Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Meditation for Atheists

What can be said about Yoga in Western Culture, there remains a whole heaping of the foofoo, from full on Anusara spiritual referencing to vague pop psychology one-liners. I happen to like a happy balance between the two, mostly because my own spirituality doesn't feel comfortable with random Hindu references and I'm so done with PopPsych one liners like "By helping yourself, you can better help others".

However, is there a place for the firm, disenchanted atheist in this spectrum?

Recently, Andrew's hardcore Atheist brother was asking about how best to begin meditating, sans any spiritual reference. At all. Including PopPsych foofoo. This is more difficult than you'd initially suspect.

Many of the best meditation books are written by Buddhists. Although many can be very straightforward and low-key on the spiritual pomp page, they are still written from an ultimately spiritual perspective; Buddhism. When we suggested he look into purchasing (or borrowing) one of these books and ignoring all the spiritual references, he made a face. An atheist to the core, spirituality tends to evoke disdain and chips away at the author's credibility in his mind.

But "Meditation is HARD" he says. "And I really want to work on it, any suggestions?"

My first thought? "Start a yoga practice". Last spring a few friends took a free meditation workshop at the local Moksha studio. I expected to learn something new, or be extremely challenged. I don't have a regular meditation practice, therefore I figured this would be HARD. At the end of the workshop I realized that I had been meditating for the past 6-7 years.... during and at the end of every yoga asana practice. I already had the tools that worked well for me, focusing on my breath and some sparten visualization techniques learned through various yoga instructors.

What I did learn was that straight-up, no prep meditation, is MUCH more difficult than at the end of a yoga practice. Why is that?

Although yoga may have many other benefits (both physiological and psychological), as I understand the history, simply put yoga was created to prepare the body physically and the mind to withstand long periods of meditation. Yoga Asana was the entry point to meditation.

After chatting with a few other friends who practice yoga and have a semi-regular meditation practice, we all agreed that it's much easier to ease the mind into meditation after the body has been physically exhausted from a strenuous yoga practice. We're too tired to hold onto any of the anxiety, circular thinking or our "monkey mind" (as much as I dislike that phrase). Further, the actual asana practice teaches you to focus on your breathing and to bring your attention away from the past-future to the now.

Yoga Asana is a shortcut to Meditation.

Now... how to convince a videogaming, Warhammer playing Atheist that actual physical Yoga can be his ticket to Meditation success....and finding the best yoga class fit.

Any suggestions?

article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. Mark Whitwell would actually say that this is the ONLY way to experience meditation. He also says don't TRY to meditate - it is the natural result of asana practice, as you've discovered for yourself.

    Maybe you can get your bro-in-law to come along to one of your friend yoga sessions to begin with? Sounds like a low-stress entry into the world of yoga. :)

  2. I've recently read "Full catastrophe living" by Jon Kabat-Zinn and I was impressed by the way the author introduces mindfulness meditation to people who would never have tried it if they hadn't been sent to the stress reduction clinic by their doctor. A yoga practice is part of the programme as well, and it all stays very down to earth, breathing, relaxing, stretching, simple asanas... nothing to frighten an atheist! Now he may be put off by the fact that the book is also about stress and illness... Hope it helps anyway :-)

  3. I too love Jon Kabat -Zinn, I know him from the mindfulness based cognative therapy and I agree that he may find it useful. He does some books and CDs that are not related to depression/stress. He has an amazing voice which really helps.

    I personally do not link yoga and meditation, my meditation practice is seperate to the yoga, although yoga does contain it. Does that even make senes?

  4. I would say to him: You can 'do' meditation anywhere, anytime. You can meditate whilst doing the dishes, you can meditate whilst running, you can end up meditating during a yoga practice. At its core, meditation is about concentration, mindfulness. We can try to be really mindful on the teeny tiny things that we're doing eg the bubbles or the pattern on the dishes, the way the water flows - those thoughts could go on for 5 minutes to the exclusion of all other thoughts, thus, meditating! Alternatively, the mindfulness of breathing technique is a great non-spiritual meditation practice. Just sit, breathe, and count each breath inhaling 1, exhaling 1. Inhaling 2, exhaling 2. Get to 10 without any other thoughts and go back to 1 (sounds like a board game!) If other thoughts other than the breath or the number you're on come into the mind you have to go back to 1. I rarely get passed 2 or 3! Again, no PopPsych, no spirituality, just meditation. Can even do it on the bus. Good luck to him!

  5. "Meditation Made Easy" by Lorin Roche. Great book. No mumbo-jumbo, no "spirituality", no Hindu, no Buddhism, just simple guidance on how to get started and grow in meditation. I am also an atheist and do not claim to have one iota of "spirituality" (in quotes because I am not even sure what it means). I love that he meditates sitting in a chair, often in a dressing gown. I love that he dispels all sorts of beliefs such as you need to be a vegetarian or a non-smoker or religious in any way. I got so much from the book and from my meditation practice that I started after reading it. Whereas when I started I struggled a bit, I can now meditate just about anywhere, even in a crowded noisy train station.

  6. It is very worthless techniques as yoga for atheists because in old age it make more impact so please avoid initially and enjoy old age life.

  7. Brad Warner is a hysterical writer who is buddhist, but also atheist? He wrote a bunch of books including "Sit Down and Shut Up" and "Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate". This guy is a punk rocker and serious meditator.

  8. I was born into and raised as a member of the Roman Catholic Crutch. At some point I started getting hedged toward becoming a priest. Only way to save my mother's soul from marrying a Lutheran (Dad's mother's faith). But Dad was about as far from being a Lutheran as I am from being a Hindu. And early on I'd had unvoiced questions and doubts about canon law which remained unvoiced because voicing questions about matters of faith was great way to set yourself up for physical punishment from the marching Sisters of Merry Discipline. So when I finally figured out I had my own mind to make up, I went with disbelief. You can call it atheism but I call it disbelief. I simply can't believe how people can believe in a just and loving divine being. Or any divine being worthy of worship at all.

    That didn't stop me from exploring meditation & yoga. Long before the hippies hijacked Eastern religion & all its memes & music. I discovered (a) a certain tranquility and (b) how easy it is to fall into autohypnotic states. Which was, truth up, scary.

    So up comes last December (2012) and the death of Ravi Shankar, whose playing of the sitar was nearly emblematic for my generation, except that I'd been aware of Hindustani music for at least five years before it became fashion de rigueur for my contemporaries. Pandit Shankar's death led me to listening again to much of the music I'd studied then plus a bunch more available now thanks to the InterWebs. And that led me back to learning to play the mridangam, the South Indian source for the tabla and bayan that accompanied Ravi Shankar's music. And that, unbelievably, led me back to yoga and meditation.

    Except now, fifty years after I'd discovered Hindustani music and Hinduism in the local public library, I am a disbeliever. An atheist if you must.

    My youngest son and I have discussed religion many times and the closest he can get to religion as a person of no faith is Buddhism. After all, aside from Jainism, you can't get closer to atheism in Eastern religious lore unless you go full tilt into carvaka, since Buddhism (and parts of Jainism) don't demand the existence of an interactive divine being who fiddles with the controls of the universe on a minute-by-minute basis.

    Playing a rhythm instrument with the range of tonality and expression such as a mridangam (or the tabla/bayan) involves learning a wide range of very complex rhythmic patterns called moras and korvais. And right now I can assure you that I've only barely mastered the most simple of two. But sitting with the drum more or less in a yoga position for an hour repeating the same pattern over and over is pretty damn close to reciting a mantra as the atmosphere sweeps in and out of your lungs. At some point you get hypnotized by the pattern, the sounds and, if you have an online tambura running in the background, the drone notes.

    Which leads to my answer to the question of atheists & nonbelievers meditating: Yes. You can meditate, if you want to call it, any time you relax your body & concentrate on a particular operation, be it breathing patterns, drumming patterns, a raga (not an improvisation or melody but the up & down traces of the musical scale of the raga) played on a home-made sitar from you distant youth or whatever you choose. And I'm sure that you could include your own mantra in there if you want. Quotations from a William Burroughs bit. Whatever.

    Just 'cause some folks call it meditation doesn't mean it's a prayer and, if you're doing as I do, the worst you'll get out of it is an appreciation for how much easier it would have been to really learn to play the mridangam back when your mind was more agile and your fingers a lot more tightly clenched under your neural control. Which, when you think of it, is a pretty good epiphany of mind all by itself. Which I guess would include the mantra "You're not 15 any more. You're not 15 any more. You're not 15 any more. You're not 15 any more."


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