Spiritual Exercises for Atheists

Spiritual Exercises for Atheists January 5, 2012

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

Spiritual exercises (askesis) are practical activities for mental self-empowerment.  They are intended to facilitate successful achievement by increasing the degree to which the self is mentally or emotionally prepared to perform.  Spiritual exercises are not magic.  Spiritual exercises are distinct from magic because they focus on causing changes in the self while magic focuses on causing changes in the external world.

Spiritual exercises typically involve mental preparation for performance through visualization or emotional preparation for performance through arousal regulation.  Visualization involves working with mental imagery while arousal regulation involves conscious control of physiological and emotional arousal (it involves neocortical control of the limbic system and autonomic nervous system).

Arousal regulation is often done when the self is confronted with a challenge in which the outcome is uncertain, valuable, and not amenable to skill.  Successful performance through such challenges often requires fine-tuning of arousal.  On the one hand, arousal that is too high is experienced as anxiety.  Excessively high arousal may impede performance.  If the self is too strongly aroused, then arousal regulation techniques can be used to decrease arousal.  On the other hand, arousal that is too low may be experience as depression or despair of success.  Excessively low arousal can also impede performance.   If the self is too weakly aroused, then techniques can be employed to increase arousal.

Although there are  many types of spiritual exercises, Wiccans and many other groups focus on three many types: meditation, visualization, and breathing.  The British Wiccans like the Farrars and Buckland either do not discuss these techniques at all or mention them only briefly.  These techniques seem to develop in American Wicca.  These spiritual exercises are very briefly described below:

Breathing.  Breathing exercises involve the conscious regulation of inhalation and exhalation to regulate arousal or to induce trance states.  The Farrars very briefly discuss breathing in the context of certain rituals (1981: 230-231).  Cunningham discusses Wiccan breathing techniques (2004: 86-87).  Sabin discusses Wiccan breathing techniques for facilitating visualization and for inducing trance states (2011: 55, 70-71).

Meditation.  Meditation involves the self-regulation of conscious activity.  It may be done in many different ways and with many different objectives.   Cunningham describes the use of meditation in Wicca to decrease arousal while increasing alertness (2004: 87).  Sabin describes meditation practices that involve “concentrating on an image or desired outcome while in a trance state” (2011: 75).  She gives a detailed ritual procedure for using meditation to decrease arousal prior to taking a test (2011: 76-77).

Self-Hypnosis.  Self-hypnosis involves various relaxation techniques and the use of affirmative thoughts or words to modify emotion or behavior.  It typically involves going into a deeply relaxed quasi-trance state followed by the repetition of statements that aim to affirm some positive goal.  Sabin briefly mentions the use of affirmations: “Affirmations are positive statements that you repeat over and over to yourself” (2011: 47).

Visualization.  Visualization techiques involve creating, manipulating, and destroying mental images.  Cunningham deals extensively with visualization (2004: 88-90).  He gives four detailed visualization exercises.  The first exercise involves visualizing a single image for several minutes.  The second exercise begins with visually memorizing the appearance of some physical thing and then mentally focusing on the image of that thing for five minutes.  The third exercise involves the deliberate mental construction of a detailed visual image while keeping your eyes closed.  The fourth exercise involves the deliberate mental construction of a detailed mental image while keeping your eyes open.  Sabin also deals extensively with visualization (2011: 47-51).  She develops several visualization exercises like the ones described by Cunningham.

Although it is easy to cover these spiritual exercises with many layers of unscientific or anti-natural meaning (that is, with woo), there is no need to do so.  These exercises are essentially secular.  They have been widely used outside of any religious context and independent of any religious origins.  They are widely used and studied in medicine, in sports, in the performing arts, in law enforcement and even in the military.  Many scientific studies have been done to assess the degree of effectiveness of spiritual exercises; they generally confirm that such exercises can reliably regulate arousal and enhance performance.  The secular aspects of these spiritual exercises are described below:

Breathing.  Breathing techniques are often used to manage performance anxiety or to decrease arousal (e.g. by athletes and as part of tactical arousal control in law enforcement).  Musicians make extensive use of breathing to manage performance anxiety.

Meditation.  Secular versions of meditation are widely used in sport and medicine.  They are widely recommended for the relief of psychological distress and to mitigate addictions or other maladaptive behaviors.   These secular meditation techniques are typically adopted from Buddhist mindfulness techniques.  They have been extensively studied (e.g. Bishop, 2002; Ostafin et al., 2006).  Meditation does not require belief in any theistic deity.  Many atheists have discussed their uses of meditation (Harris, 2005: ch. 7; Sponville-Compte, 2006; Walter, 2010: ch. 8).

Self-Hypnosis.  Secular versions of self-hypnosis are widely used and studied in sports and medicine.  Self-hypnosis techniques are effective and reliable.  There is evidence that they reliably reduce anxiety and fear (e.g. in cancer or cardiac patients), that they reliably reduce bedwetting and migraines in children.  Studies confirm that self-hypnosis provides valuable assistance to help people lose weight, stop smoking, pass through grief.

Visualization.   Psychologists have found evidence that visualizing successful performance of some task or achievement of some goal increases motivation and effort and can reliably lead to better performance (Vasquez & Buehler, 2007).  The use of visualization to enhance athletic performance has been widely studied and has been shown to enhance certain types of performance (e.g. Whelan, Mahoney, Meyers, 1991; Sheikh & Korn, 1994).  Chess players make extensive use of visualization techniques (indeed, chess experts are so adept at chess visualization that they can play multiple simultaneous games of chess while blindfolded and thus operating entirely on mental imagery).

Many theists appeal to God to enhance their performances.  These appeals are often done through petitionary prayer.  Obviously, atheists will deny that those appeals to God have any direct effect on success (that is, God does not help the petitioner).  However, such appeals can decrease arousal or reduce performance anxiety, and thereby have an indirect positive effect on performance.  It would be useful for atheists to have non-theistic replacements for any theistic techniques whose real goals are arousal regulation.

Spiritual exercises like breathing, meditiation, self-hypnosis, and visualization are non-theistic.  Since they do not involve any theistic deities, they can be employed by atheists.  They can socially and culturally compete with theistic performance-enhancement techniques (thus replacing, for instance, petitionary prayer).  Atheistic Wiccans can perform these spiritual exercises without any references to any gods or goddesses.  Or, if an atheistic Wiccan prefers to think of the god as a symbol for the will and the goddess as a symbol for reason, these spiritual exercises can be thought of as enhancing the rational expression of the will.   They facilitate the actualization of positive potentialities.  And they can be included in an atheistic nature-religion or within an atheistic spirituality.

Links to this entire series of posts:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

More on Religious Diversity among Atheists

Revelation versus Manifestation

Creation Stories

The Logic of Creation

Evolution by Rational Selection

Two Arguments for Evolution by Rational Selection

The Wheel of the Year

Criticizing Wicca: The Wheel of the Year

The Atheist Wheel of the Year


The Soul is the Form of the Body

Buddhist Rebirth

Rational Rebirth


Bishop, S. (2002) What do we really know about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?  Psychosomatic Medicine 64, 71-84.

Comte-Sponville, A. (2006) The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.   New York: Viking.

Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Harris, S. (2005) The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.  New York: W. W. Norton.

Ostafin, B. et al. (2006) Intensive mindefulness training and the reduction of psychological distress: A preliminary study.  Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 191-197.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice (For Beginners (Llewellyn’s)).  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Sheikh, A. & Korn, E.  (Eds.) (1994) Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance (Imagery and Human Development Series).  Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing.

Vasquez, N. & Buehler, R. (2007) Seeing future success: Does imagery perspective influence achievement motivation?  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 33 (10), 1392-1405.

Walter, K. (2010) Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides For The Perplexed).  New York: Continuum.

Whelan, J., Mahoney, M., Meyers, A. (1991) Performance enhancement in sport: A cognitive behavioral domain.  Behavior Therapy 22, 307-327.


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