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MEDITATION in Cowboy Land

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December 2005
MEDITATION in Cowboy Land

America was founded on ambition and drive, conquest and capitalism. So why is a seemingly passive phenomenon such as MEDITATION gaining momentum here?

By PARTHIV PAREKH & SHILPA ARORA

John Wayne. Meditation.

How's that for a jarring image of incompatibility? John Wayne and the characters he played in movies, represents the American cowboy?rugged conqueror of the Wild West. This was not a fellow to sit around idly. He was restless, driven. So were the capitalists, as epitomized by the Rockefellers and Carnegies, who came later and built modern America.

Historically, Americans have been characterized by values of independence and individualism, expansion and acquisition, capitalism and materialism, action and achievement?as opposed to, say, contemplation and introspection. That being so, is it any wonder that a concept such as meditation that encourages a seemingly passive slowdown, had not been a huge part of the American way of life?

An interesting study of cultural affinities that further shed light on this was done by Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki (1870?1966). He outlined the variances between the Western and the Eastern psyche, describing the Western approach as: analytical, discriminative, inductive, individualistic, intellectual, objective, scientific, conceptual, schematic, impersonal, legalistic, organizing, power-wielding, self-assertive, disposed to impose its will upon others, etc. In contrast, he describes the Eastern approach as: synthetic, totalizing, integrative, intuitive, deductive, nonsystematic, non-dogmatic, subjective, spiritually individualistic, and socially group minded. Thus, even from the standpoint of psychological makeup, the sitting still and inward quality of meditation goes against the grain of many Americans. It could be said that if apple pie is as American as it gets, meditation seems as un-American as can be.

Not surprisingly it has been quite misunderstood, if not shrouded in mystery and slander, in the U.S. There were those who perceive it as some New Age concept for losers, placing it right there with tarot cards and crystals. The kindly ones see it as a method to relax from the rigors of the day? nothing more. At the other extreme is the Christian orthodoxy, which has often labeled it a pagan ritual associated with devilish mantra and tantra. An article titled, "Dangerous Meditations," in Christianity Today (November 2004), describes Transcendental Meditation as a "veiled form of Hindu yoga," and meditation in general, as anti-Christian.

This association of meditation with Hinduism could be because it is considered in the East a catalyst to promote one's respective faith?whether it is Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity or other. It just happens that Hinduism was the historic faiths of the region. Hence the Pavlovian association.

Inwards Ho

The rise of meditation in America

In spite of these monumental odds, incredibly, meditation is a phenomenon that is on the rise in America. Oprah and Dr. Phil talk about it. Hollywood and pop icons such as Richard Gere, Steven Seagal, Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn, Heather Graham, Shania Twain and countless others practice it to one degree or another. Former VP Al Gore is known to be a meditator. Even spiritual icons such as Dr. Wayne Dyer weigh in heavily on it.

Just last month, there was a ground breaking experiment called "Meditate DC", a week-long, high-profile exploration of Eastern meditation's benefits that was staged in the nation's capital. The celebration also had the blessing of the D.C. Council, which passed a resolution urging all District residents to learn the practice of meditation. "The scope of Meditate DC and the related events illustrate how widely accepted meditation has become in the United States," wrote The Washington Post about the event.

"Ten million American adults now say they practice some form of meditation regularly, twice as many as a decade ago," cites an August 2003 cover story in TIME magazine, titled, ‘The Science of Meditation.' The article goes on to say that meditation is now "offered in schools, hospitals, law firms, government buildings, corporate offices and prisons."

So, why this rising stock of meditation in the U.S. in spite of the odds? Could it be the proverbial shift of the pendulum? On the one hand, the world is indebted to America for its spirit of material conquest, which has given mankind some of its most cherished markers of progress?such as automobiles and airplanes, to mention just a couple. Yet, is it possible that this singular drive for materialistic progress, without a corresponding inner journey, has come to roost?

"Bigger, better, more?" has become the mantra of a contemporary America. Popular culture says, "I want it, and I want it now." Indulgence and workaholism is fueling each other. Two-income families have increasingly become the norm than the exception. So have divorce, single-parenting, and a premium on "personal space." Anxiety, stress, and depression are almost at an epidemic level. Consider the alarming statistics: 65% of North Americans take prescription medications daily; 43% take mood altering prescriptions regularly; Paxil and Zoloft (two of the more popular anti-anxiety medications) ranked 7th and 8th in the top ten prescribed medications in the U.S.

Many Americans seem to be waking up to the fact that the pace of life that excess materialism demands is not conducive to happiness. In other words, was America ripe for meditation? After all, it's seems like a perfect antidote for bringing the pendulum back to a healthy equilibrium. Sir George Trevelyan, a reformer, philosopher and visionary who has been called the spiritual heart of New Age consciousness, speaks for all when he says, "The need for meditation in our time cannot be over-emphasized." He goes on to add that through meditation we should become better members of the community?more capable, more contented, more joyful and more peaceful. "Relationships, abortion, media saturation, loneliness?all can be addressed and loads lightened through the practice of meditation," says Thich Nhat Hanh of the Vipassana movement.

What exactly is meditation?

Reduced to its elemental simplicity, meditation is a science and technology of and for the mind. Modern science has demonstrated the veracity of phenomenon of "mind over matter." And since meditation is primarily a tool to gain dominion over our minds, it can help both, in outward conquests (performance, productivity, accomplishments etc.), as well as in internal ones (peace, sense of fulfillment, joy, love, control over emotions, etc.)

As a technology, a tool, a method, meditation is purely and wholly secular. It is just that it was first formally studied and developed within the context of ancient yogic studies, and therefore a popular misconception is that it is a Hindu and/or Buddhist concept. "The ancient Buddhist spiritual practice is now a habit among millions of Americans of almost every faith who say it has helped them achieve physical relaxation, emotional balance and spiritual growth," proclaims a recent article in The Washington Post.

However, there are countless examples of Christian Mystics such as St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avilia and others who have employed meditation to strengthen their faith. The Bible is said to mention ‘meditate' or ‘meditation' 20 times. In Islamic Sufism, Muraqaba is the word for meditation. Literally, it means "to watch over" or "to take care of." Metaphorically, it implies that with meditation, a person watches over his spiritual heart (or soul), and acquires knowledge about it, and its creator.

These mystics from all over the world who have traversed their respective faiths to its zenith, attest that meditation can not only help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Christian a better Christian, but also at more mundane levels, it can help an artist become a better artist, a mother a better mother, a worker a better worker.

It is up to the individual whether or not their meditation practice will have any spiritual component at all. Most are drawn to meditation only as a means for a sense of mental control, peace and wellbeing?to offset the chaos, stress and the constant grind of modern life. Others such as sportsmen, artists, musicians and CEOs take to it with the goal of peak performance. However, it is said that the practice is intrinsically conducive to a spiritual momentum in accord to one's own religious adherence. This is because the sense of wellbeing derived at the early (though not the beginning) stages beckons one towards the other riches that await them in the direction of becoming a progressively superior human being.

As to the modus, the nuts and bolts, there are many approaches. Most of them are centered around concentration/mindfulness/one-pointed attention?all in the quest of training the mind and slowing down its endless chatter. It is this endless chatter of the mind that is the problem; medically, mentally and spiritually. It is deceptively simple, this importance of slowing down the mind and gaining dominion over it, yet it is profoundly life altering.

Most schools of meditation achieve this by encouraging a one-pointed attention on one of the following (listed in a somewhat progressive degree, though not necessarily so): a mental activity (like counting down numbers); a visual (such as a candle flame, or an image of God), a sound (such as AUM); imagery (one's favorite scenery such as mountains, lakes, etc.); a mantra or a verse (usually from one's respective scriptures); a concept (love, forgiveness etc.); one's breath (following the inhalations and exhalations). There are others such as the shoonya ("zero" or "nothingness") meditation which usually require an able master and a formal initiation; but under the proper criteria, are just as simple to follow as others.

The elementary goal of all approaches is to bring a certain amount of mindfulness and awareness in one's life while also slowing down the constant barrage of thoughts. By that token, one's daily activities can also be an act of meditation. The idea is to see if you can sustain your focus on something predetermined for long stretches of time. Each time the mind strays, one just gently brings it back to what one started out focusing on. So, for example, while driving or doing dishes, one could theoretically practice meditation by maintaining a singular focus on perhaps a sound or a mantra or a verse. Though, most schools encourage a more formal sit-down session built into one's daily routine, usually twice a day.

The bounty

The TIME cover story referenced earlier did a remarkably thorough job of detailing various groundbreaking scientific studies that demonstrated meditation's impact on the mind and body. The studies involved empirical evidence through sophisticated means such as brain imaging?as opposed to deductive conclusions only. Numerous other studies by various scientific journals such as the American Journal of Physiology, Scientific American, Lancet, the Journal of Counseling Psychology, the International Journal of Neuroscience, the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, the British Journal of Educational Psychology, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution, to name a few, suggest that meditation may indeed be the universal elixir that it is often said to be (see appendix, "Benefits of Meditation")

The primary benefit is, of course, in area of mind. The simple act of slowing down the mind has a demonstrable domino effect that goes from mind to body to spirit?all the way out to better group dynamics and world peace!

In their compelling study, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation, authors Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan decode these benefits into three broad categories: 1) physiological; 2) psychological; and 3) spiritual benefits. According to Murphy and Donovan, there is an increase in alpha rhythms or brain waves, shown to correlate with muscle relaxation and mental tension. This includes enhanced synchronism of the left and right hemispheres of the brain (which enhances creativity) and a reduction in the intensity of pain.

The actual dissection of the meditative process reinforces the above. Generally, negative feelings like anger, fear, and hostility are lodged in the amygdala, located near the right prefrontal cortex of the brain. According to Richard J. Davidson, director of Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, "A person's particular ratio of right to left activity is what determines our emotional set point." Meditation allows us to mechanically alter that set point for optimal results. It produces a subtle and complex set of chemical changes in the left prefrontal cortex area of the brain, particularly, the reduction of harmful cortisol levels, and in turn, insulin levels. Simultaneously, it reduces heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Translated into the currency of mental and physical health, these changes induce a sense of wellbeing, better hormone regulation, healthier breathing patterns, stronger immune system, a better cardiovascular health, and correspondingly, an anti-aging effect. No wonder it is increasingly a subject of study throughout the roster of diseases and ailments ranging from the common cold (immunology) to cancer (cellular degeneration).

While its impact in all areas is not conclusive, it is enough to encourage most researchers to keep the verdict open-ended for further evaluations. Indeed, besides medical benefits, the practice is increasingly considered as a remedy for diverse applications ranging from addictions to psychotherapy. It is now being experimented with in broader public spheres as well. Physiologist Vernon Barnes of the Medical College of Georgia announced, "The success of [a recent] study points to the potential school-based stress reduction programs like Transcendental Meditation have in decreasing the likelihood of the early onset of hypertension in high risk youth." Dr. Barnes's research, which studied 156 inner-city African American adolescents in Augusta, Ga., showed that teens who practiced 15 minutes of Transcendental Meditation twice daily steadily lowered their daytime blood pressures over four months and that their blood pressures tended to stay lower after the study. Participants in health education classes, who served as the control groups for this study, experienced no significant change. Heart rate, probably one of the simplest measures of stress level reduction, also dropped in meditating students while remaining consistent in the control groups, Dr. Barnes said. "Even if your blood pressure comes down a few millimeters when you are young, if you can maintain that into adulthood, you can significantly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease."

The Gold Rush

The crux of meditation

The healthy biochemical changes produced by meditation, as powerful as they may be over a cumulative phase, still do not represent its larger impact. Over a sustained period, what meditation does is renew the mind and the thought patterns to profounder ones. Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist monk, who is also a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, author, and one of the most renowned Buddhist teachers in the West, illuminates the root causes of human suffering and the fundamental ways meditation can be used for emotional healing and spiritual freedom. Comparing meditation to psychology, he says, "I will say I got better training in the monastery than I did doing my Ph.D. It was harder, and I think it was better as well. They're both good."

Kornfield illustrates how our ingrained automatic responses to daily living and an overall outlook on life itself can be dramatically impacted by meditation?so that where there was anger, there can be calm; where there was fear, there can be fearlessness; where there was self-loathing and inferiority complexes; there can be a healthy self esteem and self confidence. Conventional psychology held that short of a personality makeover, there was little we could do to control our responses to any variable or life situations. But meditation promises that the mind (and through it the body, and the outlook, and the personality) can be completely overhauled. Explaining the dynamics behind this, he says whatever you practice in your life grows. "If you practice being annoyed and irritable and angry all the time, that gets to be your habit. If you practice patience, or kindness, or generosity, and you do it over and over, even if it's self-conscious at first, after a while it grows to be your relation to the world, and people treat you differently because of it."

At an evolved stage still, since meditation is said to transcend one beyond realm of the mind and senses, it is hard to fathom, much less demonstrate, its full impact. The crux of meditation is yet beyond ordinary imagination. The graduation or the culmination of a lifetime of meditation comes when one is finally able to transcend the mind and the senses. Why so? Theologians have said that man is never fully quenched with earthly things and human phenomenon. If it is pleasures of the senses one is after, not the thousandth indulgence; not the millionth one will satisfy him. If it is wealth he is seeking, not a million, not a billion dollars will finally settle him once and for all. Even the so called spiritual tendencies such as love?within the ordinary context?can be a bottomless pit. In other words, the seeking, the wanting, the journey never ceases. In other words, mankind is ultimately after infinity, something that is beyond the mind and senses. Meditation at its culmination is a tool to do just that. Many mystics, who have gone this way, acknowledge that meditation helps unravel the very mysteries of the universe. According to them, it is the key to one's intrinsic identity, to one's very creator?whether one knows him as Jesus, Allah, Krishna or as the Self.

Box 1:

Benefits of Meditation

Enlisting the benefits of meditation is like quantifying love. Lifelong meditators claim that the most profound of its impact is beyond objectification. Listed below are some preliminary benefits that are most commonly cited:

Physical

? Reduced stress: decreased heart rate, lower blood pressure, quicker recovery from stress

? Reduced cortisol, decreased risk of heart attack

? Reduction of pain

? Restoration of normal sleep patterns

? Relief of depression and anxiety

Mental

? Greater creativity and clarity of the mind

? Improved intellectual performance at work or school

? Greater ability to sustain calm amidst crisis

Social

? Deeper sense of community

? Increased harmony

? Less hostility and anger

? More emotional empathy

? Reduction in crime, alcoholism, drug abuse

? Increased productivity in workplace

Spiritual

? Quieting the mind for deeper spiritual growth

Box 2:

Groups and Schools of Meditation

Art of Living is a nonprofit educational and humanitarian organization in 146 countries around the world. Founded in 1982 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, its programs and courses have reached over a million people, irrespective of age, race, and religion, with the benefits of inner peace, good health, and a stress free mind. In Atlanta since 1995, its course has been offered at Georgia Tech. Pranayam and sudarshan kriya are part of the rhythmic breathing process used to release toxins and stress from the body. The course lasts approximately 6 days and is taught during weekday evenings for two and a half hours. Alternatively, 4 hour sessions are also taught on weekends.

Contact info: Abhay Joshi & Mona Shah-Joshi, Atlanta, GA, 770.218.3135, http://www.artofliving.org/atlanta

Books: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Celebrating Silence

Drepung Loseling Institute offered its first summer session at Emory University in 1998. It is the North American seat of Drepung Loseling Monastery (Tibetan). Classes include Shamatha and Vipassana Meditations.

Contact info: 2531 Briarcliff Road, Ste. 101, Atlanta, Georgia 30329, 404 982-0051, http://www.drepung.org

Isha Foundation: Isha Foundation is a non-profit, international service organization that conducts various public welfare programs to advance physical, mental and spiritual health. Isha means "divine." Isha Foundation advocates the rich heritage of eastern spirituality and the ancient science of yoga as a possibility of merging with the formless divine aspect inherent in all beings. The founder of Isha Foundation, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev teaches yoga as a spiritual science that embraces the human effort to transcend physical reality in order to reach an inner reality, ultimate awareness, or enlightenment.

In Atlanta courses are offered periodically by Sadhguru himself for cultivating beginners for its shoonya meditation. The 4 to 7 day courses include pranayam teachings to mould the body and energies for the meditations.

Contact info: For events in December (free) and January ($275): 404-248-0026, atlanta@ishafoundation.org

Books: Encounter the Enlightened, Mystics Musings

Kashi Atlanta was founded in 1998 as Jaya Devi Yoga Studio. Its mission has been one of education, service, and healing, with living roots in the teaching of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati and Neem Karoli Baba. Jaya Devi was recently inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers of Morehouse College at the Gandhi Institute for Reconciliation.

Contact info: 1681 McLendon Avenue, Atlanta GA. 30307, 404-687-3353, www.kashiatlanta.org.

Books recommended: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda

Sivananda Companion to Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Spiritual Cannabalism by Swami Rudrananda

Sky of the Heart by Swami Nityananda

Sahaj Marg, which translates to "The Natural Path," is a system of Raja Yoga meditation and spiritual practice used by the Shri Ram Chandra Mission, founded in 1945. With 1000 centers in India and a presence in 90 countries, it is geared toward the average person, with simple meditation but unique transmission (pranahuti) of life energy from the guru. Meditation, cleansing, prayer, constant remembrance, love, and attitudes guide us on the path.

Contact info: Georgia Tech, Tuesday7:30 PM, kasivijay@yahoo.com

Unity North, Wednesday7:30 PM, madhav_ramamoorthy@yahoo.com

Unity Church, Thursday7:30 PM, billmonroe@mindspring.com

Molena Ashram (60 miles south of Atlanta), Sunday10:30 AM, bharathm@ivivity.com, Shri Ram Chandra Mission, 5611 GA Hwy 109, Molena, GA 30258, 770-884-0888, molena@srcm.org, http://www.srcm.org

Books: Sahaj Marg Educational Series, Volume 1 (in English & Hindi) on "Meditation."

Clark Powell, A Sahaj Marg Companion (addresses issues raised by Westerners on spirituality, no matter what path they may follow).

(Atlanta Center of) Self-Realization Fellowship, founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda includes in its mission "to reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions," "to unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles," and "to advocate cultural and spiritual understanding between East and West, and the exchange of their finest distinctive features."

Contact info: Atlanta Center of SRF, 4000 King Springs Road, Atlanta, Georgia 30082-4204, (770) 434-7200, Email: srfatlanta@hotmail.com, http://www.srfatlanta.org

Mailing address: P.O. Box 813623, Atlanta, Georgia 30081-3623

The Siddha Yoga Meditation Center of Atlanta is one of 600 centers around the world and has been part of the Atlanta community since 1974, when current Swami Gurumayi Chidvilasananda's Guru, Swami Muktananda (Baba) first visited here. The Siddha Yoga teachings spring from the timeless scriptural traditions of Kashmir Shaivism and Vedanta, as well as from the experience of the enlightened Siddha masters: God dwells within you as the Self, which can be known through meditation, using mantra repetition.

Contact info: SYMC ATLANTA, 52 Executive Park South, N.E., Suite 5202, Atlanta, Georgia 30329-2217, tel. 404.633.0044, http://www.symca.org/smcahome.htm#Links

Books: Play of Consciousness by Swami Muktananda

If you are new to Siddha Yoga meditation, Where Are You Going? by Swami Muktananda, and the video Entering the Heart are great starting points.

(Atlanta) Soto Zen Center, founded in 1977, is one of the larger non-residential Zen centers in the country. Zen knows peace with all religious doctrines and practices, so please do not hesitate to join us. Most major religions include a contemplative tradition similar in spirit to Zen meditation.

Contact info: The Atlanta Soto Zen Center, 1167 C/D Zonolite Place, Atlanta, Georgia 30306, 404-532-0040, http://www.aszc.org/

Books recommended: A Tuesday night reading group is now studying the acclaimed new analysis and commentary of Trust in Mind by the Vipassana teacher Mu Soeng.

TM, or Transcendental Meditation, is meant to be not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle, but a technique easily and quickly learned. Coming from the Vedic tradition, it has been practiced by more than six million people and studied by the National Institues of Health (NIH). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's institutes teach the science of creative intelligence (SCI) and transcendental meditation. SCI emphasizes that the world is made up of energy waves that can be transcended through seven states of consciousness, including dreamless sleep, dreaming, the waking moment, and transcendent states. Initial courses cost $2,500 including lifetime follow-up consisting of 30-minute checking, but advanced courses advertising "mastery over Natural Law" and Yogic Flying cost up to $5,000.

Contact info: Maharishi Vedic University, 1001 Garden View Dr NE, Atlanta, GA 30319, 404-264-1108; outside Atlanta, 1-888-532-7686; Web site: www.tm.org/

The Vedanta Center of Atlanta. Vedanta is the simplest basic religious statement, found originally in the ancient culture of India. It provides a "live and let live" philosophy of life in which the various faiths of the world are seen as facets of a diamond. Swami Yogeshananda holds a Meditation Workshop every 2-3 months.

Contact info: 2331 Brockett Road, Tucker, GA 30084, 770-938-6673, http://www.vedanta-atlanta.org

Books recommended: Meditation, Monks of the Ramakrishna Order.

Swami Yogeshananda, Waking Up. Chapter 4: Meditation: questions that arise

Audiocassette of a talk by Vivekananda on Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi, the two final practices of Raja Yoga.

Swami Prabhavananda, The Sermon on the Mount

Beatrice Bruteau, What We Can Learn from the East

Vipassana. Handed down from Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago, it focuses on mental purification through self-observation. The objective of the practice is psychosocial and involves setting aside immediate thoughts, sensations, and negative emotions. The objective is not transcendence, but being rooted in the present experience to raise awareness.

Contact info: For ten-day courses with ten hours of meditation per day, by donation only, taught in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, contact Sital & Tina Savla; 545 St. Ives Drive; Athens, GA 30606, 706-425-0973, info@ga.us.dhamma.org, http://www.dhamma.org

Contact info: In Atlanta, the Georgia Buddhist Vihara and Vipassana Meditation Center (Sri Lankan) opened in 2000. Dedicated to Theravada Buddhism, it provides guided sitting and walking meditation every Wednesday.

1683 South Deshon Road. Lithonia GA 30058, 770-482-9913, gbv@bellsouth.net, http://www.gbvihara.org/

Books: Children focus on the Jataka tales, the life of the Buddha and the Dhamma teachings


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