What’s the role of meditation in secular dharma?

person doing secular dharma meditation

A woman sits in meditation. | Rafael Metz / Alamy Stock Photo

As there are so many ways to meditate, secular practitioners tend to choose their practice with an outcome in mind. Secular meditation is primarily about stillness and self-observation. People generally take up secular meditation to be happier, less reactive, less anxious, and fall asleep more easily. Their overarching goal is to reduce the ways in which they suffer. They are likely to initially learn a concentration practice, focusing on the breath, the body, or sounds, with the encouragement that “when you sit in meditation, whatever arises is part of your meditation experience.”

Sitting regularly, practitioners become increasingly proficient at seeing what is happening in the mind. With this awareness, they can then direct their attention toward their mind states, emotions, and thoughts, and as they work through what comes to the surface, they become aware of the habitual processes of the mind. Not seeking “peak experiences,” secular practitioners may start posing a question during meditation, such as the Seon (Korean Zen) question, “What is this?” 

At the end of a meditation session, some take time to reflect, notebook and pencil at hand to jot down what they can recollect of the experience. Over time, secular meditation practitioners tend to relax into a nonformulaic, open awareness, followed by journaling and discussion with others. Meditation works well as a communal practice, and practitioners might practice alone or in a group. 

Mindful awareness can be practiced throughout the day, not just when sitting in meditation. When people become aware that they are practicing meditation for its own sake with the Buddha’s four tasks structuring it, they may then develop their understanding of a secular approach to the eightfold path or the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s five mindfulness trainings; and they can see how to use these practices to thrive, find happiness, and lead an ethical life. 


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