Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Enjoying the Happiness of Others

Is Humanism about reason or about emotion? It might seem that reason is all we need, but as scientists such as Antonio Damasio have demonstrated, without feelings, we are unable to make choices. Reason guides us toward our goals, but to have goals and values, we need preferences, which come from emotions.

So, is it all about the pursuit of happiness? In some sense, it is. But not just our own personal happiness. The happiness of others matters. In their book, Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, Lex Bayer and John Figdor write, “We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.”

I spoke to John Figdor about this idea, which relates to the concept of sympathetic joy, an idea well known in Buddhism. In fact, certain meditations such as loving-kindness meditation, can increase the sense of social connection and have the potential to help you share in the happiness of others. John also explained a technique of interrogating your desires to see where they stem from that, although it comes from philosophy, is a kind of mindfulness technique. Here is the interview:



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John Figdor


Rick Heller








John Figdor serves as the Humanist Chaplain for the Humanist Community at Stanford. He holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Divinity School. He formerly served as assistant humanist chaplain at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

Rick Heller leads the Humanist Mindfulness Group at the Humanist Community at Harvard. A freelance journalist, he has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Buddhadharma, Free Inquiry, Tikkun, and Wise Brain Bulletin. His web site is and he can be followed on Twitter @SecularMeditate.

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Originally published on Patheos


Mindfulness and Mental Illness

Greta Christina’s review of my book, Secular Meditation, in The Humanist magazine includes two points of criticism. Here, I’ll address her statement “My other quarrel is with the book’s approach to meditation and mindfulness for people with mental illness, namely that it barely addresses it.”

I agree that this is a limitation of the book. My qualifications for writing the book are that I’ve led group meditations for six years and that, as a journalist, I’ve interviewed neuroscientists, psychologists and mindfulness teachers about meditation. My main focus in the book with regard to mental illness is to do no harm. See the bottom of this post for an excerpt from the book in which I talk about harmful side effects that have been observed among meditation practitioners.

Negative side effects from meditation are uncommon and when they do occur are usually the outcome of long silent retreats rather than the type of short meditations I share in the book. Nonetheless, I recommend that people suffering from mental illness approach meditation cautiously and do so with the support of a qualified mental health professional.

That said, I’ll add some comments here that could be useful to a person seeking to work through mental health issues with a therapist. An analysis of published literature on anxiety and depression finds that mindfulness-based therapies can be helpful. However, I don’t see any randomized trials comparing mindfulness-based therapies to other therapies to determine whether mindfulness is as good or better than other forms of therapy. Different therapies may work better for different people.

There is evidence that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy can help prevent relapse into depression. The key word here is “relapse.” Teasdale et. al. write ”It is important to note that MBCT was specifically developed for remitted patients and is unlikely to be effective in the treatment of acute depression, where factors such as difficulty in concentrating and the intensity of negative thinking may preclude acquisition of the attentional control skills central to the programme.” In other words, mindfulness can help prevent depressive episodes, but it’s hard to learn mindfulness during an acute episode of depression.

There is a literature on mindfulness-based therapies for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It makes sense to me that mindfulness can help with OCD. A few years ago, I interviewed a couple of therapists about OCD for an article that was never published. I learned that OCD is a disorder of the habits system. Mindfulness can help us recognize the things that trigger us to perform habits. When we understand what triggers us, we can outsmart the triggers by, for instance, seeking environments that don’t contains those triggers.

There is interest in exploring whether mindfulness can be helpful in treating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. However, it does not appear to me that the evidence is in as to whether it’s effective.

I found a pilot study showing that loving-kindness meditation might be helpful for people dealing with schizophrenia. However, it seems very preliminary.

Mindfulness and meditation by themselves may not be adequate substitutes for therapy for people with mental illness. Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile to find a therapist who is supportive of meditation and mindfulness, and to do so, the place I’d start is the directory at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy.

Here is the excerpt from pp. 233-235 of Secular Meditation on whether meditation can do harm:

Are there any risks associated with meditation?

Just because meditation is “natural” and does not involve the ingestion of drugs doesn’t mean it can’t have negative effects. It’s unlikely that a twenty-minute meditation like the ones presented here will cause such problems. But meditators on long retreats that involve days of silence and isolation have occasionally developed mental illnesses that require professional treatment.[1] So if you have any history of mental health problems or severe trauma, exercise caution and seek out a good teacher as you start to meditate.

One reason negative effects may occur is that, while meditation seems to deactivate brain areas responsible for stress, it may also deactivate brain areas that repress traumatic memories. The psychiatrist Michael Grodin, cofounder of the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, has treated refugee Tibetan monks who were tortured in China. Grodin said in an interview with Bostonia magazine that the monks suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes had flashbacks during meditation. He said, “I think the Tibetans doing higher-level meditation were having a disinhibition: their frontal lobes were keeping a hold on things, but when they got into this deep meditative state, all kinds of bad experiences and feelings came out.”[2]

The Brown University neuroscientist Willoughby Britton, who is a meditation practitioner, warns that most advanced practitioners face challenging side effects along the way. This can include anxiety, mood changes and awareness of unusual bodily sensations. “It does seem to be the case that the longer that you practice and the more intensely that you practice that these types of experiences seemed to be the norm,” she told Vincent Horn in an interview for the Buddhist Geeks podcast.[3]

When I asked the psychiatrist Daniel Siegel about possible negative side effects of meditation, he said:

I’ve asked the exact same question, concerned that at least we “do no harm.” The answers I’ve gotten are this: in short-term ways of focusing on the breath or focusing on something internally for a few minutes, there is no negative side effect and there is no condition for which that’s a problem. Even for someone with psychosis, three, four minutes of inward focusing where you’re present with them — they can come right out of it and talk to you about it. That’s what I’ve been told by professionals in the field. For long, extended meditations, that can become problematic, and for week-long silent retreats, it can become extremely problematic because the brain is a very social organ and it requires social communication to maintain its sense of equilibrium. …For these longer ones, we want to really be careful.

Herbert Benson warns against meditating for too long in The Relaxation Response. Benson writes, “From our personal observations, many people who meditate for several hours every day for weeks at a time tend to hallucinate.” Benson wrote that he’d never observed such a side effect in people who practiced meditation for ten to twenty minutes at a time once or twice a day.[4]

Treat meditation as a form of exercise. Trying to bench press too much weight can lead to injury. Sitting quietly for twenty minutes is unlikely to harm you. But if you have little experience, meditating for long periods can be risky. It’s wise to build up a meditation practice slowly, and ideally in a community with other people.

If you meditate and you experience disturbing thoughts, stop. Instead of meditating on your own, seek the guidance of an experienced teacher.



[1] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September–October 2007.

[2] Caleb Daniloff, “Treating Tibet’s Traumatized: SPH’s Michael Grodin blends Eastern Healing and Western Medicine to Aid Torture Victims,” Bostonia, Fall 2009.

[3] Willoughby Britton, “BG 232: The Dark Night Project,” Buddhist Geeks, September 2011,

[4] Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: Morrow, 1975), 172.

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.

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Photo: 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

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.

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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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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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.