Tag Archives: meditation

My Secret Mantra

Let me share a story from decades ago when I learned a secret mantra!

The Meditation Center, Mpls

The Meditation Center, Mpls

As I explained in this post, I trained for two years at a Yoga Center in Minneapolis (now called “The Meditation Center”). After my first year, my progress had qualified me for initiation and without initiation, further training as a potential Raja yoga teacher (my track) was not allowed. Initiation was considered an honor. In the private initiation session, the teacher would whisper your secret Mantra to you, one you’d use in years to come as you strive for higher states of consciousness.

I was, as always in all my religious years, both excited and skeptical. What would this secret mantra be? Would it be all it was cracked up to be? How could it be any more than just some random Sanskrit word?

The magic, we were told, was two fold:  (1) The guru picks the words to specially match our temperament, our spiritual needs and the energy of our chakras. (2) Sanskrit is a sacred language and indeed, the sounds themselves carry a power that we can’t imagine. We were to have faith.

Dr. Arya, my  guru

Dr. Arya, my guru

I dressed well and bought some flowers and fruit as traditional gifts to my guru. I sat in meditation in a room by myself until I was called to meet my teacher.

The guru and I meditated together a short while and then he came to my ear and whispered my three secret, personal magic words — my ticket to the divine.

I worked with those words for several months. Hell, they were just words, no magic. Embarrassingly, I forget what they were: OM HRIM HUM, or something like that. Oh yeah, besides, you are suppose to never tell anyone your secret words.

The huge cognitive investment of time and money on courses, of bowing and presenting flowers to my teacher and of practicing with faith for months were not enough to help me hallucinate the magic. Sure meditation had fantastic affects of quietness and the ability to watch my mind, but no “higher consciousness”, no seeing the world as it really is. Yet I kept my disillusionment private and it would not be for several more months before I left the group.


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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Meditation: The Good & The Hype

Having traveled in and out of meditation circles over the years, I’ve seen much hype, placebo effect and outright self-deception. I’ve also experienced some benefits, but not nearly as much as my naive, idealist mind had hoped for — as it likewise hoped for in Christianity, Acupuncture, Marxism, Homeopathy and my many other adventures. (see my other follies here)

In January 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Evidence-based Practice Center in Baltimore, MD (where I did my MPH), have done a large meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of meditation.  They reviewed 17,801 citations and included 41 trials with 2,993 participants.

Article here:  Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-beingA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. January 2014.   See this Jama article for an updated version.

Results were:

Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate SOE for improvement in anxiety (effect size [ES], 0.40; CI, 0.08 to 0.71 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.22; CI, 0.02 to 0.43 at 3–6 months), depression (ES, 0.32; CI, −0.01 to 0.66 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.23; CI, 0.05 to 0.42 at 3–6 months); and pain (ES, 0.33; CI, 0.03 to 0.62); and low SOE for improvement in stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life. We found either low SOE of no effect or insufficient SOE of an effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating, sleep, and weight. In our comparative effectiveness analyses, we did not find any evidence to suggest that these meditation programs were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with. Only 10 trials had a low risk of bias. Limitations included clinical heterogeneity, variability in the types of controls, and heterogeneity of the interventions (e.g., dosing, frequency, duration, technique).



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Location, Location: Bible & Meditation

Open any number of meditation books by Buddhists or Hindus, and they will recommend making a special, quiet, clean place in your home for your meditation. They also recommend daily meditation at the same time of day. These recommendations capitalize on sound psychological reinforcement principles and is wise advice to help amplify your practice by using familiar triggers to speed your re-entry into special mental spaces.

On the other hand, you also find other meditation books occasionally recommending that practitioners try meditating outdoors in both good and bad weather, on noisy subways, or in other very different settings.   They rightfully claim that such routine-breaking can be valuable for getting beyond limiting habits and plateaus in insight.  Such changes can also expand the ‘sacred’ in one’s life.

Today, reading “Christian Century”, I found an author writing about the same principles for Christians:

“I have been told since my teenage years about the virtues of daily Bible reading. To encourage this habit, I have also been encouraged to do this reading/reflection at the same time and in the same place to help reinforce the habit. For various reasons this is a good and practical suggestion.”
— James McCarty (Christian Century)

McCarty’s article then goes on to suggest, in a similar way to the mediation advice, that breaking the routine and reading the Bible in new, challenging places may also be surprisingly helpful.

Funny, we all recognize the same mental patterns, and then apply them to our special/sacred world.  But we often don’t recognize that those with very different values follow the same principles as ourselves.

Listening to this advice, maybe now that warm weather has come, I will read the Ramayana to my daughter while we sit on the porch rather than in the family bed.

Question to readers: Do/did you have any valued practices in your life where you capitalize(d) on the benefits of  either “same special place” or on “breaking the routine”?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

“Mindfulness” Hype & Driving

Zen's Walking Mindfulness

“Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness” is the mantra of many Western Buddhists. It has almost been hackneyed into meaninglessness. For great analysis of the mindfulness craze see posts by both  D. Chapman and Glenn Wallis.  Meanwhile I’d like to add my simple observations:

In mindfulness, you are not suppose to daydream but instead stay focused on your object of concentration. Mindfulness in meditation may be on counting, breath, body or on the act of sitting. In Zen temples, mindfulness, is practiced during walking meditation — you watch your step, the feel of your body and don’t daydream.  One is also suppose to be mindful cleaning the temple, washing dishes, eating food, etc . . .  My son still resentfully remembers one Zen temple were he was scolded by the priest when he dropped a clock and was told he was not being mindful — he was 8 years-old then.

Mindful Driving

Don’t get me wrong, the mindful exercise may have its place.  But be careful!  For instance, when I experiment being mindful while driving my car, I often miss turns.   It seems that by focusing on roads, cars and my act of driving, I turn off the simultaneous planning aspect of the brain which unconsciously keeps tabs of where I am and when I should turn.  Who knows what else gets turned off in my brain that is actually protecting me.  Heck, when I juggle and am too mindful, I drop the balls.

Our multi-tasking brains have evolved that way for adaptive purposes — they work!  Turning off our brains can be detrimental. I see mindful practice as useful, but not an end-all. It may build a skill but to idealize it is silly.

Finally, here is a classic pyschology experiment. Pay attention to the game and see what you miss. Mindfulness ironically always necessitates not paying attention.

Question to readers:  Buddhist readers, please jump in here and correct me.  You may have to knock hard, I may be too mindful of my typing.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Meditation, Urination and Inhibition

Some people complain that when they drink alcohol, they have to urinate several times in a short period. They think the alcohol “goes right through them.”

Actually, what really happens is that their alcohol turns off the inhibition in their brain.  Sure, you all know this, but do you know how inhibition really serves you?  The beer turns of the inhibition of the imbiber’s  speech, sexual choices and driving habits. And it also turns off their brain’s inhibition to pee.  Even with the smallest amount of urine in their bladder, their brain says, “Go Pee!”.  The brain is trying to say, “You have urine in your bladder, but you can wait.”  But since the inhibition center is turned off, that part of the brain is gagged.

The inhibition part of the brain works both on our behavior and our bodies.    I did another post on this issue called “Peeing away your cash” (which few people read, sniffle!).  But thinking further about inhibition, I wonder if it is better to meditate with a full bladder.  A full bladder activates your inhibition center which may help you to suppress the compulsive monkey mind.  Anyone with experience on this topic?  I doubt it.  Alas, my isolation is horrible.  🙂


Filed under Medicine

My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture

The following is the continuation of my autobiographical posts concerning my experiences in acupuncture. See Part One here.

So, was my introduction to Acupuncture “magical”? I will let the reader decide.


I was excited to visit Dave McClean, the eccentric guy I had met at IBM who offered to show me some acupuncture.  My girlfriend, Amy, came with me for the evening tea visit.  We were both relatively new to Japan and were looking forward to seeing how another foreigner had eked out an existence in the land of Wa.  Amy was a bit hesitant about the get-together; first because she was not excited about meeting a strange, itinerant elderly bachelor and second because she was still a Christian who was a bit suspicious about non-orthodox medicine.  But she had been raised as a missionary kid in India and was certainly no stranger to odd experiences.  So she had decided to observe but warned me that she would not participate.

Dave lived in a traditional Japanese house: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, a tokonoma and a cute inner court yard. He had done well for himself for only a year in Japan and he shared some of his Japan-survival tricks with us during the first hour of our visit: how to look for houses, how to find cheap furniture, job opportunities and more.

Later we discussed the beautiful art work he had collected and his meditation spot in his tokonoma. We compared our meditation experiences and thoughts on religion. By then,  I had transitioned out of Christianity, explored Buddhism and Hinduism/Yoga and was now pretty much a very disillusioned cynical materialist. Nonetheless, I was still oddly drawn to people who claimed to have experienced the unusual. Tonight’s acupuncture introduction was, in my mind, an anthropological adventure.  But I was also sincere – my pursuit was a complex mix of motivations – but in the end, curiosity and gregariousness were the main motivators.

Dave was intense about everything he pursued and his knowledge was deep and sophisticated – it was a joy listening to him. After an hour of tea our conversation finally landed on the reason for our visit: acupuncture.

Dave said, “Well, are you ready to try the needles?”

I was a little nervous but not hesitant. “Sure!” I said and Dave brought out a beautiful metal case with the needles neatly aligned and explained how he sterilized them (a concern of mine). Then he said, “Rather than talk about this, why don’t I get you to experience it first?” I agreed–for I had always valued experience more than pure theory.

He asked me to assume a comfortable posture so he could place a needle gently into my right hand.  Since we were sitting on the tatami, I asked if I could borrow his meditation pillow. I assumed the half-lotus position with my hands on my thighs and closed my eyes briefly to relax in the manner I would in my meditations. (The pic is not me, I borrow it — forgot the source, sorry.)

When I opened my eyes Dave said, “Ah, that is a good idea. Why don’t you keep your eyes closed while I put the needle in.”

“But,” I inquired “before I close my eyes, may I ask what is the needle suppose to do when put in my hand?”

“Hmmm,” he said, “I don’t want to bias your impressions.  Instead, let’s just see. But I can tell you that the Chinese name for the point is ‘hegu’ (“the meeting valley”), Japanese call it gōkoku but English speakers, avoiding the complexity of the classical names, simply call the point “Large Intestine 4″ because it is the 4th on the large intestine meridian (more on that later).

Well, that explanation did not help, so though a little nervous about closing my eyes, I agreed. Dave then gently massaged the point.  “Here we go.” he said softly, “You will only feel a little pinch.” And indeed, he slipped the needle in with no pain.

I was surprised.”Did you feel anything?” Dave asked.

“No, not really.” I responded showing my surprise.

Since my deconversion from Christianity and my experiences in India, I had become not only skeptical of any religion, but of any unusual experiences altogether.  So I came to learn about Dave’s acupuncture with a skeptic’s mind.  But Dave’s introduction was sane, rational, gentle and not unusual — well, up to this point.

“Well,” he said, “let’s move your Qi a little.”

Saying that, he slowly started twisting the needle and moving it down a little deeper (I was told this later — remember, my eyes were closed). Suddenly I had a strong sensation run from that acupuncture point on my hand, up my arm across my neck and down to the same spot on the other arm.

The buzzing river around my arms also caused me to drop into a deep quiet relaxed state.  Entering that level of relaxation usually took me about 40 minutes of meditation but Dave’s needle just did it to me in a few seconds — I was surprised again.

After about a minute (which felt like ten minutes), Dave said, “What do you feel?”

I describe the arc of sensation. But as we spoke, the buzzing feeling faded and I could only slightly feel the needle in its original position.  Dave was a little surprised.  He told me to open my eyes, and we talked for a second (with the needle still in my hand).

“It seems you are ‘channel-sensitive’ — Only about 5% of the population can actually feel Qi move along the actual channels,” Dave explained, “And an even smaller percent of people can feel the whole channel across to the other side.”

The next two pics illustrates the “Small Intestine channel” on which the acupuncture point layed. The feeling went up that channel to the back of my neck and jumped over to the same channel on the other side and down to my other hand.

“If you don’t mind,” Dave continued, “I’d like to try a little experiment with you?”

Amy was sitting nearby and she looked pretty interested even though I could tell that the situation was making her a bit cautious. But she appeared to be patiently watching, so I agreed, “Sure, what is next?”

“Well,” Dave described, “I’d like you close your eyes again and tell me what you feel.”

I agree and again closed my eyes again and relaxed.

“Ok, I don’t feel anything.”  A little time passed, “Still nothing” I said impatiently.

“OH! You must be twirling the needle. There goes that sensation again — up my arm to my other hand. Now it is fading. Ooops, there it is again.”

This pattern of an on-and-off sensation repeated itself about four times. And finally Dave told me to open my eyes.

Amy had her mouth open in surprise. I asked Dave what he had done but instead Amy blurted out in surprise, “All he did was hold his hand about 6 inches over the needle. And every time he did, you felt the sensation going up and down your arms. And everytime he moved his hand away from the needle, you said it faded.”

“I am impressed too,” Dave said, “Not many people have that degree of sensitivity.”

“Hmmm”, I thought out loud in my surprise.

I did not believe that energy could flow outside the body, yet alone from one body to another. But even this experience I was still extremely skeptical and objected saying, “It was probably just the heat of his hand triggering the same sensation.”

“OK,” Dave replied, “I have another experiment that may test your objection.  Would you like to try?”

I agreed and we set up experiment the same way with my eyes closed and the needle in.

Just like the previous experiment, I reported my sensations.  Over the next five minutes the buzzing sensation went up and down my arms.  It came and went in an irregular pattern.

Finally Dave told me to open my eyes again.  But this time, Dave was not sitting next to me.  Instead, both Amy and Dave were sitting across the room.

“This time,” Amy informed me,”you felt the sensation every time Dave pointed his fingers at the needle from over here. And when he pointed away, you reported the sensation dimmed each time.  Each time!

OK, I was pretty shocked. And I had skeptical, religious, anti-acupuncture Amy as a witness adding to the credibility.

To top off the night, Dave wanted to show us one more related phenomena. He felt I probably had the ability to feel the energy surrounding a person’s body. So to set up the experiment. He asked a-now-willing Amy lay prone on the tatami floor and relax. He then asked me to hold my hand above Amy’s body.

Dave then asked me if I could feel a sensation in my palm that was similar to the needle’s buzzing sensation. I did. In fact it was clearly present for the first foot or so off her body but then quickly faded at about two feet above her.  The fading felt like the fading of the buzz of the needle, albeit it more subtle.

I thought it was her body heat but she had clothes on and when I put my hand near the bare skin on her arms I could feel a little heat but I had to be very close to her body. The sensation of heat and the subtle buzz where very different.

Eventually it was time for us to leave Dave’s gracious company.  It had been a unique evening. We thanked Dave for everything and started off on our slow walk along the gorgeous, moon-lit Kamo River back to our small home.

On the way home, Amy noticed my silence and said, “You are being unusually quiet. What are you thinking about?”

“Well, it is like I saw God!”

I said that for shock value knowing that though Amy had practically given up on my ever becoming a Christian again, though she still hoped I’d return to the flock.  Her and I had long standing tensions since I had left Christianity about 4 years earlier.

“I mean, look,” I continued, “tonight I saw something that I had not thought was possible.  I could have sworn such a possibility did not exist. It was as if I saw a god. Because up to now, whenever I heard people talking about energy in and around the body, I thought they were talking hocus-pocus woo-woo.  But tonight I experienced that energy even when I was trying not to.  And you verified it. That sort of experience is enough to even shut me up.”

Amy nodded.

Well, I have tried to tell this story as I experienced it at that time without any post-hoc analysis.  Go ahead, let me know your questions and your speculations.  My acupuncture stories after this event abound, but this was the pivotal experience that made me pursue acupuncture.


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Filed under Medicine

Dog healed by Meditation

Our New Dog (#3)

Three days ago we adopted a dog which had unfortunately been kept in a cage for the first year of her life.  She thus comes with many problems: shyness, fear, skittishness, hesitancy and more.  We have two other dogs that were likewise both pound dogs who also came with issues.  One of our dogs took 6 months before any meaningful eye contact or trust developed.  This new dog seemed destined for the same long-term hesitancy.

This morning, our new dog woke early so I took her to the basement with me when I went down for my morning meditation.  I had to carry her down the basement steps because she is afraid to any new territory.  At the bottom of the steps, I let her loose and she slowly began to sniff her way around.  I let her slowly investigate the scary basement while I sat down to start meditating on my elevated meditation platform — a stack of old cardboard covered with my Tibetan rug.  Within 5 minutes our new shy, skittish dog put one paw on my platform and slowly (over 3 minutes) decided to join me.  She came up on my little platform (brave for her) and curled up right in front of me.  She sat quietly with me for 20 minutes until she heard the floor boards above us creak as my daughter woke and walked into the living room to sit in front of our warm heater — her morning ritual.  Our sitting ended, and I carried our meek dog upstairs, ate breakfast, kissed everyone goodbye and drove to work.

Later in the day I was rounding on my patients in the hospital when my wife called me saying, “What did you do with our little dog?  Your meditation cured her.  She is running all around the house and is happy and playful.  She is a completely new dog — over night !”

Wow, is that a miracle story or what?

Miracle stories are made up of exactly this sort of thing.  I remember helping to create tons of this type of story in my Christian days.  Some religiously liberal folks may chastise my skepticism by saying, “Sure, it may not be a miracle, but why not just let it be a mystery and inspiration in your life?”

I would reply that there are lots of ways to explain our dog’s improvement without thinking that the deep vibes of my peaceful meditation magically healed her poor shattered psyche.  For instance, it could simply be timing–the dog finally fit in and was not as scared as we imagined.  And I am sure there are other possible theories outside of psychic magic.  Besides, my meditative skills suck.

There are lots of reasons I feel that allowing the mind to find hope in such magic only leads to eventual disappointment.  Instead, disciplining the mind to understand the true nature of reality while finding joy in that rawness is more valuable, in the long run, than the false hopes of an imaginary theology or philosophy.

Sure, it takes magic out of the day, but the day is full of all sorts of other real magic without the lies.

By the way, our new dog is named “Dharma”.  Seriously.

Question for readers:  Have you been tempted to create a miracle story recently?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Taming the Monkey Mind

Monkey MindIdeas, thoughts and feelings jump around in our heads all day long — like a monkey in a tree.  Sometimes we are conscious of them, other times not.  Try sitting quietly in a room just counting each inhale and exhale of your breath without loosing track of the count.  How high can you count with out some thought interfering?

Well, it is OK to have a thought come up, but if you follow that thought to the next thought (the monkey jumping to a new branch) then you may loose count of your breaths.  Give it a try (if you haven’t already).  Tell me how you do.

I was challenged to do this counting exercise decades ago.  I thought it would be simple to sit and count breaths for 20 minutes.  After just five minutes of counting, I jumped up very frustrated.  Two years later, a bit more skilled, I could now fall asleep with little effort (which had been a problem for years) and I was much less quick to anger.

This metaphor of taming the monkey mind is common in Buddhism and Yoga where it is used to illustrate how our minds are restless, unsettled, and undisciplined.  Learning to focus the mind is considered a very valuable skill.  Once we can calm ourselves during meditation, it is easier to practice the same focus in our daily activity.  Some people can skip the meditation because they practice this sort of activity in some aspect of their normal daily life.  For instance, I may also practice this when I am swimming laps (usually about 40 laps).  Keeping track of laps without letting thought distract me is very difficult.

But what do you do when a thought comes up.  How do you deal with that thought?  How can you avoid thoughts before they emerge.  There are many ways to work with the thoughts that inevitably bubble up during periods of concentration.  I will talk about a few of them in a coming post.  Taming the monkey mind is considered a starting place in many meditative practices.  For me, it was more than enough for a couple of years — actually, it still is almost all I can handle !


Wiki Article on: Monkey Mind


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

My Mystical Explosion

The word “mystical” is used in many ways.  One meaning is to describe subjective unusual experiences.  I have had several highly unusual mental and emotional experiences that I have great difficulty classifying with other experiences.  These experiences leave a hum of change in me — some that last for decades.   I call these “mystical experiences” for lack of a better word.

Below is one of several such experiences I have had.  In the future, I hope to post a few more.

But I am curious:  How would you define, “mystical”?  Have you had any experiences you’d qualify as “mystical”?

Shortly after leaving Christianity, a friend tried to explain meditation to me.  But I had enough “spirituality” and just needed a vacation from religion.  He was patient and waited several months before bringing it up again.  And when he did bring it up, I rudely laughed at the silly practice of sitting on your butt trying to think about nothing.  But he gently demystified it for me and made it sound easy.  Then he slyly challenged me saying, “I’ll bet you couldn’t meditate for just 20 minutes even if you wanted to.”  Well, that was clever, he was using my pride against me.

So I decided to take the challenge to show him I could easily meditate.  But he was right.  At my first meditation,  I jumped up after only 5 minutes.  I was simply counting my breaths and I jumped up, irritated and bored out of my mind.  But I would not let silly old meditation defeat me.  So with diligence, six months later, I was finally able to comfortably meditate for 20 minutes.  And even with that level of a meditation came welcomed benefits:   I lost my difficulties falling asleep and it became much easier to control my temper.  I thanked my friend for the introduction.

Two years later, I was now meditating about 45 minutes a day or so.  It was Autumn and I was upstairs “sitting” (the common word for meditation is Zen circles).  My meditations had changed;  I would count my breath for 5-10 minutes, and then relax my body part-by-part and finally in the last part of the sitting I would tame my thoughts by not letting them wander too far.  But that day, for some reason, after going through the relaxation phase at about 20 minutes into the sitting, I felt a sensation of a ball of multi-colored light rotating in my upward turned palms.  The hum of the slowly spinning, warm light was deeply relaxing while it grew in intensity.

Just then, downstairs, my roommate let out a huge sneeze!  The sneeze caused the ball of light in my hands to explode outward engulfing my whole body into a deep thoughtless space where I felt my body blur into all the space around me.  I later learned to call this energy Qi and that the space around me was called my ethereal body.

When I came out of the sitting, in what felt like just 5 minutes, one and a half hours had actually elapsed.  Time had collapsed.  My mind was bright, and alert but very relaxed.  It took me twenty minutes to go downstairs, I did not want to move or talk to anyone.   When I finally did go downstairs, my roommates noticed a difference in me — a solemn calmness.  I thanked my roommate for the sneeze.  We all laughed.

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Filed under Events, Personal, Philosophy & Religion