SILVER SPRING, Md.-- Inside the newly opened Meditation Museum, exhibits refer to the pursuit of "God," the "Supreme Soul" and often "The One." A constant visual theme is orangeish-reddish light emanating from a vague, otherworldly source. The message is clear: Meditation is about connecting with the divine.
"If the mind can be in a state of experiencing the energy of God's light or presence," said Sister Jenna Mahraj, a nightclub owner turned spiritual teacher whose organization opened the museum this year, "it's like everything we tend to find so disheveled -- it starts to find its own purpose."
Yet in gyms, businesses and public schools in every direction from the museum, meditation is often presented as something akin to mental weightlifting: a secular practice that keeps your brain and emotions in shape. Gyms list it alongside Zumba classes, and public schools say it can help students chill out before tests by calming the mind and training it to look upon disruptive thoughts from a nonjudgmental distance.
This rough juxtaposition between the religious and secular versions of meditation epitomizes a key debate about the ancient practice as it explodes in the United States: What is the purpose of meditation? And who decides?
To Mahraj and her community, called the Brahma Kumaris, promoting the religious component is part of the purpose of the Silver Spring center, which is more about spiritual advocacy than a museum in the classic sense.
"This country needs to stop thinking meditation is about emptying your mind," she said during a recent tour. "I respect all meditation practices, but I don't necessarily believe in a practice that tries to 'empty' your thoughts. … I don't think that's normal."
Mahraj is not alone in her concern that meditation might be getting too secular, which can be shorthand for saying that today it is often taught value-free -- unattached to a philosophy or worldview. Hindu and Buddhist leaders in particular have raised concerns that meditation may be going the route yoga has in the West, where it has largely morphed from being a tool for enlightenment to one for a firmer tush.
"What are we teaching? That's a very serious question for anyone who is taking these techniques out of a religious context and into the secular world," said Clark Strand, a former Zen Buddhist monk who now writes and lectures on spirituality and the way Eastern philosophies are transformed in the West.
"Once you remove them from the spiritual context, then goals default to those of the culture, and that could be to win a war, or make money, or to self-medicate so you can do a job you hate or for which you aren't paid enough," Strand said. "Who does (meditation) serve today? Who does it belong to? Is its purpose spiritual or just a commodity?"
Ironically, when meditation began its expansion a decade or so ago from Buddhist retreats and alternative communes to the American mainstream, institutional religion was wary that the practice was too religious -- but not in a sufficiently monotheistic Judeo-Christian way.
"The biblical worldview is completely at odds with the pantheistic concepts driving Eastern meditation. We are not one with an impersonal absolute being that is called 'God.' Rather, we are estranged from the true personal God" because of our inherent sin, evangelical philosopher Douglas Groothuis wrote in Christianity Today in 2004 -- a piece typical of what was found in religious media as meditation began its ascent. "The answer to our plight is not found in some 'higher level of consciousness' (really a deceptive state of mind), but in placing our faith in the unmatched achievements of Jesus Christ on our behalf."
But meditation has spread too far and too successfully into areas such as the treatment of depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder for the debate to remain simply: Is it too secular or too religious? This is because meditation's boom comes at a time of remarkable openness to questions about religion itself, with people -- particularly young ones -- probing much more about what, exactly, constitutes a "religious" practice, belief or prayer.
For example, while some say meditating for stress relief is "secular," doesn't that address a very modern-day type of suffering? Or is something else theologically meant by the word "suffering"? If you practice a type of focus meditation that involves, for example, chanting a basic word such as "love," is that secular or religious?
And what is really meant by meditation leaders who tell students to practice "emptying their mind"? People such as Mahraj would see such a phrase as devoid of any philosophy, but others would say secular-sounding phrases aren't necessarily "empty."
"That's a straw man," prominent brain-science writer Daniel Goleman said of the idea that secular practice teaches nothing in particular. "It pays to stop your stressed-out mind state, let your psychology calm down and your mind clear, that's just human engineering. In the Buddhist context that's a preliminary state to a spiritual journey."
Goleman is the author of "A Force for Good," a book due out this month about pragmatic -- one might say secular -- applications of the Dalai Lama's teachings.
The blurry lines between religious and secular are at play in Mahraj's work, too. The Brahma Kumaris, an 80-year-old spiritual movement with roots in India, teaches that meditation and prayer are about coming closer to God and "that each one of us is an eternal spirit or soul." In an effort to spread its teachings, the group opened its museum in downtown Silver Spring six years ago. It relocated to a new space in April.
But in addition to espousing the beliefs of those behind the center, the museum offers a broad range of more secular self-help activities such as courses on vegetarian cooking and budgeting. Mahraj, whose parents were Hindu and Catholic, speaks in area schools, to challenged youth in particular. She hosts a Web-based talk show called "America Meditating."
But Mahraj says that the purpose of the meditation her group teaches is religious. The regular practice of the Brahma Kumaris is to meditate at home for 45 minutes at 4 a.m., then attend a class together at 6 a.m. that is part silent meditation and part teaching, she said.
"We're not teaching people to empty their minds," she said. "We're teaching them to fill their minds with the right kind of things."
The soaring interest in meditation has prompted many religious groups to revive their own ancient meditative practices. Jesuit meditation retreats and church-run classes on "centering prayers" -- a contemplative Christian practice -- are popping up everywhere, as are programs on Jewish meditation. Muslims are discussing more of the classic practice of reciting many names of Allah is a type of meditation.
But the secular-religious debate is appearing among faith groups, too. Some find centering prayers -- which call for the practitioner to focus on a general word such as "mercy" rather than liturgy -- too secular, said the Rev. Jim Martin, a popular Catholic writer on spirituality who leads retreats in Catholic contemplative practices.
"Some Catholics are suspicious about centering. They'll say: 'That's so Buddhist, is that a mantra?' " he said.
Martin and others see meditation as perhaps a secular society's way of tiptoeing back to God.
"Some say the Christian of the future will be a mystic or not a Christian at all," he said. "You have to have a spiritual life."