The Truth About Meditation … Transcendental and Otherwise
The juxtaposition is my favorite literary device. Perhaps because it embodies me in many ways. Or perhaps it embodies how I perceive myself.
The stark reality is I am a middle class, white male from a very rural part of a Southern state. Yet, I am often allergic to others that fit that description.
I am liberal. I hate guns. I embrace people with differences because they enrich my worldview. I don’t believe in God any more than I believe in zombies or hobbits.
And if you believe in God, zombies or hobbits, I’m not sorry, either. You believe in imaginary men with supernatural powers. By definition, that makes you clinically insane.
But being religious and spiritual are different things. The former I am not. The latter, I believe I very much am.
Calming My Spirit
As I turned the corner on 40, almost a decade ago, my marriage was in tatters. I’d not been a good husband. My then wife and I created walls that prevented us from understanding each other’s wishes, desires and, yes, problems. I failed to keep it together and asked for a divorce.
Six months later she agreed.
At the same time, my professional life was falling apart as well. I’d go into detail, but no one cared then. Nor do they now. Let’s just say there were no silver linings to be had.
I hit rock bottom one day in marriage counseling. The therapist said, “Do you need to go to the hospital.” All I could do was nod.
A friend suggested I talk to her life coach, which seemed dumb. A life coach is just someone who wants to be a therapist but skips the education and training part. But to humor her, I did. And he coached me through a meditation.
The relief was short-lived, but instant. If I knew what carrying a ton of bricks felt like, I’d tell you it was if they were lifted from me. That meditation didn’t fix or alter the bad things that were happening to me. It calmed my spirit and made the logistics less burdensome.
I studied up on meditation. There was something to this.
Searching for something self-guided but informative, I downloaded Headspace, the mindfulness meditation app. I’d read a story about founder Andy Puddicombe in an entrepreneur magazine and somehow felt a kinship with his life struggles.
No, getting divorced isn’t exactly comparable to losing a close loved one. Well, actually … it is.
Mindfulness meditation is simple enough to understand. The point of all meditation is to calm the mind and seek a state of stillness. Mindfulness meditation helps you do that by distracting you from the constant barrage of thoughts that produce most of our body’s stress. The distraction is to have you focus on your breathing and check-in with your body.
You literally start with deep breaths, scan your body from head to toe, observing how it feels without reacting to any feelings, then revert your focus to breathing. If you do it well and try to keep other thoughts out of your head for a few minutes, your pulse slows, your blood pressure lowers and you feel refreshed.
There’s little magic to it. You just take a few minutes and calm the fuck down.
I practiced mindfulness meditation for six years. In almost immediate, and certainly lasting fashion, I had less stress, slept better and was less angry about the world.
For the better part of a year, I meditated every day. It help me through the divorce, dealing with my failure as a husband and father, reorganizing my life as a half-time single parent and realigning my professional life to find joy in work again.
When I got busy or lazy and failed to meditate, I would slowly build up layers of stress and anger again. I wish I could say I was good at noticing that and fixed it right away, but I wasn’t. Still, I had a technique to turn to when I knew I needed an antidote.
Meditating Too Well
In mindfulness meditation, you can reach a point of stillness where your mind and body are quiet. It’s quite nice. You feel the breeze, hear the birds …. okay, the air conditioning … and just bask in the sudden taste of nothingness.
In my six years, I probably achieved that perfect state of stillness once or twice a month. It’s difficult to get there, but it happens enough to keep you thinking maybe the next meditation will bring it about again.
Once, when I was in a moment of stillness, I felt myself almost leave my body. It was as if I were experiencing the meditation from the outside looking in, only it was from the inside looking out.
It’s hard to describe. I was fully conscious and aware of the room, the sounds, the time of day, and what I was doing. But I felt this tingle of energy and had the sensation of seeing from inside my body, but being outside, like the warmth around it.
There was no vision of floating. No aliens. And certainly no Jesus. But it was electrifying. When I brought myself out of the meditation I felt better than I ever had.
Now meditation became an obsession. I needed to get back to wherever that was. But where exactly was it? What was it? And how could I ask someone without sounding like a Cosplay stoner or Old Regular Baptist?
So I read. Everything I could find about meditation. Different types from different belief systems. Techniques that included crystals and hot stones and mystical chakras and yoga poses. Nothing really explained it well enough for me to think I’d found the answer.
All I knew is that I had transcended into a different place in my mind.
Learning Transcendental Meditation
I have an unhealthy obsession with Rick Rubin, the music producer and sometimes interviewer on Broken Record and the occasional documentary series. As a music fan, it’s hard not to notice his treatment of any artist’s music is somehow infinitely better than anything they have done or will ever do. But then he embodies juxtaposition.
His lion-esque mane of hair and Rasputin-like beard (not to mention power poses in Jay-Z videos) scream bad-ass. This is not someone you mess with.
But then a gleaming smile peeks through, lifting warm eyes and foreshadowing the gentle breeze of a voice that can only come from two places: meditation or massive amounts of marijuana.
When Rubin talks, its gentle and kind. He looks others in the eye when they speak back. And he does something in interviews that very few actually do: he listens. Intently.
In my consumption of his work and interviews through the years, I picked up that he learned transcendental mediation as a teenager. He’s claimed repeatedly that it changed his life. Anytime TM, as it’s known by practitioners, comes up in other contexts, it’s always with similar ringing endorsement.
Jim James, frontman of My Morning Jacket, practices TM and often explains his songs by saying, “The universe gave me that.” I knew there was a connection.
During your training, your teacher will repeatedly underline the point that transcendental meditation should be easy, even effortless. You are given a mantra—a sound or phrase to repeat quietly to take you into your meditation. For me, it’s essentially the distraction that counting your breaths or checking in with your body was in the mindfulness approach. You’re giving your brain something to do so it stops focusing on the noise of thoughts typically in your head.
And, if you relax and let the quiet come effortlessly, you do reach that point of stillness that often comes with mindfulness meditation.
But then it happens.
In my third full meditation away from my instructor, I found myself in that transcendent place—the almost out-of-body, electrifying experience that so enthralled me once, now years past. It happened again a day later. And almost daily since. My study of TM seems to indicate this is the habit you’re building toward with practice: To beckon that return each time.
The trick, it seems, is to do it effortlessly. Meaning, don’t force it or “try” to reach that transcendent state. It only comes if you simply let it. It may not come every time, but in time it will.
Fortunately for me, it has.
The Difference in Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought TM to the mainstream in the 1960s and whom the Beatles famously flocked to, taught that transcendence is reaching a state of bliss. That aptly describes the feeling, both during and to a degree after you reach it.
What I stumbled upon once in mindfulness meditation was actually transcendence. So, it can happen there, but in all likelihood, it’s by accident. Both types of meditation are valid and valuable. But TM offers the ability to learn how to welcome that little something extra with intent and regularity.
Even if you never reach that place of bliss, or even a full experience of stillness, the prevailing intent is well worth pursuing.
Humor me and think about the world we live in today. Now wouldn’t it be a wonderful juxtaposition for everyone to take a few minutes and calm the fuck down?