Meditation Changed My Life

Facing death, divorce and his mortality, this writer discovers a path to peace
By Chuck Otto for Next Avenue
3 people meditating
Credit: Getty Images
Like so many members of our boomer generation, I walked away from organized religion long ago. Baptized and confirmed Episcopalian in childhood, my last steady churchgoing experience involved attending “youth services” in my teens, where we stood around in a prayer circle in our jeans and sandals, singing contemporary hymns in a fog of incense. In recent years, my presence in any house of worship largely has been confined to weddings, funerals, a few bat mitzvahs and the occasional Christmas Eve service.
Not that I haven’t pondered matters of faith. Several years into adult life, I spent some time exploring different religions. I particularly liked the Baha’i faith, which emphasizes “the spiritual unity of all mankind.” Baha’i views all religious figures, from Moses and Muhammad to Buddha and Jesus, as “messengers” heralding our evolution to eventual world peace. I loved the conceptual framework, but certain fasting and abstinence requirements sent me packing. Ultimately, I claimed Nature as my true religion, forest and shore as my sacred ground (something I still believe), while joking of my devotion to “the tree people.”
Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, Ill.Flash forward a few decades and suddenly there I was, coping with divorce, death and life’s other defining moments as I confronted my own fleeting mortality. Where were those tree people now that I needed them?
A few years ago, I realized that my lack of a spiritual life knocked everything else off-kilter. I also recognized that I needed a way to unplug from the stresses of everyday life or run the risk of slipping into serious substance abuse, anti-social behavior and/or a hermit’s existence.
Finding My Mantra
Transcendental Meditation provided me with part of the solution. Not as a religious practice, because TM is a tool, not an ideology. Rather, it offered me a way to take myself offline for a few minutes each day to recharge, refresh and just exist in the present moment.
The journey began when I attended an informational TM talk at my local library and connected with Carol and Paul Morehead, two longtime TM teacher/practitioners based in Evanston, Ill. Once I signed on, they gave me my mantra — the sound-with-no-meaning that one repeats, silently during a 20-minute meditation session. Through periodic check-ins and TM group gatherings, Carol and Paul have kept me on track with my practice.
For those whose knowledge of Transcendental Meditation begins and ends with old 1960s pictures of the Beatles and the Maharishi looking blissed-out, the decades since have amassed a considerable body of clinical research affirming its value. TM has earned solid props for dealing with depression, ADHD, PTSD and many other modern toxic stresses. Soldiers, students, business leaders, prisoners, prison guards and numerous celebrity types swear by it. Speaking from a one-year practitioner’s perspective, TM’s benefits include a better night’s sleep and the ability to let go of negative thoughts and feelings more quickly.
Self-Help Spirituality
Opening the door to TM coincided with my renewed interest in spiritual matters. A friend’s gift of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now on CD sat unopened for years, until my mother’s illness and eventual death back in Detroit demanded long stretches of highway time and the need for a distraction. Several Tolle listenings later, I found myself on the slippery slope that leads to Deepak Chopra, Louise Hay, The Untethered Soul and Zen and the Art of Happiness. Suddenly the self-help gurus I had mocked for years were providing the foundation for a spiritual life.
What drew me to these thinkers was their obvious respect for all people and religions, a high point of my Baha’i experience, along with echoes of TM’s credo to pay more attention to the present moment. I also recognized numerous similarities between the different faiths, including the call for quiet contemplation to better connect with the Divine within, known to Buddhists as “inner stillness.” Some Christians interpret Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” in a similar manner.
My spiritual life today does not include formal church services or incense, although I sometimes meditate at the beautiful Baha’i temple just outside of Chicago, and might linger there awhile over an inspirational reading.
My religious doctrine is simple and highly derivative:
  • All are one; respect all faiths and people.
  • A Divine Presence exists around and within each of us.
  • We are meant to be a force for good in the world. 
  • When our time here ends, our Being/Soul ascends to a higher level of consciousness — “heaven,” if you prefer — that is beyond human comprehension.
As such, I don’t really fear death, although I’m in no hurry to leave and would prefer a painless departure.
What It’s Really Like to Meditate
So, what’s it like to meditate? Speaking personally, it’s a calming, welcome break I look forward to ideally twice a day, but one that requires a constant, gentle nudging away from intruding thoughts.
My process is simple: I set the 21-minute timer on my iPhone — I always need a minute to settle in — close my eyes, and start to silently repeat my mantra. Per my TM teachings, I don’t try to maintain a steady rhythm to the sound, although it usually coincides loosely with my breathing.
During my first months of practicing TM, it bothered me that my mind constantly wandered. Carol and Paul, my ever-patient TM guides, continually assured me that all thoughts, good and bad, are a part of the process and in fact help to release stress. As long as I eventually return to my mantra, they said, I am on the right path. To this day, my mind still wanders, but I accept it without guilt or upset.
I imagine that each person’s meditation experience is different. Some TM practitioners speak of extended periods of transcendence, where space and time are meaningless and their creativity is super-charged. So far I have had only a few, fleeting moments that approached this state. But I see other benefits. Nighttime rest comes more easily for me now, and the mental rehashing of unpleasant experiences passes more quickly. These gifts alone likely will keep me meditating for the rest of my life.
Transcendental Meditation Resources
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