By Ed Staskus
When did the ancient practice of meditation become the hot topic tool in the toolbox of stress reduction and weight loss, a push-up for the brain, and the credit card of getting ahead in the world?
When did it morph from keeping the mind fixed on the self in order to unite with the divine to a way of improving scores in schools, as was recently reported by the journal Health Psychology?
When did meditation veer from a practice meant to quiet the mind of the world’s noise in order to attain enlightenment to a means of mitigating the common cold, so demonstrated in a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
It probably happened the minute Vivekenanda began his speech “Sisters and brothers of America…” on the main stage of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. A key figure in bringing yoga to America, and the man who helped catapult Hinduism to the status of a major world religion, Vivekenanda assumed Americans were intensely religious.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Even though more than 80% of Americans, even today, describe themselves as being religious or very religious, spiritual or very spiritual, the American soul is not found in any church. It is found in the American workplace because the American character is bound up with materiality and wealth.
Alexis de Tocqueville had it right when he wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more practical than theoretical.
“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
The last of America’s three Great Awakenings, religious revivals characterized by sharp increases of interest in religion, was over by the time Vivekenanda arrived in the United States. There was no fourth awakening after he returned to India in 1899, nor have there been any more to the present day.
Vivekenanda was considered an expert in meditation, what is called a dhyana-siddha. Introducing meditation to the West he defined it as a bridge connecting the soul to God.
“When the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current, as it were, towards that point.”
Both of his approaches to meditation, whether the practical approach through yoga or the philosophic approach through Vedanta, had the same objective, which was illumination through the realization of what he called the Supreme, more commonly known as God.
One hundred years later God has been marginalized, if not swept into the dustbin of history, by the emerging culture of the United States and meditation has been re-defined as mindfulness meditation. The difference is that in the 21st century, unlike all other centuries, no one has to sit quietly in lotus position for hours.
All they have to do is train the brain to be mindful and mindfulness then becomes a state of mind.
In the past mindfulness was known as awareness. Today it’s called focus, as in sharpening your focus. It used to be if you were paying attention to what you were doing you were being mindful. Now you need to meditate in order to learn how to be engrossed in what’s going on.
Or, in modern parlance, it teaches you to live fully in the moment.
A new set of meditation benefits have been formulated, implicitly guaranteed to make everyone happier and healthier. The benefits include: better memory; performing at a high level; losing weight; lowering stress; boosting immunity; improving decision-making; and coping with anxiety and depression, among others.
Some studies claim it speeds recovery from heart disease and psoriasis.
Vivekenanda would probably be astonished at how widely meditation has spread in the past one hundred and twenty years since his groundbreaking appearance in Chicago. It is no longer just the pursuit of quiet yogis seeking a spiritual breakthrough.
Dan Harris, ABC newsman and co-anchor of Nightline, who after self-medicating with cocaine and Ecstasy and crash landing on Good Morning America, turned to meditation as an alternative.
“When I say meditation, I’m talking about mindfulness meditation. It’s completely secular,” he explained.
“It’s like doing neurosurgery on yourself,” he added.
The Marine Corps has begun teaching its troops how to be even tougher on the battlefield by teaching them mindfulness meditation. The military’s pilot program began at Camp Pendleton in 2013 and is being duplicated at other bases.
“It’s like doing pushups for the brain,” said one enthusiastic general.
“Meditation used to have this reputation as a hippie thing for people who speak in a particularly soft tone of voice,” said Jay Michaelson, author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment.
“But, samurai practiced meditation to become more effective killers,” he pointed out.
On Wall Street stock market traders and bond managers have taken up the mantle. Hedge-fund manager David Ford credits his newfound serenity and recently bulging wallet to the twenty minutes he spends every morning meditating.
“I react to volatile markets much more calmly now,” he said. “I have more patience.”
Another hedge-fund manager, Paul Dalio of Bridewater Associates, who is worth $14 billion according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, claims meditation has been the biggest factor in his success.
Even congressmen have gotten on the meditation bandwagon.
Congressional job approval in December 2014 stood at 15%, close to that year’s record-low of 14%, according to the Gallup Poll. The 86% disapproval rate in 2014 was the worst ever measured in more than 30 years of tracking the rating. And that was a century after Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself.”
Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, once pointed out that 90% of politicians give the other 10% a bad name. He did not say who the 10% were.
Nevertheless, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan recently published A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. In it he touted the perks of mindfulness, pointing out improved school test scores and workplace job output.
As far and near as meditation has spread, it’s newfound fame is not limited to U. S. Marines and the wolves of Wall Street. Even Mob assassins, at least the noir crime novel kind, are taking advantage of mindfulness meditation, although not in the sense of overcoming delusion in pursuit of enlightenment, but more in the sense of overcoming delusion to make sure their aim is true.
In Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall the implacable hit man aptly known as Hush has a reputation of always getting his man, to the point that when you know he’s after you the only thing left for you to do is get your affairs in order. He practices zazen, a form of meditation at the heart of Zen, in order to stay at the top of his game.
Commanding a five-figure fee the assassin meditates to make a killing.
The rub about meditation is that there are moral principles embedded in it. Some teachers are concerned that those moral principles are being ignored.
“You can train people with meditation to be sharpshooters,” said Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center in Santé Fe, New Mexico. “Are they trying to get smarter so they can exploit more people?”
Meditation is elastic in the sense that it has been practiced for millennia and there are many forms of it. The classic sense of it is the Buddhist notion that everything is impermanent and all anyone has is the here and now.
The modern brain hacking or on the make sense of it is that it imparts an edge to the practitioner. As Paul Dalio, the $14 billion dollar man, explained in a February 2014 panel discussion on meditation: “It makes me feel like a ninja in a fight.”
Vivekenanda may have thought he knew what he was doing in 1893, but he might have been better served reading Tocqueville first, getting ready for the U. S. Marines and Paul Dalio’s of the New World.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.