Nowadays, if you ask people if they believe in God or what religion they belong to, they’ll often say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” What does this mean? Isn’t religion all about spirituality?
Why would someone want to distance themselves from a formal religion, but not from the content and focus of religion? If you benefit from meditation and want to continue to practice it, do you have to accept the spiritual tradition that it came from? The short answer is: no, you don’t have to accept “spirituality” in order to meditate.
Read on to find out why. As someone who, for better or worse, has fit into the above category of person for a long time, and who meditates regularly, I might be able to shed some light on this question. Religion often comes with political, moral, or identity-related baggage that many would rather reject, and it certainly is sometimes dogmatic, rigid, oppressive, and, let’s not forget, downright strange.
It also originates in a time before the scientific revolution, and it makes a lot of claims that seem absurd nowadays when taken literally—like the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that a wafer can actually transform into part of a human body.
However, religion developed for important and deep reasons: to provide a shared, cohesive worldview for a group, to explain where the world came from, and to satisfy the individual urge for comfort and peace in a sometimes turbulent, often unforgiving world.
The first two of these reasons have been mostly taken over by natural science or political beliefs in the Western world, but the average Westerner sorely needs something to satisfy the third impulse, now more than ever.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that exists in all cultures which aims to stop your mind from causing you suffering. After all, all human beings experience the same worrying, turbulent, uncertain world, and so they have all developed practices to adapt to it.
However, the practice of meditation had all but died out in the West by the twentieth century, and it got reintroduced through contact with India, China, Japan, and other surrounding countries that had significant Buddhist, Hindu, or Daoist populations.
There are countless forms, traditions, and dogmas surrounding meditation, but I’ll try to give a definition of it that at least scratches the surface of all of them. Meditation is a state of calm and alertness that becomes more intense the longer you practice it. What a simple yet vague definition!
To give a banal, concrete example, people will often tell you to slow down and take a deep breath if you’re stressed. This is a kind of folk awareness of the practice of meditation, and it basically describes how to meditate. The point of meditation is to slow down the part of the mind that’s constantly thinking, planning, rationalizing, speculating, judging, and worrying about the future or the past.
It accomplishes this by directing your conscious awareness away from this part of the mind towards the part of your conscious experience that merely, well, experiences. This could mean focusing on the sensation of breathing, an extremely common technique, looking at a candle, listening to a sound, or anything else that can help to replace the part of the mind that some meditators call the “monkey mind.”
The thinking, planning part of the mind is obviously quite important for getting along in the world, but if we let go of it for a while, we can also let go of all the unnecessary pain that it brings with it.
There’s so much in the world we can’t control that no amount of thinking will get rid of, like death, for example. With the help of meditation, we can learn how to accept painful truths.
Is Meditation Spiritual?
Notice that the above definition doesn’t include any “spiritual” beliefs, or at least anything along the lines of “thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” To meditate, it isn’t at all necessary to believe anything that you can’t prove for yourself. If someone tells you that meditation will help you focus better, have fewer mood swings, feel fewer negative emotions, and help you connect with others, you can try it for yourself and see.
So, in a strict sense, meditation is not spiritual. Meditation has seen a sharp increase in popularity among well-educated Westerners for this very reason: it helps deal with the turbulence and anxiety of life, which aren’t at all in short supply for them, without conflicting with the common knowledge that scientific reasoning is the key to understanding how the world works.
Monks who meditate for long chunks of their lives sometimes experience a fundamental change in their experience of the world, no longer recognizing a difference between themselves and everything outside them.
This dovetails nicely with the common modern scientific belief that, in a nutshell, we’re all just matter floating in the void of space according to certain physical laws. But if we want to seriously question whether meditation is spiritual, it wouldn’t be honest to ignore the traditions that meditation is associated with. Meditation has directly informed, influenced, and inspired spiritual beliefs—things that might seem impossible, strange, or wrong-headed to someone who accepts a scientific worldview.
It might not be the steadfast ally of science that some would like it to be. The true answer to the question of whether meditation is spiritual or not depends on what spirituality means. It’s a term that’s open to many definitions, with some secular, non-faith-based groups like Unitarians claiming the term, or at least flirting with it.
If you use it to mean some specific dogma or position about the nature of human beings or the universe, then meditation is certainly not spiritual, because it doesn’t suggest any particular dogma by itself. However, I think most people, when they hear the term spirituality, think of a broad, expansive connection to all other human beings, an acceptance of life as it is, and a deep feeling of wholeness.
These things, as I can personally attest, are brought on by meditation, because it helps us get in touch with these impulses and feelings. Meditation might not be spiritual in itself, but practicing it will cause you to develop spiritual tendencies, especially if you practice it seriously.
The human tendency to explain the origins of the world and our own natures will always try to go past what we can actually experience and prove, and what we think of as modern science is also guilty of this tendency.
The urge to explain the origin of the universe is too strong to be satisfied by what we really know of the world. Though many people have tried, we can’t definitively explain why we’re conscious at all or why we think we know right from wrong, so we try to convince ourselves that we do know the truth when we actually don’t.
Just like you can believe that we should all be kind to each other like Jesus did and not believe in God, you can meditate and not believe that humans are reborn infinitely until they reach Nirvana, like the Buddah did. However, you can also attend church without believing in God, but if you continue, you may find yourself unexpectedly believing.