Lately, everyone I meet or speak to is meditating. Almost every holistic practitioner at some point will say "Do you meditate? If not, you should". 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 when the kids were at home. 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. I also wondered if this was part of our ego-driven self-improvement culture.
I decided to give it another try recently and began researching what may be the best way to learn to meditate. I found that many of the practices originated in India but were more popular in the US - of course there is more money here and fame. I wondered why there were so many different practices even within the Buddhist tradition. People are constantly breaking away from their original teachers, Rinpoche or masters and forming their own groups. Is it personality or ego driven and at times greed and monetary reasons?
Has meditation become a fad like yoga where anyone can become a yoga teacher with 200 hours of training while the great yogis perfected it for decades before teaching others? Several people made it sound rarified and mysterious with out of body experiences, the ability to read others’ minds and so on. I wondered - what if I had an out of body experience and could not find my way back to my physical body? Interestingly, I did have a couple of out of the ordinary experiences but the meditation teachers did not make this out to be a big deal and told me to just accept the blessings that I had received.
There were a few practices that people highly recommended or that caught my attention:
Vipasana – The latest buzz amongst many of our friends is a 10-day silent retreat in Massachussetts. A friend's twenty something year old son attended two retreats and became vegan. He told me that he found it hard to sit for so long the first time but stuck it out and went back the following year. Another friend of a friend, a management consultant, turned his life around, became more productive at work and improved his relationships after this retreat. He has written a book and travels around the country talking about the benefits of this practice. It certainly helped these folks but I could not see myself with my mouth zipped for 10 days.
Transcedental Meditation (TM) – This has a large following and the Beatles even 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 do yoga and chanting. You are given a mantra in TM that you cannot tell anyone about and I wondered if I would be able to hold my secret?
Vedic meditation - I attended a session after seeing a flyer at my local health food store. The name was misleading as it had nothing to do with the Vedas, the ancient Indian scriptures, and was an offshoot of TM. 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.
Shamata (inner calm, to dwell in peace) and Vipasana (deeper insight into the nature of things) are two complementary forms of meditation. While most practices cultivate one or the other, Buddhist practices cultivate both separately and then merge them together to achieve clarity, stability and calmness. Wouldn't 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?
I explored Buddhist meditation through a couple of apps and online:
Headspace - started by Andy Puddicombe who became a Buddhist Monk in his twenties. He's cute, his meditations were simple to follow, and I was loving the British accent. However, when I read that he got venture capital funding for his app, I wondered how spiritual it could 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. This was when I was religiously saging my house on full moon days at the suggestion of a friend and so I decided to sign up for Adriana's newsletter. I love these "bad ass" (Adriana's words) meditations and the nurturing feminine energy. Olivia's "A Letter of Forgiveness" is a must read (https://www.oliviaclementine.com/notes-of-forgiveness/)
Imagine Clarity is an app by Mathieu Ricard, 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. I bought his app a couple of years ago, heard him speak at the Rubin museum and recently decided to revisit the app a few times a week. In the app, Mathieu Ricard and his team teach you about meditation, the different techniques and the science behind it. They offer several guided meditations – mindfulness, compassion, altruism, 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.
I just turned down an opportunity to attend yet another type of mediation - Yoga Nidra (nidra means sleep) led by a power yoga teacher. I wondered if we are pushing ourselves too hard ("power" yoga) as a society and then need to push ourselves even harder to relax. In the old days, they just sat under a tree and gained enlightenment like the Buddha. Granted not everyone is a Buddha or a wise yogi but many of us already have our own unique ways to meditate and to explore our inner self. It could be through prayer, a walking meditation, listening to music, or even enjoying the scent of a candle. One of examples Ricard uses is that when you open and close a bottle of perfume, the scent will stay in the room for as long as 15 minutes. Similarly, if we paused to meditate or be mindful for five minutes every hour, we can reap the benefits throughout the day.
To conclude, I am no expert but after meditating the past month or so on a fairly regular basis, I have seen a real change in terms of being able to deal with the ups and downs of life and 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 made me more caring, compassionate and happier. I would say that I am more open and speak the truth but in a more gentle, compassionate way. I learnt that shutting down can be just as harmful and stressful as speaking out in haste.
I would strongly endorse the Imagine Clarity app for its depth and wealth of information. If you are interested in meditating, I suggest you try a few different teachers or apps and decide what is best for you. Set realistic and achievable goals.