‘Meditation is a quest that the bewildered embark upon…’

Intellectual Context

One of the founders of sociology, August Comte, wondered what could provide the social cohesion for individuals living in the midst of a secular age. He posited a ‘religion of humanity’ to fill the void left by positive religion, a void that Emile Durkheim would later call ‘anomie’ in his attempt to understand the rise of suicide in an overly individualistic world. Quite apart from everything else, positive religion traditionally provided one with orientation and direction, rhythm and resonance as well as belonging, affiliation, and intelligibility.

Since then, more serious secular thinkers, the ones who believe that positive religion has long provided the social glue for an individual’s life, have come up with many alternatives to religious affiliation (almost immediately one thinks of ethical cultures, ethical societies, humanist societies, and secular churches) all in the hope of reintroducing ceremony and ritual into an otherwise atomized and disenchanted populace. (Sociologists of today point out that more and more individuals are choosing to live alone, but this fact about single habitation neglects to mention the ways in which autonomous individuals, having been thrown into what Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice, feel more and more unmoored.)  Quite recently in the UK, some ‘atheist churches’ are drawing in large groups of young persons who come in search of music and community.

I doubt that secular churches can work, even as a conceit, because they lack a substantive conception of the good life, but I believe that what is significant about their emergence and relative popularity is that individuals who may be agnostic or atheist or open to bigger questions may also be, unlike the New Atheists who scoff at positive religion, hungry to participate in ritualized meaning-making activities, the kinds of activities that, at their best, can bring life into harmony.

The Place of Meditation in Modern Life

Enter meditation.

Pascal suggests that one must get down on one’s knees and pray if one is ever to believe. Believing of whatever kind, he argues, is a practice, not in the beginning a theological doctrine. I believe the vacuum created by a secular age has, some 200 years on, has made regular meditative practice especially appealing to those longing to lead meaningful lives. For meditation is the activity of seekers who are unsure what it is they are after but who are willing to set off in search; it is a mode (or world) that is available to individuals who are open yet uncommitted to doctrines, conclusions, or results; and it is a discipline requiring rigor, attention, modifications, and exercise. Meditation–part-guidance and also part-improvisation–is a quest that the bewildered embark upon.

The path of meditation is not without its paradoxes or challenges. On the one hand, persons who meditate are lone seekers unsure of what they will find. On the other hand, they are open to having communal or transcendent experiences even if those experiences are not readily nameable or identifiable or easily describable. On the one hand, they have rejected most ceremonies as not properly authoritative ‘for our time.’ On the other hand, they cannot help but sense that ceremony and ritual create in us the ‘second natures’ and dispositions that have been venerated by many religious and philosophical traditions for ages: dipositions of calmness and gentleness, composure and tranquility, steadiness and leveledness. On the one hand, they have long been skeptics and rationalists. On the other hand, they would like to move past their skepticism and find a way to affirm life.

Consequently, many wary of traditional symbols are nevertheless experimental creatures open to trying many ‘genres’: open to chanting, mantras, calls and responses, sitting meditations, breathing meditations, mindfulness meditations, walking meditations, natural walks, and so on. And as one would expect, not a few have constructed personal altars in which notions of the sacred–perhaps what Mircea Eliade would call the hierphantic–can come to light, giving some faint indication of some higher order of experience, some better aspect from which to view this world.

In this post-traditional moment in which the past cannot be fossilized (Nietzsche’s antiquarianism) nor can the present be reinvented from nothing, how can we reinvoke and rethink the past for this our meditative time? How will we become cultivars and curators who honor the past without being beholden to it, who reawaken the spirit of inquiry without being too literal-minded or uninspired? And what meditative aids will facilitate this transition toward greater improvisation, more playfulness, and, of course, a fuller sense of earnestness?