Monday, November 19, 2012

Seeking One's Inner Self in the Suburbs

Dear George,
Our friend Donna has wanted to look into meditation for a while, and, when she saw that a free introductory lecture was being given out in the suburbs, she asked Katja and I if we’d like to go.  Katja didn’t have time, but I said I would go along.  I knew I wasn’t going to sign up for classes, but I thought it would be interesting.  Katja and I had both tried meditation in the early 70’s.  Katja had taken lessons from one of her fellow Romance Language students at UC who had charged her $10.  She meditated in our bedroom closet with the door closed, and our 3-year-old son J was forbidden from disturbing her.  He couldn’t understand why his mother was spending so much time in the closet, and he wanted desperately to knock on the door, but I restrained him as best I could. 

At the time I was struggling to get tenure, and my blood pressure was running high, so my doctor said I should try meditation in lieu of drugs.  He recommended a book called The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson, so I got the book and carefully followed its instructions (though I didn’t go into the closet).  Katja had gotten a personalized mantra from her teacher. I asked if she would share it with me, but she refused.  I didn’t feel comfortable just making up a mantra out of my head.  My sister-in-law Ami had also gotten hers from her meditation instructor, and she was less uptight about sharing.  Her mantra was “Ioma”.  That felt comfortable to me, even though mantras are supposed to be meaningless sounds and I immediately translated this one into “I Owe Ma”.  Somehow repeating “I Owe Ma” to myself over and over did put me into a comatose state, though I suspected the effect might be due to years of guilt.  Unfortunately, after six months my blood pressure remained just as high (or maybe got even higher), so my doctor put me on a beta blocker.  I’d liked meditating, but I seemed to be more of a drug guy, so that was the end of my meditation career.

The free introductory lecture was being given at 6:30 p.m. in suburban Fort Campbell by a pair of teachers from Chicago named Marcus and Ruth Ann.  Donna picked me up forty minutes in advance, seemingly plenty of time, but the expressway traffic was terrible, and we were running late.  Just as we pulled into the parking lot, Donna got a call on her cell phone from Marcus who was concerned about our whereabouts.  He guided us to the building’s entrance and met us with a friendly greeting.  When we got to the assigned conference room, I was taken aback because there was only one other potential customer there, a dark-haired, chubby woman named Catherine.  I thought there would be a big group, but now I felt much more conspicuous.  Marcus and Ruth Ann were nice-looking people in their mid to late 50’s; Marcus in a tan suit and blue tie, Ruth Ann in a pink business suit with a string of pearls. Ruth Ann handed us a questionnaire about any relevant past experience (I wrote down that I’d practiced meditation years ago) and our present goals (I checked “stress reduction”, “eliminating insomnia”, and “emotional well-being”).  After we handed in the questionnaire, Marcus began the proceedings by asking me about my prior experience.  I explained about my physician recommending Dr. Benson’s book for my high blood pressure, but that it hadn’t really helped.  Marcus half-frowned and half-smiled and gently said that Dr. Benson had nothing to do with their method and that I would soon learn how their technique was different (and presumably superior).           

Marcus began the lecture.  He said that meditation was a simple, natural process in which you sit in a chair with your eyes closed and your mind moves inward to the deepest level of pure awareness.  He drew a picture on the blackboard of the ocean, showing the water’s surface where the mind is very busy, then beneath it an intermediate area involving the 95% of the mind that we don’t normally use, and finally the deepest, silent level at the bottom of the ocean which functions as the primal origin of one’s thoughts.  When you reach the deepest depth, you bring all that psychic energy back out into your conscious mind and behavior, and this allows you to get in touch with your Innermost Self.  It sounded good but also sort of vague and mysterious.  Donna asked why, if meditation relies on natural processes, it’s necessary to take lessons.  Ruth Ann smiled politely and said that, while the method is natural, you still have to be taught how to do it.  Riding a bike is also natural, but somebody has to show you how.  Ruth Ann then directed us to a brochure which summarized over 600 research studies evaluating the effectiveness of meditation on creativity and intelligence, emotional well-being, physical health, work productivity, and social relationships.  I was more impressed by the research summary than by thinking about the bottom of the ocean.  Then Marcus added that, if a mere one percent of the population meditated daily, it could transform the quality of life in the entire community.  Maybe even the square root of one percent would have that effect.  Catherine asked if the square root of one percent wasn’t also one percent, but no one had a ready answer.  All in all, Marcus and Ruth Ann were similar in style – softspoken, calm, giving off vibes of inner peace and harmony.  I had a momentary thought that they could be extraterrestrial aliens, but I quickly put that out of mind.  

At the end of the lecture Marcus revealed that training costs $1500.  This covers a personal interview, a 90-minute individual training session, three follow-up group sessions to make sure we were doing our mantra correctly, and then lifetime access to corrective follow-ups.  It seemed like a lot of money to me, but, if your blood pressure went down and your mental functioning went up, it was probably a bargain.  Scholarships (50% off) were available for students and poor people, since the more people trained in meditation, the better off the world will be.  Marcus said if we’d made up our minds we could go ahead and do our personal interviews right then and there.  We three potential pupils looked at one another, but nobody was ready to commit on the spot.  We all thanked the presenters and headed off for the parking lot.  In the car Donna said she’d need to think it over and wondered if her flexible health spending plan would apply.  I said that I still had my copy of Dr. Benson’s book and that I would be glad to share my “ioma” mantra with her.  She said, “That sounds like ‘I Owe Ma’”, and she politely declined.  She preferred to get her own mantra.  I asked her how she liked the people.  She said she found Marcus warm and personable, but she thought Ruth Ann was a bit dowdy and unfriendly.  I laughed and said that I thought Ruth Ann was warm and informative, but that Marcus was sort of obscure.  I speculated that our opposite impressions were a gender thing. 

The next day I drove Katja to the dentist for her root canal.  I asked if she still remembered her mantra, and she said she did.  I wondered aloud if she would share it with me.  She said no, she couldn’t do that. I asked why not, and she said it wouldn’t be her mantra anymore.  That made sense.  At the dentist’s I decided to try meditating in the waiting room, so I closed my eyes, let my chin sink to my chest, and slowly repeated “ioma…ioma” in my mind.  Before I knew it, I was in a relaxed, sleep-like state.  Minutes later my dental hygienist came through the hallway door, looked at me, and called out my name.  When I opened my eyes, I saw that she looked startled, probably thinking I had died on the sofa.  I explained that I was just taking a nap, and she seemed relieved.  I started reading People Magazine, suddenly having figured out why it’s better to do one’s meditation in the closet.
*Pseudonyms are used in this story.  

G-mail Comments
-Donna D (11-19):  hilarious!  as i read it i thought you would probably mention that i thought it sounded like a cult.  loved it!
-Ami G (11-19): Dear David:  Happy to share but perhaps it didn't work because my mantra was "i-inga" !  Also, Benson wrote another book which I always loved because it documented his experiences with many, many patients that had memories that indicated they had been reincarnated many times, thus holding out the certain belief that reincarnation is a given.  Did you ever read it/  If not, it would make a great blog entry! 
   Enjoy Thanksgiving.  Give my love to Justin and Kiersta and the kids.  Love.  Ami
-Linda KC (11-19):  Love love this very funny blog. I successfully used a type of meditation for natural childbirth, but now I think I was just a lucky woman that didn't have that much pain.  Later, in law school I tried to use it for relaxation. One of the directions was to allow full body relaxation and then to experiment with mind over body power, as a suggestion I was then to feel a tingling sensation in one of my limbs.  I focused on my left arm,  I did feel a tingling sensation, that then proceeded into my left chest, and up into my neck making me realize I had just meditated myself into a heart attack.  I got up slowly and then gasping for air went out side to breathe in more air. I had successfully mediated my self into an anxiety attack.  Later in the day I tried again, with more mind control I thought, but the same thing happened again.  I feel anxious just telling the story.  I am happy to give you my mantra.

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