"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." I'm chanting over and over again, struggling to force my squeaky, slurry voice into a deep resonant bass to match the sounds emanating from my classmates as together we seek an escape from the stresses in our lives through meditation.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." I'm sitting in the lotus position on the lawn of Laurel High School as dusk settles over Fort Sanders, my legs twisted up pretzel-style into my lap, as if in some grotesque caricature of a hippie--the kind Sergio Aragones might have hastily sketched out in the early '70s in the margins of Mad magazine. And I'm pondering my personal motivation. I've learned that thousands of Knoxvillians are seeking out meditation of all sorts--Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Christian, and a surprising number of other variations on the old spiritual theme. Can this ancient method of relaxation and enlightenment work for me, a woman who sifts for nuggets of transcendent wisdom by watching reruns of Seinfeld? I can only hope.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." I've just finished a yoga class, a series of stretching exercises designed to release energy--both physical and spiritual.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." And now, I'm supposed to be meditating--freeing my mind from the shackles of the day-to-day thoughts that keep it busy, releasing what the Buddhists among us might call the "monkey mind," the stream of consciousness inner babble--screeching, jabbering, and jumping nonstop from tree to tree--that keeps us all from experiencing inner peace and achieving personal enlightenment.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." The last of our series of five ohms completed, our instructor pauses to exhort us to let our minds relax, quiet down, to focus on our breathing, to listen to the "higher self." We sit in silence, our ears ostensibly tuned to the voice within.
For me, this is impossible. You'd think that your higher self would be pondering all kinds of deep thoughts, would have some perspective on your life, if not at least something interesting to say. But what I hear going on is this: I bet I look stupid ... I was supposed to call Linda--I'll bet she's mad ... A cold beer sure would be good right now ... My thighs are fat ... I wonder what the cats are doing right now ... Oh shit, I'm not supposed to be thinking ... Maybe I should be thinking, 'ohm'...It's not working ... OHM!!! ... Oh, hell, maybe I can fake it ... Then what's the point? This is for your own good! ... My nose itches ... Don't scratch--mind over matter, mind over matter ... I'm thinking again ... This story is going to suck ... I'm hungry ... But wait, I'm on a diet ... That weenie Bob--I hope he gets thunked in the head by the great Karmic Wheel ... I wonder if I can get a job at HGTV? ... Who cares, you're supposed to be not thinking! ... Who can not think? ... Geez, maybe I can't do this ... This story is going to suck ... hard! ... Well, at least I can write it in first personÊ...
And that was just a 30-second excerpt.
As class breaks up, folks stand around talking about how great that was, how refreshed they feel. I join in but with serious reservations. Truth is, I do feel more relaxed and even--Dare I say it?--refreshed. But at the same time, I'm filled with angst. I'm wondering, Was I doing it right? Did I achieve anything? And exactly what was the point of the meditation?
Later that evening, over beers at the Longbranch, I share my dread with a pal. Between knowing sips, he pauses to say, "So you don't have a point. Isn't that the whole point of meditation--not to have a point?"
Suddenly, I am enlightened. He's right, I realize, to a certain degree. I've been working too hard, been too worried, been trying to make logical sense of something that's neither logical nor easily definable. And in a flash of clarity, I realize that my ohm-humming experience at Laurel High, far from being a waste of my unfocused time, has been a microcosm of the whole meditation experience. Maybe I'm on the right track after all.
What the Heck Is It?
Meditation is an age-old practice, one that runs through nearly every spiritual and healing tradition the world has ever known. Sadly, it's one that's been largely suppressed in the go-go West, worming its way into national consciousness only now and then--like when the Beatles took it up in the early '70s, or when Dr. Dean Ornish released his groundbreaking book on reversing heart disease in the late '80s.
From Dr. Ornish--and indeed from a plethora of published medical findings--we learned that if we meditate, we can produce all kinds of positive benefits for our physical bodies: We can lower our blood pressure, reduce our cholesterol, control our stress, cure our headaches, etc. Sounds great--there's no question that these are benefits we could all stand to take advantage of. But that only leaves us wondering, What the heck is it?
I pose this question to Joan Harrigan, a counseling psychologist who also happens to be one of Knoxville's foremost authorities on meditation, having studied it for 25 years in the U.S. and in India. A teacher of an ancient form of meditation in the Yoga/Vedanta tradition (which means, roughly, union and transcendence) andÊa practicing Christian, she settles back into her armchair to consider.
"Meditation," she says slowly, "is the objective study of the mind. In meditation, the individual focuses inwardly, and observes the mind at work."
As if sensing my next question (which, f.y.i., was, "Yeah, so?"), she continues. "The point is that it trains the individual to concentrate, to relax, to not be reactive to the self-talk going on, to be aware of the deeper-level impressions of the moment so that they can understand themselves better."
Harrigan periodically teaches an eight-week course in meditation. She's even listed in the phone book under "meditation." She describes the experience most of her students have with the process.
"Meditation opens the flow of material in the mind so that ... in the beginning stages, you get a lot of chatter and replay of the day," she says, assuring me that my own baby steps are not uncommon, and that better things are right around the corner.
"In the second phase, as you become more peaceful, you get the replay of sort of old home movies," she continues. "And you do life review so that you really have a clearer perception of what your context is."
"Then you get an opening into the unconsciousness," she concludes. "You really get to understand the underlying themes and archetypes of your inner structure. And you get to know your temperament, style, purpose .... You become more aware of your personal values and I think in time more decisive--decisions are based on who I really know myself to be and what my purpose in life is. ... rather than who my friends and family think I am, or what society seems to be pushing me to be."
All this sounds good to me, really good to me. But in the final analysis, I'm still confused. So I pose the question to my good friend Barbara Roberts, a Zen Buddhist who is gifted with the ability to simplify matters significantly. She explains it this way: "In meditation, you're simply trying to get acquainted with how your mind works. When you sit down and start to look at that process, you start to get an idea of just how busy our minds are all the time, and how they leave us so little peace. A lot of the stuff is self-critical, it's worrying, it's fear-based ... and you're not even aware of it. "
"It's just sitting down and shutting up, maybe," she concludes.
How Do You Do It?
Maybe. But first, a word about what meditation is not. It is not daydreaming, it is not letting the mind wander, it is not actively thinking about a problem or a circumstance, it is not sleep, it is not a trance. It is a state of calm, relaxed alertness, preferably reached while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed, spine straight and muscles generally relaxed, and breathing deeply and smoothly from the diaphragm rather than the chest (lotus position optional).
This method is called "calm abiding" meditation, or "one-pointed focus" meditation. And though the ultimate goal is to reach a state of not thinking, that does not necessarily mean automatically blanking out one's mind altogether--it's a worthy goal to work toward, but one that most never meet.
Father Terry Ryan, pastor at John XXIII Catholic Church, teaches meditation (or "contemplative prayer," as it's known within the church) to any of his parishioners who are interested. "[Meditation] is just where we stop clinging to the thoughts that are going through our mind," he says. "It's like sitting on the side of a river--and coming down the river are various boats. You're aware of the boats, but you don't think about the boats. You don't climb on the boats, see what's on the boats, see where the boat is going."
In order to stay off the "boats," Ryan employs what he calls "centering prayer," a method of distracting the mind through repetition of a word. Often, he says, he teaches his students to focus on a "centering word"--the name Jesus, for instance. When their minds start to wander, they simply--and gently--return to their centering word. "You could also use the word open," he says. "It doesn't have to be a religious word--just one that doesn't make you think."
In Eastern traditions, including the widely popular Transcendental Meditation (or TM) championed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the '70s, this "centering word" is called a "mantra." A mantra consists of Sanskrit sounds and words, in which the meaning is carried in the actual vibration of the word. "In using a mantra, the actual sound of the phoneme or phonemes is important because the subtle vibration of mentally repeating that sound pattern over and over has an effect on the mind," says Harrigan. ("Ohm," "Hare Krishna," and "So Hum" are mantras frequently used for general purposes.)
Another popular method that is often suggested for beginners in do-it-yourself books and tapes is focusing on the breath--either counting the breath (try one to four and back again), or simply paying close attention to how the breath feels as it enters and exits the body. And, oh yeah, let your thoughts pass out of the mind as you exhale.
Mary Roberson, another psychologist who teaches meditation, takes the broad view of meditation methods. "One can transcend through any of the senses," she says. "Some people do mantras--or chanting--and transcend through the sense of hearing. Others listen to music and focus 100 percent on the music. Some people do candle meditation--they'll dim the lights and stare at the flame in a certain way. I also believe that one can meditate in activity as well--t'ai chi is one form, walking meditation another."
Meditating in a group is helpful, too, Roberson says, especially for beginners. "You have a better chance of actually meditating in a group," she says. "If some people in your group are transcending, that will actually facilitate your transcending."
At any rate, it's worth a little experimentation to see which, if any, of these forms is right for you. "I think it's a very creative process," says Barbara Roberts. "And even though other people can tell you what they do or what other people have done, it's your own mind you're working with."
And Then There's Mindfulness...
There's another form of meditation, one that is less esoteric,and perhaps more understandable than all of the above. Pioneered by renowned Buddhist scholar and writer Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Hospital, mindfulness-based stress reduction is a program that has, for the last 18 years, been employed throughout the U.S. as a way to help people deal with injuries and illnesses of all sorts--from cancer to HIV to back injury to depression. The program is being taught in Knoxville by clinical psychologist Diane Lemieux, a private therapist who also works in conjunction with Wellness Community outreach coordinator Debby Ames to offer the program to cancer patients
"Mindfulness is the practice of moment-to-moment awareness," Lemieux says. "What we focus on is the present, where you are--being aware of what your thoughts are, being aware of what sensations you have in your body. A lot of stress and anxiety is generated by people living too much in the future or the past.. It's really an acceptance of the full catastrophe of your life--the good, the bad, and the ugly."
The first thing Lemieux and Ames ask their students to do is eat a raisin--and they mean really eat a raisin. Spend 15 minutes looking at a raisin, feeling a raisin, chewing a raisin, tasting a raisin. From there, they move on to a variety of other techniques--a full body scan in which the student focuses on every muscle to see how it feels, a walking meditation to focus on the body's motion, and a yoga meditation to focus on its range of movement. Then it's on to more informal practices: If you're brushing your teeth, really focus on brushing your teeth; if you're petting your cat, you're with your cat.
In each meditation, the two work to break down the barriers to relaxation. "People have these preconceived notions that in meditating they should feel blissful. That's just not so," says Lemieux. "If you're meditating, you're just aware of your feelings. So when I'm doing a body scan I don't tell people to relax, because that will only add to their stress. I just ask that they pay attention to the muscles--to where there is tightness and where there is pain."
"We're not trying to escape," says Ames. "We're trying to deal with what's there. If it's a feeling that seems to be pervasive, we sit with it, try to locate it in the body. And that's where we're different from mantra forms of meditation. We're moving closer to the source of feeling."
"The same is true for distractions," she continues. "Let's pull them out and take a long hard look at them. It's a way for people to begin looking at distractions they may have been avoiding or afraid of. And it's not always positive--not always floating or la-la. It can be very stress-inducing. But the understanding we gain--Oh, that's why I did that--can reduce stress. "
Their program has profound implications for people dealing with disease--and for people just dealing with life and it's attendant hassles. "What starts to happen is that there are shifts in people's lives," Ames says. "You begin to reprioritize. You give yourself space. Instead of being overwhelmed, you find pockets of time. People are amazed at how much more they can do and how much more fulfilled they feel than they did when they were still on the treadmill."
The health benefits of meditation are well documented and undeniable. In preparation for her course, Joan Harrigan has done extensive research into meditation's physiological perks, and, in fact, cites them as the primary reason clients seek her services. "Because meditation has the primary effect of relaxing the autonomic nervous system, all functions of the autonomic nervous system are benefited," she says, proceeding to rattle off a rather lengthy and impressive list. "It has been proven to be helpful in stress-related diseases, like reducing high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, regulating glucose levels, decreasing the incidence of headaches, psychosomatic disorders, and the negative effects of chemotherapy. It can also reduce insomnia and ease gastro-intestinal disorders."
As if that weren't enough, Harrigan then launches into a list of psychological benefits. "Meditation enhances mental clarity, concentration, and a variety of personality characteristics," she says. Meditators are more self-accepting, more positive, more empathic, more creative, and report a decrease in anxiety. They tend to be less defensive, less neurotic, and have decreased irritability."
Phew--an impressive list of claims that can be easily verified by the briefest of literature scans at a library near you. Susan Thompson, a local acupuncturist and herbalist, recommends meditation to nearly all of her clients--whether they come to her with chronic fatigue syndrome, tendonitis, or excessive gas. "Your body wants to heal itself," she explains. "And it knows how. If you can sit down and let go, that's when healing takes place."
But both Harrigan and Thompson acknowledge that anyone undertaking a serious and sustained meditation practice will find another reason: spiritual enrichment. "Meditation is a very natural thing," says Thompson, who's been meditating herself since 1972. "But in our Western, fast-moving, thinking, analyzing culture, we've forgotten it."
"We've lost our connection with spirit," she continues. "And we are at the core spiritual beings. We are more than our bodies. We have a physical part, and a nonphysical part. And in the West, we've forgotten about the nonphysical part. Meditation naturally leads to a remembering."
Roberson remembers her "remembering" quite clearly. "I got into it for health reasons," she says. "But as I progressed, I came to discover that I was settling for less in my life psychologically and spiritually than I need to. Now I meditate for spiritual reasons."
"Spiritual reasons" can incorporate just about any philosophy and/or religion you can imagine. Most, if not all, are represented in Knoxville somewhere, somehow. We've got meditation groups formed around Catholicism, Buddhism of all stripes, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and a healthy interfaith Protestantism. For the bold and the brave, we've even got a group that centers on a channeled astral entity known as "The Teacher," and a group of highly devotional Siddha Yoga adherents who worship a guru with a copyrighted name (guess they're striving for Enlightenmentª).
"I just like experimenting with different beliefs and different cultures," says Jill Burman, a speech pathologist with the Sevier County school system who's been meditating with her husband for the past three years. "There is something to be gained from all of them."
Unfortunately, the spiritual aspects of meditation can lead to off-putting, new-age blather about oneness with the universe, the transcendence of mysticism, the interconnectedness of everything (you are the Metro Pulse you hold), and references to "that which is beyond description."
And though follow-your-nose resources seem endless, it's still very much a caveat emptor market. "There are a lot of sideshows out there," says Dr. Bruce Seidner, another psychologist who is a member of Knoxville's Tibetan Buddhist Group, Losel Shedrup Ling. "And sideshows are typically contemporary synthesizers of wisdom traditions. Some teachers will pick and choose among traditions, then talk about how special they are for having done that.... And that only serves to aggrandize [the group's] members rather than help them develop compassion and wisdom."
Local meditation instructor and Sikh, Seva (the artist formerly known as rock jock Commander Dave Ball on WIMZ), agrees, to a certain extent: "Saying you know a secret about meditation is like saying of a screwdriver that you know this secret device to put screws in the wall."
But outside of warning folks away from what he calls the "sage on the stage" approach to meditation, Seva takes a laissez faire approach: "If this is a way for you to connect with yourself, or if it's a way for you to connect to the universe, then good for you. I know people who claim to be atheists who meditate on their own personal spirit. As my grandmother used to say, if it blows your skirt up, that's good."
Practice Makes Perfect
Think of meditation as a drug, one with no harmful side effects and powerful positive potential. It literally has no downside, outside of what some might judge a waste of a perfectly good 20 minutes each day. If you don't like it, you just don't do it.
But if you do like it, take all that you can get--what the hey, there are no F.D.A. regulations to slow you down. But realize it takes time and effort to, ahem, be all that you can be. "Perseverance is the major drawback," says Harrigan. "Meditation is not a quick fix--it takes regular, steady practice over time to get results. And though initial results may be beneficial, it really takes a strong commitment that this is going to be part of your life every day."
Most meditators agree that 20 minutes twice a day is about the right dose, and are full of metaphors to describe the whys and wherefores of the undertaking. You should think of it as part of your hygiene, they say, just like brushing your teeth. You should think of it as money in the bank--more is better, though some is good.
But Roberson, a soft-spoken and understated sort, has the best metaphor of all. "It's like how they used to make colorfast yellow cloth," she says. "They'd take the cloth and dip it in the yellow dye, and it would become brilliant yellow. Then they would hang it out in the sun, and it would fade almost all the way back. The next day, they would dip the cloth again, and then hang it out in the sun--and this time it would fade just a little less. And they kept doing it over and over again, until the dye no longer faded back."
"Well," she concludes, "the dye is pure consciousness, and the sun is our daily activity. So what we are doing as we meditate is dipping ourselves into the yellow dye. And when we achieve this state of being completely yellow and colorfast ... we are enlightened."
Me, I'm only the palest shade of ivory. But I'm working on it.