Saturday, November 24, 2012

Meditation for Atheists & Agnostics

It has been frequently observed that what many atheists and agnostics object to in religion, inter alia, is the image and concept of an anthropomorphic deity eager to inflict eternal punishment on a hapless humanity stupid enough to embrace the wrong religion, the wrong ritual or disobey the clerical brahmins. My teacher, Swami Kriyananda (founder of the worldwide spiritual work of Ananda and a direct disciple of the world teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda) was once asked in Australia (after a lecture) what, if anything, had he to say to an atheist? Kriyananda paused, reflected for a moment, and then responded with the suggestion that "Why don't you hold for yourself the goal of being the best you can be; to live up to your own highest potential?" Our Australian atheist said in his thick Aussie accent, "I think I can live with that, mate!" He then strode off into the night pleased and satisfied.

But what about meditation? Can a self-proclaimed atheist or agnostic practice meditation without violating their conscientious objections to religion and belief in a Supreme Deity? Well of course: I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't think so.

To such a one, what is the purpose, goal and benefit of meditation, and, how does one meditate with this point of view?

Stress reduction is too simplistic a goal for my purposes, but it is worthwhile enough for just about anyone. Meditation has been amply and scientifically proven to be useful in mitigating the effects of stress. But that would hardly be worth writing a blog article about.

I would offer that meditation is a courageous experiment to explore consciousness at its most primal level of self-awareness. There is a level of awareness that precedes the appearance of thoughts and emotions and which if entered into can bring to one greater intuition, calmness, and dynamic self-awareness. It is not necessary to label this state of consciousness in terms of metaphysics or spirituality. It is not difficult to obtain though it takes training and self-discipline to enter into on a consistent and prolonged basis.

When we stare off into the distance or pause from the intensity of our activities we often have a moment of pure reflective self-awareness where thoughts and reactions are temporarily suspended. The benefits of this state are not immediately apparent in part because we don't think about it and partly because we don't do it purposely and partly because we don't do it long enough nor intentionally to reap its potential rewards.

It is had been said that meditation (and yoga) require no belief system nor religious affiliation to practice and to gain benefits. Thus their popularity. At the same time, there is much discussion and debate in various circles about the underlying and inherently spiritual basis of these practices from India. Some say these practices are not inherently religious while others vehemently insist that all you have to do is consider their source and context in India and in the east generally. A similar back-and-forth exists in respect to Buddhism, too.

Part of what makes Buddhism so popular among educated westerners, especially professionals and therapists, is its (relative) absence of the outer trappings of religion. While I find that view debatable and as much a function of selective "seeing" as reality, it is undeniably true that the Buddha's reticence about God and all things immaterial allow for a wider range of appeal than its senior cousin, Hinduism and its esoteric offshoot, yoga (which is far more meditation than movement).

The deeper truth is that metaphysical realities (viewed as philosophy or as the nature of reality) are considered by their exponents to be the source and basis for material realities. According to this line of thinking, therefore, there exists no essential difference between the here and now and the hereafter or the "other." The most essential metaphysical teaching is that all creation is a manifestation of consciousness and that this consciousness is infinite and cosmic and, by definition, divine and benign, both impersonal and infinite as well as personal and infinitessimal.

The point here simply is that the important and essential impulse is to experience and contact this level of reality rather than only merely talk about or define it. If there is an underlying and universal "Truth" or "Consciousness," the only valid undertaking is to "know" "It." Furthermore, that which is true does not depend upon anyone's belief in it. Therefore, any experiment or activity that is likely to reveal its presence is something that anyone who is courageous or open enough ought to be willing to undertake.

The scriptures of India (Shankhya) aver that "God cannot be proved." This is not the same as saying "God does not exist." It is an admission of the obvious: the intellect cannot prove ultimate reality; only consciousness itself can intuit consciousness. No test tube, no experiment, no chemical will reveal God or consciousness on its own level (as opposed to the various manifestations of consciousness such as thought, feeling, emotion, brain activity, motion, and innumerable appearances of intelligence and perception).

On this basis, therefore, it is consciousness that intuits itself, and meditation, viewed as awareness focused in upon itself, is the preeminent "tool" of perception and consciousness. It may very well be that meditation is perhaps the best and most consistent activity that can bring to one an experience of an underlying strata of pre-thought consciousness.  Such an activity has little, if anything, to do with an a priori belief or assumption as to the nature of that pre-thought level or that such a level should be called "God." I won't deny, however, that many forms of meditation are taught with the assumption that one desires union with God or some other supreme Consciousness. Masters of the science of meditation have frequently (though not always) testified to the experience of a higher Being or levels of realities. But if such is the truth, it should be discoverable without regard to belief. But what is true should be true for all.

As a lifelong meditator myself, I know the difficulty and challenges to meditation. The restless, monkey mind categorically rejects mental quietude, unless it be of a lower or subconscious level, induced by sleep, drugs or daydreaming. Thus it is that it is fair to ask oneself, "Why would anyone undertake the arduous journey away from the senses and natural mental activity into the depths of pure consciousness? Traditionally only those who held a strong belief (or intuition?) regarding the superior merits of the results (including "seeking God") undertake the sustained effort. But philosophically speaking, no such expectation or belief is necessary to do it.

Because of the difficulties of achieving deep states of one pointed meditation, the great teachers of meditation resort to promises of health, energy, creativity and, more to the point today, union with the Supreme Being.

Nonetheless I hold true to my assertion that any atheist or agnostic who is courageous enough to explore the boundaries of self-awareness can find great benefit by whatever technique of meditation appeals to him or her. Let me say succinctly that the experience of resting in the state of pure self-awareness, devoid of self-created mental images and their attendant ego-affirming associations, can yield many practical benefits to those who offer themselves into this felicitous state of being. And, if, perchance, he or she were to encounter the Supreme Power, well, I trust they will presumably reassess their position happily! If not, nothing is lost and I know that much can be gained in self-understanding, creativity, and joy.

Perhaps in another article I can suggest some exercises for our friends in "AA", "Atheists and agnostics not so anonymous.


Nayaswami Hriman