My recent career pivot to becoming a meditation teacher was a combo platter of both. It started back in 2016 when empty nesting and caring for aging parents loomed. Knowing that meditation is a scientifically proven way to calm anxiety — my then go-to stress response — I decided to give it a whirl.
A large factor in my choice was hearing Howard Stern and Jerry Seinfeld wax poetic about meditation. The cynical Gen Xer in me figured if those two neurotic Boomers could find relief and creative inspiration by shutting their eyes a few minutes a day, so could I.
Cut to two years later, when I impulsively took a trip to Rishikesh, India, with my meditation teacher, Jeff Kober, and 20 other seekers. While some joked about how this was an eat-pray-love midlife moment, I didn’t want to label it. I wasn’t looking for some seismic life-changing event, just a ten-day break from being squeezed from all sides, as is the case with our sandwich generation.
There I learned a technique called “rounding,” which precedes a 20-minute meditation with a handful of yoga poses and alternate-nostril breathing (pranayama) to calm the autonomic nervous system. It finishes the meditation with ten minutes of rest.
As someone who routinely did 90-minute hot yoga classes, I almost laughed out loud when Jeff warned, “Don’t do this alone; the stress release might be too intense.”
It turns out he was right. During the first morning of rounding, I was surprised to find myself crying through most of the two-hour early morning session. Later, during communal breakfast, the stress release unexpectedly continued in the form of an excruciating headache that radiated up and out of my skull.
While the pain only lasted a couple of minutes, had I been anywhere else in the world, I would’ve run to a doctor, worried that there was something seriously wrong with me.
There in India, Jeff gently reminded me that this was a sign the meditation was working. Ditching what no longer serves us is a critical part of learning to live consciously.
“Better out than in,” he said.
So the question is, what are you holding onto that’s holding you back?
One of the most hopeful moments in recent history was National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Biden’s inauguration.
“The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Gorman’s choice of the word “be” is particularly potent. And courage is the right sentiment. To embrace and even initiate change, you’ve got to be willing to step into the unknown.
As a society, we tend to avoid things that involve discomfort — witness the rise in COVID-related drug and alcohol use. The latest indication is our so-called “negation culture,” which New York Times writer Kyle Chayka says is all about glorifying numbness.
Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo, and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less.
The impulse to blot out what it feels like to be you is human, but I wouldn’t call it a luxury.
A better way of releasing the trappings holding you back is to make it a conscious choice. The philosophical practice of letting go of non-essentials has been embraced for thousands of years, from the ancient Greeks to the major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
My favorite take on it is a practice that comes from Vedas, found in the sacred Hindu text, the Upanishads: neti neti. It means what it sounds like: not this, not that.
From a metaphysical perspective, that means releasing distractions, rationalizations, and other ego-driven trappings to get to the core of what is.
In Sanskrit, the expression for that place of pure potential is Satchitananda. Truth, consciousness, bliss.
And “bliss” isn’t some frothy euphoria. It’s inner contentedness when all feels right in the world. Meditation is an age-old, research-backed conduit to go beyond your thoughts — the story of who you are — to a more genuine place of being.
Be Your Self
Last week Brian talked about the art of integrated living. In sharing a tale from the spiritual classic The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho, he made the point that you can balance wonder and work. And that purpose and adventure, obligation and exploration are not mutually exclusive.
This is similar to the concept put forth by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought mediation West in the 1960s and 1970s and is best known for teaching the Beatles how to meditate. The only twist is the adventure and exploration he’s talking about is driven by an inward journey.
The Maharishi talked about the integration of life in his book, The Science of Being and the Art of Living:
While dealing with the question, ‘What is Life?’ it has been made clear that life has two aspects, the relative and the absolute. Therefore normal life should mean that the values of both those aspects are lived and enjoyed in a natural way — to fulfill the overall purpose of life.
Meditation, then, isn’t an escape from the relative world, but instead is a mechanism to help de-excite your brain’s hard-wired fight, flight, freeze, please stress response, and free up space to respond to, rather than react to, the world around you.
This gives you more agency around the choices you make and the state of mind you enjoy in daily life.
The Science of Consciousness
There are thousands of studies that have looked at the impact of meditation on health and well-being. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cites several compelling studies, which use MRIs and other modern techniques to study the effect of meditation on the brain.
By surveying long-time meditators, research shows demonstrative improvement in cognition and emotional processing while slowing the aging process, among other benefits.
While the personal impacts are clear, the universal implications are part of a compelling, ongoing debate. To some, quantum mechanics supports the idea of a single consciousness, as it implies that everything in the universe — the chair you’re sitting on, your pet, you — is made up of the same subatomic energy.
That would mean that reality is observer-dependent. In other words, you write your own story.
While recent research seeks to prove the traditional scientific view that there is an objective world, regardless of our perception of it, neuroscientists like Anil Seth argue that your brain “hallucinates your conscious reality.” Seth says it takes in sensory information and does “informed guesswork” by funneling it through the social conditioning, beliefs, and expectations you’ve experienced since birth.
Instead of perception depending largely on signals coming into the brain from the outside world, it depends as much if not more on perceptual predictions flowing in the opposite direction. We don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it.
The mysteries of the mind are as endless as those of consciousness, and the age-old debate continues. Either way, though, you don’t have to be a captive audience to the movie playing in your head. All you have to do is flip off the projector — your thoughts — to allow in a more authentic experience of life.
Eyes Wide Shut
Shortly after I returned from India, Jeff announced he was offering a two-year teacher training program. Although I’ve never remotely aspired to be a teacher, suddenly it made perfect sense.
That’s because there’s a part of the rounding story that I left out. That fateful day, I sat down next to a woman who was there because she had a brain aneurysm from a bike accident and hoped the practice would help restore clarity and balance. The minute the session started, she started crying — outbursts were a remnant of her brain injury. I couldn’t consciously ignore her suffering, so I moved over and put my hand on her shoulder to comfort her.
That’s when my waterworks started.
It was an hour after the end of rounding in the “eyes open” state when I experienced that excruciating headache. Afterward, it felt like something physically had left my body.
The following morning, a friend reported seeing the woman I’d comforted walking up and down the stairs — something she hadn’t been able to do without a handrail and a person stabilizing her. She told my friend that something happened in rounding that she couldn’t explain, but for the first time in years, she could think clearly and felt steady on her feet.
I couldn’t explain what happened then either, and even today, now that I’ve completed teacher training, I’m not sure words are adequate. All I know is that for a change, my brain wasn’t telling me anything. Compassion drove my action and being present to the experience changed my life — for good.
The moral of the story? While our brains would like to keep us safe by keeping us small, the truth is much more expansive. We humans aren’t problems to be solved, but instead an ongoing process. If you want to experience life awake, alive, and aware, all you have to do is look within.