April 15, 2011 -- I have always been intrigued by the idea of meditation. I would love to be able to sit quietly, relax and let my mind wander into a trancelike rest, all at the same time.
There are reported medical benefits to regular meditation too: you can bring down your heart rate and blood pressure. Meditation has been shown to help insomniacs sleep, nervous Nellies relax and those with chronic pain breathe more easily.
Meditation sounds like a perfect dream, actually, but who has time for that? As a television producer, I would say my daily list of things to do can run longer than a pilgrimage to the Ganges. Would it be worth adding meditation to my to-do list? I needed to be convinced.
So I went to Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan for a group meditation led by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a spiritual leader and founder of The Art of Living Foundation. "The Guru," as he is called, traveled from southern India to kick off the "I Meditate NY" campaign, designed to introduce stressed-out New Yorkers to the powers of the ancient practice of meditation. Gathered in the hall normally reserved for plays and operas were nearly 2,700 people ready to follow the spiritual teachings of the master on stage.
The preparation began with ancient Sanskrit chants from the folk group Bakti and soulful vocals from the Grammy-nominated singer Chandrika Tandon. But before long The Guru took center stage, sitting in the lotus position on a regal loveseat.
With a creeping smile on his face, he began to explain the three platinum rules of meditation. The first, he said, was to say to oneself, "For the next 10 minutes, I want nothing." Sounded simple enough, but the truth is I did want something. I was a little hungry, even though I had a pretty big cheeseburger a few hours earlier. It even had all sorts of extras on it. My mind started to wander: Why was I hungry when I just had a big meal? Maybe it wasn't as big as I thought? Oh man, that means that cheeseburger must have clearly been full of empty calories.
But The Guru had already moved on to platinum rule number two: "For the next 10 minutes, I do nothing." Just then, my foot started to itch. I reached down to scratch it immediately, figuring the clock hadn't yet started.
Rule three: "For the next ten minutes, I am nothing." Now he was on to something. I liked that idea. It made me feel as if I had permission to float away, let my spirit drift into oblivion, all the while surrounded by thousands of people.
Sounds of Silence
The group was full of Om's and ready to sink into silence... or so we thought. Just then, The Guru reached into the pocket of his caftan for his cellphone. The crowd burst into laughter -- no doubt, this was a 21st-century guru. He promised it was only to time our imminent meditation, which he has said would last about 10 minutes.
Now we were on our way. He asked everyone to keep still and be quiet. If you didn't think you could do so, it was now time for you to leave. He said nobody should leave in the middle of the journey, as that would not be fair to others around them. Parents with children were asked to leave now. It was time to begin.
The room fell silent, but not silent enough. There were coughs, bodily noises, feet sliding, and yes, a cell phone. I thought, it's going to be tough to concentrate on doing nothing. The coughs seemed ceaseless. I wondered, well, we are heading into allergy season, is that why there are so many coughs? Or is this just how people always are? It isn't often I'm in a room with 2,700 people.
But then something happened. I don't really know what happened, because it's as if I wasn't there when it occurred. I mean, I was there, but I was nothing more than just there. Sitting. Breathing. Not hearing coughs. Not hearing feet shuffling. Not even hearing silence. I was awake. I was conscious. It wasn't that hard. I was peaceful. I was meditating.
There we were. An auditorium full of silent people, together, effortless, releasing our minds from daily stress, buried in peace, meditating.
Meditation: Struggling to Do Nothing
And then it was over. The Guru woke us up -- and then he gave us a jolt. He told us in his gentle meandering voice that we had been in this "amusement paradise" for 22 minutes. Not 10 minutes as he had suggested, but more than double that. The entire room gasped. We had disappeared for nearly the length of an evening news broadcast.
And, even though it felt counterintuitive to do something so seemingly solitary with so many others, it actually now made perfect sense. Later, The Guru told me, "Group meditations help in creating a positive energy in the atmosphere." Meditation was all about vibrations, he said. Just as we "catch anger" from angry people around us, we "catch" positive energy from positive people around us. The room was surely full of positivity.
So there you have it. A frazzled New Yorker with a Ganges-long list of to-dos may have just peacefully and willingly made her list longer.