Lately, everyone I meet or speak to is meditating and I got tired of being asked by numerous holistic practitioners if I meditate. Was I an imperfect human being because I did not meditate? Personally, it was tough to block out the same time every morning and to find a quiet space. Many of the people in my orbit who meditated were single and I rationalized that I was in a different stage of my life from them. Recently, I decided to give it another try and began to research different apps and methods.
Many of the practices originated in India but were more popular in the US. Is this a fad for the rich? Are we pushing ourselves too hard as a society and then need to push ourselves even harder to relax.
In the old days the yogis sat in a cave and meditated and the Buddha sat under a tree and gained enlightenment. One did not hear of the common man meditating.
Why are there so many different practices even within the Buddhist tradition? People are constantly breaking away from their original teachers and forming their own groups. Is it personality or ego driven and perhaps greed and monetary reasons?
Are there other ways to relax and gain inner peace than meditating every day such as prayer or cultivating compassion?
These are a few practices that I tried or heard about:
Transcedental Meditation (TM) – Gained popularity thanks to the Beatles who travelled to India to be with the Maharishi. Could it really be a cure for so many ailments ranging from depression to blood pressure and even kidney disease as touted by some people? Pharmaceutical companies and doctors would go out of business if it were that simple. I am sure it helps reduce stress but so does yoga and chanting. I hear you are given a mantra that you cannot tell anyone about and I wondered if I would be able to hold my secret?
I attended an introductory session to Vedic meditation which was an offshoot of TM. The name was misleading as it had nothing to do with the Vedas, the ancient Indian scripture.. One of the people attending had taken the course earlier and said it had changed his life but wanted a refresher to help him get to the required goal of twice a day 20 minute meditation (he was only meditating in the morning). Why was he twitching constantly, was it stress? Was he stressed because he could not find the time in his busy life to meditate at night? Were we being set up to fail before we even began? Red flags continued to go up when the instructor boasted that he had a Fifth Avenue office and was better off than when he worked as a lawyer. We were told to bring offerings to the teacher (“guru darshan”) and that in the old days people would walk thousands of miles across the Himalayas with goats, sheep, etc. and the modern-day version was the equivalent of a week's wages. I was not handing over my money to this young man who had never been to the Himalayas and probably knew nothing about the Vedas.
Vipasana – The latest buzz amongst many of our friends is a 10-day silent Vipasana retreat in Massachusetts that was founded by SN Goenka. Manish Chopra, a McKinsey consultant wrote a book titled The Equanimous Mind after attending this retreat and talks about the profound effect on his personal and professional life. I learned that in Buddhist tradition, Vipasana refers to deeper insight into the nature of thing and Shamata is inner calm and to dwell in peace. They are practiced separately and then merged together to achieve clarity, stability and calmness. It make sense to first control the mind and then venture deeper into a silent meditation retreat which a friend described as going within yourself and peeling layer after layer like an onion? However, I could not see myself sitting in silence for 10 days and ruled this out.
Headspace by Andy Puddicombe who became a Buddhist Monk in his twenties. He's cute, his meditations were simple to follow, and I loved the British accent. However, when I read that he got venture capital funding for his app, I wondered how spiritual could it be and quickly lost interest.
Kindness meditation and Dharma talks by Adriana Rizzoli and Olivia Clementine. A story about Adriana in the New York Times with the headline "This ‘Witch Casts Spells With Scissors and Sage" caught my eye and led me to sign up for this. Adriana was honest about her past struggles with addiction and refreshing in her approach but I was drawn more to Olivia’s soft, soothing and nurturing feminine energy. I was sorry to see them end their monthly subscription series and I signed up for a few individual healing sessions with Olivia.. Olivia's "A Letter of Forgiveness" is a must read (https://www.oliviaclementine.com/notes-of-forgiveness/)
Imagine Clarity is my favorite meditation app. Mathieu Ricard is a French molecular geneticist, son of a famous philosopher, who became a Buddhist monk and lives in Nepal. He is the author of several books including The Monk and the Philosopher and Altruism. Mathieu Ricard and his team teach you about meditation and the science behind it. They offer several guided meditations – mindfulness, compassion, altruism, meditation for kids, etc. They are great at even responding to any questions one may have. All the proceeds from the app go to his foundation Karuna-Shechen, which provides health care, education, and social services for the under-served people of India, Nepal, and Tibet (http://karuna-shechen.org.
Ricard says that the goal of meditation is to train the mind to be healthy and optimal just as we would train to be a better musician, ballet dancer or football player. This requires perseverance, patience, enthusiasm and daily practice. It can be a walking meditation, observing your breath or simply being mindful. The mind can be our best friend or worst enemy but no one wants to be angry or mean all the time. It is a matter of training our minds and transforming ourselves and the world through our relationships with others and by better serving others. While the outside world is always changing, we don't have to get discouraged and feel helpless that we cannot control these changes or events. We can bring about societal change one step at a time by transforming ourselves and those around us.
Thich Nhat Hahn talks about walking meditation. “ You don’t have to make any effort during walking meditation, because it is enjoyable. You are there, body and mind together. You are fully alive, fully present in the here and the now. With every step, you touch the wonders of life that are in you and around you. When you walk like that, every step brings healing. Every step brings peace and joy, because every step is a miracle.”
I recently attended an Omega Institute sponsored event with Jon-Kabbat Zinn ( who created, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) offered by medical centers, hospitals, and health maintenance organizations around the world) at Lincoln Center in New York City. What was the biggest take away was that after 50 years of meditating he believes that there is no right way and it is okay to adapt - If you can’t sit up, it is perfectly fine to meditate lying down. Set the intent and be present in the here and now. I am glad to see that people are more open and not set in their ways because it is not easy for everyone to sit on a the floor with an upright back.
To conclude, I am no expert but after meditating fairly regularly for a month, I saw a real change in being able to deal with the ups and downs of life, to have more clarity, a sense of calmness and balance when faced with tough situations and building a stronger bond with others and improving my personal relationships. It has helped me find my authentic voice and made me more caring, compassionate and happier. I personally like the Imagine Clarity app for its depth and wealth of information and a guided Chakra meditation to help connect mind, body and spirit. It is best to set realistic and achievable goals, explore what’s right for you, listen to your body and mind and don’t just follow the fads. There may be days that you need to sit and meditate and other days that you need to just be mindful.