Meditation and yoga are practised by millions of people who swear by the salutary effects of both. But the figures who brought these practices to the West have not had such wholesome reputations.
As an undergraduate student in Montreal, I had a boyfriend who introduced me to meditation. It was not something I was ‘in to’ but I was willing to give it a try, at least to keep him happy. I liked him a lot, and we had very amusing times together, but he was not academically inclined. I think he hoped meditation would slow down, if not stop, my intellectual preoccupation with religious studies. Why study religion, he implored, when you can just be spiritual?
I was not convinced that they were separate, and this would eventually lead us to go our separate ways. I believed that religion shapes the experience we call spiritual and much else besides, including the all-important moral choices we make. And there were plenty of strange ones on view in the 1970s that raised a lot of questions in my mind. The nature of a religion surely owed something to its spiritual claims and aspirations. At any rate, I was on a mission to find out.
Meditation, on the other hand, was touted as ‘religion free’ and came with the audacious claim that it was the high road if not the most direct path to ‘authentic spirituality.’ It was a convenient assertion since the mainly Christian and Jewish students on campus, who were willing to try meditation but were uneasy about abandoning their inherited tradition, were assured that would not be necessary. What the gurus and swamis didn’t say was that it was close to inevitable.
Meditation’s only formal requirement to achieve union with the Divine, variously referred to as Brahman, the Godself or Nirvana (not the rock group), was to sit cross legged, eyes closed and chant a mantra like Om Mani Padme Om or just Om. In one easy step the whole apparatus of religion, including its ordained ministers, doctrines and communal memberships, became irrelevant.
Or so it seemed. What the young recruits barely noticed was that meditation was promoted by a whole new set of spiritual teachers, mostly Hindu or Sikh gurus and Buddhist monks, who ran ashrams and monasteries, and imposed strict daily regimes, rituals and dietary requirements on their adepts. They also made frequent calls on your time, your money, if not your entire life.
In the meantime, the practice of meditation was intended to subdue ‘the monkey mind’ of incessant curiosity, remove all sources of intellectual doubt, and finally empty the mind of ego. Those vaunted aims all struck me as entirely contrary to what I needed to progress as a university student. To be sure, my ego got a battering from university professors and humility soon emerged as an indispensable aid to learning. But the concept of treating thought itself as an obstacle to spirituality rather than a road to it was so foreign to me that I wondered why some people specifically sought it out.