Category Archives: Meditation

Loving Kindness Meditation

I begin here where I left off last week – with an invitation to share the loving kindness we feel toward intimates with all beings everywhere. What a glorious world we would create if all of us could express that sentiment, ever and always!

But here’s where the rubber meets the road.

Let’s face it – it’s easy to love lovable people. People who are in our immediate orbit. People who are most like us in sociopolitical standing, cultural background, political ideology, religious faith, and so on. It’s not easy to love who hold views that are diametrically opposed to our own, who threaten or hurt those we love, who behave unkindly toward us, or who thoughtlessly race in and take the last parking spot that we’ve waited for patiently!

A few years ago, I crafted a post based on Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, in which he argues that we are biologically wired to process differences in race, ethnicity, gender, social status, and beauty. Our brains are especially attuned to skin color. In fact, we form US vs. THEM dichotomies within milliseconds of exposure to others. We feel a sense of obligation and reciprocity toward those we deem part of US, and view THEM as threatening, angry, and untrustworthy. THEY might even evoke disgust.

We all belong to several US-THEM groupings, and our affiliations vary over time. Yet Sapolsky tells us that we do not need to be held hostage to our biological or cultural biases. If we acknowledge that factions exist, we can choose to follow our better angels. We can focus on larger, shared goals and invest the time and effort to see the world from a different vantage point.

We can prepare the mind, heart, and body to be receptive to, and purveyors of, loving-kindness through mindfulness meditation. The traditional practice has five categories: lovingkindness for oneself, for specific friends or benefactors, for a neutral person, for a challenging person, and for all beings everywhere. It proceeds by sending forth these blessings:

May I/you be filled with lovingkindness.
May I/you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I/you be well in body and mind.
May I/you be at ease and happy.

Starting with the self can be hard. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Real Love, quotes her friend Nora, saying: “You always hear you need to practice self-love in order to love others. But no one tells you how to love yourself. On the one hand, it feels like a cure-all. I need to love myself to find a lover. On the other hand, I think a lot of people seek out romance as a way of not loving themselves. In some sense, self-love is the most difficult.”

If self-love proves difficult, it isn’t necessary to start there. I typically meditate on loving thoughts toward others, then receive loving-kindness from them, and then consider loving myself. Evoking the sense of loving-kindness is enormously important. Because when I feel love, it’s easier for me to access that intention for myself.

Starting out, I did not force myself trough gritted teeth to send loving thoughts out to challenging people. I didn’t want to be disingenuous or find myself in a grand meditative debate as to whether or not that person deserved it. It became easier to add that element back in once I’d worked with the practice for a while.

There’s a story of a rabbi who used to teach in the Jewish mystical tradition. He had his disciples memorize, reflect, contemplate, and place the teachings of the holy words on their heart. One day, a student asked why the rabbi always used the phrase “on your heart,” and the master replied, “Only the divine can put the teachings into your heart. Here we recite, and learn, and put them on the heart, hoping that some time when your heart breaks, they will fall in.”

So, it’s a practice. It’s something that we can train and do. If the phrases offered earlier do not resonate, it’s OK to choose other ones. Most teachers suggest intentions that revolve around safety, happiness, good health, and ease (peace, equanimity). It’s also OK to use different phrases for different people. An especially difficult person may receive the blessing: May you be free from hatred. May you be free from greed. May you look upon others with kindness. May you find peace in your heart.

I’ve been working with the practice for a few months, typically first thing in the morning. I vary the phrases (often because I can’t remember the traditional ones!) And I don’t constrain myself to a particular pattern of extending well-wishes. With consistent practice, I feel changed for the better. When enough of us experience that transformation, perhaps we’ll create a kinder world.

Practicing R.A.I.N. With a Partner

Two-plus years ago, I wrote a post entitled Take a Pause and Practice R.A.I.N. to shine a light on a wonderful tool for processing emotions. I learned about it from renowned psychologist, author, and meditation teacher Tara Brach. It goes like this:

  • Recognize: Pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise.
  • Allow: Let the thoughts, emotions, and sensations just be. Don’t try to control or judge them. Don’t label them right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Just say “YES” to them and invite them to sit with you.
  • Investigate: Bring an interested and kind attention to the experience. Notice what bodily sensations, emotions, and narratives arise without analyzing them. Just be curious.
  • Nurture: Call for a response from the wisest and most compassionate part of your being. Allow yourself to feel loved, supported, and worthy.

It’s a simple yet powerful practice that has really helped me work through some intense feelings and get unhooked from them.

In my Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program, the leadership strongly encouraged us to practice R.A.I.N. with a partner. I dismissed the notion at first given the difficulty I perceived in finding a compatible partner and (frankly) because I just didn’t think I’d get that much out of it. Yet members of my peer group had such great success with it that I put out a request for a partner and was blessed with a perfect pairing.

When practiced in partnership, the process goes like this:

  • RAIN partnersBoth partners reflect ahead of time on a matter in which they feel vexed or stuck. It can be something related to work, personal relationships, health, a troublesome behavior, the community, a news article, …
  • When coming together, the session starts with a period of quiet meditation – between 3 and 10 minutes – to bring a sense of calm and centeredness to the space.
  • Each partner takes 3 minutes to described the issue at hand while the other listens attentively.
  • The ensuing 10 minutes of silence provides the opportunity to consider the A, I, and N elements of RAIN.
  • Thereafter, both parties reflect silently on the process for 2 minutes to see how things have shifted for them.
  • Each partner takes 3 minutes to express to the other what was challenging about the practice and what they experienced or learned as a take-away.

Several things happen when I work through an issue with a partner.

  • Giving voice to the issue in front of another person makes it more real. It starts me on the path of really feeling it rather than getting stuck in my head just thinking about it.
  • I slow down and give RAIN the space to do its magic. When practicing RAIN alone, I tend to rush through the steps and give short shrift to the curiosity that comes with investigation and the genuine nurturing that helps me move through it. A slow pace gives me more time for exploration and self-compassion.
  • I feel supported deeply by my partner. I don’t feel alone in my struggles.
  • Quite often, the issues my partner raises resonate with me. It’s like getting a two-for-one RAIN bonus.

I don’t know how long this partnership will last, but I’ll be inclined to work with others going forward. It’s a moving experience that really drives insights home.

Reconnecting with Ourselves Through Pineal Gland Meditation

Before the pandemic disrupted life as I knew it, I was a regular at the local Body & Brain Studio. A national chain founded by Ilchi Lee, it focuses on mind-body training and features a blend of Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and breath work. Lee is also a New York Times best selling author. I finally got around to reading one of his books, Connect: How To Find Clarity and Expand Your Consciousness with Pineal Gland Meditation.

meditationLee argues that a loss of connection to ourselves gives rise to most of our seemingly intractable problems. Through pineal gland meditation, we can empty ourselves of thoughts, emotions, and information that give rise to disconnection and fill that space with abundant energy and bright consciousness. In so doing, we reconnect with our true selves and gain insights regarding what we really want, how we might solve problems and make decisive choices, and set a direction for the future. Reconnecting with ourselves also enables us to forge connection with our bodies, with others, and with the world.

To connect with ourselves, we must turn away from all the stimulations and desires of the visible world and turn our focus inward. Pineal gland meditation accomplishes this end through a three-step process.

The first step establishes a connection with the body. We lie on the floor with our arms set perpendicular to the body facing upward. We then tap our toes together for 5 sets of 100 taps with a brief break between sets. As we tap our toes, we breathe deeply and imagine that we are releasing stagnant energy out the bottoms of our feet starting with our legs and moving up gradually to the tops of our heads. Having released this energy, we visualize pure divine energy entering our bodies through the crowns of our heads and filling us up. (Note: This is a great exercise to prepare for sleep!)

The second step establishes a connection with the soul. This exercise endeavors to separate soul energy from emotional energy as the power of emotion decreases as the power of soul increases. Sitting in the lotus position, we close our eyes and breath deeply to induce a relaxed state. We tap our fingertips together 50 times, rub our palms together 10-20 times, and then hold our hands about 1” apart, feeling the radiant energy between them. We alternate spreading our hands apart and bringing them close together while sensing feelings of heat and magnetism multiply. As we breathe through the nose and exhale through the mouth, we move the hands roughly 2” away from the chest, palms facing the heart, to send warm, pure energy from the palms to the heart. We move the hands all over the body’s energy field, eventually returning the hands to the heart.

The third step stablishes a connection with divinity. Once again sitting in the lotus position, we activate the hand energy by tapping our fingertips together 50 times and rubbing the hands together 10-20 times. We then move the hands all over the face and the sides, back, and top of the head. When finished, we place the hands on our knees facing upward. We then slowly raise the hands to shoulder height, palms upward, and imagine energy and heavenly blessings descending upon us. As we let our consciousness grow, we establish a connection with the universal brain for two-way exchange of information and energy.

Lee asserts that this methodology not only enables us to connect with our true selves, but also allows us to experience everything as interconnected. The brighter and broader our consciousness, the greater our empathy for all beings.

An Extended Practice of Mindfulness

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to engage in my first extended period of mindfulness, a 6-day meditation retreat. Due to COVID, I chose an on-line option and moved into the guest quarters to simulate the residential experience. It worked quite well.

I’d read a couple of accounts of first-time retreat participants that foretold of the difficulties of transitioning from Type A style living to sustained stillness for days on end. I was also aware of the requirement to maintain noble silence during retreat – a feat not easy for this chatty extrovert. But I knew I’d figure out how to make the adjustments.

Here’s the schedule we followed during retreat:

Day One (half-day) Days Two through Six Day Seven (half-day)
Welcome, orientation, and introductions (135 min)

Break (60 min)

* Begin noble silence *

Dharma talk and guided meditation (90 min)

Yoga (60 min)

Guided meditation (30 min)

Break (75 min)

Dharma talk and guided meditation (90 min)

Break (30 min)

Silent, self-guided meditation (90 min)

Break (120 min)

Silent, self-guided meditation (90 min)

Break (30 min)

Silent, self-guided meditation (90 min)

Break (60 min)

Dharma talk and guided meditation (120 min)

Yoga (60 min)

Guided meditation (30 min)

Break (75 min)

Dharma talk and guided meditation (90 min)

Break (30 min)

* End noble silence *

Closing circle (90 min)

It turned out that noble silence wasn’t all that difficult for me. In fact, I rather enjoyed the quiet. The extended periods of silent meditation proved more challenging. As one who is relatively new to the art of quieting the mind, it was effortful to try and keep my mind focused on the present moment. I’d use an object of attention – e.g., the breath, body scan, foot placement, sound – but would find my focus drifting again and again and again. Early in the day, I’d catch myself readily and return to the object of attention. As I grew fatigued, I’d experience quite a lapse in attention before I’d take note of it and reset to the present moment. Fortunately, I did not grow anxious or frustrated in the process. I just stayed with the practice.

I discovered that thoughts are my most frequent attention grabbers with a tendency toward planning or imagining something in the future. That experience tracks with a lifetime of goal setting and investing time and energy toward the realization of a future state. I’ve definitely experienced extended periods of flow where I’m completely absorbed in the work that I doing. That being said, I rarely just sit and take in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feel of the moment as it presents itself. My idle mind usually starts planning.

What strikes me about this future orientation is that I never really arrive and enjoy. Once I’ve reached a milestone or destination, I get busy contemplating the next one. Life coaches and productivity gurus may applaud this tendency and point to all that could be accomplished with that life strategy. I think it robs one of the experience of living.

I’m not planning on becoming a slacker. I still like to set goals and explore new horizons. But I plan to be mindful of all the moments big and small that show up along the way.

Samurai Meditator

I have aspired to be a meditator for a long time. I dipped my toe in those waters in the 1990s with a weekly class at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. To my chagrin, meditation was not a discipline to which I had easy access. I found myself either too preoccupied to pay attention to the breath consistently or so exhausted that I’d fall asleep the minute I released the tensions of the day. Feeling a failure, I abandoned the effort.

meditationI started researching and writing about meditation in early 2018 and assumed that my immersion in the science of meditation would have a positive effect on my practice. Not so much. I still found it difficult to sit still and focus on the breath. But when the final chapters of parent care and then COVID-19 brought new flavors of stress into my life, I finally got with the program. I still struggle from time to time, but the voice in my head has become far less critical about my fledgling attempts to be in the moment.

If you hail from the land of Type As and find meditation challenging – even though it’s good for you – I feel your pain. I’ll also suggest that you curl up with Dan Harris’ book entitled 10% Happier. It’s part memoir, part bird’s eye view into meditation, and part words-of-wisdom from a guy who lived life in the fast lane for decades before embracing this ancient practice.

Harris launched a career in TV news right out of college. After working for local stations in Bangor, ME and Boston, MA, he landed a coveted job in network news at ABC under the tutelage of Peter Jennings. He worked insane hours, took every assignment offered him – including really dangerous ones – and leaned into the intensely competitive and ego-bashing side of the business for the sake of advancement. And advance he did! Yet on June 7, 2004, in front of 5 million viewers, he had a self-described on-air meltdown. That wake-up call started an intensive journey of self-discovery.

A fortuitous assignment covering faith in America eventually led Harris to Buddhism and meditation. His early impressions were less than favorable given a perception that the practice was too hippy-dippy for a seasoned journalist, news anchor, and morning show host. His gateway to the practice came through the aegis of psychiatrist Mark Epstein, MD for whom Buddhism’s positive outlook and meditative principle of living in the moment profoundly influenced his practice. Epstein spoke a language that Harris understood and, in time, convinced him to engage fully in the practice.

Harris’ description of his journey from novice meditator to committed practitioner bears the marks of unvarnished truth with a solid dose of humor thrown into the mix. If you’ve struggled with the practice – as I have – you’ll find a kindred spirit in Harris. You’ll also find that you can embrace a new way of being without sacrificing the edge that helps you function in an intense, challenging, competitive environment. To that end, Harris serves up ten pieces of advice for the meditative corporate samurai:

  1. Jettison the jerk and embrace your most compassionate self. It feels better and draws friends and allies into your circle.
  2. Don’t broadcast your Zen-fulness or expect an accommodation for it in a tough professional context. Simply compete aggressively but calmly.
  3. Recognize that meditation confers a gaggle of benefits and enables you to respond rather than react to impulses and provocations.
  4. Figure out when worry and anguish yield a positive outcome and when they don’t. Let them go in circumstances beyond your control, capacity for change, or long-term benefit.
  5. Let your newfound equanimity impact creativity positivity. Celebrate the spaciousness created by clearing out the routinized rumination and unhelpful assumptions.
  6. Don’t force your way through difficult circumstances. Take purposeful pauses and embrace ambiguity as you make your way through.
  7. Embrace humility as a means of staying agile and open-minded.
  8. Go easy on self-criticism. Acknowledge flaws, forgive and learn from mistakes, and move forward. Resilience works better than recrimination.
  9. Work hard, play to win, but don’t get overly caught up in the results. There will be other games to play and new results for which to strive.
  10. Focus on what matters most. Use it as a gut-check when looking toward the future.

Harris published his book in 2014 and stayed with ABC News for another seven years. He left in late 2021 to focus on his mindfulness and meditation company, Ten Percent Happier.

One More Reason to Meditate

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of being aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Tibetan Lama

A student of human nature, author Robert Wright was drawn to study mindfulness at a Buddhist meditation retreat. He deemed himself a particularly unlikely candidate for the exercise given his general restlessness and penchant for emotional expression. Yet he signed on for an immersive program that had him sit in stillness hour-upon-hour every day. Though challenging, he persevered, attended several other retreats, and wrote Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Suffice it to say, the book is not light reading. It subjects 4th century BCE Buddhist dharma to 21st century evolutionary biology and neuroscience to make sense of the ancient wisdom. It also seeks to provide practical reasons to immerse oneself in the discipline of mindfulness. From pages of notes, I hope to distill some key concepts.

One of the Buddha’s core teachings is that there is no such thing as a permanent, autonomous “self.” We cannot point to any part of our being and declare that it enjoys both control and persistence. In particular:

  • five aggregatesOur physical bodies cannot be the “self” because we have limited control over its appearance and functioning, and we certainly can’t forestall its deterioration in old age.
  • Our feelings cannot be the “self” because we are so often swept away by strong emotions that seem to arise out of nowhere. Moreover, said emotions can be here in one moment and gone the next.
  • Our perceptions cannot be the “self” because they are so readily manipulated by outside influence. Environmental cues, emotional states, and entrenched biases all contribute to which sensory input gets our attention and how we’ll interpret it.
  • Our mental formulations cannot be the “self” because they are as readily manipulated by external influence as our perceptions. Moreover, one of Wright’s teachers observed that sometimes “thoughts think themselves.”

The best candidate for the “self” appears to be consciousness. Some suggest that it has the capacity to observe and exercise control over our bodies, feelings, perceptions, and mental formulations. Wright makes a compelling case that this sensibility does not prove true.

Last week’s post discussed Wright’s book on Social Darwinism in which he argues that self-delusion confers an evolutionary advantage. When we see ourselves as more capable, understanding, moral, and righteous than we really are, we project an air of confidence that proves attractive to potential mates. Likewise, our tendency to view others with a jaundiced eye, readily pointing out their faults and failings, clears the field of potential rivals. These biases do not enter our conscious awareness, yet we act upon them because it improves our ability to perpetuate our gene pool.

Beyond the influence of social dynamics, the human brain reflects thousands of years of evolutionary development from the “lizard brain” that controls primal urges and responses. It’s a marvelously complex collective of neural circuitry spread across multiple overlapping modules that all work together. Modern technology and a gaggle of research has begun to pierce the veil of how this incredible organ functions. A number of findings support Wright’s thesis that “consciousness” is not in charge. For example:

  • Persons who’ve had their two brain hemispheres separated surgically can receive a stimulus in one half of the brain and respond to it with the other all outside the realm of conscious thought or control.
  • Brain scans reveal that action often precedes conscious choice. We often choose a path and then exercise our conscious capacity to rationalize our actions as if they were the product of deliberation.
  • Subliminal cues and messaging guide our thoughts and behavior without consciousness awareness of their influence.
  • Powerful feelings – e.g., fear, anger, grief, ecstasy, love – can usher in a whole new mindset that colors behaviors and perceptions over extended periods, for better or worse.

So, if there is no “self,” then who am I?

Wright suggests that we are each a collective of “selves” that take turns running the show. At any given moment, physical sensations, emotions, perceptions, thoughts, or other sensibilities might captivate our attention. The key to attaining mastery lies in:

  • Recognizing what has emerged
  • Accepting it
  • Investigating it and its relation to your body, mind, and spirit
  • Practicing Nonattachment (or non-identification) toward it

Insight meditation practiced faithfully provides the means to be attentive to what’s going on “in here,” not just what’s “out there.” We notice feelings, perceptions, thoughts as they arise and refrain from getting ensnared in the drama of them. We learn to stabilize our minds, release the chatter of their usual preoccupations, and perceive the world in a clear, less reactive way. As Wright says: “Mindfulness meditation gives calm passions more control than violent passions over time.”

The Relaxation Response

As a young cardiologist in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Bensen noticed a trend among his patients that suggested a link between stress and hypertension, a precursor for heart disease. Many exhibited falsely high blood pressure at the doctor’s office. His colleagues routinely dismissed the phenomenon, ascribing the elevated readings to nerves. But the experience stimulated his curiosity.

If the body has a built-in mechanism to make adjustments physiologically in response to stress, might it also have a mechanism to calm itself down?

Bensen left private practice and joined the faculty of his alma mater, the Harvard Medical School, to answer that question.

Bensen confirmed his hypothesis through studies conducted with practitioners of Transcendental Meditation. He dubbed the phenomenon The Relaxation Response and authored a best-selling book by that name. Here were his findings.

When subjects entered a meditative state, they exhibited lowered heart rate, respiration, and oxygen consumption. The latter indicated that the body’s energy resources had been given a break, since cells consume oxygen when metabolizing sugars and fats for fuel. Meditation also produced a marked decrease in blood lactate, suggesting an anti-anxiety influence. Taken together, these metrics speak to decreased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and reflect a state of deep restfulness. In short, it’s the antithesis of the fight-or-flight response!

Bensen also demonstrated that the physiological impact of meditation is distinct from sleeping. During sleep, oxygen consumption decreases progressively to about 8% less than wakefulness. By contrast, mediation induces a rapid decrease in oxygen consumption within the first 3 minutes of practice and resets to normal at the end of a session. Alpha brain waves manifest prominently during meditation but are not common in sleep. Meditation does not induce Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

In sum: If you need a break from stress, meditate!

relaxation response

Since the 1975 publication of Bensen’s book, meditation has gone from a quasi-cult phenomenon to a mainstream practice with scads of research to supports its efficacy. There are lots of techniques for evoking the relaxation response and varying price tags associated with learning them. Bensen advocates a straight-forward approach that anyone can implement:

  1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, sound, or prayer that carries meaning within your belief system.
  2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Engage in progressive muscle relaxation to relieve tension in the body, starting with the muscles in the feet and toes and working up through the calves, thighs, abdomen, arms, shoulders, head, and neck.
  5. Breathe in slowly and naturally; say your focus word, phrase, sound, or prayer to yourself as you slowly exhale.
  6. Take note when other thoughts attempt to intrude on your session and simply let them go. Gently return to your practice without judgment or concern no matter how many times this happens.
  7. Continue for 10-20 minutes.
  8. Sit quietly for a couple of minutes as you prepare to move forward with the affairs of the day. Open your eyes and wait for another minute or two before rising.
  9. Meditate once or twice daily. Good times for practice include just before breakfast and just before dinner.

Does Meditation Really Change Lives?

As I noted in my last post, I’ve become increasingly curious about meditation and the benefits it confers to those who have cultivated the practice. So I ran across another book that sparked my interest – Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

The authors met as graduate students in complementary fields – Goleman in psychology and Davidson in neuroscience. They both got into meditation as students and continued their practices for decades. Both saw a multitude of positive changes in their lives as a function of their deep commitment to the practice. This experience motivated them to collaborate on an exhaustive review of evidence-based research to unearth proven benefits of meditation.

researchGoleman and Davidson applied rigorous standards to the studies that they included in their review. They devoted a fair amount of time discussing the ways in which studies may be poorly designed and/or produce untrustworthy results. For example, self-reporting often produces biased or skewed results. Benefits ascribed to meditation could be a function of expectation (e.g., “Everyone says they feel more peaceful when they meditate, so I guess I do, too”), the experience of social bonding in a class, or the enthusiasm of the instructor.

Goleman and Davidson zeroed in on what happens in the individual’s brain in response to meditation. They found transformation in the neural pathways resulting in: (i) less reaction to disturbing events; (ii) elevated compassion and empathy; (iii) increased attention; and (v) improved sense of self. For example, highly experienced Zen masters bear more pain than the control subjects and display little activity in the executive, evaluative, and emotional areas of the brain, all of which typically “flare” when exposed to stressors. The Zen masters experience pain; they just didn’t react to it.

Experienced meditators also showed enlarged brain regions as follows:

  • Insula, which attunes us to our internal state and emotional self-awareness
  • Somatomotor areas, which are the cortical hubs for sensing touch and pain
  • Parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with paying attention
  • Regions of the cingulate cortex instrumental in self-regulation
  • Orbitofrontal cortex, also implicated in self-regulation

Of course, the authors acknowledge that such measurements may also be impacted by diet, exercise, sleep habits, stress, and other health factors. Long-time meditators may have healthier lifestyles that contribute to their brain function.

Long-term mindfulness training has also been associated with lower inflammation and a calming of immune response. It increases the enzyme telomerase which has been linked to a reduction in cellular aging. It has also been associated with a decrease in depression, anxiety, and pain.

One big caveat regarding all of the aforementioned benefits: It takes LOTS of practice to realize the systemic benefits. At 1,000 to 10,000 hours of accumulated practice, there are neural and hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity and strengthened emotional regulation. Moreover, it’s not just the number of logged hours; it’s how well the practitioner engages the practice. Intentional practice requires expert coaching tied to the needs of the individual. There’s also strong evidence that periodic retreats plays a role in boosting one’s realization of the benefits of practice.

The good news: Anyone can do it. And even if one doesn’t attain mastery, a consistent practice can promote loving kindness, improve attention span, and instill feelings of well-being. The trick is to find a practice that works for you and stick with it.

Open Wide and Say “Om”

Meditation keeps cropping up in the books I’m reading and the podcasts that fill the airwaves while I exercise. The advocates talk about the peacefulness, clarity, and energy-boost that they experience through regular practice. As I’m intrigued by their witness, I thought I’d see what the “experts” have to say about it.

For my first stop on this tour, I chose a book by Dr. Norman E Rosenthal, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and 30-year veteran of clinical practice. He has also conducted research in behalf of the National Institute of Mental Health for 20 years. So he can reasonably claim to offer expert commentary in Transcendence: Healing Through Transcendental Meditation.

transcendental meditationDr. Rosenthal’s transcendental meditation (a.k.a. “TM”) is a specific form of meditative practice that makes use of individually-tailored mantras during two 20-minute sessions daily. A certified trainer provides instruction on the technique and works with each client to choose the right mantra and use it correctly. Follow-up sessions on consecutive days reinforce the training. (See

TM confers a state of calmness while helping organize the prefrontal cortex in a way that improves focus and decision making. It allows the practitioners to feel a connection to something beyond the self while setting aside consciousness of date, time, and place. In this state of transcendence, one experiences 4 gifts: (i) the gift of being (not doing), (ii) the gift of retreat from the cares and concerns of the world, (iii) the gift of stress-release (physically and/or psychologically), and (iv) the gift of insights.

These high-level benefits have been touted since I first learned about TM years ago. Yet they’ve never inspired me to get past the fidgetiness that I experience every time I try to sit still for a 20-minute session. So I read on to see what Dr. Rosenthal has witnessed through decades of clinical practice.

HEALING: TM has been shown to lower blood pressure, increase insulin sensitivity, and improve cardiac health. It calms the sympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering the stress response. Stress has a deleterious effect on the cardiovascular and immune systems. It also accelerates aging. (He notes that when it comes to cardiovascular disease, it may not be solely about what you eat; it’s also about what’s eating you!) Meditators have superior health profiles, though Dr. Rosenthal allows as how their lifestyles may be more health-promoting than non-mediators.

TRANSFORMATION: Anger and anxiety may serve us when directed toward specific circumstances of limited duration. They fail us when a chronic state of heightened arousal leads to stress-induced physical and psychological challenges, including depression. While cognitive therapy works to change surface behaviors relative to anger, anxiety, and depression, TM works toward a ground of being that is more peaceful. By calming the mind, it helps patients respond to stressors in a clear-headed way. They’re less prone to acting on impulse or being overcome by their emotions. It trains the mind to let disquieting thoughts pass, rather than ruminate on them endlessly. It also has a positive impact on personal organization, effectiveness, and quality of thinking.

HARMONY: TM helps thoughts become more orderly and priorities easier to perceive and pursue. Practitioners focus on what’s important or urgent, not the “noise” that clamors for their attention. The uncluttered mind also has the freedom to explore new directions, to innovate, and to see things with fresh eyes. Most long-time meditators are relaxed in body, alert in mind, and open in spirit. They feel a sense of harmony within their minds, between their minds and bodies, and between themselves and others. Prisons and schools have been transformed by meditation. When practiced consistently by a group of teens, they were shown to have less absenteeism, suspensions, and school violations.

Dr. Rosenthal stressed the importance of working with a certified trainer when adopting this practice. I found a local provider that supports the technique available through Maharishi Foundation USA, a federally recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization. The fees are not for the faint of heart (or budget), although they offer lower rates for students and financially challenged individuals.