Meditation & Religion: How (If At All) Are They Related?
Because it’s often a source of confusion, let’s explore the relationship between meditation and religion.
What Is Religion?
The first thing to notice is that the word “religion” can refer to any of a number of spiritual traditions. It can refer to Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; to Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism; and to East Asian religions such as Confucianism and Taoism — just to name those that are currently most well known.
What Is Meditation?
The second thing to understand is that the word “meditation” can refer to a wide range of practices and techniques, which are designed to promote relaxation, enhance energy, improve concentration, develop compassion and — ultimately — to direct our attention to the aware presence that is the background of all of life’s experiences. The common thread of all meditation techniques is their experiential, subjective nature. In other words, to really know what meditation is, you have to do it — which ends up being the equivalent of being it. Its most general purpose is to cultivate an abiding sense of well-being, that permeates all of our activities.
“Simply put, meditation techniques are tools for knowing, shaping, and liberating the mind. In the same way that cardio or weight-training helps you cultivates a healthy, strong, and flexible body, meditation practice helps you cultivate a healthy, strong, and flexible mind. It also gives you access to a subtle level of awareness (your own inner wisdom) from which you’re able to perceive reality directly and with great clarity.” — Elizabeth Reninger, Meditation Now
Meditation Within Religious Traditions
Now that we have a sense of what the word “religion” means, and what the word “meditation” means — we’re ready to explore how they are related. And the short answer is that pretty much every religion has a contemplative aspect to — which includes introspective practices that could easily be referred to as “meditation.” If we look carefully at the history of the major religions, we find that there have always been contemplatives — we could also call them mystics — who have practiced some form of meditation.
That said, what’s also true is that all major religions have institutions and rituals that have very little or nothing to do with meditation. Such rituals comprise the exoteric aspect of the religion: its external forms. Meditation, on the other hand, belongs to the esoteric — internal or “hidden” — aspect of the religion.
Meditation Separate From Religious Traditions
While religions all include some form of meditation (even if it’s practiced only by a small percentage of members), meditation can also be practiced entirely separate from any religious tradition. This is sometimes referred to as “secular meditation.” What this means is that we practice meditation in contexts which have nothing whatsoever to do with a formal religious tradition.
So we don’t have to affiliate with any particular religion, in order to benefit from meditation practice. And conversely, if we already belong to a particular religious tradition, our meditation practice can be interwoven with that tradition — or remain as a separate activity.
Confusions About Meditation & Religion
Confusions about meditation and religion often lead to faulty conclusions, for instance:
* There are people who avoid meditation because they believe it is associated with a specific religious tradition: Buddhism or Hinduism, for instance.
* And so if someone identifies as, say, a Christian or a Jew — then they may say “no, thanks” to meditation if they assume it is associated only with a non-Christian or non-Jewish religion.
* And there are those who identify as agnostic or atheist, and say “no, thanks” to meditation, because they avoid, in principle, any activity which they assume to be religious.
While meditation is a central part of a majority of Buddhist and Hindu traditions, it is also found (as mentioned above) in all other religious traditions. But practicing meditation does not in any way require one to identify as a Buddhist, a Hindu or a devote of any other religion. It works just as well for someone who identifies as an atheist or agnostic.
So the take-home point is this: meditation is not inherently associated with any specific religion. Anyone can do it, and anyone can benefit deeply from it. While meditation could be thought of as the essence of all religions, it does not depend upon any of their external forms. Meditation techniques are portals to an unconditioned, formless Reality — our True Nature — that transcends time and space.
If you already belong to a certain religion, you may be inspired to integrate the insights gleaned from meditation into your religious rituals. And if you don’t affiliate with a religious tradition, then the energy and insights of your meditation practice will be integrated into the activities and relationships of your daily life. Either way, meditation is hugely beneficial, and wonderful in countless ways!