Three years ago, feeling the aftereffects of a series of deaths in the family, I paid $500 for a week-long course on meditation. I run from anything that seems cultish. Remembering news stories from twenty years ago, this ruled out Transcendental Meditation. Instead, I started my week of evening workshops in the living room of a man trained in Vedic Meditation. However, it turned out that Vedic Meditation grew out of a factional dispute within TM. In fact, its teachers consider themselves more authentically TM than TM. Ultimately, religious sectarianism feels a lot like office politics.
So, fine: despite my best efforts, there I was, sitting not twenty feet from a cabinet whose doors opened up, revealing a shrine.
Both TM and VM gently urge newbies to make a commitment to two 20-minute meditations each day. We agreed to do so, and we started.
Toward the end of the week, once we’d practiced, asked questions, listened to teachings, and practiced again, our host drew each of us, one at a time, into a side room, alone. I was one of the last to enter that room. I sat in a chair. My host, standing, leaned down, his mouth close to my ear.
He whispered a phrase – a mantra – that he believed would suit me well, based on his observation of my personality and his own considerable training and experience.
He strongly discouraged me from sharing this mantra with anyone else. That would dissipate its power.
The mantra is “krim.”
He told me that the syllable is simply a tool to focus attention and doesn’t really have any meaning.
I looked it up. Actually, it does mean something. It’s associated with the goddess Kali, whose cosmological vocation as a bringer of life and of death brings to mind economist Joseph Schumpeter’s characterization of entrepreneurial capitalism as “creative destruction.”
I do not believe in Vedic cosmology, but am just superstitious enough to have felt unsettled invoking the embodiment of apocalyptic rebirths.
So I looked for other mantras and, in doing so, for other meditation techniques.
About two years later, I sat in on a talk given by a friend of mine, a neuroscientist, on the relationship between meditation and mental health. The talk led me to pursue and then practice the Buddhist-inflected mindfulness that is as popular now as Theosophy and spiritualism were a century ago.
I still sit silently for 20 minutes twice a day. But Kali isn’t in the room.
Because all aspiring buddhas own iPhones, I downloaded an app (Insight Timer, free). The app offers hundreds of options for guided meditations and for meditations accompanied by new age-ish electronica. Most of the time, though, I just set a timer for twenty minutes. A crisp musical note, gently hammered from a Tibetan singing bowl, begins and ends my meditations.
Once I’m done, the app informs me that, while I’ve sat listening to my own breathing, a quarter million other app-users around the world have been doing the same. And most of them have posted selfies.
If, as I swipe through their faces, I find one whose selfie or serenity I like, I can send this message:
Thank you for meditating with me.
Then, if both parties are willing, a conversation spanning neighborhoods or continents can commence.
As unsettling as it was to meditate on the creative and destructive power of the entire cosmos, I am even more unsettled to find that my modest little meditation app can be repurposed as a stealth dating site.
But the fellow contemplatives who sent me their thanks for unwittingly joining their meditations were clearly not motivated by romantic interest. Geographic distance and age make that quite clear. No one using this app really wants to chat me up.
So what’s the point?
The point is this. It really matters to a lot of people, somehow that, while sitting alone wherever we are with our iPhones counting down to zero, we are each part of something larger.
There is a widespread belief that brief moments of coordinated collective action are transformative. Consider, for instance, the widespread fascination, among adults as well as children, with this question: if all human beings jump down from a chair at exactly the same time, what will happen? (for two somewhat conflicting answers to this vexing hypothetical, see here and here).
The idea that something does happen appeals to plenty of people unfamiliar with meditation. Certain evangelical Christians I know urge their Facebook friends to join them as “prayer warriors” and, at a certain time, fight Satan with their prayers. Some years ago, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe urged all his followers to beseech G-d through word and deed to “Bring Moshiach Now!” When all Jews do so he said, the Messiah will finally appear.
But meditators are, for whatever reason, particularly prone to think about their practice in this way. Here, for instance, is a brief manifesto from the “World Peace Group“:
I am certain that my own meditation will never contribute to Super Radiance. I do not believe that any group of prayer warriors, self-flagellators, or Moroccan Gnawa connoisseurs can, by wish or by worship, stop open warfare within 24 hours, reduce terrorist activity by 72%, or accelerate economic growth.
I do, though, believe Dan Harris. Dan Harris is the ABC correspondent and anchor who, in 2004, suffered an on-air panic attack, the culmination of professional and personal stress self-treated with coke and amphetamines. Meditation and support of family and friends enabled him to claw his way back to self-control and equanimity.
Harris does not consider meditation to be world-transforming:
To be clear, meditation won’t magically solve all of your problems. I still do dumb things – just ask my wife – but meditation is often effective kryptonite against the kind of epic mindlessness that produced my televised panic attack. When friends and colleagues ask (usually with barely hidden skepticism) why I meditate, I often say, “It makes me 10% happier.”
In the documentary “Minimalism,” Harris adds that meditation has simply made him “less of an asshole.”
There’s a good self-affirmation: I am and will be less of an asshole.
I have yet to hear any online mindfulness coach speak with Harris’s refreshing frankness. Most do, however, speak to the paradox of meditation: that something I do privately and for purposes of my own – something that looks from the outside very much like an act of cultish self-indulgence – makes me marginally less narcissistic, less prone to impatience and anger, and therefore readier to engage productively in the lives of others.
And so, if you too practice meditation and mindfulness, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for being less of an asshole with me.