I'm on my way to see a Delhi-born meditation guru who once worked for Gandhi and who specializes in the virtues of discipline and peace. Naturally, I'm late.
I slept through two alarms and turned off the third, woke up an hour later, and now I'm speeding west on Highway 183, gulping my coffee, gobbling a banana and nervously glancing at the clock on my dash. 11:08 a.m. If I gun it I'll still be within 10 minutes of my appointment. I dodge a slow-moving semi, dart off the freeway and minutes later screech into a bank tower parking lot.
The office I'm looking for is on the top floor, a penthouse with views in all directions. Still catching my breath, I take the elevator, pad down the carpeted hallway and stop at a door marked Dr. Om Prakash, Ph.D., PC.
A longtime clinical psychologist who at 85 is beginning a new phase of his career—"If you're not engaged, you're dead," he likes to say—Prakash opens the door with a smile and waves me in. He looks at least a decade younger than any octogenarian I've ever seen. With teak-toned skin taut over prominent cheekbones and a fringe of graying hair, he wears a pressed, beige button-up shirt and brown slacks. Behind a pair of delicate silver spectacles, his dark, kind eyes seem to twinkle.
The book shelves are lined with such titles as Beyond Negative Thinking and Hypnosis and Behavioral Modification, and arrayed alongside family photos of his wife, son and grandchildren are white ceramic statues of Buddha and intricate wooden carvings from India. A silk painting shows a royal procession making its way through the countryside on elephants. In the corner, an enormous brass lamp covered with polished stones casts a soft glow. Prakash, like thousands of psychologists across the country who are switching from therapy to the still-emerging field of personal coaching, or at least adding it to their list of services, is drawn to the trend because it's about guiding healthy people to reach their goals instead of helping emotionally challenged patients heal deep-seated wounds. Coaching can also be more lucrative, generally paying between $200 and $350 per hour compared with $100 per hour in therapy; it's done by phone, and there's no burdensome insurance paperwork. Prakash still sees therapy patients at least two days a week, but he intends to wind down as he gains more coaching clients.
I'd heard about life coaching in recent years, but I'd always wondered what exactly qualifies people to "coach" others on the way they live their lives. Prakash, a man who as a teen worked as a community organizer for Gandhi's Freedom Movement and did prison time for it, has been married for 45 years and spent decades and multiple graduate degrees developing a unique approach to therapy and coaching that blends Eastern and Western philosophies, struck me as the sort of person who might actually qualify for a title as grandiose as "Life Coach."
Since getting trained and certified through a company called MentorCoach in 2004, most of Prakash's clients have been successful professionals interested in improving their work-life balance or advancing to the next level of experience or pay. He's helped a graphic designer double his income and an insurance agent leave his company to start his own business and taught an investments director how to meditate and relax in order to keep anxiety in check. He teaches all of his patients and clients meditation as part of what he calls the vital "stabilization" phase before delving into emotional issues or ambitious new projects. As a temporary client, I've selected meditation and a reasonable sleep schedule as my focus.
As I sink into the leather chair next to his desk, the stress of my morning rush begins to dissipate. Prakash sits down and folds his hands neatly in his lap. "Activity all the time has a price. The mind becomes so strained it doesn't function well and sleep doesn't provide the rest it needs," he tells me in a soothing, accented voice. "Meditation will help you. It relaxes the mind and body and allows you to respond instead of react, to be at the top of your game."
I tell him I've always wanted to maintain a meditation practice to reduce stress and anxiety, and that the rare times I pulled it off I somehow felt alert and relaxed at once. There was the time at Burning Man—a bizarre and otherworldly festival in the middle of a dry Nevada lake bed—when I sat in a Tibetan Buddhist meditation class but gave up because I was too distracted by the lip-cracking desert heat and a troupe of women in angel costumes gliding by on stilts. Then, last summer, I spent a few days at an ashram in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado, and did practically nothing but sit in silence and do yoga. The mountain quiet and lack of electronics made it easy to sleep and rise early.