Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail

Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.

In a previous post, I showed how one can be Buddhist and non-religious at the same time. Now I will show how enlightenment (also called Awakening) can be a valid notion and even a feasible goal for the non-religious.

But before we talk about it we need to step back and look at meditation itself: what meditation is in general (sustaining attention on one thing), and how that can be used to cultivate wisdom (by turning sustained attention onto itself).

Next week will cover the question “what is enlightenment?”.

Sustained Attention

At its simplest, meditation is the art and skill of putting your mind’s attention on one thing and keeping it there. Other qualities such as tranquility, joy and equanimity mix well with meditation, but in simple terms when you meditate, you put your mind’s attention on one thing and try to keep it there for a length of time 1.

Some people are natural artists, and some people take to meditation more easily than others. But luckily for the rest of us, being able to direct and sustain our attention is a totally trainable thing, and this makes meditation a universal skill that anyone can develop 2.

Three Levels of Sustaining Attention

Even just the everyday ability to pay attention is critical, from rock climbing or surfing, to competing in a sport or athletics, piloting a jet fighter or practising surgery. We take it for granted, but all of these activities require our long-running, undivided attention.

I have noticed there are three basic levels of sustained attention.

1) Flow-Induced

  1. “Woah dude I totally got in the zone all the way down the mountain.”
  2. “I was awake all night coding and fixed everything.”
  3. “It feels as though you and the horse are one organism.”

These are all examples of what psychologists call “flow state” 3. You find an activity so engaging that some kind of shift in consciousness takes place, that you barely notice until you look back. Then you recall a state of total immersion. You felt in control, and perhaps a bit high. If you noticed your breathing, it was probably smooth and rhythmical. You produced some good work, and probably forgot about things like hunger. 4

Flow states naturally include a lot of sustained attention. But no matter how intense your attention may have been during that, it was all a result of doing some activity. You didn’t deliberately create intense focus per se, you just did your thing and boom, flow state happened and with that came sustained attention. It was incidental.

2) Samadhi: Deliberately Sustained Attention

“Visualise your arm extending to the point of your sword.”
“Generate movement from your tan t’ien.”
“Breath smoothly and rhythmically.”

These practices are designed to deliberately cultivate sustained attention. You can find such instructions in many fields — fencing, athletics of all kinds, martial arts, yoga, and Buddhist meditation. These are referred to in Buddhism as samadhi practices.

Samadhi (pronounced “sum-MUD-dy”) is a Sanskrit word sometimes translated into English as “concentration”. But compared to everyday concentration, with samadhi we deliberately increase the intensity and duration of the focus, until it becomes effortless and can be maintained for minutes or hours.

One of the qualities of samadhi is that it can elevate an activity beyond the mundane to an art form. Think Chinese calligraphy, Japanese tea ceremonies, or any number of physical pursuits like Olympic diving, yoga or martial arts.

Within these practices, the practitioner does not just rely on flow states or chance to induce a pinpoint, sustained focus. They have trained themselves to deliberately bring it on.

As opposed to Flow-Induced sustained attention, techniques for deliberately inducing samadhi are cognitive technologies.

But like all technologies, cognitive technologies are morally agnostic. They can be employed by an assassin in carrying out their kills just as much as a monk in memorising teachings on loving-kindness. Warrior classes of many cultures have used them as a way to empower and improve on their abilities 5.

There is no human activity that cannot be performed more effectively, more efficiently or more powerfully with this quality of sustained attention.

Focus on the sensations of breathing at the tip of your nostrils, and when your attention wanders, return to the breath.

In contrast to the other examples, this most basic of Buddhist meditation instructions may seem mundane or even pointless when you first hear it. Most samadhi techniques focus on sustaining attention on some practical activity. What is the point of sustaining attention on breathing? Shouldn’t we do something more useful with all that attention?

But in fact this deliberately uncomplicated practice makes it possible to “do” something very profound: take concentration to the third level.

3) Vipassana: Reflective Concentration

The third stage of samadhi is when we use the sustained attention we have developed to look at sustained attention itself.

"Know thyself" is a saying that dates back to the ancient Egyptians (the temple of Luxor in Egypt contains the engraving "the body is the house of the Gods; therefore Man, know thyself"). Plato also gives much attention to the proverb in various works. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain.
“Know thyself” is a saying that dates back to the ancient Egyptians (the temple of Luxor in Egypt contains the engraving “the body is the house of the Gods; therefore Man, know thyself”). Plato also gives much attention to the proverb in various works. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain.

Using intense and deliberate attention to examine our minds in this way debunks many illusions we previously suffered about our mind, our body and the world in which we find ourselves 6.

The first thing we notice when we turn sustained attention on itself is that it is not actually sustained. What we had taken to be a continuous, persistent mind flickers and wavers and wanders. There are big gaps in our consciousness. Intense focus is revealed as an illusion. This knowledge turns out to be helpful in two ways:

  1. By noticing ever finer levels of mind fog, you can learn to eliminate them, narrowing and sustaining your attention even further. Some heights of perception you attain this way will make your flow state of skiing down the mountain look like low-alcohol beer compared to a single malt (or a tab of LSD).
  2. What your attention is doing when it is not sustained turns out to be pretty interesting, and universal to all humans.

Vipassana is a Pali word that translates as “to see clearly”. The path of vipassana is basically all the insights that arise from examining number 2 in a state of samadhi 7. These insights are secular, and mostly similar across ages, cultural backgrounds and historical context. As such, they point to something deeply human in us all.

Number 1 is a tool that deepens samadhi, and this can deepen vipassana.

Taking vipassana far enough results in seeing clearly the true nature of all things that arise within our experience, what is called enlightenment, or Awakening.

More on that to come in next week’s post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment or send me some feedback 🙂

UPDATE: Secular Enlightenment Part Two is now available. Enjoy!


Also published on Medium.


  1. The “softer” attributes like tranquility and joy become important later because some of the insights on the path to Awakening can be disconcerting (in the manner of illusion-shattering). Being tranquil etc in the midst of that helps oil the wheels.

  2. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “usually those who can sit physically perfect take more time to obtain the marrow of Zen — the true taste of Zen — actual feeling of Zen. Those who find a great difficulty in practice of Zen will find more meaning of Zen. So sometimes I think the best horse is the worst horse and the worst horse is the best one. Sometimes.” Los Altos, California, Haiku Zendo. 1965-1966.

  3. Components of Flow States. Wikipedia.

  4. An example of a universal human activity that induces flow states could be something to do with music: chanting, singing, playing an instrument or dancing. Whether they have their roots in the modern age (a punk drummer, a rave dancer, a rap artist), the classical era (a folk fiddler, a monk chanting, a church-goer singing Bible hymns) or stretch back to the dawn of history (a shaman reciting tribal lore), all of these activities share this ability to bring on a hypnotic feel.

  5. e.g. Samurai, Crusader knights, and Shaolin monks to name just a few.

  6. I mean literally suffered. This is the further subject of next week’s article.

  7. Different schools within Buddhism approach this in different ways, but they all eventually result in getting a practitioner to sit still and pay attention for long enough that they can no longer avoid noticing, with clarity and precision, what is going on their mind and body.

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