Chapter 6: Third Tool for Going Back to Walden – True Insight

Part 1: Transcendental Medication

Beside a woodsy trail I often hike, which hugs the winding Amethyst Brook in my hometown of Amherst, some kind-hearted stranger has put up a bench overlooking the stream, where it forks into two diverging rivulets. It’s for anyone to use “For Free,” as the charming Joni Mitchell song from the 1970s was entitled.

View from Mt. Sugarloaf

Stop here, traveler, and find rest for your

Hanging over the bench is a handmade sign, its words burned lovingly into the wood: “Stop here, traveler, and find rest for your soul.”

That captivating notion, in fact, tells you all you need to know about meditation. Stop here, traveler, and find rest for your soul. And all for free.

In the simplest of all possible worlds, you find rest for you soul by using meditation to rediscover your own marvelous intuition. Indeed, you awaken the secret sage you always were and always will be. You finally heed the built-in oneness of your own genius, heretofore drowned out by the hue and cry of a culture gone ballistic, the pandemonium of digital widgets turning day-to-day life into virtual reality, the hubbub of your own insatiable ego screeching in your ear.

I firmly believe that a pandemic of aimless wandering has long since broken out in America and elsewhere. So many of us are lost. One of my friends, who tended to take the wrong turn whenever she got th e chance, always described herself as “geographically hard of hearing.” Many of us suffer from that same malady in the spiritual sense. We’re metaphysically hard of hearing.

Overwhelmed by a life that is both confusing and out of control, we literally cannot hear ourselves think. Our intuition, the inner voice of wisdom, truth, and common sense, is lost in the jackhammer din of the ego babbling, electronic thingamabobs broadcasting, or shit hitting the fan. We can’t hear truth shouting at us.

That is precisely what meditation, practiced with an authentic spiritual philosophy all your own, can do. Jolt you back to reality. That jolt, I hope, is the formula I’m giving you in this chapter.

In his complexly simple style, Lama Surya Das summarized the effects of meditation this way: “By simply being right there, on the spot, you can make your life become workable and wonderful. A Zen master says, ‘Awakening to this present instant, we realize the infinite is in the finite of each instant.’”

Henry David, wherever he exists now in the flickering energy exchange of the cosmos, must be doing a little jig to celebrate this Zen master’s Thoreau-bred wordplay. As Thoreau’s fellow Transcendentalist Emily Dickinson expressed the infinite of each instant: “Forever is composed of nows.”

Wow! It would be senseless for me to try and duplicate the nobility of such words, just as it would be lame for me to try and mimic the meditation guides that others have already written so much better than I ever could. You can easily Google a virtual monastery full of spiritual gurus, much more qualified than I am, who have written lucid, easy-to-understand guides to meditation. I recommend any of the books written by Lama Surya Das, whose instructions on meditation are authentic, sensible, well-written, and geared to Western readers.

So I won’t give you a how-to on meditation. What I can do is tell you the story of my own meditative trek, a noble 25-year path that led me from the miserable, bewildered, frantic escapist I was in the now of then, to the joyful, satisfied, and purposeful human being I am in the forever of now. Remember. This is your journey I have taken, just as yours is my journey you are taking.

My own history of meditation is really a history of Back to Walden as it was intuited, conceived, and came to be. My introduction to meditation was through TM, a technique I soon nicknamed “Transcendental Medication” because of the pleasantly druggy effect it had on my tortured consciousness. I suppose I first became aware of TM in about 1980, while I was working as a writer for the University of Massachusetts Amherst in an antediluvian building called Munson Hall. Next door to Munson is a creaky old athletic facility and gymnasium known for decades as “The Cage,” where, at the time, UMass played its home basketball games, despite a flock of resident pigeons crisscrossing overhead in noisy disharmony.

That summer, UMass hosted a large conference for a mysterious organization known collectively by its acronym, TM, for Transcendental Meditation (no relation to Transcendentalism). The daily meditation activities for the TM conference centered in The Cage. All I knew at the time about TM I learned in a brief exchange with my lovely, effervescent girlfriend, Rachel (who would later spot the ivory billed woodpecker with me), after she rushed breathlessly into my office one morning.

Yoga Levitation

"I hear they can fly," she giggled

“I hear they can fly!” she giggled.

“Who can fly?” I said.

“Those TM freaks.”

“Fly? You mean metaphorically, like an LSD trip?”

“No, they claim they can really fly. Levitate, you know, like yogis. At least, that’s what somebody just told me. You wanna sneak into The Cage and watch them?”

As tempting as that offer sounded, I was on deadline at the moment, so I couldn’t go next door for the air show, but Rachel did. Sometime later, she reported back to me with a crestfallen look on her face.

“I take it they didn’t fly,” I said.

“Well,” she said, smiling wanly. “Guess it depends on your definition of flying. After I snuck past the security people, I peeked through the grandstands, and nobody was doing anything. Just kind of squatting there in, what do you call it? The lotus position. Then, all of a sudden, they began hopping around.”

“Hopping around?”

“Yeah, you know. Kind of using one leg as a catapult. Like human pogo sticks.”

“In other words, yes, they can fly. But briefly.”

This vision of a basketball court percolating with human pogo sticks was my introduction to Transcendental Meditation. To this day, I still have a hard time getting past that image. The TM technique, as I would soon read, was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and basically espouses a simple form of meditation, practiced for about 20 minutes at a time, twice daily. On its website, TM offers a whole list of authentic benefits, chief of which is reducing stress. Flying, needless to say, isn’t one of them.

Reducing stress must have been the main draw for me, because at that point in my life I was a perpetual motion machine, fueled by self-inflicted stress. That’s why, sometime in the early summer of 1985, I ambled over to the “TM house,” located just off-campus, a couple blocks from Munson Hall, and plopped down a cool $400 – a truly precious sum for me at the time – to “buy my mantra.”

This terminology, of course, is a very irreverent way to describe the transaction, but that’s precisely how scores of people refer to their original TM experience. Many of my smarter friends simply asked somebody else for a mantra. But for me, at least, TM wasn’t “For Free.”

On that first day, I was part of a group orientation, peopled by four novice meditators led by a very sincere young TM instructor. We all sat in stuffed furniture around the living room at the cozy TM house, and, after a brief introduction, the instructor took us one-by-one upstairs for the official ceremony conferring our mantras. I thought of mine as a “magic word.” And indeed it must have taken some kind of magical thinking on my part to fork over $400 at that point in my life.

My instructor in a ritualistic way whispered my mantra to me, then informed me I should repeat it out loud, very quietly, a few times to make sure I got it.

“Hidding, hidding, hidding,” I chanted lowly.

After that, I was instructed never to say it aloud again, and, above all else, never, ever reveal it to anybody else, under pain of…Well, there were certainly no threats, for this was a truly gentle young man, but the moral consequences were left to my still very Catholic imagination.

This ceremony sounds a little silly now; but for me, at least, the very secretiveness of it all added to the mystique, and therefore the lure, of what I considered an exotic Oriental practice. What naiveté! For TM, in truth, was about as Americanized as baseball, Hollywood, and…well, buying mantras. Westernization was its thing.

After each of us received our own personal mantra, we sat at our first meditation session as a group. We were told to relax in our chairs – no lotus positions even entered the conversation – and to focus only on the silent mantra we were each repeating to ourselves. The instructor advised us that invariably idle thoughts would creep into the meditation, for that’s what the mind does. It’s the parrot of our consciousness. But, as soon as we perceived our mind wandering away from the mantra and generating any kind of thought, empty or otherwise, we should just “let it go” and bring our focus gently but firmly back to the mantra.

What I had just learned was one very genuine form of meditation, among hundreds. I was hooked within seconds, even though I’d always been the hyperactive sort and had a very difficult time concentrating on my mantra. Twenty minutes passed in the twinkling of a thought wave. Then the instructor gently tinkled a bell to bring our meditation to an end.

Afterwards, I remember sitting on the front stoop of the TM house with a young student named Lisa from the group and wondering that our vision of the world had already been altered. We were both noticing how a slight glow, an iridescent nimbus, was now visible around the bushes, trees, and flowers in the front yard. The world had suddenly taken on a magical aura. Everything seemed to tremble with excitement. I had been Transcendentally Medicated for the first time.

TM quickly became a staple in my life, but it never did become the cure-all I was looking for. It never did confer meaning or peace of mind. Nevertheless, it was the first step in a pilgrimage of 10,000 miles. Read the next section to find out where that fateful journey would lead.