I have a claim to make, which I am ready to substantiate. I believe that skepticism is a healthy attitude to have in life. I do not mean denialism, the philosophy espoused by people who are “skeptical” of 9/11 or the Holocaust. This kind of skepticism is more akin to faith: believing in something which flies in the face of evidence. By skepticism, I mean reserving judgment until the evidence is in. It is easy to make a claim but, before anyone believes it, they should ask to see the evidence for it. And the greater the claim, the greater the evidence needed to swallow that pill.
Skepticism makes it easy to reject any claim based on faith or magic. Over time, a skeptic begins to recognize the lingo of faith-based claims, such as the misuse of the word “quantum”. This attitude of “if it quacks like a quack it must be a quack” is an intellectual shortcut which saves us from re-engaging in the same debates, but it can sometimes result in a perfectly healthy baby being thrown out with the bath water.
One of these “everything must go” intellectual shortcuts takes the form of an erroneous deduction:
1. Spirituality uses new-agey music.
2. Discipline X uses new-agey music.
3. Spirituality is hokum.
4. Therefore, discipline X is hokum.
The logical skid is quite easy to spot there, but here’s a test you can do with a skeptical friend of yours. Put him in a room and start playing relaxation music, something soft and calming, perhaps with a lone exotic flute and some synth strings, and watch his eyes roll.
We have been so burned by charlatans making use of certain tropes—relaxation music, praying postures, meditation—that we tend to throw any user of these tropes into the same (loony) bin. By doing so, we risk missing out on useful practices.
Take yoga, for instance. I have a few DVDs of yoga lessons getting regular spin time in my Blu-ray player (I watch them from the couch and imagine doing the exercises… just kidding). Each workout is accompanied by a relaxing, non-intrusive Indian soundtrack featuring one of my favourite instruments, the bansuri. The yoga instructor’s voice, narrating over the routine, occasionally asks the practitioner to hold his or her hands in a “praying pose”. And all of these deep breaths and namastes would make most skeptics reach for the remote.
Yet there is nothing spiritual about this particular brand of yoga. No mention of chakras, no talk of Ayurvedic medicine. What yoga allows the open-minded individual is to stretch muscles, build stability, preserve and enhance range of motion, and get to know one’s body. I am sure any physician reading the following will nod his or her head and smile: how many patients go to a doctor, complaining of “stomach pain”, yet pressing their hand against their intestines? Part of knowing one’s body comes from learning basic human anatomy; the other part comes from personalizing this knowledge and becoming aware of your own body parts. Practising yoga slowly forces you to pay attention to how each muscle responds to a particular pose: which muscle hurts, which muscle compensates. The physical awareness it builds has nothing to do with spirituality.
It also focuses the mind. Stress management techniques can quickly veer off into woo-woo land, so it is important to exercise proper judgment. But once again, there is nothing irrational or unsubstantiated about the focus brought about by yoga and meditation. It is true that meditation has long been claimed by various religious groups: Zen, Sufi, Hesychasm, as well as Hindu, Jewish, and Christian mysticism. Meditation has been associated with supernatural phenomena, visions, prophecies, and other unsubstantiated claims. It becomes easy for a guru to report on these phenomena and for his followers, hungry for acceptance, to go along with the woo. Indeed, in his book How to Meditate, Lawrence LeShan writes,
“Usually you are tempted to follow the example of the courtiers when the Emperor’s new clothes were being displayed and agree that you can see the chakras, Kundalini forces, etheric bodies, energy streams and God knows what else. You are then involved in beautiful poetry and have completely confused it with reality.”1
As Robin Williams said in Nashville during his Live 2002 tour, “This is how movements start!”
But there is such a thing as secular meditation. It sometimes goes under the name “mindfulness”. Sam Harris, well-known public intellectual, neuroscientist, and atheist, has written about such secular mindfulness: “There are, in fact, many methods of meditation and ‘spiritual’ inquiry that can greatly enhance our mental health while offering no affront to the intellect”2. One he recommends, and which I have been practising for a year or two now, is very simple to describe yet almost impossible to realize easily.
You sit down in a quiet room. You focus on your breath. You clear your mind of any thought. When you catch yourself thinking, you stop, and return your focus to your breath.
Sounds easy, right? One of the hardest things to do, especially when your brain is particularly addicted to thinking. However, practising this superficially simple technique a few minutes each day can have a quite noticeable impact on your stress levels by forcing you to live in the “now” and to not spend every waking hour obsessing over the future. All that benefit, and no need to believe in angels or the vibrational states of the soul.
Being a skeptic is sometimes understood as taking a hard line on anything that looks or sounds suspicious. It is an easily understandable practice, one I catch myself being guilty of often enough. But true skepticism should be about listening to the claims of a particular group, studying its evidence (if any), and then making a decision. Yoga and meditation, though woo-like at first glance, can actually be practiced in a non-spiritual way and become quite beneficial, especially in our ever-stressful work environments.
Sam Harris’ entire article on how to meditate is a valuable entry point for anyone wanting to get their metaphorical hands dirty with secular mindfulness. The article hosts links to audio files of guided meditations, available for free.
A book to consider is How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan, a simple, straightforward, and fairly secular tome written by a psychoanalyst. It maintains a healthy attitude toward spiritual claims, except for the chapter entitled “Mysticism, Meditation, and the Paranormal”, in which Mr. LeShan briefly loses his credibility. He objectively presents a number of meditation techniques issued from different groups without ever recommending one over another, simply writing that one must try them all and see which one works best. These include Breath Counting, Contemplation, the Bubble, Sensory Awareness, and more, as well as a guide to unstructured meditations for the more advanced user.
As for yoga, I can personally recommend the workout DVDs hosted by Rodney Yee. I have no financial stake in the endorsement; I have simply found them to be devoid of any spiritual talk and easy enough for beginners.
And a personal note to Andrew, who reads this blog: no, you may not call me Sam Harris from now on.
(Feature picture by Marcia Taylor)
1. LeShan, Lawrence. How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery. New York: Hachette Book Group, 1999.
2. Sam Harris. “How to Meditate.” http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/how-to-meditate. Accessed October 1st, 2013.