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Blog: Humanist Voices

ted meissnerAlthough he's located in the Twin Cities, his influence is global. With 193 episodes of The Secular Buddhist podcast under his belt, he and his guests explore everything from Zen to mindfulness practice in psychotherapy to the brain science of meditation. Taking the podcast series as a whole, one could view Meissner as directing our attention to and also participating in the forging of a new secular synthesis. Exploring the intersections of East and West, the truths of subjective experience and the findings of inter-subjective scientific investigation, and the relationship between the conceptual with the deeply practical, secular Buddhism may be one of the most important developments within organized secularism in decades.

Eric Snyder: There's a suspicion in some atheist and secular quarters that secular Buddhism runs the risk of reigniting historical mistakes. You're potentially inviting back problems like dogmatism and curtailment of inquiry into the full and emerging human experience. How do you respond to such critics?

Ted Meissner: That they are absolutely right! Secular Buddhism, like any human endeavor, is not immune to facing those challenges. Any new way of looking at our lives and how we interact with the world struggles with that. That's an insidious trap we've been navigating around as people often stridently insist that we codify exactly what secular Buddhism is, rather than providing a framework for how you yourself might find aspects of it helpful. We spent quite a lot of time developing our Guiding Principles, even in naming them as such, to indicate that everyone's experience is unique, and setting down boundaries about how one practices will simply result in the same problems that traditions are now having.

For example, I often light incense when I meditate. It's not in honor of an ancestor, nor is it to lift positive magical energies into the ether. It is, however, a pleasant sensory input to invite the attention back to the experience of the present moment. So making a rule about secular practice not having any of the trappings of religion is just silly derision of what can be a very beneficial support to one's practice.

I would also suggest that a core of meditation is setting aside, as best we can, our biases and internal chatter, to get a bit closer to seeing the world without our rose (or black or green or purple) colored glasses. We train the mind to examine each moment more closely, with curiosity, with openness, without judging it with an ideological lens, and seeing it for what it is -- precisely what we should be inclined to as critical thinkers.

ES: You give a lot of attention on your podcast to the science of meditation. What stands out to you from this research and why?

TM: New discoveries are being made all the time, and what's most fascinating to me is that they tend to fill in each other's blanks and indicate other areas of study. The research around the default mode network, for example, did not come out of a meditation study, but we see other research on meditation which impacts that network, and has greatly complemented our understanding.

The biggest for me is the concept of self directed neuroplasticity, that by an intentional meditation practice, we can change the very physical structure of the brain in measurable amounts. And not after decades of practice, either, but in just a matter of weeks. There's also new research indicating that a regular meditation practice may impact telomere length, and even alter gene expression. Of course these are small sample sizes, and of course it's early in the maturation of controls for this work, but indications are good that we can have a profound effect on how our brains function.

One of the challenges all scientists (and meditators) are faced with is how to avoid confirmation bias, and not to simply create studies with the intent of validating a tradition's assertions. Rather, just as in meditation itself, we should view with a very critical and honest eye what's actually there, rather than what we want to be there. And that's a tough thing, we're pattern seeking creatures, even when the pattern isn't really there.

ES: Can I ask what your typical meditation routine is? What has meditation done for you over time?

TM: It may be helpful to understand that there are not only many different kinds of meditation one can do, but that one's individual experiences from one formal meditation session to the next may vary widely. So what has been most beneficial to me with my particular background and needs may be inappropriate, or perhaps even harmful for someone else.

If meditation is not contra-indicated by other issues (bi-polar disorders and schizophrenia may be problematic, for example), starting with a daily practice of even ten minutes may be beneficial over time. And that can be difficult to do in our busy lives, so expect that you may miss the odd day, and avoid using that as a reason to stop entirely. Patience is also handy, as the changes can take time and be quite subtle.

Just settling into an awareness of the experience of breathing, in and out, gently and with kindness to yourself, returning your attention when it invariably wanders, back to that present moment experience. That's what I tend to do every day, for around 20 to 45 minutes per formal sitting meditation. Switching it up with choiceless awareness, walking meditation, and even mindful yoga is an outstanding step to integrating the practice off the cushion, where it really makes a difference in our daily lives.

To call the practice transformative in my case is a significant understatement. Of course there are still bumps in the road, we all have those, but there is more emotional resiliency, calmness, and ability to get a little spaciousness in the moment before saying or doing unskillful things. Over time, those around me have noticed a decrease in the frequency, duration, and intensity of the selfish and antagonistic behaviors, and greater compassion, friendliness, and lightness in my attitude.

The thing to remember is this is a *practice*, not a perfect. Absolutes are better left to dogmatic ideologies, so engaging in a contemplative practice with variety, consistency, curiosity, and a light touch can be more fruitful.

ES: You really have your pulse on an important development within culture. What do you think are the most significant trends within secular Buddhism?

TM: Right now, it's how we bridge the gap between traditional Buddhism and the mindfulness movement, perhaps best represented by the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program of Jon Kabat-Zinn. They are at their core, in what they actually encourage us to *do* every day, very similar in alignment. But there is a concern from the traditional side that mindfulness is ruining Buddhism, which is often an accusation made with little to no direct experience with what is actually done in a mindfulness program. Mindfulness programs do not make any claim whatsoever about "doing" Buddhism, so a Buddhist tradition accusing mindfulness programs of doing Buddhism wrong is like Santa Clause accusing the Easter Bunny of giving Christmas presents wrong. It's a senseless non-argument from people, however innocently, expecting alignment to be duplication.

Certainly there are differences, particularly in the teaching methodologies. One is very didactic, with a teacher giving a dhamma talk, and the students taking it in. There are some benefits to that method, but it may also be susceptible to problems that can result from putting a teacher on a pedestal. The other way to teach is more participative, with group sharing about one's experiences. That has challenges too, like other students latching onto what might be unhelpful ideas.

Either way the next few decades will be quite interesting as a contemporary Buddhist practice, one that fits within our own cultural context, grows and takes root. It may not be Buddhist at all; I don't really see a problem with sharing a demonstrably beneficial practice with everyone based on our shared humanity, rather than closing it based on ideological differences.

ES: For people who are interested in secular Buddhism, what would you recommend as the most important books? 

TM: It really depends on what one's area of interest might be. For books that capture the flavor of a secular Buddhism, I would recommend Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. There are some wonderful books just on the topic of meditative practices that aren't Buddhist, like Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness for Beginners, that can provide some guidance without being overly religious. On the more scientific side, Rick Hanson's new book Hardwiring Happiness, and his older Buddha's Brain have some foundational information about the neurology behind meditation. 

ES: Thank you, Ted. 

-Eric Snyder

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