A while ago, I had what writer James Thurber would have called “a permanent case of the jumps.”
“Meditation versus medication,” a friend advised me.
So, I pulled a chair up to a blank patch of wall, and relaxed from my forehead down to my toes, letting everything but my spine go soft. I endeavored to quiet the mind and, like a Buddhist monk, be open to whatever sensations and emotions arose, without reacting. I visualized thoughts as autumn leaves or taxi cabs blowing past and didn’t try to catch them. I aspired to lighten up.
And I signed up for a correspondence course with the Central Chinmaya Mission Trust in India. “Blessed Self” began the letters accompanying the lessons in stamp-strewn envelopes from Mumbai. Eventually I called Chinmaya’s Washington Regional Center, in Silver Spring, Md., to enroll in a Sanskrit class. A man from the center returned the call, ending his message on our answering machine with a pleasant “Hari Om.”
My husband raised an eyebrow. “Heidy ho.”
In hindsight, this captured the tenor of my meditative.. .
endeavors as, time and time again, nerve failed me in the vestibules of various spiritual traditions. I couldn’t stay put, even though meditation is supposed to reorient the brain from a stressful flight-or-fight response to a calmer mode of acceptance and contentment.
Using modern technologies to study the minds of Tibetan Buddhist monks, University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has shown that meditation decreases stress, anxiety and depression while boosting the immune system and increasing concentration and happiness. Deepak Chopra, in “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,” promises that meditating for 20 minutes twice daily will make us look three years younger.
According to the Aug. 4 issue of Time magazine, 10 million American adults now say they meditate regularly, “twice as many as a decade ago.” Cumulatively that could lead to a lot less need for skin-repair cream.
My own lurches into meditation groups, however, only added gray hairs. At Chinmaya, women in brilliant saris slipped off their shoes, revealing lovely be-ringed toes. Mortified of tracking talcum-powdered, big-foot-sized prints onto the carpet, I bolted.
At Baltimore’s Zen Meditation Center, a student with an Eastern name and a Philadelphia accent demonstrated the sturdiness of the full lotus posture. I couldn’t quite achieve “pretzel karma,” but, for some reason, the attempt made me salivate like a Saint Bernard. I fainted briefly taking a deep cleansing breath. Collecting my shoes, I fled.
Meanwhile, I continued to meditate at home and experienced subtle shifts in perception. Colors were vivid. Stuck in traffic, I suddenly would be intensely aware of the beauty of the sky — the clouds, folded like egg whites — or enchanted by a handful of wrens on a median strip. Once, coming off an elevator, I was flooded with tenderness for a woman, a stranger, getting on. Maybe it was not such a great idea to stare at a wall by myself.
Earlier this year, I lurched into yet another group, signing on for a weekendlong introductory meditation program. A Friday-night lecture, and periods of seated and walking meditation from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. “How relaxing.” friends intoned.
“I have a feeling I’ve just paid to be tortured,” I said, writing a check for the suggested $110 donation.
Immediately, the uncomfortable cushion-on-floor seating arrangement engendered an irritation with all of meditation and life. The posture of a dignified Buddhist “warrior” — straight-spined, gaze downward cast, head positioned levelly “as if resting on a shelf” — eluded me. I fantasized about fashioning an armchair out of spare pillows.
During walking meditation, other participants mindfully circled the room, aware of their breathing and of their feet touching the ground. Meanwhile, my thoughts were: “For people who routinely go shoeless, Buddhists ought to own better socks.”
When the prayer clackers signaled that it was time for a return to our cushions, I jostled past everyone as if we were playing musical chairs for cash. Saturday, I missed breakfast, shrugged, and said: “Late Buddha.” At lunch, I suggested to the meditation teacher that the center’s carpet could use a good shampooing. I was, as a Zen Buddhist might say, “the worst horse.”
Maybe I was a candidate for medication after all. Some pill that hopefully wouldn’t involve drooling. My primary-care doctor suggested regular massages.
The masseuse, Ruth, was originally from Taiwan. “Let go!” she said grimly, stretching my arms behind my back. “Let go! Relax!” A Buddhist would understand her communication to be sacred.