Introspection Comes to America
“Turn off your mind
Relax and float downstream
It is not dying
It is not dying”
I was 13 and the sound coming through my AM radio was like nothing I’d ever heard. Some Indian drone instrument crescendoed to an in-your-face repeating drum riff pounding like a cart with a missing wheel careening down a cobblestone hill chased by a flock of electric seagulls. Strange snatches of orchestral dream music, backwards guitars, buzz saws, and ‘what-the-hell-is-that-sound-anyway?’ came randomly into the mix, then vanished away, until finally fading into the strains of an untuned piano in an English music hall.
Simply hearing the song seemed to transport my consciousness into another realm.
The lyrics were my introduction to the concept of meditation. The lyricist was John Lennon.
The practice of meditation had previously made some inroads in the West. In the 1930’s Swami Prabhavananda set up the Vedanta Society in Los Angeles, bringing Hinduism to America. Aldous Huxley was an initiate, practicing meditation and popularizing the philosophy of Ramakrishna until he decided he had found a more direct route to enlightenment.
Zen Buddhism came to America along with Japanese immigrants near the end of the 19th century.
D. T. Suzuki wrote extensively about Zen, introducing it to a broader public. In the 1950’s the Beats latched onto Zen—or at least the idea of it. Jack Kerouac’s Buddhist practice seemed to consist of sitting in an alley with a bottle of wine proclaiming “We’re all Bodhisattvas,” while his buddy, Gary Snyder, made a more earnest attempt, learning Japanese and Chinese and moving to Kyoto, Japan to study Zen under Abbot Miura Isshu at Rinko-in.
For my generation, it was the Beatles. In February of 1968 the Four Moptops traveled to Rishikesh, India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Soon every baby boomer seemed to be reciting a mantra, wearing a Nehru jacket, and hanging posters of Shiva on their walls.
While I was in high school I heard about a Rosicrucian woman who taught meditation. My friends and I began going to her house on Thursday evenings. We sat around her on the floor of the living room while she looked down upon us from a throne in the form of a Naugahyde recliner. I was curious about the philosophy, but I mostly went because I had a crush on a girl who attended regularly. I would squeeze nonchalantly into a place close to her, secretly hoping she would be impressed with my ability to sit in the full lotus position.
Edith, our Rosicrucian sage, could see our auras. She chatted about our astral bodies. She would often close her eyes and go traveling through different planes of existence. I kept waiting to be introduced to meditation. How exactly do you do it? But we never quite seemed to get there.
The Beatles had released “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the summer of 1967. On the cover, among the crowd of life-size cardboard cutouts including Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas, Carl Jung, and Mae West, were some Indian men. The album’s insert identified these figures as “gurus”. At the time, it was an unfamiliar word.
My friends and I spent a lot of time studying that cover, trying to discern the hidden meanings. Why were these specific people represented? Yes, we had no Google. Investigations entailed travails as toilsome as research in our families’ encyclopedias or even a trip to the library.
In the summer of 1969, when we were 16, my friend Jack and I ran away to San Francisco. We missed the Summer of Love by two years. The influence of Eastern philosophy was everywhere. Shaved-headed, orange-robed former hippies beat tiny cymbals and two-headed drums, chanting “Hare Krishna” on street corners. Alan Watts’ works filled bookstores’ front windows.
One evening as we walked down a street in the Haight, a man handed us a flier. Hoping for a free meal, we showed up at a storefront temple and were taught the chant, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. A series of believers testified about how their lives had changed once they had started reciting these magical words. But it only worked if you gave $15 to the organization and received a scroll with the mantra inscribed in Japanese script. Jack and I were broke and left the gathering hungrier than when we had arrived.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s America saw an infestation of gurus from the East. Chogyam Trongpa crossed the Himalayas on foot, fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and ended up in Boulder, Colorado, where he set up the Buddhist University, Naropa, complete with the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where Allen Ginsberg taught.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh set up a commune in Oregon. Musicians found gurus: Carlos Santana joined Sri Chinmoy’s group. Peter Townsend followed Meher Baba. Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” became a best-seller. Hindu temples sprang up across the country.
A good friend of mine became a follower of Swami Muktananda and joined his Siddha Yoga organization. When Muktananda’s successor, Gurumayi, came to town, I went to see her. She was a beautiful woman, exuding love and compassion. We sang songs in Sanskrit, then she led us in meditation—sitting with eyes closed, following the breath. I was surprised at how the group meditation seemed to influence the atmosphere around us. As a blissful silence fell over the room, even the children playing outside in the hallway became quiet. But when the time came to stand in line and receive darshan, a blessing from the guru in the form of a tap of peacock feathers to the head, something held me back.
Over the years, I dabbled in meditation but never made a concerted effort. I was never sure if it was a lazy mind or a philosophical conceit that stopped me. Beneath all my resistance lay the idea that meditation somehow negated our ordinary experience, that it was a choice between the things I loved—music, books, finding a way to live well in this life—and sitting all day gazing at one’s navel in order to experience a higher consciousness.
A Fateful Meeting
Then, in December of 1997, I met a holy man. Swami Vidyadishananda embodied a calmness, a love, an acceptance, a—something—that I had never encountered in a human. He wore an orange cap and robes and had the long hair and beard of an Indian ascetic, yet he also held a Ph.D. in neurobiology. He had given up a teaching career in an American university to follow his guru, Hariharananda, who, it turns out, had been a disciple of two of the gurus posing on the Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, Sri Yukteswar Giri and Paramahansa Yogananda.
The day after I met him, the swami initiated me into Kriya Yoga. I began attending weekly meetings where I learned about the philosophy and was taught the Kriya meditation techniques. Sitting and focusing on the breath, breathing 12 slow cycles through the 12 chakras—144 breaths—was a wonderful practice for me. But unlike George Harrison, I did not experience a feeling of homecoming when I was introduced to Hinduism. I found Indian culture fascinating but foreign.
And now I had a guru—one I had never met. Over the years, the dark side of “guru” had been revealed. Chogyam Trongpa turned out to be a womanizer, seducing his followers’ girlfriends and wives. And he had drunk himself to death, dying of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 48. Rajneesh was deported after his disciples were accused of a salmonella food poisoning attack on their unenlightened neighbors and an assassination plot on a US Attorney. For a while there it seemed as if every week there was a new story of some spiritually-advanced master fleeing the country after the sexual or financial abuse of his followers was revealed. Another day, another guru on the lam.
Under the guidance of Swami Vidyadishananda, I finally began to practice meditation with some regularity. One long spring weekend I attended a four-day silent Kriya retreat, staying in a cabin near a river in the Texas Hill Country. Days were filled with long hours of meditation interspersed with lessons in the philosophy of Vedanta. One afternoon we were were given free rein to walk out in nature, with the instruction that we were to remain in silence. Our assignment was simply to stay in the moment. As I roamed the wilderness alone, I entered a state of mind that I hadn’t experienced since childhood—at one with nature, beyond happiness. For the whole afternoon I was present, immersed in each moment’s eternity.
Over the following months, I continued practicing Kriya, but I was unable to resolve the conflicts I felt.
I was encouraged by the profound state that I now and again slipped into through hours of meditation, but I was repelled by all the gaudy iconography and superstition of Indian religious philosophy. Worshiping a blue elephant-headed god or praying to a ten-armed goddess wearing a necklace of human skulls held no attraction for me. I decided that there was one way to know if Kriya was my path—I would go meet my guru.
Hariharananda, now 91, lived in southern Florida with a group of disciples, on a large piece of land graced with gardens and peacocks. Just after Christmas, I drove from Texas to the ashram.
On the morning I arrived, I gathered with the others in the meditation room, awaiting Hariharananda. I waited, knowing that the next few minutes would determine the course of my life. I waited, expecting to encounter a master who had seen beyond all duality, a living embodiment of God.
Instead, I found a crotchety old man. The guru seemed annoyed with his followers, rudely bossing them around. The swami had told me that you could hide nothing from his guru, that with a single glance, he would know everything about you. But Hariharananda didn’t even seem to know the names of the people who lived with him and had dedicated their lives to him.
After the meditation session, feeling dismayed, I walked out into the gardens. On a branch of a bush flowering with long scarlet tentacles, I saw a small butterfly. On the point of its wings farthest from its head, there were markings just like its face, complete with antennae, facing the opposite direction. Natural selection had created this ingenious design to fool predators.
“Nature,” Hariharananda had said, “is Delusion, Illusion, Error.” The goal of our meditation practice in Kriya was to direct awareness up through the fontanel at the top of the head, out of the body, escaping existence, escaping maya, escaping the natural world.
Nature had always been my love, my guru. I looked at that butterfly and knew that I had found the central flaw in Hariharananda’s philosophy. This was not my path.
When I started Aikido, I was taught the meditation practice we do in our branch of the art. Ki breathing was introduced into Aikido by Koichi Tohei Sensei, who saw it as a fundamental part of the training.
The practice is this:
Sit comfortably with a straight spine, eyes closed.
Breathe in slowly through the nostrils. Pause.
Breathe out slowly through the mouth with a “hah” sound. Pause.
(For a detailed explanation in Tohei Sensei’s own words, see https://brightonkisociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Ki-breathing.pdf )
Over the years, I practiced intermittently. I would go through periods where I did ki breathing daily and begin to feel its profound effects on my psyche, making me calmer and more focused. But then I would let the practice slide. I was too busy. I had to get stuff done.
The problem—and the advantage—of meditation is that it’s like nothing else. It’s a turning away from normal activity, a great effort directed at non-accomplishment. It’s so easy to let that list of tasks take priority. So you miss a day of ki breathing, and then another…
Even after I moved to Durango and started doing Aikido in a dojo that began every class with a period of ki breathing, my practice was on and off. Mark Sensei and some of the other students had a daily practice. Steve, a long-time Aikido practitioner and 4th degree black belt, has begun every morning for nearly 20 years with an hour’s worth of ki breathing, and he extolled its virtues.
But it wasn’t until I had an ordeal of real emotional crisis that I saw the power of the practice. I had an experience that knocked me out of my normal frame of awareness, leaving me panicked and distraught. I fell into a state of deep depression and anxiety, going for a few days hardly sleeping or eating. My wife was out of town and I was alone. I was on the verge of going to the emergency room and asking to be checked in. I felt I needed some intense meds to get me out of my frame of mind.
Instead, I sat and began ki breathing, attempting to pay attention to my breath, and also noticing closely how my anxiety and depression felt. Where were they manifest in my body, and what were the thoughts accompanying these sensations?
It took well over an hour of sitting and breathing, but suddenly I was out of it. My mind was reset to sanity. I looked around my room and thought, “Oh, this ki breathing is powerful!”
It had come to me like a bolt of lightning: the mechanism of neurosis is thought. My thoughts were a continuous stream of worries and fears, rehearsals, and regrets. I saw clearly how the activity of thought constructs an intermediate realm that blocks the perception of the real world. Instead of being present to what was right in front of my eyes, coming to my ears and nose, and pressing against my skin, I was almost constantly lost in mental babble. And worst of all, I had identified with this non-stop torrent of thoughts. When I was able to stop my mind’s chatter for a few moments, my whole being felt refreshed. That car horn that had been blaring constantly just outside my window suddenly stopped. Peace and quiet.
From that day on I began doing 100 breaths every morning, and often a shorter sit one or more other times during the day.
So, after a lifetime of dabbling, I have finally begun a consistent meditation practice. As with Aikido, I expect it to be years before I will consider myself more than an absolute beginner. And, as with Aikido, just beginning a committed practice has had a subtle but profound effect.
What are we actually doing when we meditate? Simply watching the breath. Noticing when thoughts have taken off on some tangent, and bringing attention back to the breath. The idea is simple. You turn your awareness back on itself. The trouble is, it’s devilishly difficult. But the more persistently you try to bring your attention back on your breath, the clearer it becomes that you are not your thoughts. Over time I have begun to be able to separate myself from this incessant inner monologue. I’ve begun to think of this discursive part of my mind as “my chatty friend”.
And this form of meditation is not an escape from the natural world, but a method to be more fully in it, not escaping the body, as in the Kriya practice, but a way to unify mind and body.
Over the years I’ve read many books about meditation. A couple of my favorites are “Nine Headed Dragon River” by Peter Matthiessen and “The Three Pillars of Zen” by Philip Kapleau. More recently, books have begun appearing that include references to the new body of scientific study. Neuroscientists have become interested in meditation, and, using an fMRI, have begun to study its effects on the brain.
Until recently, the consensus was that the brain began with a certain number of neurons, and the creation of new ones stopped soon after birth. By early adulthood, the structure of the brain was believed to be relatively fixed and static. But now researchers understand that the brain retains the capacity to reorganize pathways, establish fresh connections, and even create new neurons.
A recent book that I like is “10% Happier” by Dan Harris. Harris describes his transition from a “fidgety and skeptical news anchor with a cocaine habit” to a meditator. He finds that his newfound enthusiasm for meditation leads many to react to him as though he had joined a cult. When a friend asked, “What’s with you and the whole meditation thing?” he responded, “I do it because it makes me 10% happier.” Immediately he realized he had found the perfect answer.
Harris writes about neuroplasticity, how the brain changes and grows with every experience. The brain can be trained, he says. Happiness is a skill.
Neuroscientists have identified interrelated brain areas that function in what they call the “default mode network”—our normal waking state of obsessing about ourselves, thinking about the past or future, our usual habit of just letting the mind wander. These regions are composed of areas of the brain with names like “posterior cingulate cortex” and “medial prefrontal cortex”. Studies have found links between heightened activity in the default mode network and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. And fMRI scans have revealed that meditators show a decreased activity in the default mode network, even when they are not meditating.
From my experience, repeated fairly short periods of turning down the default mode network, of quieting the mind’s jabber, result in a fundamental change. Both of my parents were in their own way worriers. By nature or nurture, I inherited this trait. For my whole life I have lived with a certain level of anxiety. Even in the best of times I have found myself worrying about the future. If it wasn’t for ki breathing, I think that the uncertainty brought by the pandemic would have had me bouncing off walls. Instead, I’ve been pretty calm. The voice of worry that has been my almost constant companion is mostly silent.
A few years ago I read a quote by the Dalai Lama, “You have a right to happiness.” This simple sentence blew my mind as much as that Beatles song had when I was 13. My religious upbringing taught me that I was by nature a miserable sinner. On reading these words, I realized that I still held an unconscious belief that I did not deserve happiness.
Dan Harris wrote that meditation had created in him a “nostalgia for the present”. The practice of ki breathing has allowed me to become aware throughout the day of how my mind wanders off into remorse and speculation, and to bring my attention back to the here and now.
Lately I find myself surprised by moments of joy and wonder. Could it be that there is a profound happiness waiting for us if we clear away the babble that’s obscuring it? Many have said that it is so.
The practice is this:
Sit comfortably with a straight spine, eyes closed.
Breathe in slowly through the nostrils. Pause.
Breathe out slowly through the mouth with a “hah” sound. Pause.
Meditation by Hartwig HKD flickr.com
John Lennon by Rock Cousteau flickr.com|
Gurumayi by Riaz Padamsee flickr.com
Koichi Tohei Ki Breathing https://shinshintoitsuaikido.org/
Default Mode Network https://n.neurology.org/content/76/6/511.figures-only
Meditation Vasa Museum by Werner Buschette flickr.com