By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Over the decades of studying, starting a family and growing a business, Prakash stopped meditating. The first thing that nudged him back toward the practice was an epiphany he had while on a walk. He looked up at the moon and wondered, "How did it get to be so perfect?" The answer was obvious: It followed a strict routine. Everything that blossoms in nature follows a specific rhythm, he realized, and human beings are no different. He began to be more diligent about his study habits, following the same regimen week in and week out, and his grades and mood improved. Next, he met a transcendental meditation teacher and learned the technique (unlike the Hindu tradition he'd done before, this one was secular and didn't involve a mantra). He has practiced sitting in silence for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening ever since.
Today, more than 30 years later, he acknowledges the constant difficulty of maintaining a schedule, keeping your word and honoring yourself. "You get busy and forget," he says. "Habits are hard to break. But if habits are stubborn, you have to be stubborn too. Keeping good mental health is hard work."
It's 10:20 on a Sunday night, and I'm on the phone. My unemployed friend in Los Angeles has applied to more than 100 sales jobs in two months, she tells me, her dog has cancer, and she's seriously considering going to the public assistance office to see if she qualifies for food stamps. I look at the clock and think about something Dr. Prakash said: "Never feel guilty about taking care of yourself. No one else can do it for you." Am I seriously going to hang up on her?
10:35: My friend is still complaining. I feel bad, but finally I interrupt and say I have to go to bed. I'm already 38 minutes late for brushing my teeth. Who knew taking good care of myself could be so stressful? I feel like I'm back at band camp, rushing to heed my counselors' "lights out" orders and scheming about ways to escape the militant violin instructor who seemed to relish rapping on children's fingers when they strayed.
11:30: I'm starting my meditation 45 minutes late. I sit down cross-legged, put on some crashing wave music and close my eyes. Despite the soothing sound, the jarring chords of Alanis Morisette's "Bitch" suddenly blare in my head. I hate that song! Where did it come from? I take a deep breath and notice the air going in and out of my lungs. Soon, I feel like I'm floating in a big, warm sea. There's no thought, no noise, just blissful nothingness, the way I imagine it would feel to be a jellyfish suspended in deep, dark water. Too soon, my mind comes back to life with images from a party the night before and a reminder that I need to return a phone call. Longing to return to jellyfish mode, I glance at the clock and see it's nearly midnight—time for bed.
8 a.m.: My alarm sounds and I rise, walk to the counter and turn it off. I actually feel pretty rested. Even so, habit, not discipline, is at the helm this morning. My feet carry me back to bed—just for a minute, I think—and by the time I wake it's nearly 10. Cursing, I dash out to the kitchen to make coffee and realize I barely have time to shower, let alone meditate. I feel lethargic most of the day, and no amount of caffeine seems to make a difference.
I arrive for my next meeting with Prakash feeling like a D student who ditched class to make out with the class coke dealer. "So, how is your meditation going?" he asks. When I tell him about the uphill battle to go to bed on time and the inescapable thoughts that make it impossible to achieve nothingness, he smiles. "Don't beat yourself up," he says. "I've struggled with this all my life. It's not easy. If you have a good one, don't get too happy because you'll have a bad one. If you have a bad one, don't worry, because you'll have a good one." He also points out that it's impossible to fully stop thoughts. The point is merely to slow them down. He likens the mind to an ocean and thoughts to bubbles that rise from the bottom. The goal, he says, is to watch the bubbles ascend and over time, to have fewer rise. "Don't try too hard," he says. "Just let it happen."
That night I manage to be ready for bed and sitting in silence by 10:30 p.m. After a flurry of thoughts—a story to finish, weekend plans, a political argument I had earlier that week—I settle into my breath. The periods of blissful nothingness seem to last a bit longer each time. It feels like pushing through layers of dark organza curtains to sit, finally, at the center of the earth's core—being nowhere and everywhere at once. Each time I arrive at that peaceful place, I eventually get yanked back by a desire to make it last longer, or by the thought that I don't want the next thought to come, which of course is itself a thought. I manage to stick to the routine for an entire week. One morning, I'm shocked to awake naturally, before my alarm, at 7:30 a.m. Feeling more clearheaded and awake than anytime I can remember, I go for a run in the rain and make French toast before work. On days like that, I notice tasks that usually take an hour take half that long and I seem to have an abundance of time. Inevitably though, after a stretch of early nights and mornings coupled with regular meditation, I have a birthday party, a late night out or trip to a different time zone, and suddenly I'm back where I started.