Is secular meditation possible?

“Bodhi Nature”, the inherent perfection in all things. The God-nature within you.  The answer to life’s meaninglessness, the ever-elusive blissful state of being, the vastness which simply cannot be contained within words. This Buddha nature, our innate answer to all of life’s struggles isn’t easy to find. We need to dig down to our deepest recesses, cut through the infinite layers of ego, train our minds to hyper focus on our breathing, and transcend into the realm of no thought where the enlightened state lies. The eventual “Zen”, is one of ultimate bliss and supreme contentment. The age-old, established method of acquiring Zen as preached by Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism is meditation. Meditation can be the answer to finally breaking through the endless ‘Dukha’, the countless cycles of rebirth. Meditation is aimed at drastically reshaping the way we perceive and sense the world. Meditation is serious business.

Since meditation can seriously alter and bend the way we perceive the world, how can we imagine the path to enlightenment be without it’s share of dangers. How can sitting in quiet and counting your breath be dangerous, you ask? Good question. The unexplored mind can be a dangerous place. Pain, depression, and trauma are more mental states than actual circumstantial events. The psychological circuitry of our intricate brains does not allow us to escape pain and suffering even if we are well enclosed within our familiar comfortable settings . The reason? you still have your mind and your thoughts to cope with, no matter how the outside circumstances are. A quick example to illustrate this concept, any mind altering substance. People feel happier, social and more relaxed, after a couple of drinks. Clearly, it is their mental state which has changed, and nothing has changed in their external life situation. Meditation instills in us an awareness of our thoughts and hence can precipitate unresolved trauma and fears from the subconscious mind to the conscious mind. There is plenty that our minds have simply filed away in dark and dreary corners. We chose to look away every time those thoughts surface. Meditation, makes us deal with it, and consequently work through all those fearful entrapping thoughts.

Well, that’s good, you think. Meditation forces us to face our shunned fears and confront them head on. Easier said than done, however. Let me explain. Imagine you caught on with all the buzz surrounding meditation and mindfulness. You want to practice meditation for all the wonderful benefits everyone claims it has. However, otherwise, you are not the deep thinking type. Existential questions about life and the universe do not mean much to you. But still, you do not want to miss out on the meditation bandwagon. Everyone recommends meditation and mindfulness, it’s safe, it helps you focus, it actually develops your frontal cortex, powers up your concentration etcetera etcetera. With all the buzz and popularity surrounding meditation, you want to try it out too.  But remember, meditation performed in its true spirit, was not meant to be a short term fix to everyday mental health problems, no matter how much the  pop therapists and online bloggers suggest otherwise. Without any core beliefs anchoring your mind and soul, meditation is like going down a deep well of infinite darkness, an unknown abyss that you have to keep sinking into, to ultimately break onto the other side.  The west wants to reap the benefits of meditation, without experiencing the intense questioning of reality that comes with it! Meditation does not give you guarantees or promises! You just have to keep pushing through, deeper and deeper with every breath. Also, you cannot meditate with a goal in mind, meditation is not a means to an end, it is an end within itself.

The dangers of meditation are not something I myself only have experienced. ‘The atlantic’ has an excellent post on how meditation can truly terrify the practitioner, making them question the very fabric of their reality. Personally, I do not blame meditation, It was always meant to destroy your preconceptions of reality and replace them with whatever the ultimate reality of our lives is. The western society like always  latches onto anything that give people temporary respite without understanding its religious context. Meditation is, and has always supposed to be a religious practice.

A brief primer on my flirtations with meditation. I struggled with recurring panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder over the last few years. I often had terrifying episodes where everything I knew and believed in, would fade away and lose its meaning. These disconcerting episodes are formally referred in psychology as derealization; a horrifying feeling that one’s surroundings are not real. For me, my ever helpful brain upped the ante further, and I used to feel that I myself wasn’t real as well. Everything was floaty or dreamy.  Needless to say these episodes would leave me dazed, miserable and irrationally fearful. I would have these episodes in my sleep, at work, at the gym, during conversations, until it came to a time where I could no longer escape these intrusive thoughts.  Like everyone else nowadays, I scourged the internet to find a solution to this. Meditation was recommended by a lot of people as a natural cure. I read a book on Zen Meditation and jumped right in, and soon enough, I had established a rigorous routine of daily meditation. Often times, I would meditate twice or thrice a day. I was determined, focused and had a clear goal in mind. Meditation would cure my anxiety and make me a happier person. I was driven and hopeful, Until the exact opposite happened.

The days leading to the distressing event, meditation had counter-intuitively started precipitating in me feelings of anxiety and derealization. My palms would become sweaty, and my body would tremble as fear would start welling up in my body. I had intense recollections and deja vu of all my subconscious fears. It was like reliving PTSD, whereby my biggest fears would start surfacing. Obscure fearful memories would flash out of nowhere.  One day at work, while talking to a colleague, I started losing my hold on reality and started to dissociate. I tried to internally talk to myself out of the experience. No avail however since I was caught in the dreaded ‘panic loop’. I was getting fearful from the dissociation experience and the fear would make me dissociate more. This in turn would make me more fearful until the loop culminated in petrifying my soul with full blown terror! My heart rate jumped, breathing became shallow, and I felt pins and needles throughout my body. I had to get out, I excused myself, and went home but the feelings wouldn’t subside. I was back at square one, a month of meditation had only led me deceivingly to the worst panic attack I had in months! And then the despair sunk in! There was no hope! Not only was I suffering again, I was absolutely hopeless now. I was convinced there was no escape from this lifetime of mental hell I was being sentenced to. I was left naked and vulnerable in front of my fears.

After a week, once the uncomfortable feelings started to become status quo,my curious mind needed to make sense of what had happened. I  yet again scourged the internet reading about the dangers of meditation. I discovered the “dark night of the soul” project, where an actual rehab had been created by Dr. Willoughby Britton, for meditators suffering with meditation induced mental breakdowns! It was fascinating reading all these experiences of seasoned meditators ending up in psycho-therapy and rehab. Obviously the Zen Master’s and Yogis had their answers. Meditation needed to be done under the guidance of a teacher.  Meditation needed to be swapped with guided meditation. The meditator needed to loudly recite certain chants and verses whilst meditating to prevent the mind from foraying into darker realms. Meditation cannot be an aimless recourse, it needs to have structure, posture and clear direction. And if you fall on dark times you need to keep pushing through until you find the much needed salvation. After reading through all these responses, a blissful euphoria started evocating in my soul. Instead of starting another futile search for a better form of meditation, I realized that I was already a seasoned practitioner in the the most structured, organized and supreme form of guided meditation there could be! One of the core tenets of the religion of Islam, the five daily prayers referred to as Salah in Arabic and in south asia as “Namaz”! I always had this tool at my disposal, but I never practiced it for the powerful self-help tool it was. I had to learn it as part of a traditional islamic upbringing, but never comprehended the ultimate power it gave to the performer. Let’s look at Namaz and how it excels manifold from any other form of meditation there is. Even if both practices are performed in secular contexts, Namaaz is much more intricate and organized. And where Namaz really knocks the competition out of the park, is that Namaz provides the practitioner with the much needed anchor of an omnipresent and loving God. And He is there willfully asking you to to submit all your anxiety and depression to his endless compassion. No matter how much Namaz you perform you will not wander into the ‘dark nights’. You are centered in the loving embrace of a compassionate and merciful God!

Namaz was an immediate,almost magical relief to my anxiety. Solely from a secular standpoint, this is why I believe Namaz is intrinsically superior:

  1. Namaz is performed five times a day, during fixed time intervals, which are spaced throughout the day relevant to the positions of the sun. Structure and routine.
  2. Namaz is to be preceded by a quick ablution with water. This not only cleans the body, but warms-up the practitioner into a meditative state of mind prior to the actual Namaz itself.
  3. Namaz has fixed number of repetitions which can vary depending on what Namaz. you are performing
  4. Namaz has fixed postures which alternate between sitting and standing unlike meditation which is mostly performed in sitting positions.
  5. Namaz intrinsically involves chanting of profound religious verses, which enable the practitioners mind to focus and not wander towards other thoughts. This acts as a tool to calm down a racing mind. The Verses also act as a built-in timer towards meditation, so the meditator knows when to switch from one position to another and knows when the Namaz eventually ends. For meditation otherwise, people use stopwatches or keep meditating until the desired results are achieved.
  6. Namaz is a form of light exercise. Psychiatrists and doctors have long recommended meditation and exercise hand-in-hand as a drug-free cure for mental ailments. Namaz once again, elegantly, combines the two together into one effective practice.

One can only marvel at the boundless subtle wisdom Namaz innately has. It is a complete, all encompassing tool for cultivating mental strength and mental grounding to fight all sorts of everyday stressful and anxious mindsets.  I always used to consider Namaz an inconvenience which had been thrusted upon me and other believers as a laborious practice for being Muslim. With the spiritual changes in consciousness, I can begin to fathom the innumerable benefits Namaz has for the performer itself. God doesn’t need our Namaaz. We  are the ones who need it for successfully navigating through our tumultuous lives. It’s a gift to us from our creator.

So next time you chose ‘secular’ meditation as a cure for your everyday problems, try Namaz instead. Foolproof, highly structured and disciplined, Namaz will bring you results. Even if you are not the religious sorts, religious-based meditation will reap its benefits for you. No wonder, Islam is an ortho-practice religion, where establishing regular practices is an essential steps towards developing an unshakeable faith.  And while you are praying, You might just find Zen and tap into your Bodhi-Nature as well 😉