Something to meditate about

Do you meditate?

People have for eons, of course. The practice seems to provide a way to quiet busy minds, shut out the frenzy around us and restore a sense of calm. It also seems more necessary than ever these days, given the blizzard of distractions – and electronic addictions – that confront us.

But the question arises: what exactly is meditation? Further, what practice is best? Further still, are there forms that can be harmful?

When I was younger and practiced karate, my absorption in the katas felt like a form of meditation. The dance-like movements required concentration and focus, but, with practice, grew to be effortless. There was something liberating mentally and physically about the routines – especially when done in groups. The forms seemed to pull together body and soul, perhaps in a way similar to what athletes feel at times.

I have seen the same sort of absorption on the faces of people here in China practicing tai chi. Even as they move in those ballet-like steps, with their eyes open and apparently taking in all that’s going on around them, they seem to be somewhere else mentally. They are engaged, body and mind. If I had more time here, I could easily take up the practice.

Similarly, at meditation sessions in my gym in Lincoln, Neb., last year, I found the sense of calm marvelously refreshing. That practice involved someone chanting hypnotically on tape. We also had the help of sounds teased out of a group of large and small crystal bowls. The pleasant background noise was transporting.

These days, as I head out in the mornings for solo runs, I sometimes go to a place like that. The “runner’s high” combines a sense of peace with exhilaration. It’s a wonder to be alive once those endorphins kick in, with all that oxygen whooshing into one’s lungs. The sky seems bluer, the sun brighter. The frustrations of the day melt away. Nagging thoughts vanish.

I wonder if people who pray regularly feel the same paradoxical mix of exhilaration and calm. People here in China bow and kneel in concentration before various Buddhas when they go to their temples. It’s impossible to know what is going on in their heads, of course, but there is a sense of calm and focus about such practices. These folks seem to be getting in touch with something outside – or deep inside – themselves. Call it plugging into a sense of sacredness, perhaps tapping into powerful sources.

People who practice Transcendental Meditation speak of the experience in much the same terms. Indeed, one fellow I know in Fairfield, Iowa, attends group meditation sessions regularly because, he says, it’s simply a pleasure for him. TM’ers are pressed to go to such sessions, on the claim that power radiates out from the group, the so-called “Maharishi Effect” that brings peace into the neighborhood. Who knows if such claims are true? But certainly it seems likely that few people would repeatedly go to the Golden Domes in Fairfield to engage in meditations if they weren’t pleasant.

But is TM superior to meditation in a gym or tai chi or karate katas? Does it take you to a deeper or more meaningful place than, say, the psychic spot where monks singing in monasteries go? Is it any different from what whirling dervishes feel or native Americans experience in sweat lodges or even in drug-assisted religious ceremonies? How does it compare with what Hasidim feel chanting the Amidah weekly? Indeed, are all such practices really no different from listening, enraptured, to a favorite symphony or even singing along with some toe-tapping rock and roll?

Moreover, there’s the issue of whether the benefit is a passing thing. Sure, meditation can be pleasant, but so is sex. Alas, the benefit is all too short-lived (though repetition surely helps!) Does meditation lead to an enduring sense of mental discipline, an internal relaxation? Or is it a fleeting thing, gone the moment one leaves the lotus position? Advocates argue it gives them a sense of focus that, among other things, helps them succeed on Wall Street, in Hollywood or in a variety of businesses that meditators have gone into. But would they be winners even without the practice?

Then there is the potential downside. Critics say repeated or prolonged meditation sessions – sometimes as long as six hours at a sitting in the TM Movement – spawn all sorts of problems. Some who have broken with the movement complain of feeling incoherent, of winding up unable to focus their thoughts, to stay attentive to tasks. Longtime meditators are easy to spot, they say, because of a faraway look in the eye that is anything but healthy. Is it possible that the practice rewires one’s brain in ways that could be dangerous? Or do such practices just attract people whose faulty wiring needs more than meditation to set it right?

I will deal with these issues in my forthcoming book on Fairfield, the U.S. home of the TM Movement. In the meantime, dear reader, please drop me a line to share your thoughts. I can be reached at jweber8@unl.edu.

My book on Fairfield will be published by the University of Iowa Press

2 Replies to “Something to meditate about”

  1. On the topic of “permanence” from meditation, it is a pretty much a truism that long-term practice of any mental technique that yields consistent physiological changes during practice, will end up causing long-term physiological changes outside of meditation.

    With Transcendental Meditation specifically, those long-term changes are considered to be in the direction of “enlightenment.” Fred Travis of Maharishi University of Management recently published a paper that discusses TM-style enlightenment, and reviews the physiological and psychological research on people who self-report being in the first of the enlightenment-states described by theory:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12316/full

    One thing I have noticed in my 40 years of reading research on various forms of meditation, is that while everyone tends to describe their experiences the same way, and even describes their mental practice the same way, the manner in which a practice is *taught* trumps everything. TM is meant to be a relaxation practice. The EEG found in TMers starts out looking like enhanced relaxation, and over time, the EEG tends to move in the direction of further enhancements of relaxation.
    On the other hand, in mindfulness and concentrative practices, the EEG starts out looking like relaxation, and over time the EEG becomes less and less like relaxation as the meditator becomes more adept at controlling their mind.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106862/
    See tables on EEG power:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106862/figure/pone-0102990-g005/
    and EEG coherence:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106862/figure/pone-0102990-g006/

    The declaration by the American Heart Association that of all meditation and relaxation practices, only TM has sufficiently robust research with consistent enough findings to allow them to recommend it as a secondary treatment for hypertension, probably reflects this:
    http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf+html
    The only long-term study on mindfulness and high blood pressure that I am aware of seems to support this theory:
    https://www.thieme-connect.com/DOI/DOI?10.1055/s-0034-1372583
    “…Parallel to the reduction of stress levels after 1 year, the intervention-group additionally showed reduced catecholamine levels (p<0.05), improved 24 h-mean arterial (p<0.05) and maximum systolic blood pressure (p<0.01), as well as a reduction in IMT (p<0.01). However, these effects were lost after 2 and 3 years of follow-up."

    By the way, in your book, you talk about the prospects of the long-term survival of the TM organization, and raise questions because so few children of TM bigwigs feel inclined to help run the TM organization. But this is only a concern if you assume that TM is a religion and not a secular organization, because no-one complains that Steve Jobs' children haven't taken over Apple.

    Father Gabriel Mejia, a Roman Catholic priest, runs a network of 60 orphanages in South America that house about 4500 kids at any moment. He also is a TM teacher who teaches TM to all the kids in his orphanages as therapy for their PTSD (former child prostitutes and child soldiers apparently are at high risk for PTSD). He even has the older kids learn Yogic Flying. The Roman Catholic Church is a bit bemused by all this, but can't argue with his results and has recognized his ongoing work:
    http://www.claret.org/en/news/03-01-2010/gabriel-mejia-cmf-archbishop-romero-prize-2008
    Acharn Yai, a Buddhist nun, is principal of the only free, all-girls Buddhist boarding school in Thailand, that caters to the needs of 300 (soon to be 1800) at-risk girls. She is also a TM teacher and requires all students to learn TM. Many of the older girls also learn Yogic Flying.
    http://lindaegenes.com/light-compassion-buddhist-nuns-thailand-transforming-risk-girls-award-winning-students-help-tm-technique/

    In San Francisco, the first public school to adopt the David Lynch Foundation's "Quiet Time" program is situated in one of the worst neighborhoods. It is a school where most of the students have a family member who has been shot, or who did the shooting, or saw the shooting. A little girl running to school to make her morning meditation, covered with her uncle's fresh blood resulting from a drive-by shooting, isn't unheard of.
    Despite there being 9 shootings in the neighborhood in the month of December 2013 alone, the school was recently found to be the "happiest school in San Francisco" according to a standard survey done each year for the California Board of Education.
    http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Meditation-transforms-roughest-San-Francisco-5136942.php

    Newly-reelected President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is a long-term TMer. She is well-aware of stories like the above, as well as the ongoing research. Recently, her government announced plans to pay for the training of 48,000 TM teachers, one for each public school in Brazil, so that all 45 million public school kids can participate in a DLF Quiet Time scenario.

    The point is that, while TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a devout Hindu monk, his hand-picked successor, Tony abu Naderis a Lebanese Christian who used Christian rhetoric ("Maharishi is with the angles now") to describe his grief, not neo-Hindu terms.

    It is entirely possible that 30 years from now, abu Nader's successor will be a practicing Roman Catholic from Brazil, or a Jew from Israel, or a Buddhist from Thailand, or a Secular Humanist from San Francisco. and that they won't have been "born into TM" either.

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