Putting the “Self” Back in Self-Care
How I transcended the surprising emptiness of meditation.
I was told not to share this with anyone (or even write it down), but my personal Transcendental Meditation mantra is “ki-ring.” That’s “ki” as in “kitchen,” emphasis on the second syllable. It’s a “seed” mantra invoking the goddess Kali and is apparently given out to all male TM initiates of a certain age. I first heard my mantra almost six years ago, whispered to me by my teacher, an affable Boomer named Denny. We were in a small, carpeted room in a modest Beverly Hills townhouse.
As instructed, I came bearing fruit, flowers, a white handkerchief, and my course fee. We placed the items (minus the check for $900) before a small shrine of TM founder Maharishi Maresh Yogi, as Denny began chanting softly in Sanskrit. The religious nature of this ceremony was by now obvious, despite Denny’s repeated, affable denials that TM was anything but a “secular” technique for relaxation.
Had I known then that I was in fact participating in an ancient Hindu puja binding my soul to not only the Maharishi, but also to his guru, well, I wouldn’t have cared. The only god I had to betray in those days was my carefully cultivated self-image: was I really so desperate that I was willing to try a “practice” touted by some of the most gullible people on the planet?
That question, like so many other questions that kept me up at night that winter, was rhetorical. And so, as Denny reverently spoke my carefully chosen, unique-to-me mantra, I felt my skepticism softening – sure, it’s a little ridiculous, but maybe your fear of being ridiculous is precisely what’s holding you back – until Denny broke in: “If you forget your mantra, you can always call us.” Oh. You mean just like Jeff Goldblum does in Annie Hall?
I never did forget my mantra, even though it’s been years since I dutifully sat (usually in my car) and repeated it for 20 minutes twice a day. I quit, but I can’t say it didn’t “work.” I found the trance-like state I usually managed to attain pleasant and relaxing enough to keep it up for a few months. But the habit failed to take hold, and was supplanted by a newfound interest in the Christianity of my youth. I’m willing to admit that, in my case, real TM has never been tried. Perhaps had I persevered, I would now know the deep serenity and connection to Source of which Katy Perry, Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, and other adepts speak.
Or I could’ve just made my incipient midlife breakdown worse. Like Scientology, TM has spawned a robust online community of disgruntled apostates, who claim that the more involved you get, the more cult-like it becomes (see Claire Hoffman’s Greetings from Utopia Park, among other accounts). Even those who stay comfortably on the margins risk depression, disassociation, and other long-term mental health problems.
This is true of other forms of meditation as well. Prompted by a kind of psychotic break he experienced while on a Buddhist retreat, experienced meditator and meditation teacher Dan Lawton began to question the conventional wisdom surrounding the benefits of “mindfulness.” He found that the significant dangers of meditation had long been acknowledged in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but were now downplayed and suppressed by the billion-dollar wellness industry.
Read enough of these stories and you start to wonder about the “all-is-one” assumptions that have slowly taken over our culture as Christianity recedes. Maybe eradicating the self isn’t such a good idea after all. Could it be that the much derided Ego serves a useful function? While TM is a bit too unfashionably optimistic and grievance-free to penetrate the mainstream, apps like Headspace and Ten Percent Happier propagate the same worldview beneath their bland techno-optimism. But what if peace is to be found by embracing our selves, instead of rejecting them? What if each of us, in other words, is a unique, eternal soul, badly flawed but redeemable, created by a loving God?
I’m not asking you to be Catholic, or even Christian (although the former works for me). I merely suggest that we give Western contemplative pursuits the same pass we’ve given Eastern ones. Lectio Divina and praying the rosary, for example, are time-tested practices that seem to have worked for people more spiritually advanced than me or even Russell Brand. Why not give them a try? Hallow, for example, is as well-designed and easy to use as any of its mindfulness counterparts. Who knows? After a few weeks you might find that your old, faintly remembered friend Jesus is a more compelling conversational partner than “the Universe.”