life doctor

MEDITATION CANNOT be taught. I know this. I learnt transcendental meditation as an undergraduate. A group of us paid 50 quid apiece. The bloke told us he'd studied for years in India with the Maharishi. It looked authentic. In my ear he whispered my very own mantra that I was never to tell anyone in case I discovered that it wasn't personal at all.

We attended four long sessions. We were told to devote at least 20 minutes twice a day, or it wouldn't work. Of the six of us, maybe one was still going two weeks later. I couldn't bear to. Whenever I closed my eyes in a darkened room, I saw the string of saliva that was perpetually strung between my TM teacher's upper and lower lip.

It was stories like these that prompted Zen Buddhist monk Clark Strand to write a no-nonsense guide to meditation. He reckons you don't need to spend three years with a Chinese hermit.

He wondered, "Was there a way for people to slow down and experience themselves ... without adopting a new religious or philosophical ideology?" He admits that by writing a book he is in some way part of the problem. "The only choice left was to write a book of my own and be sure to include a set of matches, hoping the fad might catch on."

Meditation made even simpler:

1. Meditation should be a hobby. There should be no six-month schedule for reduced blood pressure. You should not be thinking, "Are all the others doing it better?".

2. Make sure the room is dark. Wear loose clothing. Put on an Enya CD ... spot the deliberate mistakes? It's all needless. Stop looking for a set of rules, you uptight old Brit.

3. That said, a good way to empty the mind is to focus on breathing. Count one to four with each inhalation. Strand adds: "As golf pro Harvey Penick said, 'Whatever you do, do not try to relax'."

4. Sit comfortably. Clark Strand tried the lotus position and permanently lost the feeling in the top of his big toes. Just keep the back straight, eyes horizontal and nose vertical.

5. Where should you meditate? None of this dark silent room nonsense. Just do it.

6. The keys to meditation are with you. But it's like your house keys: you know where they are but you can't find them. Calm down. Look again and there they are.

7. When you try to lose yourself in the present it normally proceeds thus. You managed it for about 0.01 seconds before you think "Ooh, I did it!", then you do it again. Then think "Ooh!" again. This phenomenon is called "The Watcher". Don't worry about it.

8. Meditation is about letting go and seeing that the world does not collapse when we stop paying attention.

9. Once you can do it, you will probably get bored because there is nothing to it. The benefit is also the problem. You need to stop needing to do something. This is self-contradictory, obviously.

10. And what's the point? While gurus hesitate to evince anything as shallow as purpose, ignorant Life Doctors can say you will be calmer, more confident, less bogged down, more aware of the bigger picture. All that kind of stuff.

This being a post-modern column I would say that the film City Slickers had meditation summed up. While the woman doing her TM on a rock was oblivious to the cattle stampede, Curly the Cowboy, who told Billy Crystal that city folk "worry about a lot of shit", was truly relaxed. It backfired a little. They thought he was so chilled he slept on a rock with his eyes open. In fact he was dead. Watch for that.

'The Wooden Bowl: Simple Meditation for Everyday Life' by Clark Strand, price pounds 8.99.

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