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Don't Meditate, Whatever You Do!
The hazards (and promise) of the mindfulness revolution.
(my future book)
Goodwill Industries, marijuana and LSD, neurophysiology, and the United States government. I have all of these to thank -- or curse -- for my stumbling onto meditation.
I was about to take a one-year leave of absence from medical school when my four housemates decided we should end the school year with a party -- a spoof prom -- at our rental house.
Color My World. That was the theme. Who knew that proms had themes? Not me. They don't do proms in France, where I'd graduated from high school, and from the undergraduate portion of French medical school.
The day before the prom, Dave, the house drug connection, supplied the joint and the idea that three of us go to Goodwill and procure ourselves the most colorful outfits we could find.
I left Goodwill in a polyester suit with clashing blue and white patterns. Scott had opted for red and black, and Dave went multi-colored clown.
Driving back, Dave says, "Ram Dass is speaking on campus tonight. We should go -- dressed like this. He'll love it."
"Ram who?," I ask.
Dave then proceeds to give us the Cliff Notes. "Real name Richard Alpert. Psychologist LSD researcher. Shipped off to the east when the government decided that LSD was a threat. Found a guru. Changed his name to sound spiritual. Came back to write Be Here Now. Check it out.”
"I'll bring my polaroid camera," adds Dave. "And we can ask him to take a picture with us after the lecture."
To make the biggest splash possible, we intentionally arrived 15 minutes late into the massive 800-seat university amphitheater which, we knew, had entrance doors on either side of the stage where Ram Dass would be speaking.
We stole his show for about 90 seconds. 900 pairs of eyes followed our gaudy procession up the side, tripping over the extra 100 who were sitting on the steps, until we found space on the very top step in the middle.
Talk about an ego trip.
Ninety minutes later, we were all three slinking out the back door, hoping to fade unnoticed into the darkness.
After we sat down, and 900 pairs of eyes gazed back to the front of the room, Mr. Dass, as I was thinking of him then, proceeded to tell stories of his adventures in the east.
Of how he found his guru, to whom he'd fed a massive dose of the LSD he'd been researching, while the guru sat in meditation. The guru had found the experience rather banal.
Of trying to learn meditation himself -- vipassana, he called it -- at some center in the east.
How he'd learned from his guru that we humans exist on seven different levels. "Level One: Instincts, Survival, Consumption, Procreation."
Level Two: Social Roles. The teacher. The student. The mother. The architect, etc."
Level Three: “Those of you familiar with astrology are familiar with level three," Ram Dass said.
"And Level Four....
"Meditation masters in the east report being able to count xyz thoughts per second," he said. (Xyz was some number with many zeroes after it.) "Well, it just so happens that modern neurophysiology reports a similar number as the frequency at which a brain cell can fire across its synapses."
"Level Four is about the space between the thoughts, Ram Dass said. "Then there are levels Five, Six, and Seven."
Space between thoughts? Whaaaaaaat? My brain exploded.
You see, I was specializing in neurophysiology in medical school. I'd even changed medical schools when I was studying in France, driven by this interest, to be able to study at a world-famous French sleep neurology research center. And I had continued that interest after I transferred back to an American medical school.
I knew about synapses, the miniscule gaps between neurons, and how one neuron communicates with another across a synapse by sending even more miniscule packets of chemicals -- neurotransmitters -- across that gap.
I'd never considered the space of time when the neurotransmitters are traveling through that gap. Mind the gap!
I hadn't experienced it yet. But just the concept (thought!) of a space between thoughts changed my life.
I eventually quit medical school, for one.
But the most immediate way it changed my world was to puncture my inflated ego. I began looking for ways to crawl under a rug. Who the hell was I to think that this dude would want to pose with us for a polaroid picture?
After we three slunk out together, I learned that my pals' egos had followed a similar trajectory.
But egos don't give up so easily.
They had come roaring back -- all three of them, independently -- at the end of the lecture, when Ram Dass read a poem that we each concluded had been directed specifically to us:
Warning, by Jenny Joseph
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me....
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells...
The poem concludes...
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
That poem would go on, fifteen years later, to spawn a Red Hat Society and world-wide movement for women over fifty, dressed in purple and sporting red hats, who gather together for fun, friendship, and fulfillment, and to attempt to reshape the way older women are viewed in modern culture.
But in that moment, our young male egos each concluded, "He's speaking directly to us. It may not be purple that we're wearing, but we're practicing a little now."
Six months later, when I was already burning out from the intense schedule of the anti-nuclear activist job for which I'd taken the medical school leave of absence, and yearning for somewhere to go to just chill over the year-end holidays, a do-gooder publication that I had never seen before or since arrived at my office, and fell open to the middle section -- a calendar of events for do-gooders like me.
My eyes were drawn to an ad for a rustic hot springs retreat center in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Hot springs. Organic vegetarian food. Mountain wilderness. Aaahhhh! Sounds like just what the doctor is ordering now!
And immediately below: An ad for a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat at said hot springs retreat center, over the year-end holidays.
Now, most meditation teachers will not recommend that a student's first introduction to meditation practice be an intensive 10-day residential silent meditation retreat. Most would recommend that you ease into it more slowly.
Take an evening class. Go to a one-day workshop. Read some books. Download an app. Work yourself up to the experience of the intensive residential silent retreat.
Not this student. I was desperate for some rest -- and still intrigued by the ways in which Ram Dass' lecture had shaken my world. Vipassana. That was the style of meditation he had described.
I signed up.
The impact? Never going back to medical school was perhaps the least of it.
Looking back on the transformation, had you given me headlines of the meditation-triggered changes I would undergo in the next few decades, I'm not sure I would have taken that plunge.
Yet I'm eternally grateful that I did.
That was almost forty years and fifty-plus of those intensive retreats, up to a month long, totaling more than two years of my life, with over one hundred different teachers from five different tradition, ago.
Forty years ago, Mindfulness had barely touched the lexicon. Meditation was something ... weird? .... exotic? ... definitely kind of out there!
Now it is everywhere.
Kids are learning it in schools. Corporations are teaching it to their employees. It is being used to sell everything from Chinese food to resort vacations.
There is a Quiet Time Caucus in Congress, started by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, after he attended a mindfulness retreat. Coach Phil Jackson used it to train the LA Lakers.
Last year, the shares of the meditation app Calm was valued at $1 billion by stock investors. The California Surgeon General recommends it to mange your stress in a pandemic.
Zen this. Mindful that. It is impossible to escape.
But is it good for you? Is it all bliss and serenity and nirvana? Really?
Now fifty-plus of those intensive retreats, up to a month long, totaling more than two years of my life, with over one hundred different teachers from five different traditions, later, my answer to that question is, "Maybe. Maybe not."
This book will help you sort it out. The wheat from the chaff. The truth from the hype. By looking at the unintended consequences -- personal, communal, global -- of joining the Meditation Nation.
Because that's where we're headed, folks. Beware.
To paraphrase a Zen master: Enlightenment. You may not like it.