Book Review

Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy by Rick Heller California, USA: New World Library, Novato (2015)

Rick Heller is a member of the Humanist Community at Harvard, a nonreligious organisation whose mission is to use reason and dialogue to help people ‘connect with others, act to make the world better, and evolve as human beings’. In alignment to this mission, Heller’s book aims at making meditation more accessible and appealing to a wider range of individuals, especially the nonreligious. In his view, secular meditators remain inquisitive and critical toward all meditation approaches.

The book is divided into four parts and offers a rich repertoire of 36 meditation and mindfulness practices that Heller terms exercises. The first three parts cover the following:

  1. developing love and compassion;
  2. finding inner peace; and
  3. cultivating joy.

The last part covers a mixed bag of other exercises to develop mindfulness, which Heller defines as ‘paying nonjudgmental attention to the present moment’. Each part also includes frequently asked questions about its main theme, such as ‘You don’t want me to love mass murderers, do you?’, which are both informative and help dispel myths about meditation.

Heller first introduces each exercise dotted with some historical or scientific research references about its origin and benefits. He then lists the basic instructions, secularising them by changing their wording to be less prayer-like and more conversational (e.g.: ‘May you find peace’ becomes ‘I’d like you to find peace’).

Rick Heller

Rick Heller

He also avoids using terms and expressions that might appear supernatural such as vibes or sending messages to the universe. Nonetheless, despite making a clear secular stance, Heller does not shy away from promoting metta, or loving-kindness. At the end of the day, he argues, one’s practice is to translate intentions into helpful and kind behaviours toward oneself and others.

Instructions are then followed by a discussion and questions to consider, encouraging the meditator to further reflect on his or her experience of the exercise. The questions are easy to understand and pragmatic. It seems to me that Heller carefully crafted each of them in order to avoid esotericism and retain the secular orientation of the book (e.g.: ‘What did you observe? What did you feel in your body?’). The questions are useful to both individuals and groups, provided that the exercise is facilitated for a group. Heller also includes numerous personal testimonials as stories that ground each exercise in reality.

Throughout the book, Heller states that the main goal of the exercises is to ‘quiet’ or ‘settle’ the mind. His underlying view seems to be that most thoughts are distracting and unhelpful because they interfere with mindfulness. On numerous occasions, he compares one’s thinking with the difficult person in the metta meditation. Though promoting gentleness and compassion toward one’s thoughts, the main intent appears to be their abatement, their elimination even.

Heller makes few exceptions to this rule. Inner chatter is okay if you are mindful that you are doing this. Regardless, you should try to control it by either returning to the breath, counting, using a mantra, or another method. Other thinking is also okay, but only if constructive. For example, thinking about the past is acceptable if the intent is about capturing lessons learnt or learning from one’s mistakes. Thinking about the future is also okay but as long as it supports one’s ‘trying to plan something constructively’.

In one of the stories, Heller briefly mentions the late Toni Packer’s Non-meditation or Choiceless Awareness practices. However, it does not seem to occur to him that such practices can be skilful ways to explore one’s thoughts – whatever they are. So, he bypasses their exploration and keeps cautioning us against ‘thinking too much’.

As one who practices Jason Siff’s recollective awareness practice, which encourages the meditator to get to know, investigate and befriend one’s thoughts, I felt somewhat irritated by Heller’s constant reminder to reign in ‘stray’ thoughts, as he often terms them. For example, in the exercise about Intentional Daydreaming, he states: ‘This is not the time for fantasies that are absurdly out of reach…’. What a pity. Such fantasies, of course, when I mindfully recollect and investigate them, often tell me what I yearn for in life, what I might crave and get attached to and so help me decipher the causes of my suffering.

In another exercise, this time about Mindfulness of Thoughts, Heller’s initial instruction is to ‘meditate long enough to achieve a quiet mind’. Isn’t this a paradox given that the exercise is to become mindful of one’s thoughts? He also later warns: ‘Don’t take this practice to such an extreme that it interferes with your ability to think constructively […] If you find yourself following a train of thought…return to the breath…’, and so on. Disappointingly, once again, there is no mention of journaling or investigating the supposedly ‘unproductive and absurd train of thought’.

Overall, however, I did enjoy Heller’s book. It includes numerous practical exercises such as Star Gazing, Sound Meditation and even a Mindful Couch Potato exercise, which can all contribute to the development of mindfulness. It is concisely and clearly written without supernatural jargon and well supported by recent research findings.

I also really appreciated his acknowledgment of other authors, such as Stephen Batchelor, Jack Kornfield, Toni Packer, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Marshall Rosenberg to name only a few. The book includes 165 endnotes with references, so for the inquisitive mind, this is a little book that is also filled with bibliographic treasures.

As I alluded to earlier, my only disappointment is the absence of my favourite approach, recollective awareness. This is not surprising, given Heller’s view that thinking is like the difficult person – the enemy. I’m looking forward to the day when major secular Buddhist groups like the Humanist Community at Harvard, will recognise Sun Tzu’s wise words: ‘Unless you also know your enemy, you will eventually suffer a defeat for every victory that you gained.’

You can buy a copy of Secular Meditation online from fishpond.com

• Reviewed by Sylvie Vanasse, who is a coach, counsellor and facilitator and a member of Beaches Sangha, part of Sydney Insight Meditators

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