Finding Peace of Mind - How the West Got Introduced to the Practice of Meditation

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Throughout humankinds' existence, there hasn't been a time and place arguably more desirable than the lived reality in today's western, developed countries. Compared to the misery of the bygone centuries, afflicted by plagues, war, and famine, we experience our predecessor's utopian dreams. One could frankly presume that there are not too many reasons for being unhappy when bottom-line concerns are mostly satisfied. Still, we suffer. But these days, many of us aren't suffering from having too little. It's quite the contrary! The experience of overabundance, arising in various forms, naturally indicates confusion and personal chaos. Ultimately, there's a common allure to get lost due to a wide variety of opportunities of instant gratification and a missing introspective.

The complexity and ascending rate of change in modern-day western cultures, accompanied by climbing mental health issues amongst the youth, results in a public outcry for stillness, relaxation, and mental stability. Consequently, people tend to seek an escape from an overwhelming reality. As many of their ancestors haven't handed down an effective method to handle the suffering of mere existence, the youth unknowingly stumbles across mind-numbing substances simply because they haven't been exposed to a significantly healthier alternative yet. Rather than finding a pathway to peace of mind, the go-to action seems to be getting drunk, smoking weed, or trying to get anti-depressants - with or without prescription. Presumably, it's the quickest and easiest tool to cope with distress, though not the most recommendable in the long term.

Luckily, thanks to the intercultural encounters in this day and age, it's more convenient for the individual to have broad access to various cultures' beliefs, knowledge, and traditions. In consequence, we're exposed to an infinite pool of ancient wisdom, enabling us to reflect on how we solve our problems.

Looking at our consumer societies, the practices of mindfulness of the East might be the antidote to ascending mental chaos. Here, One Block Down discovers the West's encounter with the doctrines of meditation and how the practice continues to manifest itself in our modern-day culture.

In the late 1950s, a giggly, long-bearded, Indian man started crossing borders to teach the world "the one thing he knew that could be useful to every man" - Transcendental Meditation. After the passing of his guru Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, also known as Guru Dev ("the divine guru"), a young Maharishi Mahesh Yogi consecrate himself to share his wisdom with the masses. Maharishi is an Indian title implying "seer" or "sage." His world tour began in 1958 in Rangoon, Myanmar, and included places like Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hawaii, California, New York, and England as his first destinations. Back then, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported: "He has no money; he asks for nothing. His worldly possessions can be carried in one hand. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is on a world odyssey. He carries a message that he says will rid the world of all unhappiness and discontent." Throughout the 60s, he would continue going around the globe and spreading the doctrine. But what is Transcendental Meditation, short TM?

According to Mahesh, the distinction between inside and outside, 'I' and the 'other,' and the subject-object duality vanishes in the meditative state. Ultimately, the 'act of meditation could bring about great healing' and bring peace in the world by creating a mindset in which there is no 'other.' It is a "state of restful alertness where the mind is awake but quiet - silent but alert."

Transcendental Meditation can be defined as a withdrawal of the consciousness from the external world to achieve a conscious introspective on the pure self. As the term implies, the practice aims to make the individual 'go beyond' an external truth to achieve a state of mind the Maharishi used to call 'God-Consciousness.' More precisely, it is about "putting one in touch with his own essential self, the eternal Being within, by moving one's attention away from the surface consciousness of change, suffering and stress." Though these descriptions seem mystical and somewhat intangible, TM is a practice scientifically reviewed with 'systematic measurable and predictable results.' Furthermore, it is religion, sect, or faith neutral and does not require an adaptation of a particular belief. Thus, the philosophy underlying the practice of transcendental Meditation does not contradict any religion, sect, or worldview. The technique involves a recitation of a syllable or a string of words—mantra— with closed eyes for about fifteen minutes twice a day. The acquirement of TM demands a guru-trained teacher who initiates the correct technique by prescribing a specific recitation mantra based on the practitioners' needs.

As many of his lectures have been broadcasted on television, the Maharishi eventually rose to fame with an increasing count of disciples and studious followers. The staggering interest for his preaches of love and peace were anything but unexplainable, as the war-opposing Hippie movement significantly defined the 60s. His discipleship, amazed by the benefits of the practice - like the depletion of stress and gain of relaxation - would support distributing the message by founding organizations and programs, teaching Transcendental Meditation to prisoners, soldiers with PTSD, at-risk students, and the curious public trying to find some peace of mind. Nonetheless, the spread of his technique would experience an incomparable acceleration after Maharishi returned to India.

The Beatles desired to deepen their knowledge around Transcendental Meditation after having to intermit the guru's seminar in Bangor, Wales, due to the sudden death of the band's manager Brian Epstein. In February 1968, The Beatles arrived in Rishikesh at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram accompanied by wives, girlfriends, assistants, and reporters, to become TM-tutors. Throughout their sojourn, the Fab Four have been highly prolific, writing 18 songs for their highest-selling record, "The White Album," released later in the same year. While Ringo Starr and his wife had already left the retreat after ten days, as the drummer didn't tolerate the Indian cuisine, McCartney left later in March to handle business concerns back in London. The remaining two, John Lennon and George Harrison, who had been the most convinced of the guru's doctrines, abruptly departed on April 12th. After hearing of rumored sexual misconduct of the Maharishi and the impression of him exploiting the band's popularity, the two left the guru's retreat with anger instead of the desired relaxation. A decade later, Harrison apologized for the accusations. Still, the dispute about Mahesh's actions is not entirely resolved. Even though the dramatic breakup left a damaging impact on Maharishi's reputation, the widespread media attention proved meditation to be a praiseworthy practice for western societies.

Taking responsibility is frankly not easy. Whether running a business, coaching a sports team, or simply trying to get your shit together, one will usually face a peck of trouble causing stress. Life is tough, and sometimes obstacles seem to be insuperable. Consequently, the practice of meditation appears to be a promising tool, enabling us to make wise decisions in critical situations. The Fab Four's encounter arguably broke down the West's prejudice and skepticism, leading many ambitious people to seek alternative ways to mental calmness. Some of them chose the path of TM; others got in touch with diverse methods, often derived from Buddhism or Hinduism. But all of them reported a tremendous advantage, a sort of revolution that enhanced their career's and personal life's success.

In professional sports, Phil Jackson, the NBA's most successful coach and maestro to the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant has unconventionally adopted meditation to the Bulls' and Lakers' team practices. Obviously, with outstanding triumph. The cornerstone of Jackson's approach was the notion of "one breath, one mind," a Zen principle he carefully taught his players. "I approached it with mindfulness," he told Oprah in an interview, "As much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up... so we can focus... so we can be in concert with one another." Frequently, he gathered the whole team and made them practice deep breathing in unison, getting them to sync all of their breaths as one. His offbeat approach to coaching made him form the leagues' most notorious faces and made him sports history's most successful coach of all time. Some of his proteges would take the practice and advice by heart, implementing them into their daily lives.

Another coach, yet not in conventional context, first stumbled across the doctrines of Transcendental Mediation due to neck pain in his early adolescence. His pediatrician, apparently a man with a propensity to progressive treatments, prescribed meditation as an antidote in the 1970s. As the method was "Beatle-approved," he embraced the suggestion without a doubt. Later, he would become the whimsical, mysterious music guru, generally recognized by his long, white beard. If you haven't guessed it already, the conversation is about producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin.

Rubin is not a music producer in the traditional understanding. He doesn't write music yet plays any instrument. However, he has been included in Time Magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential People in the World," and MTV called him "the most important producer of the last 20 years" in 2007. So what makes Rick Rubin this legendary figure in the music industry? The answer is easy. He's a great listener! Instead of bringing something new to the table, Rubin functions as a sort of director, maybe a guru, whose ability lies in finding the core of the artists' project by listening to the personalities he's working with. His encounter with Transcendental Meditation was critical, as it enabled Rubin to listen carefully- to the sensations of musical arrangements as well as to the artists themselves.

"If you really listen to what people say, usually they tell you everything. I just really pay attention to what people say, and through that I can reflect back thoughts that they've told me about themselves that they don't know about themselves. And allow them to unlock those doors to get to the places they want to go artistically."

But Rubin didn't keep the technique of TM to himself. In the closing track "Grand Finale" of his critically acclaimed 2014 EP "Faces," Mac Miller famously noted that Rubin showed him the practice after he attempted to become finally sober. Sadly, his encounter with Rubin and spirituality couldn't prevent him from resuming his drug abuse sustainably. Rick Rubin also implemented the practice to the recording sessions with other artists, such as the Red Hot Chill Peppers, whom he meditated with before each session. "There's a great deal of bullshit that people think about when they make music, things that don't matter. TM kind of wipes that away, and you focus on the real job at hand, as opposed to thinking about what the management wants, or what the record company's saying, or what somebody at a radio station might think."Ultimately, this seems to be the recipe to purity in creative expression.

There are plenty of hyper-successful individuals who proclaim to have significantly benefitted from the introspective and calmness meditation has to offer. Looking at companies at Wall Street & in Silicon Valley, many have adopted spirituality to optimize employees' productivity. Some are more attracted to the mystical part of the discussion as it makes the technique more tangible for some; others take merely science into account. In the end, they were all looking for an antidote to mental distress and finally stumbled across the Buddhist and Hinduist doctrines of meditation. The stories of culture-defining icons like Phil Jackson, Steve Jobs, Rick Rubin, Oprah Winfrey, and David Lynch, among others, imply the method's credibility as a suggestable part of everyday life and inspire more to give it a try.

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