Menachem on Meditation
When I was twenty-five years and still living in Sydney, I was treated by a wonderful doctor, who is also a photographer, named Michael Armstrong.
My problem was, that although I was young, seemingly healthy, exercised and ate a reasonable diet, my blood pressure was on the high side -- something on 90. Even though the Doc was not especially into "alternate" medicine nor natural remedies, he had a bad feeling about putting me onto blood pressure reducing drugs.
"I've heard of something new that may do the trick. I really know nothing about it. But I've heard it can reduce blood pressure. Give it a go if you like and let me know how it works out. They're over in Paddington and it's called T.M."
T.M.? what the hell is that? No Wikipedia in those days. How did we know anything about anything back then? (Were there electric lights in our caves?)
I'll explain T.M. to you, first as they themselves sell the concept to the broad public, and then what it really is -- and what it can do for you in the physiological and spiritual domains. It's far from simple, but to save you scrolling down to the end of the article now, yes it did, quite drastically, reduce my diastolic blood pressure by over fifteen points!
Based on old Indian traditions, they would tell you, the Maharishi [teacher of mysticism and spiritual knowledge] Mahesh Yogi has brought to the West, ancient Eastern traditions of meditation techniques. These techniques, based on the use of a personal mantra, are designed to promote deep relaxation, detaching the brain from the body, allowing a relaxed deeper than sleep. The methods are an ideal antidote to the stress of the rush and bustle of our modern industrial world.
The proponents of this "Transcendental Meditation" marketed their product aggressively. They were helped along greatly by early devotees including the Beatles, Mia Farrow, and Shirley MacLaine.
Another boost came from Dr Herbert Benson, Professor of Medicine at Harvard School of Medicine. The Maharishi's people presented him with a hypothesis that their meditation techniques have a positive effect on human physiology. He measured various functions including heart rate and blood pressure of practitioners before and after a meditation session. He found no significant change.
However, when he made these measurements on new recruits, before they were initiated into the practice, and again some months later, he found significant improvements. He concluded that long term use of these techniques were indeed beneficial. Much to the joy of the TMers, he published a long series of papers based on his research and that of his students. The TMers reprinted and republished these studies. What better marketing tool to spread the benefits of T.M.
But Benson eventually realised that the "voodoo" accompanying T.M., including ceremonies, the personal mantra, were parenthetical to the process. Following further research he published a book called The Relaxation Response in which he debunks the surrounding deceptions and teaches a pure meditation method using a simple mantra, "one". He later advised people to use any simple word that appealed them or short phrases from Jewish or Christian prayers.
Learning T.M. is not a cheap experience. Back then, in the late seventies, I paid about $500 for the privilege. And, for about $2,000, there are advanced courses where you learn further techniques, culminating in levitation -- flying -- and they run various weekend seminars so you can spend more money.
You attend an introductory free lecture, given a couple of evenings each week at their Centre, a renovated old Paddington tenement house. They do a very nice sell. Most people sign up on the spot. Then comes the initiation, being taught to meditate. A followup during the next week where everyone expresses their feelings after the first few days of meditation. You are encouraged to drop by, often, to meditate with one of the teachers who check that you are meditating correctly and who are available to answer your questions.
The initiations take place on Shabbat. Sorry, I can't do it. For the $500 they were "suddenly" able to find a teacher who would come in late in the evening. It was summertime, so it would be well after nine by the time I arrive. No problem. And don't forget to bring the items we mentioned in the introductory lecture: a flower, a white handkerchief and some rice.
These three items, we were told, are a testament to a bygone day, when your mentor spent all his pure life in meditation and study, and you, his student, provided his sustenance (the rice), clothing (the white cloth -- the holy men wrapped themselves white) and beauty and fragrance for his house (the flower).
I put these objects into my car before shabbat (wondering whether the carnation would survive the heat of Sydney's summer sun) so that I could make a quick get-away from shule the moment shabbat ended.
I arrive to an almost deserted house, all lights off or dulled. An attractive young lady in a sari style dress greets me with a smile and, without speaking, leads me to an upstairs room. We enter and she closes the door behind us. The room is dimly lit with a reddish light and a pleasant aroma of incense hangs in the air.
I glance around the room. At one end to our left, under the window, are two comfortable armchairs. On the wall opposite is a table, covered with a crimson cloth. On the left side stands a lifesize portrait of the Maharishi; the incense sticks are smouldering to the right. My mentor takes my flower, rice and cloth, placing them in the centre of the altar. I am uneasy -- something sexual or sacrificial is taking place. She starts saying something incomprehensible, not to me, perhaps to the Maharishi, to a presence I do not sense.
I stand still, wondering what I am doing here. She bows and kneels onto both knees, all the time continuing her foreign muttering. I remain standing, very still, takingin the situation. She indicates, with a motion of her hand, that I too should very kneel. I continue standing. She again signs me to join her; I ignore her overtures, looking around the room.
After an eternity she rises to her feet, repeating over and over again the same, unintelligible, word. I feel some relief, but I continue my previous posture. Continuously iterating the same sound, my mentor looks at me with a look from which I understand that she has now brought forward my personal mantra, and she is indicating to me to also say it. Which I do.
After a number of repetitions, she points to the chairs. We continue restating the mantra, slowly, definitely, together, as we dance across the room. Eventually she indicates that I should continue the mantra, but without vocalisation. I do, and she too ceases her articulation. I close my eyes, continuing to tick over "my" new word in my head. It really is very relaxing. Each time a new thought enters my head, I reject it by returning to the mantra. This continues for maybe fifteen minutes. Perhaps I dozed off in the process.
Eventually I hear her soft voice, gently, returning me to the reality of the room. You've just meditated for the first time. You feel good don't you? Good -- I feel great!
"Do exactly what you just did -- everyday, morning and evening, for twenty minutes. We'll see you on Tuesday for the followup class. We'll all meditate together -- that's a really powerful experience. Enjoy your newfound inner tranquility until then."
I did what was required of me and eagerly looked forward to Tuesday.
Following the group meditation, the floor was opened for discussion. Everyone in turn expresses how fantastic the meditational experience had been. One guy, "I finished meditating, opened my eyes and saw how dirty the fish tank opposite me was. And I got up and cleaned it . . . for the first time in months! The fish love me."
There was a big plug for group meditation . . . join one of our groups as we travel the world and bring peace, via our internal energies, to the world's trouble spots.
I happily meditated for the next few months, and I felt really good after every session. Then one day my friend Mordechai told me a visiting rabbi from Yerushalayim was staying with him and he wanted to talk to me about T.M.
Rabbi Sam Cassin first asked me to relate my meditational experiences, how I started, how I practiced. I described the initiation ceremony. He said you may have committed the sin of idol worship, but you didn't know. [I have since learned the Rambam's laws of avoda zara, idol worship. Though I believe my passive attendance was not overly problematic, my mentor certainly was practicing idolatry.]
He told me of a group of highly stressed businessmen in New York who too were advised by their doctors to do T.M. Their rabbi, however, told them they could only do it if they did not take part in the initiation. Initially, they were stubbornly refused, though with the attraction of five cheques, the objection was eventually dropped.
The so-called personalised mantra: there are actually only eighteen mantras, each one being the name of a Brahman god. Assignment is based on your age at initiation. The rabbi told me of the recent visit of large group of T.M. practitioners to Israel, aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East via their meditation. There were [of course] many Jews in the group. Our rabbi sent a group of his students to the meditation meet, each having memorised all 18 mantras and the corresponding assignment ages. The students sought out Jewish kids, engaging them in conversation, looking for two facts: their age and the length of time they had been meditating. Armed with this information, they were able to drop the meditator's mantra into the conversation. Shock, horror! How could you know my mantra? Only my mentor and I are privy to this personal information! The yeshiva boys would then steer the conversation towards more Jewish topics.
Israelis love fads. Secularisation has lead them to a vacuum of sprituality. Thus T.M. caught on here in the seventies like a bushfire. The T.M. leadership even modifies the mantras to make them easier for Hebrew speakers to pronounce. So successful were they, that the I.D.F., Israel's army, almost adopted T.M. as part of every soldiers' basic training.
There's a lot more to meditation. Meditation techniques have been practiced for millennia. Originally, they were intended to develop spiritual understanding, awareness, and direct experience of ultimate reality. Many different religious traditions in the world have given rise to a rich variety of meditative practices. But I believe the origins of meditation are Jewish, and meditation is an important part of Jewish practice that has been lost to most of us.
8th August, 2009
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