Meditation and ‘Spirit’?

An issue that keeps coming up in talks about Dispirited is that of meditation. Mindfulness meditation seems, in some contemporary settings, thoroughly secularised.

Over at the Mental Health Foundation offer an online course to support people dealing with stress. They have a FAQ page that contains this statement:

Is it Religious?

No, this course does not contain anything of a religious nature. You will not be asked to accept anything except what you experience for yourself.

The question that I have been asked – in the context of being someone who wishes to look at how we might live without Spirituality is ‘Is Meditation spiritual?’

This strikes me as a very good question. Mindfulness as we now seem to refer to it has explicitly religious roots. It is based on the Pali Buddhist term Sati and arises as an integral component of the early Buddhist traditions. Nonetheless, my answer has usually been that there is scope for a non-spiritual reading of mindfulness, and that we could even offer (though here is not the place to do this, perhaps) a non-spiritual reading of much of the Pali Canon.

But am I right? Does this make sense – or is the religious inscribed into mindfulness? There might a praxis based answer located in an anthropological study of the use of it within Buddhist communities. Another answer might be derived from the key Suttas in the Canon that seem to be the basis for this practice.

The Satipaṭṭhāna (Foundations of Sati – Mindfulness) Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya may be a good place to start. [The Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta – The Greater Foundations of Mindfulness, in the Dīgha Nikāya, adds little in this context]


The Sutta begins with a statement that surprises some, after the usual pleasantries, in that declares the way offered has as the ‘only way’ to fully overcome the problems that Buddhism identifies (sorrow, lamentation, the way to over come dukkha). Some who think of Buddhism as inclusivist and open may be somewhat taken aback by this – it bears further examination.

The translation at calls is ‘The Only Way’. In the authoritative translation of the Majjhima Nikāya by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha, Wisdom Books), they opt for ‘this is the direct path’. The Pali reads ekāyano ayam bhikkhave maggo – the important terms here being that of ekāyano and magga. While magga is not troublesome – being way or path – what are we to make of ekāyano? It is a compound from eka and ayana, the latter being ‘going’. Ayana maggo would be a path going (in this case to the goal). But the presence of eka here makes a difference. It is the word for ‘one’, but is often used in an indefinite sense (as noted here). We might be tempted (as Ñānamoli & Bodhi note most translators are, n.135, p.1188, inclined to do) to just have this as ‘the one way’, the ‘only way’, etc. However they invoke examples from elsewhere in the Majjhma Nikāya, and the commentary, that make things less clear. The context in the other uses of ekāyana magga make it clear that it can indicate a one-way path, or a single path that needs to be walked alone. Taking all this into account they opt for “direct path”: noting that other practices can be sidetracked, whereas “Satipaṭṭhāna leads invariably to the final goal”.

So maybe the apparent exlcusivism here is not so harsh as all that – but the efficacy and directness of the method is being brought to the fore..

Back to meditation:

The rest of the Sutta is not without issues of translation, but these don’t really impact on our concerns here hugely. Other than in one way…

The term itself for mindfulness: Sati : while this is linked to the Sanskrit Smriti (“that which is remembered”, a term used to refer to {non Śruti [‘heard’ – directly received]’} Hindu scriptures) it seems to have a base meaning of memory – which develops in Pali Buddhist usages (see Ñānamoli & Bodhi, p.1188) as attention, or awareness directed at the current or present moment. This is what seems to be what we mean by ‘mindfulness’ – present awareness or attention.

I will return to the Sutta in future posts, but what are the foundations here of Sati? The paṭṭhāna – the foundations (that which sets up) of mindfulness are listed as four-fold:

 “What are the four?

“Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating the feelings in the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome in this world covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.”

These – the body, feelings, mind/consciousness (depending on translation), mind-objects – all seem to be consistent with a world-view that doesn’t invoke any sense of ‘spirit’ at all. I’d like to return to the detail given to awareness of death in the Sutta (another time), but here we have an account of mindfulness that seems wholly non-spiritual.

The possible issue that might cloud this is of where this leads: for some might suggest that if this leads to Nirvana – then that is itself a spiritual construct. That is a thorny question I’d like to return to as well: but the fundamental account that this practice, of self-aware, concentrated attention on the present experience of mind-body, is a means to the reduction and overcoming of suffering and misery may be an indicator that a non-spiritual account of meditation is perfectly feasible.

7 thoughts on “Meditation and ‘Spirit’?

  1. I find this reasoning (although I do not have the expertise in Buddhist studies) very convincing, and am looking forward to reading the new book, just arrived.

  2. I think the boundaries between these discourses are pretty fuzzy anyway. And many people would argue that much of Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion (rather like the Stoics and the Epicureans offered practices to make life better, and banded together in communities, but weren’t really thought of as a religion).

    Using the term “spirituality” for mindfulness, awareness, compassion etc is only a problem if you think it has something to do with a transcendent spirit that lives outside the universe, and which is somehow inherently better than us. (Of course, there’s also the problem so eloquently described by Denis Potter: “The trouble with words is that they’ve been in other people’s mouths.” The problem that what a lot of people mean by spirituality is mindless claptrap.)

    I think any system that claims to be universally applicable and to cure all the world’s ills is probably wrong. There are, as William James showed, many varieties of religious experience, and so the more different liturgies and rituals that are out there, the better, provided that they’re not providing havens for bigotry, or actually making people unhappy.

  3. Quick reply to Yvonne: Buddhism as a philosophy – I go a certain distance with that – but it is a religion. The case for it being so gets stronger and stronger the more you encounter it as a historical phenomena. Religions have are partly composed of philosophical claims and views – Buddhism has these quite close to both the surface, and some might argue its core too..

    I’m not going there with the term again..not today… I really do think we need to leave ‘spiritual’ to people who believe in some kind of actual spirit though..

    I thought your last point was the most interesting… What is offered, in the Sutta, I guess (I could have been much clearer on this), is a solution to the ills of the world-as-you-experience-it. This is a significant aspect of what the end of dukkha means for early and Theravada Buddhism, I think..

    William James showed that people claimed a variety of experiences, which he and they classified as religious. That rituals and liturgies are harmless, unless directly offensive or negative, is a quite substantial claim. I am not sure I am as optimistic…

    1. Yes, I personally think that Buddhism is a religion rather than a philosophy; the kind of people who want to claim it’s a philosophy are usually the ones who want to claim that all religion requires belief in a supernatural creator deity and is therefore harmful because that’s obviously wrong.

      Are rituals and liturgies harmless? Well, they have various effects, which could be either negative or positive depending on the context. For example, they generally produce group bonding / feelings of community cohesion – which is probably good if the community you are cohering with is one that celebrates you and enables you (but not if it crushes some aspect of your individuality).

      Tania Luhrmann identified a phenomenon she called “cognitive drift” to explain how people start out sceptical and rational but end up believing in deities, magic, etc. This cognitive drift is probably produced by exposure to ritual and liturgy… so there’s a possibly harmful effect right there.

      (On a side note, I love the new blog colour scheme, it’s much easier on the eye.)

  4. There’s now some interesting research on neuroplasticity and meditation. So, I’d say it certainly can be taken outside of a religious context. That it came from a Buddhist context, doesn’t limit it’s future uses. After all, think about NASA and velcro. Where would we be without it? tee hee.

  5. It is unfortunate that in their attempt to remove any link with a religious practise the Mental Health Foundation paraphrase the Kalama Sutta which deals with the hows and whys that people should accept a ‘truth’; when they know for themselves that they are skillful and blameless and will lead to welfare and happiness. Or, ‘do not accept anything that you do not experience for yourself’.

    As you have already suggested, while Buddhism can in many ways be classed as a philosophy I would agree that it is a religion, which leads to the question at hand, is Mindfulness spiritual? which in turn, since Mindfulness is a religious activity, prompts the questions, are all religious activities spiritual, and are all spiritual exercises religious?

    You make many good points in your blog, however, just to play devils advocate; Firstly one would have to agree upon a definition for spiritual, and it is this definition that I feel would ultimately win or lose any argument regarding the spirituality of Mindfulness.

    If we were to accept as a premise that spirituality is that which occurs between I and Thou, then could this in turn lead to the result that Mindfulness is spiritual? If Mindfulness is the concentrated focus on the self (I) in relationship with your surroundings (Thou) might this interplay be classed as spiritual?

    1. Yes – we’d need to agree on Spirituality as a term before we could judge whether or not Mindfulness is or isn’t..

      I argue in the book that the term Spiritual is too tainted by supernatural, metaphysical, spirit-related associations to have the merely relational/psychological usage you suggest without being misleading..

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