Is Meditation a Spiritual Practice?

A friend shared a meme recently which listed 4 buckets of self-care strategies, including physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. I was glad to see that it included meditation, but my lawyer brain fired up when I saw it listed meditation only in the spiritual bucket. Literally starting with the phrase, “Well, actually” my mind began drafting a response to my friend’s social media post to explain that meditation was not just a spiritual practice.

Rather than alienate my friend, however, I decided that a blog post would probably be a better forum for these thoughts. So, here it goes. Is meditation a “spiritual practice?” Undoubtedly it is, since various forms of meditation have overtly been part of numerous spiritual and religious traditions throughout history. Meditation also may be a spiritual practice for many individuals outside of the context of religious and spiritual traditions. In my view, a spiritual practice is one that establishes or promotes a sense of connection between an individual and other beings or the universe. Meditation has clearly offered that for me and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

But I rail against putting meditation only in the spiritual bucket for a few reasons. The biggest is that, as a lawyer, I am a super practical person. Emphasizing the spiritual aspects of meditation can therefore be problematic when it is done to the exclusion of other practical benefits. Sure, meditation can connect you with the universe. It can also help you not be troubled by your thoughts. In my case, it consistently reduces or abates my headaches and other physical signs of stress. And, it routinely helps me get over myself by letting me see that I need to apologize/ask for help/forgive myself/ease up/just let something go. Having experienced all of these practical benefits firsthand, I can’t put meditation into the “spiritual” bucket alone because it contributes regularly to my mental/emotional/physical/social wellbeing.

But maybe that really takes me to a different point altogether. Maybe the problem isn’t with calling meditation a “spiritual” practice at all. Instead, perhaps the issue is that all of these aspects of personal well-being – spiritual, emotional, physical, and social – are actually intertwined. As a pedagogical tool, it may be helpful to separate out these needs so that us wayward humans who often stray from the path of health and happiness can find our breadcrumb trail to stumble back to sanity. But the truth, as my meditation practice regularly reveals to me, is that these human needs are intertwined and interdependent. Thus, most wholesome activities can’t be put into one bucket alone, but rather support, cycle, and flow into all the others.

So, am I telling you to stop sharing that meme and others like them that separate out human needs into categories? Of course not. But as you share or view memes like these, it may help to just consider for a moment if they are 100% true and, more significantly, whether they are true for you. It may be even more eye-opening for you to think about the personal practices that you rely on to keep yourself well and whether they fit in just one, multiple or all of the “human needs” buckets. Considering this myself, I can’t agree that meditation is only a spiritual practice any more than I could agree that exercise is just a physical one. In the end, I think meditation is a human practice made for human needs, including those that are spiritual, physical, social, and mental.

Is the Hobby that Feeds Your Spirit the Same as Meditation?

When I talk about mindfulness or meditation, people frequently tell me that they don’t/can’t/won’t meditate but that their favorite hobby or pastime is “their meditation.” Some say “running” is their meditation. Some say “fishing”. Some say that they do “walking meditations.” I understand what all of these people mean. If I didn’t have a seated meditation practice, I’d say cooking and writing are my meditations. They are pastimes that make me feel connected to others, they connect my mind, heart, and body, and they both help my mind quiet down for a little while. But is this really the same thing as meditation?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because it really depends on what one means by “the same.” If you are talking about research-proven benefits, then the answer is probably “no.” Surely, research exists to demonstrate the health benefit of cooking one’s own meals, engaging in exercise, or even having hobbies. But whether that research would reveal benefits of the same kind that the practice of meditation offers is another matter. Indeed, the current research seems to suggest that various types of meditation can produce varying mental or physical health benefits. Thus, it stands to reason, that a different activity altogether may not truly be the “same” as meditation in terms of impact.

Another significant difference between meditation practice and other pastimes is one of degree. While certainly, favored activities like cooking, running, or fishing may unite the body and mind and even evoke a sense of spiritual satisfaction, that would make the pastimes far more similar to yoga asana practice than seated meditation. These practices may be excellent for managing stress and increasing happiness because they can help quiet the mind. Quieting the mind is one common benefit of meditation but it isn’t the only one.

For a style such a vipassana or loving-kindness practice, meditation will actually help you examine the mind. Since movement is minimized and even focal points restricted with these types of meditation practice, the meditator will almost inevitably be faced with their thought patterns and emotional reactions with no extra activity to distract their attention. As you can probably understand, the benefits of seeing these patterns include understanding oneself and increased agency in one’s life.

In other words, my opinion is that meditation is not the same as most personal hobbies, though parallels and some shared benefits undoubtedly exist. But does this mean that meditation is better than other personal hobbies? This, in my opinion, is a trick question. I think meditation might be more helpful to some people than personal hobbies in certain contexts, but I could also envision times when the opposite might be true. Thus, I don’t think “better” is an absolute answer. Moreover, my honest opinion is that one should not be choosing between meditation or satisfying personal hobbies. Instead, I think you should do both because I have experienced the benefits of both in my own life.

In short, when people tell me that their hobby is “their meditation”, I don’t tell them that they are wrong. I don’t think that I am better because I meditate. But I try to talk about and teach meditation in a way that people can understand the particular benefits it offers and that it’s available to them whenever they decide to sit down and give it a try. Until they do, I am thrilled to know that many people have hobbies that mean so much to them that they see them as akin to a self-care or spiritual practice.  It may not be the same as meditation but that’s not a bad thing. It just means other opportunities for benefits and personal exploration exist for you if the need and desire ever arise.