Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Recent Appearances

Last night, I did a reading from my book, Secular Meditation, at the Harvard Book Store, together with Katherine Ozment, who read from her book, Grace Without God.




In August, I lead a weekend workshop at the Omega Center, which I really enjoyed.


We did a number of meditations, plus I did some Powerpoint presentations going over a number of academic papers about meditation and inner speech.

Earlier in August, I spoke at to the Yale Humanist Community.


Here is a video of my talk. The video is pixelated, but the audio is fine.



Mindfulness, Happiness and Social Justice

The mindfulness movement has been criticized as “the perfect ideology for passive acquiescence to the world as it is, a panacea of inner peace” and a way for privileged people to achieve happiness without regard for the suffering of others. Mindfulness is sometimes defined as nonjudgmental acceptance of the present moment. Does that mean mindfulness an opiate that lets us accept injustice?

I discussed this question with Christopher Raiche, Values in Action Coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard, a long-time meditator who also works on issues related to race and social justice. He believes that mindfulness, understood at a deeper level than mere acceptance, can be an aid in social justice work..

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Greta Christina raised this question in a review of my book, Secular Meditation, that appeared in The Humanist magazine. She wrote:

It’s troubling, to say the least, to assert that “happiness is not dependent on external circumstances,” and that you can “[train] the mind to get to a point at which one’s happiness is not dependent on conditions in the world but instead comes from within.” This may be true if you’re relatively comfortable, healthy, and privileged, and are mostly dealing with the frustrations and sorrows of any human life. But what if you’re working two jobs and still can’t make ends meet? What if you can’t find a job at all because you’re transgender and nobody wants to hire you? What if you’re subjected to hateful misogynist harassment and death threats? What if you live in fear of racist police officers? What if you’re dealing with any of the hundreds of forms of systemic oppression? It’s not helpful to be told that your happiness or unhappiness comes from within.

I do believe that mindfulness can be an “opiate” that makes us happy even in difficult circumstances. The question is “Under what conditions should you take the opiate?”

First of all, is it really true that we can be joyful without regardless of external circumstances? I believe that as long as our basic physical needs (i.e. food, sleep, healthcare, safety) are met, we can make this shift to happiness.

The feeling of joy is generated within our own brains. Let’s say we turned on the TV and learned that our preferred candidate won the election. Was that surge of joy caused by the electromagnetic radiation television emitted? No. The TV provided us information and our brains did the rest.

We can self-generate feelings of love and joy through practices such as loving-kindness meditation, a practice that encourages us to leverage our warm feelings toward loved ones and redirect them toward challenging people and challenging circumstances.

With practice, one can learn to feel joy even under difficult circumstances. I previously interviewed Matt Tenney, who learned mindfulness while imprisoned and found he could be happy even in that trying circumstance.

But is acceptance always a good idea?

I don’t think so. Mindfulness derives from Buddhism, which originated 2,500 years ago. In the ancient world, there wasn’t much in the way of social justice movements. The only one I’m aware is that of the populist Gracchi brothers of Ancient Rome. Back then, because your circumstances were unlikely to improve, acceptance was probably the best way to relieve suffering. Things are different now.

Racism, sexism, and economic injustice don’t need to be accepted. We can change these circumstances and we should. In my book, I present a secularized version of the Serenity Prayer:

I’d like —
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

To me, this captures how we should be thinking about acceptance. There are unpleasant circumstances, such as the inevitability of growing old and dying, that we cannot change. We might as well accept them. Surprisingly, some research shows that older Americans are happier than younger ones; perhaps learning acceptance is a part of it.

But when unjust circumstances can be changed, simply accepting them seems unwise. Feelings of discontent can motivate you to fight injustice. Anger (but never hatred) has its place. At a deeper level, one can even be mindful of one’s anger, and thus not be thrown totally off-balance.

However, when fighting injustice, people should still seek out moments of joy. It is simply unhealthy to have your fight-or-flight response constantly engaged. Mindfulness can help prevent burnout among health care providers, and it can probably do the same among people struggling for social justice.

What about those of us who are privileged, who don’t experience injustice but simply witness it? It would be very easy for us to accept injustices that happen to other people and simply love our privileged lives. The figure of the Bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition represents someone who focuses not simply on finding liberation from their own suffering but helping others relieve their suffering. Perhaps this can become a secular ideal as well.


Originally published in the Huffington Post

More Radio and Podcast Interviews

I’ve been doing more radio and podcast interviews about my book, Secular Meditation.

I was interviewed by Ted Meissner for the Secular Buddhist Podcast. That was a return appearance. I was also on the podcast back in 2012.

I was interviewed by Andy and Jack for the Naked Diner Podcast. As you can imagine from the title of their podcast,  it’s a more irreverent interview than most.

I was interviewed by Todd Alan and Debby of Life Mastery Radio.

I was interviewed by Paul John Roach on Unity Online Radio.

I was interviewed by Drew Taddia of the Exploring Mind and Body radio program.

Science Must Always Be Skeptical of Its Own Findings

One of the reasons that science is such a useful guide to reality is that, over time, the body of scientific knowledge updates as new information comes in. So, it turns out that one of the studies I reference in my book, Secular Meditation, has been falsified by the very people who originally produced it.

Failed Replication of Oxytocin Effects on Trust: The Envelope Task Case finds that a previous study, Oxytocin does not only increases trust when money is at stake, but also when confidential information is in the balance cannot be replicated.

In Secular Meditation, I refer to the falsified study in the context of loving-kindness meditation in this paragraph:

“Feeling love toward dangerous individuals may, in fact, be dangerous. Scientists find that feelings of love dampen activity in brain areas that make negative judgments about other people. Researchers in Belgium found that subjects who were given oxytocin in a nasal spray took fewer pains to secure a questionnaire containing confidential information about their sex lives compared to subjects who were given a nasal spray with no active ingredient. This was measured by having the subjects submit the questionnaire for computerized scanning either in a sealed or unsealed envelope. Leaving the envelope unsealed was interpreted as a measure of the subjects’ trust in the researchers’ promise not to peek at the information.[23]”

Mikolajczak et al attempted to replicate the envelope task to build a foundation for further studied. But their replication failed. One key difference is that the original study was single-blind, but the replication was double-blind, which means that in the first study the experimenters might have unconsciously primed those who received oxytocin to behave as they did.

In the new paper, the experimenters call into question not only their paper, but others finding a connection between oxytocin and trust, particularly those studies that rely on the administration of oxytocin through a nasal spray. They question whether oxytocin administered in this fashion really reaches the brain, and even if so, whether it influences behavior. Graduate student Gidi Nave casts doubt on the whole enterprise and twitter even has a hashtag, #schmoxytocin to collect the doubts.

As I interpret it, based on animal studies, there continues to be strong reasons to believe that oxytocin influences social bonding behavior in mammals, including humans. However, even if social animals bond with each other, I’m not sure that the word “trust” can be applied to them (there are cases of cooperation among species but they may be instinctual.

So trust really needs to be studied in humans, and perhaps infusion of oxytocin through the nose isn’t a tool that works so well. But on the other hand, if it doesn’t work, how come so many studies (not just the nonreplicated paper) seems to show that it does? Could it all come down to unconscious priming? I don’t know.

Clearly, the envelope task doesn’t work, but I’m skeptical that all this intranasal oxytocin research needs to be thrown out. Just as research sometimes gets overhyped, critiques of research may also get overhyped. A few years ago, there was a paper critiquing Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. Some of those critiqued hit back with Correlations in Social Neuroscience Aren’t Voodoo. Another paper argues that the critique had some validity but was overstated. I’m not sure what the final state of play is with regard to this debate, but I believe that much though not all of the original findings are still considered valid.

Yesterday, I came across a book The Myth of Mirror Neurons. I jumped to the end and it seemed to undermine the title by conceding that there was indeed something to “mirror neurons” but they had been overhyped. And yet the title of the book contained its own kind of hype.

It should also be noted that there is a so-called replication crisis not just in oxytocin studies but all of psychological science, where only a reported one-third of studies replicate. My guess is that when the dust settles, there will still be some reasons to believe that social bonding and trust go together, and endogenous oxytocin and related brain hormones have something to do with it.

My overall point in the paragraph still stands, based on common sense if nothing else. Whether mediated by oxytocin or not, when we like people, when we bond with people, we becomes biased toward them and give them the benefit of the doubt. In loving-kindness meditation, we cultivate warm feelings toward an expanding circle of beings, eventually extending our circle of concern even toward people who may be harmful. There is evidence that loving-kindness meditation actually changes feelings and behavior. We should be cautious, however, that we don’t allow this warmth to cause us to trust harmful people and overlook the damage they may cause to ourselves or others. Our compassion should not blind us but rather, go hand and hand with reason.

[23] Andreas Bartels, and Semir Zeki, “The Neural Correlates of Maternal and Romantic Love,” Neuroimage 21, no. 3 (2004): 1155–66; Peter Kirsch, Christine Esslinger, Qiang Chen, Daniela Mier, Stefanie Lis, Sarina Siddhanti, Harald Gruppe, Venkata S. Mattay, Bernd Gallhofer, and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, “Oxytocin Modulates Neural Circuitry for Social Cognition and Fear in Humans,” Journal of Neuroscience 25, no. 49 (2005): 11489–93; Matthias Gamer, Bartosz Zurowski, and Christian Büchel, “Different Amygdala Subregions Mediate Valence-Related and Attentional Effects of Oxytocin in Humans,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 20 (2010): 9400–9405; Moïra Mikolajczak, Nicolas Pinon, Anthony Lane, Philippe de Timary, and Olivier Luminet, “Oxytocin Not Only Increases Trust When Money Is at Stake, but Also When Confidential Information Is in the Balance,” Biological Psychology 85, no. 1 (2010): 182–84.
Originally published on Patheos

H.H. Richardson – #93 Among Best Bostonians

Boston magazine has published an issue listing the Best Bostonians of all time, based on expert consultation and reader votes. At #93 comes the architect H.H. Richardson.

Back when I was in BU journalism school, I visited the empty personal home of H.H. Richardson in Brookline and did a little story based on an interview with preservation activist Allan Galper. The video includes some still pictures of the exterior and interior of the home.


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.