Journals

Is Networking at Meditation Centers a Moral Issue?

Is meditation good for your career? According to a recent article in the NY Times, the answer is an unequivocal "Yes." But does this violate the sacredness of the practice?

My own experience is also that meditation centers can be good places to network. My last three consulting clients approached me after talks I had given as a guest teacher at one or other center in Los Angeles.

Not only is meditation good for your career, it may, according to this article, be a good way to meet people. Although not mentioned, Spirit Rock's Monday night meditation has long been recognized in Marin county as a good place to connect.

One of my old students sent me this article and then called to talk about it. He felt that approaching meditation as a way to improve your career cheapened the practice of meditation. Clearly, the article raised questions of morality in his mind.

(Full disclosure: this student has given me permission to relate his experience with practice whenever I feel it may be helpful to others.)

When he first started to practice meditation, he was a Fox News Republican. While he was vaguely interested in things Eastern, he was more interested in learning how to manage his volatility. Over the years, as his practice matured and his experienced deepened, he came to see himself and the world in very different ways. He now deeply appreciates meditation practice because it gave him a way to mitigate his volatility and anger. It made a big difference in his life, both at work and at home. He holds it sacred because it has led him into a different relationship with life itself. He has let go of many of his professional and collegial relationships because he no longer shares the same outlook and values. And he has taken up friendships and relationships with organizations he would not have considered before.

One question raised by this article is, “Is there a difference, then, between using meditation to improve your life by working with anger and other reactive emotions on the one hand, or making use of the companionship and shared values you find with other people who practice meditation? Is there a difference?”

The fact is that we prefer to associate with people who share our values. Those values, and their associated implicit or explicit morality, provide the social cohesion for such groups, whether the group is a motorcycle gang or a meditation center.

There are a number of questions here, and they can be ordered into a kind of moral spectrum:

  • Is there anything "wrong" about using meditation to improve your life?
  • Is there anything "wrong" about using the connections you make in meditation groups to improve your life?
  • Is there anything "wrong" about going to meditation groups in order to meet people to improve your life?
  • Is there anything "wrong" about setting up meditation groups in order for people to meet people?
  • Is there anything "wrong" about personally benefiting from other people attending groups you set up?
  • Is there anything "wrong" about making a business or a career from meditation?

This spectrum is very much part of American culture. Prosperity theology, for instance, proposes that it is God's will for people to be happy, and that prosperity is both the point and a method for religious practice. A little closer to home, perhaps, Soka Gakkai espoused a similar view. I know many people who feel that the improvement in their lives has come from their practice of chanting the name of the Lotus Sutra and the connections they made in that organization. The same holds for Transcendental Meditaiton. In the '70s and '80s, Shambhala (or Vajradhatu as it was known then) pursued a similar strategy, encouraging their members to set up businesses and do business with each other. The same holds for countless congregations, ethnic groups and small religious denominations across the nation.

Many people react to the use of meditation practice and meditation groups to improve or advance their lives. They use such words as "cheapen", "icky", and their general reaction is one of disgust, the characteristic reaction to a violation of sanctity or purity.

Sanctity is based on a sense of the sacred, either explicit or implicit. Yet one of the aspects of modern society is that capitalism holds nothing sacred. This was vividly demonstrated when Odande Mar decided to make a bikini printed with the images of Buddha Shakyamuni. Another bikini design featured Krishna.

But societies do retain a sense of the sacred. In both cases, the hue and outcry quickly led the companies to withdraw the designs. Similar concerns have been raised with the appearance of images of Buddha on Nepalese coins and other Asian currencies. Some feel it is a reflection of a cultural heritage. Others feel it is a form of sacrilege, even blasphemy, equivalent in our culture to the placing an image of Jesus or Mary on our currency. At this point, no nation would consider placing an image of Mohammed on their currency.

A sense of the sacred presupposes that there is a higher or deeper truth, one that is beyond ordinary social concerns. Yet, in today's world, that appealing notion is itself problematic. In A Farewell to Truth, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo writes, “...when the word 'truth' is uttered, a shadow of violence is cast as well.”

Moral values are not absolute, nor can they be absolute. Isaiah Berlin noted that we necessarily find ourselves dealing with conflicting goods, i.e., our concern for care, for instance, may conflict with our respect for liberty. To resolve those conflicts, each of us ranks the different dimensions of morality differently — which are more important to us, and which are less.

Liberals, for instance, place the tolerance of diversity high on their list of values, and thus tend to be intolerant of those who do not tolerate diversity. This is more than mere sophistry. It is a demonstration that any categorical stance toward life is inherently self-contradictory.

Politics, according to Leo Strauss, is primarily about not which aspects of morality are valued, but which are valued over others. Is loyalty to be valued more than care? It is in some societies. Is sanctity to be valued more than liberty? Is fairness to be valued more than authority?

Because absolutism results in self-contradiction, the only possibility is an on-going balancing among different moral values, along with the difficult choices that may involve. And that is what this article brings out: the tensions between different notions of morality, of the sacred and the role in our lives of the practice of meditation.

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