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Secular Meditation

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Planning time1 hour
Group Size5-20 is the best group size for discussion
Event DateAnytime

This activity packet was developed by Rick Heller, who runs mediations at the Humanist Community at Harvard. You can find out more about his Loving-Kindness Meditation and other such mediations on his website.

Activity Overview:
Meditation has become increasingly popular as a way to reduce stress and promote joy and compassion. Secular forms of meditation are gaining in popularity, and have no religious element. The Humanist Community at Harvard has hosted a meditation group for six years and has now produced a guidebook called Secular Meditation. One of the meditation practices featured in it is the Loving-Kindness Meditation.

Loving-Kindness Meditation is a guided practice that promotes feelings of kindness and compassion. It is more social than many other forms of meditation and can be done in conjunction with other activities, such as service projects. It allows participants to confront those who produce suffering while being mindful of their humanity. When we overcome feelings of disgust and hatred toward those with whom we are in conflict, we can deal with them in a more rational manner.

Planning Timeframe:
There is a script and video with instructions provided for the meditation. The leader should run through the script ahead of time or watch the video.

Material Requirements:
A quiet room should be secured, ideally with seating that can be arranged in a circle. Simple straight-back chairs are best. Avoid chairs with arm rests.

Suggested Walkthrough:

  1. Welcome those who attend and allow each person to introduce themselves if they wish.
  2. Explain the concept that secular meditation can be seen as a mental exercise. Even though this exercise was derived from Buddhism, any supernatural or ritualistic aspects have been removed.
  3. Run through the Loving-Kindness Meditation script. Alternatively, play the video, but pause the video at each step in order to allow the participants to experience the meditation at leisure.
  4. At the conclusion of the meditation, ask people to share if they would be willing to share their experience. Ask them if certain steps were easier or harder.
  5. Expand the discussion to include more theoretical questions, such as whether it is appropriate to feel compassion toward harmful individuals (e.g. murderers) and how to balance compassion with reason in order to avoid further harm.  

Meditation Script:

  1. With eyes closed, you bring to mind a benefactor, someone for whom you have warm feelings. You express your good will toward that person in words that stir your emotions. Because it’s gender-neutral, we’ll use the pronoun “you” below to refer to this individual. Silently say:
    I’d like you... to be safe... to be healthy... to be happy... to be at ease in the world.
  2. These words don’t have magical powers that reach across space, but they do have the power to change your brain. The first thing you notice when you think these words is that it feels really good. Even though that person is not present, you begin to feel the warm glow of an emotional connection.

    The next person you express warm wishes to is yourself. Though people tend to be self-conscious about this, there’s nothing wrong with caring for yourself. Silently say:
    I’d like... to be safe... to be healthy... to be happy... to be at ease in the world.
  3. Turn participants attention toward someone whom they do not love. Start with someone they barely give a second thought to, such as the person who served them coffee this morning, checked out their groceries, an anonymous neighbor they see daily but barely acknowledge. Then think about that person and repeat the loving-kindness phrases. Because of the emotion built up in prior steps, participants may feel a surprising amount of warmth toward this person. Silently say:
    I’d like them... to be safe... to be healthy... to be happy... to be at ease in the world.
  4. Now comes the challenging part. Have participants think of a difficult person — perhaps a difficult co-worker or relative — and repeat the Loving-Kindness phrases. Although challenging, this may well soften the meditator's feelings toward this person. Silently say:
    I’d like them... to be safe... to be healthy... to be happy... to be at ease in the world.

If you are interested in learning the scientific background of loving-kindness meditation, a good review of the academic literature is:

Hofmann, Stefan G., Paul Grossman, and Devon E. Hinton. "Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions." Clinical psychology review 31.7 (2011): 1126-1132.

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