have metta for someone who’s in a good place already.

The purpose of metta meditation is to cultivate this feeling of kindness and to learn how to bring it out in circumstances where it may not be your first inclination. Once you’ve learned to cultivate metta toward people, you can extend the practice by having goodwill toward anything, include your own troubling thoughts and feelings. Although this may sound difficult, once you learn how, it becomes a very positive way to live.

Let’s go ahead with the meditation. Afterwards, I’ll discuss some of the issues that sometimes come up during the meditation.

Exercise: Loving-Kindness Meditation

Allow 30 minutes

Find a chair or cushion to sit on. If you are using a chair, choose one that allows you to sit up straight. A very simple chair without armrests often works best.

Make yourself comfortable. Take off your shoes if you wish. Loosen any tight clothing.

Sit up fairly straight, but not rigidly so. Sometimes it helps to imagine that you’re a puppet and there’s a cord attached to the top of your head, pulling you up — but gently, not rigidly. If you notice tension in the upper back, tilt your head slightly forward.

Close your eyes, or if you prefer, lower your eyelids and soften your gaze. If you’re not sure how to soften your gaze, try hardening your gaze by staring intently at one spot on the floor. Note the tension in your facial muscles. Now, stop staring. Notice how the facial muscles relax and how your visual field is broader, though perhaps not as sharp. That is softening your gaze, and it can be very helpful in getting into a meditative state.

Take a deep breath or two. Relax.

The Living Benefactor

 Now, think of someone who has helped you at some point in your life, someone toward whom you feel real warmth. And for the language below to work, it has to be someone who is alive.

This individual, who is often called the benefactor, doesn’t have to be a human being. It could be your cat, dog or other pet. We’re looking for a living being who brings you warm feelings.

If you can visualize the individual, all the better. Imagine they are looking at you with warmth.

With this person in mind, I’d like you to recite a few phrases. I’ll use the pronoun you because it’s gender-neutral. But you can substitute him, her, or the individual’s proper name if you prefer.

So, with your benefactor in mind, say to yourself:

I’d like you to be safe

I’d like you to be healthy

I’d like you to be happy

I’d like you to be at ease in the world

Pause between each phrase. Take a breath to let the meaning sink in.

If you can, imagine what it would look like or sound like to feel that that person was safe, healthy, happy, and at ease.

Repeat the phrases, and see if you can bring enthusiasm to them.

I’d like you to be safe

I’d like you to be healthy

I’d like you to be happy

I’d like you to be at ease in the world

A Benefactor Who Is No Longer Living

For many people, it may be easier to think of a benefactor who is no longer alive. It could be a grandparent, another older relative, or perhaps a teacher. Our relationships with the living are sometimes complicated by our desires to get something from them or to change them. Since that is not an option with those who are no longer alive, we can perhaps more easily recall their love for us in an uncomplicated manner. But if no such person comes to mind, you can skip to the next section.

With a no-longer-living person in mind and using an appropriate pronoun(you doesn’t work here, so I’ll use her), say something like:

I remember her kindness

I remember her love

Memories like these can remind me to be kind to those I encounter.

Again, pause between each phrase, and take a breath.

Repeat the phrases, so that they sink in.

The Self

In the traditional loving-kindness practice that I was taught, one starts with the self and then shifts to the benefactor. We’ve reversed the order, because a lot of modern people feel self-conscious about directing warm feelings toward themselves and may even wonder whether they deserve them. So we warm up with the benefactor before tackling metta toward the self.

Loving yourself is easy to satirize, and if you take the practice too far, you’re a narcissist. But really, you deserve as much compassion as the next person. If you feel guilty about loving yourself, then just keep in mind that one of the purposes of this step is to generate warm feelings that you can redirect toward others. Practicing kindness toward yourself will help you be kind toward others.

So, with yourself in mind, say:

I’d like to be safe

I’d like to be healthy

I’d like to be happy

I’d like to be at ease in the world

Give yourself some time to let those words sink in. Can you see yourself in your imagination, safe, healthy, happy and at ease?

Repeat the phrases.

The Neutral Person

After thinking about benefactors and yourself, you are probably feeling a certain amount of emotional warmth. If you can bring to mind someone you really appreciate, you might even get a little choked up. If you are feeling emotional warmth, your brain has actually been releasing hormones to make you feel this way (more about that later).

Now we come to the trick that makes this an effective means of building empathy toward others.

Think about someone you don’t think about much — someone toward whom you feel neutral. It could be a checkout clerk who rang you up at the supermarket or the person who served you coffee this morning at Dunkin’ Donuts.

With this neutral person in mind, think:

I’d like you to be safe

I’d like you to be healthy

I’d like you to be happy

I’d like you to be at ease in the world

As before, recite these phrases slowly, pausing for a breath between each one.

Try to visualize the person if you can. Take note of how it feels to think kindly of this person. Was it surprisingly easy? If so, it may be because the hormones generated when you felt metta toward yourself and your benefactors have stuck around. Once generated, these hormones last for a few minutes and bias your feelings toward goodwill.

The Difficult Person

Your emotions are building momentum. Thinking of a benefactor generates warm feelings. Thinking about yourself — I hope — allows the warmth to expand. Thinking about a truly neutral person should not diminish these feelings. Now, we come to the most challenging step, but the one that may be the most useful if you can master it.

Think of someone in your life who bugs you, someone who is irritating — but not the worst person in your life. One of the Buddhist teachers I interviewed, InsightLA’s Christiane Wolf, said, “Don’t start with the person who hurt you most in your life. That is just setting yourself up for failure.” Coworkers often serve well in this role, because they are people we have to spend time with but might not spend time with voluntarily.

With this challenging person in mind, you can say:

I’d like you to be safe

I’d like you to be healthy

I’d like you to be happy

I’d like you to be at ease in the world

As before, repeat the phrases, taking note of how your mind and your body feel as you say them. Take note of any tightening of the muscles, especially around the gut, which may indicate aversion toward the person. If any of this feels too challenging, you can step back and offer some metta to yourself.

I find that wishing a person safety is not a problem. People should be safe, even people I don’t like. They should be healthy, too. But wishing them happiness — sometimes I have difficulty with that.

But when I get to wishing them to be “at ease in the world,” and I put that together with being happy, it occurs to me that they probably aren’t completely happy and completely at ease in the world. If they were, they might not be so difficult. So it’s not like you lose something by thinking about this person with kindness.

The steps of this metta practice are derived from a Buddhist text called the Visuddhimagga. It talks about cultivating loving-kindness toward a hostile person so that you reduce your own ill will and shift from antagonism to feelingneutral.[1] It’s not that you feel so warm toward them that you want to hang out with them. The goal is to reach equanimity so that they don’t push your buttons.

The phrases above might not be appropriate with regard to someone who is deeply harmful — say, a violent criminal who needs to be incarcerated for everyone’s safety. But even in such cases, it may be beneficial to neutralize your hostility toward this person so that you can think rationally about them. That seems perfectly consistent with humanism.

Universal Love

The culminating step in loving-kindness practice is to cultivate a love for all. This sounds like quite a task — even a burden — if you think about the billions of people in the world, not to mention dogs, cats, farm animals, and wildlife. It’s a little easier if you think of it as loving life as a whole, rather than each specific living being.

The traditional wording, a blessing for all beings, doesn’t work for me, so I do something different. A Buddhist teacher, Chas DiCapua, used a metaphor I liked: we cultivate an expanding circle of kindness. We start with ourselves and our dear ones. Then we expand it to include people who don’t bother us. Then we expand it to include people who do bother us. Then we expand the circle wider and wider until there is no circle anymore. We embrace everyone and everything with metta.

So now imagine a circle of concern,

a circle of kindness

expanding out from yourself,

to those near you,

to those further away,

wider and wider

until the circle dissolves

and your intention of being kind

embraces all beings and all things.

That’s the loving-kindness practice. If you finish the above in less than thirty minutes, spend the rest of the time meditating silently. You can continue to think about metta, or you can meditate on the breath or on sound, two practices that I introduce below.


At the Humanist Community at Harvard, when we get together as a group to meditate, we usually sit in a circle. After the meditation, we go around the room, introduce ourselves, and talk about how the meditation went. We avoid interrupting each other. After everyone has had a chance to speak, we open up the discussion. People may offer gentle suggestions to others on how to develop a meditation practice.

We also invite people to share joys and concerns. This is a chance for us to talk about what is going on in our lives, whether related to meditation or not. The conversation seems to go best when people talk about personal issues rather than events in the news. Personal matters are kept confidential unless the person says otherwise. We also try to bring a spirit of metta to this discussion rather than being argumentative. That’s not to say that we don’t disagree with each other: we do, but nicely. Often, people go out afterwards for a bite to eat, and the conversation continues.

During metta meditation, I notice that I warm up as I think about a benefactor and then about myself. But the warmth actually continues to build as I contemplate the neutral person. Sometimes, I also feel more warmth toward myself for being able to think kindly of the neutral person.

I do not consider myself to be a naturally warm person. I believe that most people think I’m nice but not much more than that. My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering, and my natural degree of warmth is probably typical of what you would expect of an electrical engineer. I am pleased to have learned how to turn on warmth. I’m still an introvert — as many meditators are — and practicing metta does not make me the life of the party. But it does make me feel better, and I hope it makes people feel better when I’m with them.

Questions to Consider

Do you feel warm or cold toward the term loving-kindness? Why?

Why might someone else have the opposite feeling toward the term?

Do you find meeting people to be a pleasure or a chore — or does it depend on the circumstances?

Do you consider anyone your enemy or nemesis? If there is such a person, what feelings arise in you when you picture them being happy?

What changes did you notice over the course of the meditation? Was there a point when you noticed a warm glow?

Do you think you can recall the feelings you experienced during the meditation the next time you meet the people you thought about?