Wake up! Getting started with secular meditation

by Ramsey Margolis • onemindfulbreath.org.nz/ramsey-margolis

It takes an awful lot of effort to wake up as a human being. It’s far easier and simpler to remain asleep than to wake up. Nowadays, however, we’re all having to question how we live our lives and that’s why you’re here, now, reading these words on your phone, tablet or computer.

The Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing is said to have written that we humans are afraid of three things: death, other people, and our own minds. It’s with the mind that we create the world we live in, but the way we change our mind is to become an impartial and compassionate observer of the mind, not rush in at full speed in an attempt to change it.

Secular meditation is primarily about stillness, and self-observation. Practising meditation demands that we remain still for a period of time, and it really helps to have an open awareness of what’s going on inside rather than use the kinds of techniques that were developed for monastics long ago. 

When we do sit regularly, we become increasingly proficient at seeing what is happening in the mind. With this mindful awareness, we can then direct our attention not just at the mental content of our thoughts but also towards the emotions and mind states that inform these thoughts. And as we work through the material that surfaces, we become aware of the process of our mind.

Sitting with a gentle, permissive, open awareness, we get to see each frame of the movies as they run in the mind. We are then able to separate core event from reaction, and instead of running away from a difficult memory or emotion, we make space for it while at the same time not identifying with it.

The stories of our future we write using past narratives. However, it’s not what happened in the past that creates our present pain and misery, but the way we’ve allowed past events to define how we see and experience ourselves. To get to know ourselves, we need to have a compassionate curiosity towards what’s happening within, in our inner world. This enables us to let go of those aspects of the self we choose not to go with, such as instinctive reactions that arise from implicit memory like wanting/not wanting.

Are you one of those people who feels like they’re in a constant state of reactivity? This is not so much to the world but to your interpretations of it. You’re focussing here on the outside, not on your own internal self. Suppose someone triggers a reaction in you, what is more important: the person, or the reaction? Choice begins the moment we pause, and become present. 

Meditation is a great way to work with our closest, most immediate environment – the inner world. Mindful awareness can be practised throughout the day, not just when we sit in meditation. We simply pay close attention to all our experience without seeking distraction. And at the end of each session, if we can reflect with notebook and pen/cil at hand to briefly jot down what we can recollect that would be useful.

Ah, but hang on a minute. You want to be ‘good’ at meditation, do you? Would you like deep insights to appear? Are you expecting spiritually uplifting things will happen? Sorry, but these are not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Don’t expect to be ‘good’ at meditation, to achieve anything: look at it as a process of unfolding that demands that we act in a slow, persistent, and repetitive way – a gentle process.

Once you have an established meditation practice, your greatest challenge is to take full responsibility for that practice. Meditation braces our intuition, which in turn allows us to make informed choices about which practice(s) to pursue, which groups to join, which teachers to listen to, which websites to follow, and which books to read.

As we cultivate meditation, bringing Gotama’s fourfold task, and the eightfold path in general, into our lives like the sunshine and rain that helps our food grow, something marvellous happens: this practice subtly but profoundly begins to transform us. It’s not just hard slog. If we meditate wisely and intelligently, the mind will lead us into some wonderful places.

So when you meditate, you will experience some ease in your life. You’ll be calmer, more emotionally present, more compassionate and less the victim of reactive triggers; a self-regulating adult, you’ll be somewhat less prone to self-soothing addictive behaviours. 

But these are just promises on a screen. There’s only one way you will ever know if meditation is worth the effort: learn to do it, and keep on doing it. See for yourself.


For the easiest of meditation instructions from the Sydney, Australia, secular insight meditation teacher, Winton Higgins, listen to ‘Open meditation instructions’

And here’s a two-page handout for new meditators, and those who want to try a different kind of practice:

Getting started with an experience-based approach to secular meditation