Don’t Throw out the Bathwater with the Baby Jesus

<ding> “breath deep through your nose … in … and slowly out …”

Since I moved to SF last month, my therapist suggested I check out meditation sessions at a place called the Shamballah Center. I haven’t actually made it there yet, but I found a similar center in the Panhandle a few blocks from my place, plus a meditation group at work that meets weekly during lunch just above one of our cafeterias.


<ding> “feel your stomach expanding with every breath…”

I was a bit ambivalent about getting into meditation. The word “spiritual” in particular bothers me, like its vagueness is deliberately designed to provide the comfort of believing in a higher power and afterlife without explicitly declaring a metaphysic (be it Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever) that would then be vulnerable to questioning.

Still, there’s enough hard data on the benefits of so-called “spiritual” practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude in terms of improved mental health outcomes that I was willing to hold my nose and give it a shot. A peer-reviewed thumbs up from the scientific community carries a lot more weight than anecdotal evidence in my book.


<ding> “you are on a beach, facing the rising sun…”

I did meditation throughout my childhood as part of karate, but never for more than a minute at a time so not sure that counts as “real” meditation. I’m really not even sure what it’s supposed to feel like, so I’m not sure afterwards whether I did it correctly or not, or how. Actually, often I’m not even sure whether I was awake the whole time. But I figure I’ll roll with it and eventually get the hang of it.


<ding> “the sun is now risen overhead, feel it warming your limbs…”

I’m kinda blase about all the trappings – the chimes, the etherial music, the guy in robes quietly providing us practical instructions on how to breath or things to visualize – but it seems harmless enough. I mostly tune it out, not sure if that’s incorrect or if that’s the point.


<ding> “repeat these words: I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”

wait, WTF?

Did he just tell us to say “I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Like I said before, I’ve never liked the word “spiritual.” It’s so vaguely defined, just a hot-swap of “religion” minus the cultural baggage. I’ve been an atheist since I realized at 16 that Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman had more to teach about the human condition than all the pastors I’d met up til then.

And this second part of the mantra, contrast our “spiritual beings” against “a world of form and matter” just felt like doubling down on the metaphysical gibberish. It’s one thing to have to hold my nose at this spiritual stuff in isolation, it’s another thing to rub my face in it. It bothered me, and derailed the remainder of that day’s meditation session.

Which was worrisome, because I didn’t wan’t to abandon meditation just because I couldn’t get past its metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Both because I wanted to continue practicing meditation, and because I didn’t like the idea of being someone who’s so intellectually rigid that I had to make that tradeoff.

Well, what if I could be intellectually flexible enough to not have to make that tradeoff?

What if I could define “spiritual” on my own, purely secular terms? A definition that avoids any trace of religion-by-another-name from slipping in. Such a definition would need to:

  1. address what is out of scope of conventional science and technology
  2. directly impact our mental and emotional well being
  3. exist strictly in the physical real world
  4. offer a narrative at least as robust as metaphysics (souls/god/afterlife)

Next post: the definition I arrived at


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