Excerpt on Meditation
Copyright (c) 1995 by Tony Schwartz
Excerpt taken from What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America
(NY: Bantam Books, 1995), 19-24.
I began meditating in 1989 for the most practical of reasons: I wanted a
way to slow down the frenzied activity of my mind. I wasn't interested in
gurus or rituals, spiritual awakening, or higher states of consciousness.
All of that struck me as mystical, and for me, mystical was the opposite of
useful. I wanted meditation with no frills. I read a couple of books about
how to meditate, and I began with a simple practice -- focusing my
attention on repeating a single word while breathing in and out. I wasn't
interested in a mantra, so I settled on the word *one* as the object of my
focus and decided to set aside time to meditate each morning as soon as I
woke up. I knew that if I allowed the day's obligations to pile up, I'd
begin finding excuses not to meditate. The problem, I learned very quickly,
was that this apparently simple activity -- sitting quietly and repeating a
single word -- proved to be one of the most difficult challenges I'd ever
faced. The sort of conscious discipline that I used to get my writing done,
or even to make myself jog in the mornings, proved useless. Telling one's
self not to think -- or to focus for twenty minutes on a single word -- is
like telling a small child to sit silently for twenty minutes. It's an
exercise in futility. My mind, I discovered very quickly, has a mind of its
At first, I found it intolerable to sit in meditation for more than a few
minutes. I squirmed. As my mind wandered, I recalled long-forgotten
obligations, and couldn't resist running to get a pen and paper to write
them down. I daydreamed, chewed over past events, and planned new ventures.
If I had an inspired idea or a flash of insight, I grabbed for my pen. Then
I berated myself for not being able to follow what seemed to be such simple
instructions. Sometimes I became distracted by physical pain. My knee
throbbed, my back ached, and my forehead itched. Or I got lost in fantasy
or felt drowsy and began to nod off. No sooner would I become alert than I
found myself vowing to concentrate better, only to recognize that making
vows is itself a distraction. I did everything imaginable but quiet down
and focus on the word *one*. Unwittingly, I'd entered a pitched battle with
an endlessly resourceful opponent: my own mind.
Curiously, though, I was never tempted to give up. Perhaps it was because I
sensed how extraordinary it would be to have more control of my thoughts.
Even the brief moments when my mind stopped racing were so quietly
exhilarating that it seemed more than worthwhile to keep at the effort.
Even when thoughts barraged me nonstop for twenty minutes, I still got a
certain satisfaction from the fact that I'd managed to stay at the task.
Without any conscious planning, I began to meditate for longer periods.
Inevitably, life's business came up in my thoughts, but at some point I
realized that I could just let the thoughts go. I didn't have to pay them
so much attention or follow up on them. When they came back up, I could let
them go again. The less I resisted, the less forcibly they seemed to press
themselves on me.
Sometimes distraction or compulsion or preoccupation prevailed and I felt
as wound up when I finished as when I'd begun. But the next morning, I sat
right back down again and started over. In a matter of weeks I began to
experience some breaks in the battle. I became more easily absorbed in the
word *one* and in the rhythmic pattern of my breathing. Occasionally, I
moved below -- or perhaps beyond -- the level of words and conscious
thoughts. I'd never experienced this state before. Paradoxically, I found
that when I wasn't actively thinking, my awareness became broader and clearer
than usual. Rather than flitting chaotically between thoughts, perceptions,
and physical sensations, my attention grew more fixed and stable. I could put
it where I chose. Rather than being unsettled, distracted, or controlled by
the activity of my mind, I felt some detachment -- more as if I were its
Often I wasn't aware that anything out of the ordinary had occurred until I
opened my eyes. Only then did I realize that what had felt like the passage
of a few minutes had in fact been twenty minutes or occasionally even
thirty. Whenever that happened, I felt lighter, calmer, and even happier.
Although meditating didn't prompt any sudden, profound changes in my life,
subtle ones became more noticeable. The first was that I gained more
resilience. When something upset me, I found I could return to a state of
equilibrium more easily, without any conscious effort. Eventually I decided
to try sitting and meditating directly after an upsetting event. Sure
enough) when I sat for at least ten or fifteen minutes, even the most
vexing anger, frustration, or disappointment began to lose its grip on me.
At times it simply melted away altogether. On those occasions it was as if
I'd found a safe harbor, storms raged around a place to go that was calm
and quiet even as it. I was fascinated to find that whenever I was able to
mute my tendency to think, analyze, and assess, I felt more control and
comfort, not less.
Two events in those first six months brought home for me the unusual
practical power and value of meditation. The first occurred one morning as
I was waiting to catch a train to attend a meeting in Manhattan. As I
boarded the car, I suddenly realized that I had an aura -- a woozy form of
double vision. It was the unmistakable and unvarying sign of an imminent
migraine headache. Starting at the age of seventeen, I'd suffered from
occasional migraines -- the initial aura followed a short time later by a
blinding sledgehammerlike headache that attacked one side of my head. I got
them only two or three times a year, but each migraine lasted eight to
twelve hours. During those periods, I could do nothing but retreat into a
dark room, lie down, close my eyes, gulp down medications that barely
helped, and wait. It was hell, pure and simple.
This time, however, there wasn't even a dark room to escape into. I was on
a train, headed to an important meeting that had been difficult to arrange.
Feeling desperate, I decided to close my eyes and see if meditating --
focusing all my attention on something other than the aura and the
anticipated pain --might somehow help. When we got to the station, I
reluctantly opened my eyes. Thirty minutes had passed. To my astonishment,
the double vision was gone, and I felt no pain. It was the first time I'd
ever experienced an aura that did not lead directly to a migraine. Later, I
discovered that there was a plausible physiological explanation. The
migraine aura is the result of a severe constriction of the blood vessels
in the head, which impedes blood flow. The pounding headache ensues when
the same blood vessels powerfully dilate and trigger enormous pressure in
the head. Focusing and quieting my mind through meditation had somehow
prompted the blood flow in my head to normalize. In effect, I'd gained
control of an involuntary physiological process. I used the same technique
the next time that I experienced an aura, and it worked again. It has now
been more than five years, and I've been almost completely free of
migraines. The couple of exceptions were relatively modest, and even then
the pain was ameliorated by meditating.
The second event also occured on a train, in this case on a warm, fall
evening. It was around six o'clock, I was in New York City, and I'd gone to
Grand Central Station to catch a train home in time for dinner. As the
train pulled out of the station, the lights went off. Perhaps ten minutes
later, it stopped. The conductor's voice came over a loudspeaker to
announce that there was an electrical problem and that he had no way of
knowing how long the repair would take. All that my fellow passengers and I
could do was sit and wait in the tunnel -- indefinitely. It wasn't the sort
of challenge that tended to bring out the best in me. I'd long been the
sort of person who considers waiting in traffic jams a personal affront.
Great patience was not among my virtues. Add to that the need to sit in
total darkness, and I found myself in the sort of scenario that I consider
close to torture. Nor did my fellow commuters seem much more sanguine. In
their rumbling and sighing, I could sense a rising irritation.
I decided to close my eyes and focus on repeating the word *one* silently,
while breathing slowly and rhythmically. Very quickly, I lost track of time
and became absorbed instead in the meditative process. The longer we sat,
the calmer I felt. When the lights finally came on and the train began to
move, I looked at my watch. Nearly ninety minutes had passed. It was far
and away the longest I'd ever meditated, but it felt as if I'd been at it
no more than twenty or thirty minutes. By the time I stepped off the train
at eight-thirty -- two full hours late -- I was as relaxed as I could ever
remember feeling. My wife was incredulous. She'd already warned our kids
that I'd be in a bleak mood when I finally got home, and to give me plenty
of room. The experience had a profound effect on me. If I moved beyond my
thoughts and focused deeply enough, I now realized, there was a state I
could access that felt calm and comfortable almost regardless of the
external circumstances. It occurred to me that I'd stumbled onto a piece of
a much bigger puzzle. Meditation was plainly a powerful technique for
relaxation. What began to interest me even more was the unique state of
consciousness that it helped access and the possibility that it might have
some relationship to my search for wisdom. It was with that in mind that I
turned to Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass.