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CHASING THE SPACE BETWEEN

Recently I was invited to meditate with friends Deepak and Oprah on a journey towards passion and abundance. They suggested I extend the invitation to all my loved ones and that together we embark on a 21-day, all-new, life-changing, authentic (and much-hyphenated) experience. Yeah, me and millions of others. It was a mass email.

It is not to brag when I say I am no neophyte when it comes to meditation. I’ve been to India several times, meditated long enough to stare unblinkingly at a candle light for entire red-eyed minutes – in fact, I once had the opportunity to sit in the lotus posture (read: cross-legged) at the very place and beneath the very tree where Buddha was purported to have reached enlightenment. I’ve been initiated into the mysteries. I’ve read books on the subject by guys with lots of vowels in their names, like Aurobindo, Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, and one of my personal favorites, Nisargadatta Maharaj. I might even consider myself an expert on the Art of Om, as meditation has been called. Not to say I’m very good at it, even after all these years of practice. Rare is the time I can make it through a 30-minute session without nodding off. Still, I like what Deepak stands for, and who doesn’t appreciate Oprah (except maybe the beef industry, and who would want those guys as friends anyway), so I checked out the website.

Deepak has a lot to say on the subject of meditation, whose true purpose, according to the self-help guru, is to tune in, find peace, and get in touch with it all. I wasn’t alive in the 60’s, but these aims sound suspiciously sixties-ish. Which is cool. I can dig it. I’m sure my parents and my friend’s parents and all the other baby boomers can too, which explains at least in part the man’s overwhelming popularity. Meditation is a way, Chopra continues, to get in the space between your thoughts. (Or just the space between, as Dave Matthews has sung, and he’s more of a 90’s guy. So we’re almost caught up with the present.) A field of infinite possibilities, infinite creativity. And it gets better, or at least, longer: Meditation, Chopra writes, is a place “where there is something called the observer effect, or the power of intention, which means intention is very powerful when brought to this space and it orchestrates its own fulfillment – what people call the law of attraction – so those are wonderful qualities of your own spirit.” I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend the syntax of that sentence, but intention, attraction, etc. all sound like good things to me. I’m in so far.

But as for other particulars, such as where to meditate, when, body position … well this is where me and the Hindu MD disagree.

Regarding how to meditate, Chopra advises going to a safe and secluded place where you will not be disturbed, preferably in the early morning or evening hours, then close your eyes and get comfortable. He prefers that you sit up straight on the floor or on a chair, hands relaxed on your lap, palms up or “any way that you feel most open.” Sitting as opposed to lying helps “cultivate alertness,” notes the great master, since reclining may cause you to fall asleep, which is like meditation, only you’re unconscious. (So that’s what I’d been doing wrong all those years!)

It is not uncommon while meditating for one’s thoughts to drift and dance around the mind, which Dr. Chopra says is normal, and he advises budding meditators to let those thoughts be. If you find yourself repeatedly straying mentally, it helps to repeat a mantra (to chant the primal sound Om, for example) or to focus your awareness on your breathing, which should be unforced and natural. Chopra promises that in as little as 15 minutes a day you can reap the benefits of regular retreating and rejuvenating into that cherished space between, although extending your sessions to as long as 30 minutes twice daily as other experienced practitioners recommend may help evolve your practice.

A practice which can be summed up as follows: sit still to still the mind.

I take issue with the sitting part, and I’d like to propose an alternative to this physician’s prescription, one that I’ve evolved out of the practice of seated meditation, one that involves getting off standing up and moving around. And why? The average person spends about 16 hours seated or lying down each day, making it America’s favorite pastime. In a sedentary society more time spent on one’s backside is not what is required. In fact, sitting is now being called the new smoking. Sitting for just 20 minutes causes blood to pool in your lower extremities, reducing the flow to your brain of important chemicals, including those involved in mood. Sitting also turns off an important gene that prevents blood clotting and inflammation. What's more, the static position - hips and knees flexed - is a postural nightmare that puts excessive stress on many major muscle groups, including your hip flexors, and causes muscle imbalances in the glutes, hamstrings, and iliotibial band. Sitting is so detrimental that even vigorous exercise is not able to fully compensate for the health risks associated with prolonged time on your rump. And health risks aside, after all that time sitting in traffic, at your desk, at the table, on the couch, etc., is an additional 15 to 30 minutes of physical inactivity, even if it involves the cherished notion of mental inactivity, really all that appealing?

A better alternative is through movement to achieve mental stillness. Like Chopra’s version, this method of meditation involves a quiet place, but not necessarily private, and it must be much larger than a room. A track would be best, preferably outdoors, somewhere green, perhaps a dirt trail or stretch of road or grass of measurable distance. You’ll also need a good pair of running shoes, though barefoot is also fine. And be sure to wear a watch. This form of meditation is what for years in the runner’s community has been known as the tempo run, or (lactate) threshold pace. This is the speed at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in your blood, making your muscles burn. It is anywhere between 65 and 85 percent of maximal heart rate. In other words a pace you could be expected to maintain for between 3 and 6 miles (5 to 10 kilometers). Then, choose the length of time you wish to “get in touch with it all,” as Chopra says. For a 15-minute meditation, experienced runners will aim for 2.5 to 3 miles (10-12 times around a track), while the slower set will try for 1.5 to 2 miles. A thirty-minute session would be twice the distance (4-6 miles), and this can be done twice daily or for a full sixty minutes. But as with traditional seated meditation, novices should work up to longer periods.

What does running fast have in common with sitting still? More than you might think. If you run fast enough, with your attention focused on time, your mind cannot race ahead, or your legs will lag behind. If you find your thoughts drifting to what’s for dinner or which errands need finishing, run faster. You should not be able to carry on a conversation (not that you’d want to), and you should not be able to maintain such a brisk pace for much longer than the prescribed length of time. Meditating while still has its benefits, meditating in motion provides the added perk of calorie burn, and who doesn’t like to, as they say, “kill two birds”? Consider that for even a newbie runner, meditation in motion, or “medimoting” for short, for just 30 minutes can burn up to 500 calories and take the edges off that heavy lunch (literally, if you had pizza).

Recreational runners may argue that one of the most sought-after benefits of running is that it often makes it easier to solve challenges and come up with fresh ideas, and this can only be accomplished at a leisurely pace. Run too fast, and the only thought a person has is “please let this be over.” But remember, the point of meditation is not to think, but to go beyond mind. Sure, an easy few miles, like letting your mind wander, has its place. And you should designate your easy runs as your thinking runs. But to clear the mind, it is necessary to reach the place of thoughtlessness that comes after that last, “let this be over” thought, which is really more of an emotion or sensation than a product of the mind. Once you are comfortable there, once you can stay in that space, live in that space, you will have achieved what Chopra and all the many-voweled men who came before agree is meditation’s true purpose.

Chopra lists five things that may happen during meditation. You can experience thoughts. You can mentally repeat the mantra. You can have thoughts and repeat the mantra at the same time. Your thoughts and the mantra can cancel each other out as you slip into that place of stillness between your thoughts. Or, you can fall asleep.

Save sleep for when you’re lying down, and meditate in motion. Burn through your thoughts as your burn off your lunch. That’s meditation for the new millennium. A very modern approach.

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