Patheos answers the question:

What Is the Connection Between Buddhism and Secular Meditation?

In recent years, meditation has become increasingly popular in the West, but known practices may or may not have anything to do with Buddhist meditation. Most religious traditions incorporate some form of meditation. Some popular meditation traditions in the West may stem from Transcendental Meditation, a Hindu-based practice; others are Christian in both origin and orientation, leading into prayer; and still others are secular mindfulness practices incorporated into business settings.

Buddhism has multiple schools and traditions, and meditation is common to them all; the goal is clarity of thought and mind, the attainment of enlightenment. While the discipline is found across the traditions, however, the practices of meditation may vary widely. For example, Zen Buddhists practice Zazen, a form of seated meditation. This practice has become popularized in the West. A person practicing zazen sits on the floor with legs crossed, back erect, hands loosely held in the lap with thumbs touching, and eyes half-closed. During meditation, the practitioner focuses on the act of breathing, gently taking the mind off the many distractions of thought and feeling. In focusing on breath, the practitioner learns to concentrate the mind, ignoring the many wandering thoughts, disciplining the spiritual power within, and detaching the self from entanglements.

Buddhist meditation can involve the cultivation of a lovingkindness toward all creatures; it can focus on a particular theme or idea, like the connectedness of all things; or it can focus on a simple mindfulness through counting each breath. Some Buddhists encourage visualization of the Buddha achieving enlightenment so that they can emulate his attainment. Others chant mantras or select sacred texts during meditation as a way to focus the mind and heart.

In secular settings, meditation has been introduced into a wide variety of arenas—corporate, fitness, educational, psychological—as a practice that can help participants lower blood pressure, achieve clarity of thought, reduce anxiety, and gain inner focus. Mindfulness meditation, for example, is one of the most popular forms of meditation among Western non-Buddhists. This practice involves staying within the present moment rather than allowing one’s mind to wander. Many people do this by focusing on their breathing or heartbeat in order to give their mind something to focus on.

Calm abiding meditation is similar to mindfulness meditation in that it is meant to calm and focus the mind. It usually involves focusing on the movements of the breath or counting breaths. That said, it can also be done using an external object or sound. One might concentrate on a specific flower within a vase, focus on the hand of a statue, or count the sound of ocean waves. One can also use this form of meditation to visualize breathing in a positive quality and breathing out some form of negativity. The point is to ensure that one stays focused on a single thing, a flower, or a specific idea, breathing out negativity.

While anyone can meditate, some forms of meditation are more entrenched in Buddhist beliefs than others. For example, Tonglen meditation is a visualization practice in which a person mentally gives away all of their most cherished possessions and accomplishments while simultaneously taking on the sadness, confusion, and suffering of all beings. Metta meditation, also called loving-kindness meditation, uses repeated phrases to direct a person’s energy and thoughts in order to generate greater love and kindness for all beings. Practitioners direct phrases such as “may I be happy” or “may I be healthy and safe” at themselves, then at a person they love, then, in order, a person whom they neither like nor dislike, a person they actively dislike, and finally to all living beings. This sort of all-encompassing compassion is a central tenet of Buddhism.

While meditation is a large umbrella term that may apply in a variety of religious and non-religious environments, many people resist the introduction of Buddhist or other Eastern religious meditation traditions since they often have embedded in them essential beliefs that may be objectionable. Buddhist meditation has as its ultimate goal the awareness that there is no real self or ego. This would run counter to other religious traditions and their goals for meditation.

Read more about Buddhist devotional practices here.

3/10/2023 5:58:18 PM
About About Kathleen Mulhern, PH.D.
Kathleen Mulhern is a writer, editor, historian, speaker, and professor. She teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Colorado School of Mines and Regis University, and is currently an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation. Kathleen graduated with a B.A. from Wheaton College, earned an M.A. in French Literature from the University of Denver, an M.A. degree in Church History from Denver Seminary, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado.