Today I decided that I will no longer tell people that I went to the Buddhist Geeks Conference this past weekend. The reason isn't that I'm embarassed about it in any way. Indeed, I met some of the nicest, most interesting people I've ever met, and I hope to stay in touch with them, help them in their missions, and see them again next year.
Instead, from what I've seen over the last five days, the problem seems to be that the words "Buddhist" or "Buddhism" have a negative connotation for many people. For example, when I say that I just went to a conference "to learn how to measure and affect my brainwaves during work, sleep, or meditation", people are okay with that, and often ask questions about what I learned. They may even say it's something they've wondered about themselves. But, if I say that I just went to the Buddhist Geeks Conference, they're instantly turned off. As Pema Chodron says, you can easily see their "shenpa": By the look on their face and the change in their body language, they have shut down to further conversation on the subject.
I'm curious why they instantly shut down, and I think it's either (a) words like Buddhist, Buddhism, Dharma, and Sangha are foreign to them, (b) they have preconceived ideas of what those words mean, or more simply, (c) people think they'll be drawn into a religious conversation if they say another word.
I suspect it's a little of each, and different for each person. For instance, I can easily relate to Option C. When religious people come to my door and ask if they can speak about their view of God, I politely say "no" and close the door, so I can certainly understand that thinking.
The religious stigma
Speaking for myself, I'm not interested in the "religious" aspect of meditation. I am interested in Zen, but I don't think of it as a religion, even though it is technically Zen Buddhism. I think of it more as a way of training my brain, that if I meditate a little bit each day, I'm slowly changing the wrinkles in my brain. This helps to improve my ability to concentrate, and that helps me in my daily work.
I like koan study because it's fun, like a puzzle. As you begin to understand the koans you gain a new perspective, but I don't think that's religion; I'm not asked to have faith in a god or deity. If, as a result of meditating and koan study I gain a new perspective on life and the world, I'm cool with that, but again, I don't see the "religion" in that.
(While some Buddhists meditate on other things, I personally don't meditate on anything other than my breath and my posture. For instance, I try to sit still in a decent posture, and I either count my breaths or try to pay attention to my breath, while also maintaining a consistent posture. If I do that, I'm happy, and I get a little better at it each day or week.)
Getting back to the Buddhist Geeks Conference ... I no longer tell anyone that's where I was this past weekend. If they ask, I say that I went to a conference for people who are interested in measuring how the brain works in certain conditions, such as how it measures differently during things like work, play, or meditation; how you can use sound and images as inputs to the brain to affect how it works; and how you can use them both at the same time as a positive biofeedback loop. I might mention that there were more than 200 people at the conference, and another 800+ watching the live stream. If they keep asking, I'll say that it was the Buddhist Geeks Conference, but at least by that point I've had a chance to use words like concentration, awareness, meditation, mindfulness, brainwaves, and science, and those words don't immediately shut down the conversation.
Note: These are my own views, not the views of anyone else. I also like the name "Buddhist Geeks". And the conference was excellent.