By Ardis Whitman
A YEARS ago, a family I know sent their 15-year-old daughter to camp with expectations that she would return bearing medals for swimming and horseback riding. Instead, she came back with a new air of quiet and poise, and every night retired to her bedroom for half an hour after dinner. Once, when her mother looked in, she found her daughter sitting quietly, hands in her lap, watching the flame of a candle.
What on earth was she doing? “Just meditating,” the girl said. It made her feel calmer, she explained, more at peace with herself and the world around her. Lots of people were doing it. They are, indeed. On a beach in Maine a couple sit, hands folded, oblivious to the screaming of children roundabout. At a religious festival in Colorado, hundreds of young people hike miles in cold and darkness to meditate on a mountaintop at dawn. Thousands of their elders seem scarcely less interested. Housewives, reformed drug addicts, psychologists, clergy-men-all have become unlikely allies in an inward search for understanding.
Many of today’s meditators find their inspiration in the great Eastern religions. In fact, it has been estimated that there are a half-million members of various Eastern religious groups in the United States today, and all employ meditative techniques. In addition, there is the “transcendental meditation” of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a physicist turned Hindu monk. Its practitioners meditate twice daily by silently repeating a “mantra”-a Sanskrit sound selected for them by their teacher. But Eastern techniques are only the most obvious evidence of the new enthusiasm. In Christian churches, too, old methods of meditation have found new popularity. Many church services begin or end with meditation. The youthful Jesus movement practices it, and smaller groups often meet in homes.
The art of meditation has deeper roots in our culture than we realize. One dictionary defines meditation as “sustained reflection.” And also as “the continuous application of the mind to the contemplation of some religious truth, mystery or object of reverence.” The word is also used to describe numerous states of reverie from which new ideas, innovations and even personality changes may spring. In one form or another, such activities are as old and as universal as the human race.
“Meditation has been used in every part of the world and from the remotest periods,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “as a method for acquiring knowledge about the essential nature of things.” Recently, I sat in a bus beside a young graduate student on his way to a meditation course. “It’s the greatest adventure of them all,” he said, “You know it’s going to change your life.” That view is widely accepted. We are in an exploring age. In search of treasure and discovery, we go down to the floor of the sea, scale the highest mountains, even journey toward the stars. With the same intent, we are beginning to travel to the depths of our own consciousness, and grope for a new vision that can reshape troubled lives.
How do they do it? A few simple recommendations are almost universal. First, anyone who wants to meditate successfully must set aside a quiet time each day, usually about a half-hour. This must be done consistently, because the results are cumulative and will not appear in a single session. The place you select for meditation also matters. In my own private poll, I found many people who meditate best in an empty church. Perhaps even more often, experienced meditators turn to natural locales-a forest, a lonely shore. Each answers the need to be alone and the need for a feeling of space.
Most important is attitude. All the various techniques of meditation seek to produce a state of openness, inner calm and increased self-awareness. But no one can see into the depths of his mind when it is whirling about like a cyclone. Hence the seemingly absurd devices of posture and concentration-which are designed as aids to quiet the storm of daily concerns.
Apparently they work. A person needn’t sit cross-legged on the floor; he might choose, instead, to sit quietly upright in a straight-backed chair. One of the most widely practiced ways to relax the mind is to concentrate on some operation of the body-perhaps the act of breathing.
Meditation is not an escape from daily living, but a preparation for it, and what is of surpassing importance is what we bring back from the experience. Like pearl divers, meditators plunge deep into the inner ocean of consciousness and hope to come swimming back to the surface with jewels of great price. What sort of jewels? What, in fact, can be found when we look within?
Answers to Problems. At the most modest level, by providing a way of staying with an issue long enough to turn all its facets to the light, meditation can help solve day-to-day problems. One man, burdened with a periodically insane wife and three troubled adolescent children, told me that his only cure, when difficulties get too pressing, is to take out his sailboat. Outbound, he said, “I don’t think about my troubles. I concentrate on the sun on the water; I watch the sails bending in the wind. Sometimes I think about all the other men who have put out to sea, and I wonder what they thought about. By the time I am inbound my mind is calm. The I begin to see things as they really are, and find I can deal with them.”
If meditation accomplishes no more than that, it has done a great deal. Several years ago, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, after addressing a Canadian audience, was asked for “ a practical solution to the problems of living.” “Quietness,” Fromm replied at once. “The experience of stillness. You have to stop in order to be able to change direction.”
Self-Discovery. But problem-solving is only the kinder-garten of meditation. The technique can also be a path to self-discovery. For one thing, you can’t sit in concentrated silence for very long without learning something about your physical self. For a child, his body is himself. But somehow, over the years, our minds and bodies divide and become strangers. Meditation can bring them back together, serving one another.
Some trained meditators, in fact, become so attentive to the body and its signals that they can actually teach themselves to control breathing and heartbeat. Even the average person, sitting alone in quiet contemplation, can get a new, sharpened sense of the miracle of his physical being by such artless devices as taking note of the movement of the wind across his face, or feeling muscles move and flex at his behest.
In meditation, we also rediscover our memories, the past dreams and experiences which have made us ourselves. If we meditate often enough, inevitably these forgotten details are recovered. “I didn’t just remember it, I was there again,” one meditator said after an intense session. “I was a child again. I heard the music box playing, sat at the table with my family and tasted the tarts my mother used to make.”
One big discovery that everyone makes in meditating is that we have spent our lives changing, and that we will continue to change. “ I am trying to decide whether to end my marriage,” a correspondent wrote. “We were so happy together once. It took me hours of thinking alone to realize that I am not the same person I was then; and neither is he. Whatever we decide to do, it is two new people who are going to do it.”
The Way to Others. The stream of consciousness that runs through our minds runs through other minds as well, and so we can find much that is universal, much that unites us with others, by looking within. Indeed, many recognize this and meditate together. Without speech, they feel a warm tide of live flowing between them. We experience our likeness, our shared humanity. Indeed we are like torches lit from each other; illumine the one and the other takes fire. A New York psychiatrist once explained it unforgettably to me. “The deeper we go,” he said, “the closer we are.”
Even solitary meditation helps us understand one another. To put it simply, when we know ourselves, we know others, too. “It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her book Gift From the Sea. It is the wildness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger.”
The Sense of Joy. The further we go into ourselves the closer we come to one of meditation’s greatest gifts: joy. “We don’t meditate to withdraw,” an instructor told me, “but to enjoy life.” Indeed, our real selves, when they appear, often seem to be naturally joyous. Long ago, the philosopher Plotinus wrote: “There is always a radiance in the soul of man, untroubled, like the light in a lantern in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.”
The Infinite. The end product of meditation is increased awareness-of ourselves and of our fellow men, and also of the vibrating world around us. “Every day I took the ferryboat to work,” a West Coast businessman told me, “but I hardly saw the ocean. If I looked up from my paper. I felt that I saw nothing new or different. After I began meditating, though, I often sat on deck and really looked. And what a different ocean I saw-amber, silver, green, black, changing every minute!” If we think long and lovingly about the world, we find ourselves plunging into it, sensing it, feeling it, and even the very stones and hills seem vividly alive. We find a meaning in everything-the seed in the ground, the bark on the tree, the sound of the cricket.
And even as meditation can bring us to an awareness of the living world, so with one more step it can take us to the borders of that invisible world which haunts our lives like the perfume of unseen roses. We know, as psychologist Claudio Naranjo writes, that we are “a part of the cosmos, a tide in the ocean of life, a chain in the network of processes that do not either begin or end within the enclosure of our skins.” In one way or another, we spend our lives trying to find this web of kinship, which joins us to all living things and to God. When meditation brings us to the verge of this world, it is brother to prayer. It allows us to believe that the kingdom of heaven really is within us and that there is a linkage between our minds and whatever governs the world.
MEDITATION is not a cure-all. Properly used, however, it can give us back the wonderland of our minds: the happiness that children find in dreaming alone in an apple tree; the joy of sages for whom wisdom is the “pearl of great price.” Through the centuries, it has taken thousands of people to the very edge of a different land, returning them to life with renewed strength and purpose. Today there is a widespread feeling that the world of tomorrow should be very different from the world of today. Meditation is seen as a prelude to that transformation-a way of preparing for it, a way of changing lives and thus changing the world.
By Ardis Whitman