In the fall of 1972, I was beginning my last year in college. The Watergate scandal was unfolding. The war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down, but unrest and turmoil still plagued college campuses across the country — and plenty of people were smoking weed and washing psychedelics down with cheap wine.
I was done with psychedelics and weed. I wanted to believe in something more but had no idea what that was or how to find it. When I wasn’t rebelling against some form of authority — parents, university leaders, police, the government, big business — I wanted to see a more peaceful world, and that meant finding an inner truth, a higher truth, a truth I didn’t see around me.
The summer before my final semester, I learned about a young Indian boy, a teacher, who was revealing some sort of inner truth. I felt an awakening deep within me, a recognition of something familiar, a touch of déjà vu. I wanted whatever this young teacher had to offer.
Within a few months, I was sitting cross-legged in a cramped attic in Columbus, Ohio, with 30 other hippies and seekers listening to a bald, middle-aged Indian guy in flowing saffron robes. He was a follower of the teacher, a mahatma (“great soul”). I was mesmerized and learned about Guru Maharaji, whose birth name was Prem Rawat.
After another evening, I was selected to return and receive the “knowledge.” I was taught four techniques of meditation. The session drew to a close, and his parting words were these: “Try it. If you like it, continue. If you don’t like it, then don’t do it.”
I thought to myself, “Cool. That works.”
The next day, I sat down to meditate, closing my eyes and going within. There are many types of meditation. Some use mantras, visualization, and points of focus within the body. The meditation I learned is called raj yoga (“royal union”). The four techniques — ancient practices going back hundreds of years — help take our outwardly focused awareness and turn it inward.
After about 30 minutes, I started to sink into a calm, alert, relaxed place. My breathing was deep and slow as my attention went inside. I stayed in that experience another 15 minutes or so, and when I opened my eyes, I felt a sense of peace and openness. At the time, I was used to getting a jolt from whatever drug or ecstatic experience I was on. This was something else — something much subtler. But there was enough there to keep me going.
I graduated in June 1973 and moved to Boston to join a community of followers of Prem Rawat. At that time, all the full-time roles in the organization (known as Elan Vital) required you to live communally and be monastic, which meant no sex, no drinking or drugs, and no salary. I wanted to immerse myself in the experience, and I did so for 10 years.
After holding various roles in the organization, I was asked by Prem Rawat to become a meditation instructor. I accepted and traveled for several years throughout the world teaching the techniques to people in small villages in Ghana and Cameroon, then in Lagos, Nairobi, Cairo, Alexandria, Turino, Vienna, Athens, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Amsterdam, London, and throughout Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
I finished my time with Elan Vital in Miami in 1984. I got married, raised a family, and began my career in leadership consulting, sales, and management. I’ve continued to meditate virtually every day of my life since then. Here is what I’ve learned from my years of meditation:
There is an inner experience of light, tranquility, energy, and peace
When I connect deeply, I feel enveloped in a universal essence. A sense of fulfillment seems to well up from within, and I can feel a gentle euphoria vibrating throughout my body. I become an observer of my thoughts, and I know the brilliant swirling light I see pulsating like a galaxy of stars before my closed eyes is my home. I came from there, and I will return there—the life force.
When I finish my meditation practice, I feel grateful for being alive and knowing my own essence. My mind is clear and focused, the mental chatter is quiet, and my entire being feels full of joy, happiness, and love. I start most of my days like this and do my best to stay present to the experience, no matter what happens. Some days I’m more successful than others. The purpose of meditation is not to control the mind. A quiet mind happens as a result of a connection to an inner experience of peace.
In my meditation, there is no mantra or visualization. The primary technique involves awareness of breath, something common in many forms of meditation and yoga. The active mind needs something to help still it, and the breath is the most natural thing available to us.
Our respiratory process is the only bodily system that functions consciously and unconsciously, so the act of focusing on the breath helps bring our awareness in the present moment. The more our breathing and our mind’s racing thoughts slow down, the more noticeable a rich inner experience becomes.
After initially trying too hard to concentrate on my breath, I finally learned to relax into a state of doing nothing, of just letting thoughts go and returning to the gentle inflow and outflow of the breath. The more I did this, the more I discovered that meditation is actually doing nothing, which opens the door to a vast pool of energy — my life force within me.
We become what we put our attention on
Meditation was not easy for me in the beginning. I often found it challenging to sit quietly for 30–60 minutes. My body was uncomfortable, my to-do list kept appearing, noises were distracting, and I often felt impatient. Where is that inner light? Why is it taking so long?
Over the years, it’s become more manageable, and like anything in life, desire and thirst are motivators for action. I may want something, but if I’m not willing to make an effort toward it, nothing happens. If you want that inner experience and make the smallest step toward it, you will have it. If I want peace and joy, I need to do my part. Some days it goes better than others.
Don’t listen to any mental bullshit. The talkative mind/ego will attempt, in any possible way, to disrupt your state of equilibrium by throwing up doubt, fear, guilt, shame, and ridiculous thoughts like: “You can’t meditate.” “You can’t sit still.” “All the stuff you have to do is more important than this.” “Nothing is happening.” “This is a waste of time.”
When thoughts like these appear, remember that we choose every second where to put our attention. When I meditate, I see my thoughts floating in and out. I don’t resist or fight them. I put my focus back on my breath. Soon enough, the thoughts dissipate. In the present moment, doubt, fear, worries, and concerns over what just happened or what might happen don’t exist. They are vapor-like ghosts vying for our attention. They are false prophets.
When we meditate, we can see our thoughts as separate from ourselves. In that place of observing, we’re more connected to our consciousness, our inner self.
Regular practice is essential. Even if your goal is 30 minutes, doing 10 minutes is better than nothing at all. Just because I’ve meditated for 48 years doesn’t mean I can start taking days off. It’s like hooking yourself up to a battery charger. If you want the charge, you have to plug into the source regularly.
Find the right time and place. For me, the right time is in the morning, and the right place is a comfortable chair in dim light or no light at all. Some people like soft, ambient New Age music, but I find it distracting. If there are other people in the house, I let them know I need some quiet time.
Having a breath-based practice is practical. I do an eyes-open version throughout the day by keeping my awareness on my breath. When I walk, sit in meetings, speak with someone, play tennis, work out at the gym, or stand in line at the grocery store, I simply pay attention to my breathing. I feel centered, focused, calm, and much more likely to be intentional in my actions rather than reactive.
I don’t beat myself up for drifting off into my thoughts or missing a day of meditation. If I struggle one day getting centered or my mind races out of control, I don’t panic. I just let it go. Years ago, an older man shared with me what he’d learned in his life: “We are our own judge, jury, and jailer.” It’s so true. I’m the one that passes judgment on myself, creating my private jail.
Forget about enlightenment. For a short time, I thought enlightenment was like the last stop on a subway, a place the spiritually diligent arrived at because of all the meditation they did. It’s not. There is no destination. The journey and the experience take place in every moment.
Meditation can build mental toughness
I have learned a great deal about my attitude, my ability to choose my response, and how to remain steadfast amid the negative thoughts created by my mind. Not only could I observe them, but I could also feel them trying to overtake me and upset my equilibrium. Sometimes my thoughts screamed at me to stop meditating or to walk away from everything. At times, they were relentless. I practiced flexing, not breaking. I imagined myself as a tree, rooted in the soil, letting hurricane-force winds blow over me, my branches bending. There were times during the first 10 years of meditating when I almost broke entirely.
When I left my full-time role with Elan Vital, started a family, and entered into corporate America, I began to more fully appreciate that I’d taken a real-time course on mental toughness. I learned patience, prayer, faith in myself, and the importance of being calm and centered. I’d learned to never give up on what my heart knows and wants.
Meditation alone won’t make us peaceful
We need to live a peaceful life. For me, that means living my life in alignment with my highest values and being proud of how I behave. I have four guiding values now: integrity, responsibility, humility, and respect for others.
When I was in my forties and fifties, despite having a sound meditative practice for many years, I made some abysmal choices that didn’t reflect my highest values. I paid the price and experienced significant stress, trauma, sorrow, and depression. I could meditate during all this and experience some degree of inner peace, but when I opened my eyes, I still faced chaos. Mine was not exactly a peaceful life. I learned that the experience of inner contentment is always there, but I need to invite it into my life by making good choices.
We are spiritual, emotional, rational, physical, mental beings. I realize now — perhaps more than ever before — the need to work on all aspects of myself to have a vibrant, abundant, healthy, peaceful life. Meditation is just one part of the work.
After my 10 years of living communally as a monastic, meditating morning and night for hours, I emerged spiritually rich, but my psychological health was poor. I had put all my resources into meditation at the expense of other parts of myself. It took years of study, therapy, and life experience to become more balanced.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve given significant attention to understanding my own family of origin, my psychological strengths and weaknesses, my childhood wounds, my unconscious biases, and the belief systems I have. As a result of this work, I feel more complete as a human being now. And, as I continue to discover, the work never ends either.
We’re all connected
The way I treat myself is the way I treat others. I project discontentment on others if I am discontent. If I am loving and kind to myself, I will be to others. I know that I must be kind, loving, and forgiving of myself if I am to have any chance of living a peaceful life. I need to understand and accept my darkness, my shadow. If I deny it and push it away, I know it will play out subconsciously, undermining me.
Suffering, war, hate, and fear come from the false belief of separation. We’ve forgotten that a thread of life connects us. Meditation can unlock the experience that will show you that thread.
When I was in a small village in Ghana, I taught meditation techniques to an older man, a bricklayer. He was completely uneducated, his hands rough and scarred, his body toughened by years of working in the sun. He wanted to know his inner self. He wanted to experience inner joy and love. I showed him the techniques, and he sat quietly to meditate. When he opened his eyes, he beamed with joy, and tears streamed down his face.
I understood too.
Every human being, no matter where they live or who they are, has the spark of life in them. Knowing that spark opens up our hearts, and we experience more connection to every human being and to this beautiful planet we live on.
I am immensely thankful for my 48 years of meditation. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Practicing meditation has opened up a beautiful experience of life for me. I feel blessed with so much inner happiness and fulfillment. I’m grateful and humbled by the gifts given to me.
Originally published on Medium.com