in Meditation

Three Best and Worst Reasons to Meditate

premasagar, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

premasagar, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The three reasons people meditate are: to attain enlightenment; to gain power or control; or, for relaxation or health benefits.

The best reason I can think of to meditate is to seek salvation. Is that a good reason? I don’t think so. Below I explain why.

This post presents three common reasons used for practicing meditation. Each reason for practicing has serious flaws. I argue that there are many easier, simpler, and healthier alternatives than using meditation for relaxation. We begin by exploring why many people practice meditation to attain salvation or to gain super powers. Then discuss relaxation and health reasons for practicing meditation.

The three reasons people meditate are:

1 Enlightenment

The ancient and medieval Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains invented magical alchemies, such as the practices of yoga meditation, for the purpose of transmutation and bodily immortality. For our post here, we’ll define enlightenment broadly to include transcendent insight, wisdom, or spiritual consciousness beyond body and mind.

Kevin Dooley, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Kevin Dooley, Flickr CC BY 2.0

For the Hindu sages who wrote the Upanishads (the earliest known texts to reference yoga) salvation was reached when the body was yoked to a chariot that sped into the sun[1]. Read my post Yogic Bodily Possession and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India.

For modern yoga meditation practitioners the motivation is similar, that is, to attain spiritual liberation, to liberate soul from limitations of the body, from thinking, or from evil or worldly thoughts and desires.

  • Meditation is supposed to free practitioners from karmic past errors, wrongs, guilts, and sins committed in this or past lives–along with following the instructions of an infallible guru or spiritual teacher claimed to be free from karma or sin.
  • Meditation frees the soul. It washes or cleanses the body of light from impurities of worldly existence.
  • Another goal of meditators is attainment of nirvana or nirvikalpa samadhi, the supposed exalted state of cosmic consciousness achieved by legendary Buddhas, Siddhas, or gurus. Essentially, the practitioner seeks through meditation practice to render himself godlike, a second Shiva[2], a Buddha, or a Yogananda.

“All souls are equal. The only difference between you and me is that I made the effort. I showed God that I love Him, and He came to me.” ― Parmahansa Yogananda

eric, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

eric, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

2 Power or Control

Meditation is often practiced to attain control over one’s body, mind, and ultimately for control over physical universe.

  • Though most meditators will not admit, they often seek supernatural powers. The foremost power sought is mentioned as one of the eight Hindu Siddhis: Prākāmya, realizing whatever one desires[3].
  • Western Buddhists tend to talk down these powers, though clearly nirvana and other power states are part of buddhist and meditative doctrine. In Buddhist Tantra these super powers include clairvoyance, materialization, having access to memories from past lives[4].
  • To become Christlike is to be able to have power over Self, to have healing powers, to control nature and the physical universe. To perform miracles, read minds, walk on water, raise the dead and all manner of fantastical and unsubstantiated claims that defy the laws of the natural world.

“The servant Nature rebels and grows unruly when the master of creation sleeps. The more spiritually awakened he becomes, the more easily shall he control Nature.” — Paramahansa Yogananda

Meagan, Flickr CC by 2.0

Meagan, Flickr CC by 2.0

3 Relaxation or Health

Relaxation as defined here is the quieting, rejuvenating, and resting the body and mind from constant movement and agitation. Obviously, appropriate relaxation is vital for overall health.

  • There are countless, often simpler and easier, ways to attain relaxation and health besides meditation, including: sleeping, napping, getting a massage, bathing, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, walking in nature, and countless hobbies and games such as fishing, flying kites, playing chess, golfing, cycling and so on.
  • Popular culture and the media often portray meditation as a silver bullet that is the supposed antidote to a modern stressful lifestyle, the cure-all for nervousness and depression.
    While meditation practice may have benefits there are many situations where it is common to have adverse side-effects such as anguish, despair, hallucinations, psychoses, and even suicidal tendencies and death. See my index of posts Adverse (Side) Effects.
  • My personal anecdote is that many times in a five to fifty minute meditation session I would be agitated psychologically. Meditation may create anxiety. It is common to realize how restless the monkey mind actually is during meditation and how impossibly far one has to go to please and to reach the idyllic state of yogic perfection as touted by an infallible guru.

To Meditate or Not to Meditate?

By all means if meditation helps, meditate. Though there are many other more natural and easier ways to relax such as sleeping, fishing, and walking in nature to name only three out of thousands.

The solution, I believe, is education. The important questions arise not from the experiences of yoga meditation but from the belief systems by which practitioners explain their experiences.

The long-time meditators that I know who have been practicing for years apparently continue out of strong desire (or fear) of attaining salvation or of gaining super powers over body, mind, and the material universe.

The popular assumption that meditation is an effective method of relaxation or that it provides measurable health benefits is debatable. Behind the health claims is often a theology, morality and beliefs in salvation and super powers.

Most studies about meditation are flawed and unconvincing. The objective evidence suggests that meditation is not any better than drugs or other methods. See my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds.

Rather than meditate to seek salvation or powers in another dimension or a future life, I recommend spending less time in meditation and more on education. To learn the wonders of how our minds can be tricked into believing strange, improbable things and finding reliable ways to make ourselves and the world a better place to live.

Question for readers: Are there other reasons to meditate that don’t fall under one of the three broad categories: attainment of enlightenment, power or control, and relaxation or health?


1  p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
2 p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
3 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Hinduism: Eight Primary Siddhis, Wikipedia
4 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Vajrayana Buddhism, Wikipedia

Leave a Reply


  1. @ Scott,

    It is fun to watch you take a stronger and stronger stance on meditation — against abusive/dangerous groups and now, against the practice itself. I largely agree with your criticisms and suggestions.

    Having been involved in both Hindu and Buddhist-based meditation groups, I can distinctly feel your Hindu bias. Similarly, atheist blogger who were former fundamentalists Christians, write differently than atheists who were former liberal Christians or never even religious. That is, I think a person who is a Buddhist meditation may react to your article saying, “That is not why WE meditate.”, even if your criticisms touched many of their practices and mindsets. That is because they will feel your Hindu bias.

    I am going to guess that most American’s, and perhaps Europeans, who practice Zen, Theravada or some such Buddhism (not Amida or Shin sects), would typify their motivations differently. First, and foremost (as you know), is that “salvation” is not something they consider at all. And even though “nirvana” in touted in Buddhisms, I don’t think it is foremost in many minds. “Enlightenment” certainly is. “Seeing the world as it REALLY is” certainly is. “Wisdom” is. I guess you could put that under “special powers”, but it is qualitatively a different desire than those who secretly desire siddhis. You don’t want to make your categories too broad or people may say, “no, that is not me”.

    Some may typify themselves as seeking “wholeness”, “inner peace”, “compassion” or “love”. These also are not superpowers, relaxation or salvation.

    The three categories you describe seem perfect for Hindu-based guru-worshipping meditation groups. I am curious what percent of meditators that now comprises in the USA. Indeed, with the spread of secular (physical) Yoga, the word “meditate” may take on a much milder flavor — meaning just a quiet 5 minute period before doing the exercises: no salvation dreams, no hopes of superpowers (just a bit more health), but certainly relaxation. And for them, and many of us, it is “Safety” — feeling we are doing the right thing: for our minds, for our bodies, for our emotions, for our families. It is a security investment. It then invites a bit of self-righteousness (that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you are a bit better (safer,wiser,more diligent) than others).

    So those are my thoughts this morning. Oh yeah, I forgot to discuss if meditation works. The only point I’d make there is that the word “meditation” is deceptive — people do many, many different things with their eyes closed and use the same word. They go in with huge varieties of expectations, hopes and desires and attach it to their breath, their mantra, their body and their time in holy absorption. No telling what effect it will have. And as you said, the one thing we can be certain of, is that self-deception is the primary effect.

  2. Excellent post. Just a quick “on the phone” comment. Picking up on Sabio Lanza’s comments, the inevitable feelings of self-righteousness seem to me personally to be one of the worst effects of meditation. It is from those initial experiences of “exaltation” that all kinds of self-delusive thinking spring.

  3. @ Sabio,

    I agree with you observations that my writings often slant towards a Hindu-base approach to yoga meditation–that’s the doctrine that I’m most familiar with and spent 14 years as an ordained monk. I also twice quoted in this post Paramahansa Yogandananda and Hindu guru who was the founder of the monastic order I was in.

    Buddhists or other meditations sects may make a special plead that their practices are different. That may be the case, though I think “enlightenment”=wisdom, love, or peace are all idealized states of some perfection that is likely never attainable and probably all can be lumped conceptually under salvation (freedom of mind, body, consciousness–whatever), or under the seeking after powers (even if the powers are grasping and holding onto feelings or consciousness).

    Some of reasons could possibly be parsed out and lumped into multiple categories, eg. inner peace can be an idealized state of spiritual equanimity or a feeling of relaxation or escape from restlessness that would put inner peace under the relaxation category.

    If we come up with some better way to describe the “indescribable” or define these terms better I am all for it. Perhaps in future posts or commentary we may be able to go deeper into this topic. If I started a dialogue and people thinking in that direction I feel my post made a contribution.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  4. @ Uwsboi14:

    I’m intrigued by your line of thought (and Sabio’s) about “self-rightousness” as an emergent quality for those who meditate. I wonder if that self-rightousness is the result of believing and comparing oneself to others about specific doctrine or world-view? eg. An SRF meditator may think “I have been given the special dispensation for the new age.” Or, a buddhist might think , Vipassana descends from the great Buddha and no one else’s meditation methods are as powerful as mine, etc. Jesus is the only begotten son, all non-Christians are heathens–lesser than me…

    Or, self-rightousness could be “I’m an atheist or skeptic who follows scientific method and that is the best way to arrive at truth” (which I’m inclined to agree with most at this point). But, the superiority of human over human is what’s scarey to me. Ideas (separate from humans) can often be graded whether one idea is more “right” or maps to how the universe actually is or predicts how the world operates actually.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. “I wonder if that self-righteousness is the result of believing and comparing oneself to others about specific doctrine or world-view?”

    I would say, yes, it can be, but at the same time, it’s also a common human thing to do, to compare your perceptions and beliefs with others. It’s a basic instinct to judge and compare what you think with others as a way to protect yourself from potential danger. For example, if I valued friendship and was looking for a friend and someone I met was a sociopath, I would want to avoid that person. I think self-righteousness may just be a turbocharged version of the healthy self-protective instinct, as we turn over personal values into a declaration of ultimate truth. I’ve seen in myself that when I have those ugly feelings of self righteousness I can no longer relate to others in a humane way because my self identity is built on a very specific closed system of thought rather than on commonality or sharing. It would be interesting to discover why people makes this leap in the first place. (Leaping nuns? lol)

    The annoying thing is that the “higher” one ascends or develops in their chosen path of truth the stronger the superiority complex becomes. Then one has to work at harsher types of self-abnegation in order to deal with this problem which only creates more separation from others (self-absorption, becoming one with truth), resulting in God/ultimate truth becoming the only proper goal. Everything human and natural has been destroyed by the original belief system. It all becomes very paranoid actually. Maybe this is why so many spiritual paths have an apocalyptic vision, either interior or exterior or both.

  6. @ uwsboi14,
    You bring up some fascinating points. You mention that self-righteousness may be a protective mechanism and that seems particularly intriguing.

    A few key concepts or keywords comes to my mind as I read your reply: moral superiority, arrogance, narcissism. Many dangerous ideologies seem to embody these concepts, eg. Nazism, racism, etc. I don’t have a word or clear concept of this [spiritual-moral]-superiority complex. Gurus and disciples could have this while professing to be humble, loving, inclusive. While also manifesting superiority complexes.


  7. I keep remembering what new Kriya yogis are told via a recorded talk given by Yogananda, “If you practice your Kriya at night while others are fast asleep, you will be far ahead of the rest of humanity” (slight paraphrase)

    If spiritual ideologies/practices could inculcate arrogance, this statement surely can. I wanted to add this one so that it’s on record.

  8. The only thing you need to say to an SRF person is this quote from St Paul in the Bible:

    “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

    I guarantee you they will have no answer for it.

    They cannot possibly argue with this. At best, they will claim that the Bible teaches works salvation. It doesn’t.

    As for pride, sure you are going to feel conceited above all other “lower spiritually evolved” humans since Yogananda himself said that to be attracted to SRF means very good karma from past life evolution. What a subtle trap and lie!

    SRFer’s would do well to THINK about CONSIDERING whether they are worshipping Yogananda or GOD. The difference is so big that Yogananda is smaller than an atom compared to the rest of the entirety of the universe plus infinity.

    In his “The second Coming of Christ” book, Yogananda said that there are no differences of degree in all enlightened masters. Why then did he contradict himself by saying that the spiritual attainments of Babaji are greater than his own?

    He was a massive con man. Did you know that he was INVITED to that congress in Boston in 1920? He claimed he had a vision of being in America and 3 days later he was on a boat to Boston. LIES!

    The concept of spiritual pride is, in and of itself, ridiculous. If a person has humility, even one ounce of it, they will not squander their time meditating 20 hours a day, being anti social, not giving to charity and helping other people, not marrying or having children, falling in love, etc All of that stuff is SELF CENTERED. “SELF – Realisation”. Man, even the title of that organisation is the biggest give away!! I have never EVER, in the last 15 years of my life associated with these teachings, even ONCE heard of SRF charity work.

    I remember reading a big book of Ramana Maharshi. Every time people asked him about saving the world etc he said “find your Self first, then you will not ask the question.” And what was the fruit of his life? NOTHING – a TRAMP! a homeless BUM dishing out advice to people that worshipped him. What a colossal loser!

    Don’t meditate. Not only will it give you headaches, waste your time, produce potential insanity through demonic possession (calm it Scott – I know you don’t believe in that, but still :)) , and render you completely unhappy, but it will make you self centered, selfish, prideful and arrogant. There are better ways to enjoy life.

  9. D E M O N Possession !
    That is what got in me so many years ago. Damn! (Ooooops, I guess I will be)
    Instead of meditation, I should have sought my Me-Me-Me salvation through my own personal Jesus.
    Oh, dear, and instead of wasted time meditating, I could have read Leviticus or the Book of Revelation hundreds of times and seen the truth.
    What a horrible, horrible loss.
    All we need to do is to choose the right religion.

  10. Yeah, I agree with you – it is so obvious that meditation and belief in religious personages has nothing to do with reality or the truth.

    By the way, do you still meditate?

  11. No, I no longer meditate in a formal method. But I do practice watching my mind.

    I also no longer talk to an invisible Jesus or Yahweh in my head. You are right, religious personages have nothing to do with reality or the truth.

  12. David, any religion or spiritual path, including Christianity, which claims to have the “best” or “only” key to salvation is suspect in my mind. Therefore I don’t consider Christian faith to be any different than the belief in the power of Kriya Yoga. Both beliefs are proclaimed vehemently by their adherents to be the best way to “be saved”. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone needs to be saved anymore. Btw, are you an ex-SRF member? You mentioned “15 years of my life associated with these teachings”. In what way have you been associated with SRF?

  13. @ Sabio

    I also agree that it’s fun to watch Scott take a stronger stance against the practice itself. Like Scott (and I’m sure other readers), I come from ~10 years of Hindu meditation practice, and I think the meta-categories are accurate. And not to be too controversial (or perverse) but let’s not forget that sex is one of the most relaxing things one can do. And meditation really can’t compare..

  14. @Uwsboi14: Yes, I remember that quote of Yogananda. His writings and lectures are full of explicit statements about yogis being superior to the mass of humanity. Thanks

  15. @ David: Some of what you say I agree with in principle: contradictions with what Yogananda said, SRF is, like most ideologies full of contradictions, and that meditation is not always healthy. Christianity or Jesusism is not any different in worship or their gods or mother mary’s.

    Your position on these issues is not clear. Why not just get straight to your point: Are you anti-Yogananda and pro-God? Neither? Are you saying that grace and faith in some higher power is the way to truth? Also, FYI–SRF/YSS does run charitable organizations in India and occasionally, last I hear, SRF gives $ to charities.


  16. @ Paul: Yes, sex is easier, more natural than meditation for relaxation, health, and fully engaging and enjoying life in the here and now. Thanks for your comments

  17. @ Paul,
    Thanks. It is a common trajectory of former fanatic believers — stages of deconstruction probably. You see, if you admit all the horrible problems with your former group (be their religion, political or such), then you condemn yourself as an idiot. That cognitive dissonance causes a more gradual process. Understanding that we are all idiots, helps that transition too.

    And YES, sex is both eye-opening, relaxing, socially-helpful, and healing. But like meditation, if only done correctly with all the right attitudes and partners behind it. Don’t you think.

    I think Scott’s categories need to be mildly expanded so as to meaningfully include non-guru-worshipping, non-Hindu meditators. I get that a fewer number is more fun (the temptation of reductionism) but it also reveals his bias, which I pointed out, and sets up many people who may otherwise see the problems with meditation groups to say, “Well, that ain’t me, and dismiss this all together.” But Scott disagrees, I think, or he would have taken feedback and broadened and nuanced his categories. Nonetheless, they will speak to some people. And as we noted, this blog is largely a journey for Scott. As is all our blogs, eh? 🙂

    And Paul, I notice you don’t have a blog. Are you the same Paul Hardman who wrote about The Garrison Institute (tied with Mindfulness Meditation and psych counseling etc)?

  18. Sorry abt the late reply.
    Scott, I am not anti-Yogananda or pro-God (whatever that means!). I don’t particularly dislike the former; I just find some of his teachings/ideas quite silly. I brought up the Bible passage because it goes directly against Yogananda’s claims, not that I believe in it. In fact, I think along the same lines as Robert M Price on the Bible.

    I never read or heard of any charity activities when I considered myself a devotee of Yogananda by the SRF.

    Your question about grace and faith is interesting to me. I haven’t come to any conclusions regarding the role of hypnoid states and their effects since I seem to have personally experienced events that I cannot explain from a purely naturalistic or materialist perspective. I am not advocating religion or any religious text.

    uswboi, I suppose the word “affiliated” best describes my involvement with SRF. I wasn’t a monk, if that’s what you mean:)) I saw you posting over at blacklist forums. That’s you, right?

  19. @Sabio: You seem to interpret a lack of immediate revision of my blog post based on reader comments (yours in this case) as proof that I disagree with you or that I am only interested in my blog as some kind of personal catharsis.

    To me, I feel that your psychological interpretations or analysis of my intentions or of “fanatic believers” is off.

    I’d be glad to “mildly expand” this or other post’s categories to include, as you say, “non-Hindu meditators”. There’s several reasons why I may not revise or expand my blog posts immediately or ever.
    1) First, there’s the time and the space required to write quality posts (which I am challenged with).
    2) Next, there’s my own limited capacity to articulate what I don’t yet see as a serious divergence that you seem to be saying flaws my categories, for example calling it enlightenment versus salvation discrepancy.
    3) The search for enlightenment (a vague term) is at heart a quest for some kind of perfect insight, wisdom or something akin to that, is an ideal, unattainable state I have lumped into category of “salvation”.

    If you have some clear suggestions to incorporate the non-Hindu into these categories let me know. Else, my thoughts and posts will evolve going forward rather than spending too much time revising past posts.

    I appreciate constructive feedback.


  20. @David,

    I’m still unclear what your stand is on these topics. So I will interpret that to be you are not really for any religious doctrine but you believe in some higher power or energy that can’t yet be described by current technologies (and that maybe mystical experiences best describe those). Feel free to correct me, if you wish.

    I don’t deny that mystical experiences are real. I’m not satisfied with the conclusions or interpretations that so-called mystical experiences are magical, supernatural energies or superior realms.

    I’ve downloaded Dr Price’s show “The Human Bible” and will have a listen. What do you like about what Price has to say?

    A big reason I started this blog is that there is much critical analysis of Christianity but little critique readily available that explores Yoga Meditation beliefs. The two ideologies have some common ground but most Yoga Meditators left Christianity for something (yoga meditation) they feel is better, more reliable way to knowledge, wisdom about how the world actually works. I wanted a place for us to discuss and critique the lesser discussed Yoga Meditation assumptions.

    Which SRF Blacklist do you recommend that is active? The Blacklist I visited lately all seem to be inactive and many of the discussion threads were turned off/blocked.


  21. Hey Scott,
    Thank you for your constructive feedback.
    Here are some thoughts on two things you said:

    (1) “for example calling it enlightenment versus salvation discrepancy.”
    I was not suggesting that you change a label of the “Salvation” category, but instead add another category with a label like “Wisdom” , “Insight”, “Enlightenment” or such for those try to understand reality better (theirs and the world).
    You three groups are: Salvation, Superpowers and Relaxation — a good start. But …
    (a) “Salvation” is not a common idea or intent of most non-Hindu meditators, I think. Lumping everyone into a category, just to keep the numbers of categories down, may allow readers to dismiss the insights too easily.
    (b) Instead of “Relaxation”, you may want to broaden that to be “Improved Health” — mental or physical. Thus could include inner peace, love, compassion, as well as fighting depression and anxiety. Here would also be those who want to relax, lowering blood pressure, increasing responses to insulin, holding muscle tension, needing to sleep better.
    (c) “Superpower” — now that really has a Hindu-bias (siddhis ….) — I remember, because, like you, I was in those circles (albeit for a very short time.)
    (d) Indeed, as UWSBOI14 and I have discussed, “self-righteousness” is a hidden agenda. I think that could be captured in a category called “Spiritual Identity”. This could include those who don’t buy into the Christianity around them, but don’t want to be labeled an “Atheist” or themselves don’t want to be without some feeling of being “Spiritual”. And thus, “Identity” comes also with all its pitfalls.

    Heck, after writing this, I am think I am just going to put up my own little list on my blog. That will be fun. So I can stop bugging you.

    (2) “A big reason I started this blog is that there is much critical analysis of Christianity but little critique readily available that explores Yoga Meditation beliefs.”
    I love this reason for your blog. It is a needed balance out there in the blog world. Really nice !

  22. @Sabio: Thanks for your additional feedback. That helped me to revise or update the three categories (which are a work in progress that can be refined as clarity comes). Here’s the updated three reasons people meditate: to attain enlightenment; to gain power or control; or, for relaxation or health benefits.

    To your point “d)”–I wonder if Enlightenment category encompasses the “spiritual but not religious” meditators motive.

  23. Thanks Sabio. I read and commented on your blog post. I’ll keep my eyes out for the chronological comment concern. I see a few that are out of order. Not sure how that happened.

  24. @SkepticMeditations — I agree with you that there are predatory practices surrounding meditation and yoga practice, and I agree that these ought to be avoided. However, I find your categories are reductive, ignoring some key reasons folks might practice apparently irrational activites. For example, there is a social aspect to meditation practice that can be an important element of community for many people. Steven Collins, another University of Chicago scholar like David G. White, observed in a lecture that meditation is one of the few individual practices that millions of people around the world practice in a room filled with other people. Isn’t it odd that so many people practice mediation as a social activity: they gather to sit quietly with their eyes closed? I do, and I don’t yet have a good explanation for why people do it together.

    I’m interested to learn more about your distinction between meditation and education. What is education, as you see it relating to this post? Is it simply learning the history of religious traditions that meditate? Prior to any supernatural experiences that may or may not exist, I find that meditation provides space for my mind to “percolate” and arrive at observations or conclusions that I would not arrive at while actively addressing a problem, focusing on another problem (e.g. rock climbing, balancing a checkbook, grocery shopping, etc.), or having sex. (I like that sex is such a frequent example on this blog, by the way.) This time that’s allowed for my mind to run without a directed topic seems educational in a practical sense of the word. I agree that taking a walk may achieve the same goal as meditating in this respect; however, that there is an analogous activity that may achieve the same ends does not discount the practical value of meditation — that objection simply indicates that there are several means to the same end, which is acceptable. It seems to me that you’re exhorting people to educate themselves about where meditation practices are historically and philosophically derived from, and I agree this is useful knowledge to have for some people, but my point is that meditation offers other educational benefits.

    Your recent comment on my blog, which linked to the podcast interviewing James A. Lindsay about his new book Everyone is Wrong About God, has gotten me thinking about belief systems (e.g. Hinduism, Christianity, Atheism, the sciences, etc.) in terms of pragmatism (i.e. what does it do for those who hold those beliefs?). In the podcast, Lindsay described how all the folks who talk about god use the term in different ways and different contexts; he seemed to be deciphering various ways use the term ‘god’ to define various needs or emotional states that are situation dependent, such as, “I need help”, “I want consolation”, “I am afraid”, etc. If I understand his point correctly, Lindsay’s concept of religion recasts it as a pragmatic activity — rather than a logical or rational problem — an activity that offers a service to those who do it, which precedes the logical constructions that define a particular religious person’s beliefs. (There’s more to say here about belief in terms of epistemology, but I’m trying to keep this comment as short as possible.)

    Lindsay’s point about religious practice being the correct way to discuss god and religious practice/belief reminded me of a point that N. N. Taleb makes: Religions are not about what people believe; religious belief is a second-order effect of religious action.* Religions are about what people do: fasting, meditating, gathering together in a community. Like most rationalistic explanations of phenomenon, the logical constructions around religion (and science, for that matter), follow some sort of activity (e.g. observation of an event, practicing an activity, etc.).

    Taleb describes this idea in this lecture:

    Sorry for the long comment.

  25. Thanks for sharing your insights, My Other Feet,

    Taleb says (in the video link you provided) that god comes LAST in religion. Religion is about rituals [perhaps to provide certainty and meaning].

    My posts Lived Religion and “Lived” Versus World Religion discuss the non-god parts of everyday lived “religion” that is often overlooked– that everyday religion isn’t mostly about gods but includes talking with granny at her gravesite, astrology, and yoga meditation.

    That’s great you are resonating with Lindsay’s ideas from his interview about his new book. I have to read the book to see what I make of it. But, my first impression from that interview/podcast is that he’s onto something important that is under appreciated about religion and/or atheism–that these form the basis for “moral communities”.


  26. Hey there,

    Coming from a rather secular, atheistic education, I think a bit differently on the benefits of meditation.

    I think to go a bit deeper into this, we need to define what meditation is in the first place.
    As I understand your point of view, meditation is sitting in a certain posture and being confronted with your own thoughts, emotions, etc. This is doing too short I think.
    The best definition of meditation I have heard so far, is that Meditation is trying to enlargen the silence between thoughts and to be conscious of that state. And of course sex, drugs or simply talking a walk can all be means to get to that state of mind.

    Now, if we can accept that definition, we can discuss why this can be beneficial for every one and I think there are several reasons for it, that do not need any religious framing:

    I think one of the first things, one realizes, when starting to consciously observe oneself, is that we are not necessarily in control of our thoughts and emotions. And that a lot of these thoughts and emotions are simply unnecessary clutter we neither need for our day-to-day living, nor for us being in peace with ourself. Whether it is regreting a decision one has made in ones life, being obsessed with a certain desire one has to fullfill etc. Getting rid of all that is unnecessary to live happily, is as pragmatic as one can get. At this point one can re-evaluate what is important.

    -Relaxation/Non-attachement/Without preconceptions
    As you have already mentioned, relaxation is a big reason for why one should meditate. This is first of all for personal benefits, but in the end is also very benefitial for your surrounding. The buddhistic ideas of love, compassion etc. go hand in hand with the idea that you do not project your own thoughts onto another person and try to take every person as it is, without letting your preconceptions of that person interfere with that.
    From my experience the idea of non-attachement is also very helpful in relationships and at the same time is a very attractive quality. All relationships in which a women decided to leave me were due to me being too attached to here. Beauty is that which is without desire.

    Now, Creativity is closely related to the two points I made before. Everyone involved in a creative practice, will have made the experience, that the most original ideas come to one, not necessarily when one is in a tensed mood trying to solve a problem, but when one is in a free, playful and most important relaxed mood. Most often the best ideas come to one, when one is not even consciously thinking about it (while having a walk, sitting/meditating…sometimes even after making love to a beautiful women).
    A highly entertaining lecture from John Cleese on this topic:

    We are in a time, where most of us have become zomby-like consumers that do not make any consciouss decisions on why they do something or why they even need something. The results of this have let to all the problems we are confronting in the world at the moment: Economical problems, social inequality, power-structures, intransparent political systems, a new form of colonialism etc. Meditation can help to make us aware of what we essentialy need and has the possibility to reset our value- and belief-system. To define it for ourself from a point that is as free from preconceptions as possible. It should not be a dogma. It should be a tool.

    I hope that makes sense.


  27. @Pete: I agree it’s important to define what we mean by meditation.

    You wrote:

    “The best definition of meditation I have heard so far, is that Meditation is trying to enlarge the silence between thoughts and to be conscious of that state. And of course sex, drugs or simply talking a walk can all be means to get to that state of mind.”

    Your definition of meditation seems to fit well with our Western, romanticized notions commonly cited by the mindfulness meditation movement, which was derived from Buddhist practices of mindfulness that was traditionally only taught in Asia to monks.

    I have written numerous posts on the topic of mindfulness on my page Meditation & Mindfulness, mindfulness specific posts are towards the bottom of that page.

    (As an aside, much of my decades of meditation practice was in Hindu-inspired yoga meditation. Historians and scholars debate whether Hindus or Buddhists developed meditation as defined by each of the two traditions. But we don’t need to get into the traditions for now. I only bring it up to point out that traditions and opinions vary widely about what meditation is, whether and how much value the practice has, and it’s goals and outcomes–which tend to follow from the presuppositions of the followers or practitioners belief systems and ideological traditions.)

    To respond briefly to your comments based on your above definition of meditation:

    Self-observation: I agree. Meditation can mean, among many things, introspection. I don’t think we need meditation practice to realize that we are NOT in complete control of our thoughts. However, most who attempt to practice meditation realizes quickly, if not immediately, that the “mind is like a drunken monkey stung by a scorpion”. When trying to still the mind (which is for the most part an unrealistic ideal, that also is potentially harmful if done in extremes) our thoughts typically are running all over the place.

    Relaxation and non-attachment: Those could be under “control”, self-control, subjugation of desires, observation also brings this detachment.

    Creativity: I agree to some degree with you. Some people may say that “creative” tension is necessary for creativity. If a person is in a state of mental stillness, nirvana, or blissed-out of their mind what need to be creative in the physical world? Especially, if meditation philosophy includes the goals of attaining some kind of a transcendent, beyond this world afterlife, karma, or reincarnation. I have written a few posts on Creativity that may interest you.

    Can “meditation ideologies” be just a subtler version of consumerism? Of mind-manipulation to sell products and ideologies that may be harmful to some consumers, or to some people may be a waste of time, money, and effort?

    I’m not saying that meditation by itself is bad. But, many people, myself included several years ago, held salvation theologies and strange ideologies as part of our meditation practices.

    Without critical thinking about “meditation” it seems to often be just another potentially dangerous ideology masquerading as a panacea for “enlightening” consumers.

    What particular meditation practices or tradition do you follow? Do you have a blog? If not, you should consider as you write and articulate well.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your opinions and comments.

  28. @SkepticMeditations: Thanks for your reply!

    I agree with you for the most part. I think one can recognize that you went through a very narrow-minded teaching. The whole Guru-thing is dogmatic bullshit – just to clear that up. People, no matter at what stage of their spiritual, ethical and moral development, simply have not the instrumentation to cope with power. I say that from a point of pure observation. Being born in Germany, I am very skeptical of any form of hierachy and anyone that says from himself that he is the next messiah.

    I do not get the connection between meditation and consumerism though. The only thing I can think about in this context is Slavoj Zizek outlining the relationship between meditation and efficency. He points out that meditiation is just another thing, that tries to make ourselve more efficient and therefore better ‘equipped’ for capitalistic society. In terms of selling actual products, I do not see such a danger. What do you want to sell? A cushion?

    My first contact with meditation came through practicing Ving Tsun. At that point it was more for Relaxation and recognizing the ‘Flow-State’, but I was not very serious about it. I only became more involved in Meditation after reading a lot of philosophy and considering religious texts as a pool of ‘wisdom’ too. In an interview the painter Agnes Martin talked about Shunryu Suzuki. After reading the book ‘Zen mind, beginners mind’, I started meditating every day. That is about 2 years ago and I have tried various meditation-techniques since then. I never went to any group classes and I would never go to any Guru. I do not even talk about it with my friends. For me it is a completely private thing, like keeping a diary.
    The inner development I went through in the last 2 years was incredible. I became much more organized, disciplined, clear, creative, social, open, friendly, helpful, loving, understanding etc. It effected me on all levels and that is the most you can ask for. But that is just for me, I can not make judgements about anyone else.

    I have not considered writing a blog, but someone else made the same suggestion to me last week. One could say that this is godly synchronicity, so I will think about it 😉


  29. @Pete: I appreciate your comments and feedback. Here’s my initial response to your latest comments:

    1) You wrote: “People, no matter at what stage of their spiritual, ethical and moral development, simply have not the instrumentation to cope with power.”

    a. Human beings are the most adaptable creatures on the planet. We humans can cope, adapt and survive in the most wretched conditions. What SOME humans can endure or cope with though varies greatly, no? Some people break emotionally at a minor financial misfortune (losing their job), while other people endured and survived the terrific horrors and privations for years in Auschwitz as an extreme example.

    2) Connection between meditation and consumerism is subtle distinction. What is common between the two? Desire. What motivates people to consume meditation? Savvy gurus or business people or religions have created the disease (avoidance of suffering, heaven, afterlife) and offered the cure (transcendence into astral bodies or minds, nirvana, enlightenment)? One consumer says I need a physical car or boob job to be happy. The other (or same) consumer says I need meditation or mindfulness with it’s attended guru promises of peace, freedom from suffering or enlightenment? Desires both selfish, one physical the other mental (called spiritual as if the other desires are lessor than).

    a. Maybe for you, in Zen, you see no desire involved? I’m not sure. What do you need or want to practice Zen for? Is it any different than wanting to sleep, eat, or poop? What do you get from Zen that you can’t get taking a poop if you really wanted to?

    b. If you are feel you need to be taught, read books, follow some Zen ideology to fulfill mental desires then are not those the teachings, texts, or worldviews of a non-physical guru or ideology you follow?

    c. Inner development is great. I commend you for that. But one doesn’t need Zen or meditation for inner development. In fact, Zen and meditation (any ideology) can be a trap and hold one back from development. It’s tricky and we humans are vulnerable always. I’m guessing you know this but I wonder why you feel the need to defend Zen in your comments, other than it has helped you emotionally or mentally (important, yes). But my former guru helped me too in so many way, along with his meditations, and I was also trapped and wasted years in my guru’s ideology.

    Yes, you ought to discuss more your thoughts and write more. You have intriguing ideas and write well. I look forward to your comments here to other posts and let me know when you may have your blog I can comment on.

  30. Side note: meditation probably doesn’t make Hitler any less a monster or Mother Teresa any more a “saint”. (notwithstanding the spurious nature of the latter).

    If you are a criminal and you do meditation will you become a saint? I doubt it.

  31. David, I was thinking along those same lines a couple of days ago. Here’s the email I sent Scott, which he quoted earlier:

    How are we to understand, though, not only the “saint/guru”, but also the spiritual aspirant who claims, “I’m am nothing, it is all God. I make myself empty so that He can flow through me.” (I’m not saying I agree with this, just the opposite) But, what is this cunning explanation they give? To my ears, it still sounds arrogant, but psychologically it is fascinating. It’s not really possible to negate the self (while living). Obviously, it’s still the individual thinking and speaking, but the mind has decided to believe it’s not themselves, but something greater, something incorporeal. The saint can go so far as to believe they have become this greater spiritual entity and that they have killed their old self.

    A psychologist would call this highly delusional and megalomania. Whatever it is, whatever one wants to call it, I posit that it hasn’t really helped anyone, including the saint, however grand and fantastic it may sound. The saint must either live cloistered in an ashram, or secluded in a cave, or avoid contact with mainstream society while living in the world. How has this person actually improved himself? An “unspiritual” person can do his job just as well as the saint can, so for whom or what are his spiritual attainments? Society doesn’t benefit from him nor does another person since the saint must remain celibate and live alone. No one may touch him and neither can he share his experience with anyone. It would seem that the only thing the saint has gained is the ability to have an experience of heightened pleasure which he actually has become dependent upon to feel ok. Even then he can be completely nasty and cruel to another person, especially when he hasn’t had his fix of meditation. This dynamic sounds more and more like a kind of addiction to me rather than spiritual enlightenment (whatever that is).

  32. Yes of course it is selfish behaviour to become a hermit and offer nothing to the society. It is different in India because the Indians believe that the wandering homeless “saint” confers spiritual blessings on them in exchange for meals etc. But this doesn’t make it any less selfish in reality.

    And yes, again, it is like a drug high. The parallels between drugs, shamanism, yoga, meditation, and so on are striking. They cannot be dismissed as not belonging to the same type of psychological categories despite their outward differences.

    The point I wanted to make was that in terms of psychological change towards better behaviour, it is not meditation that accomplishes this but work on the mind through insight and cognitive behavioural changes. This is accomplished in the West in psychology work through therapy and in religious terms by religious contemplation and study of scriptural works. This contemplation “meditation” is the opposite of Eastern meditation, which is the attempt to still the mind to achieve a passive state that is receptive to whatever psychic junk may be out there in the “ether”!!

    Secondarily, there is an oft toted claim that meditation makes people better in various different ways but I wanted to point out that if you bring a psychopathic mentality to the meditation mat it seems very unlikely that that will really change much; if you are a saint before you meditate it is likely you will continue to be one after you meditate (although I am sure it might make the inherently saintly person worse and more selfish instead!).

    Here’s an example of what I mean – Zen Buddhists and kamikaze pilots in war. Unfortunately, conflict seems to be part of humans everywhere in the world and it doesn’t seem to matter how much meditation a person does. Another example might be the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. I don’t know if those terrorists are Buddhist or meditators but I do know that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country.

    It really comes down to the individual and what genetic inherited personality traits they get from birth and then the place they live in (their environment).

  33. @uwsboi14: There is another intriguing angle on your keen observations. The guru or saint does benefit by the adulation and the “reality” created around their enlightenment/saintliness. What most people, devotees mainly, forget is the guru/saint has extreme self-interest (selfishness, which is a normal human attribute) in propping up the reality of their holiness. In other words, the guru/saint is caught in their own delusion and self-illusion. They can’t question the “reality” of it.

    Many clergy have an extremely difficult time if and when they question the “reality” of what they have invested decades of their lives to. Few escape. Many stay so as not to dissappoint family or their congregations. About 600+ clergy though have admitted their ideology is a sham, some are still preachers/ministers. Some 400 or so left. See for example

    How much more difficult and rare for a world-famous guru/saint to admit they’ve made a mistake and wasted their lives? I wonder how many gurus/saints eventually lose belief in what they preached and faked it because they needed a job, the only one they know to pay the bills?


  34. @Scott, “How much more difficult and rare for a world-famous guru/saint to admit they’ve made a mistake and wasted their lives?”

    Really good conversation thread here, thanks. We can never really know whether a certain guru/saint has ever thought they’ve made a mistake and wasted their lives. I can appreciate how many clergy members have come across this horrible realization and yet remain within the self-created prison because life outside seems worse than staying. Here are my early morning ramblings on this. Forgive the less than eloquent writing style:

    The guru and followers are in a symbiotic relationship. The guru cannot disband and the followers in turn help create his exalted place. Both are dependent on the psychological high this relationship creates. Did the guru start this or did the people’s needs simply coincide nicely with the appearance of the guru? Both are drinking the same kool-aid, nurturing the same illusions. The guru still has the upper hand, however. It reminds me of the rise to power of any dictator. I would bet the fertile conditions which make dictatorships possible mirrors the psychological landscape of the guru system itself. The followers must feel sufficiently needy and bereft to allow a guru/dictator to take over their lives while the guru must also have a powerful enough need to control others (under the guise of “it’s for their own good.”). I would think the guru probably also has a very strong narcissistic need in order to simultaneously reward and punish the followers’ adulation, as if there was some deep, unrecognized shame within the guru’s own psychological makeup.

  35. Well said, uwsboi14.
    The side of human behavior you bring up is truly spooky at best and truly horrific and deadly at worst. Hitler gained his power and illusion first through permission/adulation of his followers, and eventually resorted to deception, coercion, and murder of “his subjects”.

  36. Btw, I’m in the middle of changing my opinion of the narcissistic personality disorder theory, so loved by Western psychology. It’s starting to sound to me eerily similar to the eastern religion’s penchant for ego bashing. Hmmm, not good.

  37. @uwsboi14: Ok. I’m not sure what you mean. Please feel free to share your research or thoughts when the apply to a particular topic or post on this blog.

  38. ‘Then discuss the reason of relaxation to practice meditation.’ I think ‘reason’ should be ‘relation’.

    ‘…not what you want to believe it’s from or is’. The word ‘where’ belongs somewhere in this sentence.

  39. @Rob: Thanks for your editorial feedback. I revised these sentences and paragraphs based on your feedback.

  40. I’ve been meditating for reason 3 for about 3 years now, and I find it much more effective than other relaxing activities. But now I’m seriously considering the side effects which obviously playing music or having sex don’t have (they have other side effects, but at least they’re free from depersonalization as far as I know)

  41. @Rene’: I wonder why you feel meditation practice is more relaxing than sleep, exercise, floating in water, or whatever. Anyway, if meditation helps go for it. If you find agitation coming up or out in your behaviors or thoughts you may want to seek the help of a medical professional to advise whether you should continue to meditate as much or maybe try other ways of relaxation. Good luck.

    My personal anecdote is that many times in a five to fifty minute meditation session I would be agitated psychologically.