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Every month Atlantic Monthly magazine has a section called "The Big Question" in which readers and authors answer an interesting query. Last month's question was "What is the best exit of all time?" One author, Michael Finkel, considered it a three-way tie between "Jesus (who left society to wander alone in the Sinai desert for 40 days), Muhammad (who retreated to a cave near Mecca), and Buddha (who sat beneath a pipal tree in India). After their exits, each founded a religion. More than 4 billion people now follow one of these faiths."

Meditation holds numerous benefits extending beyond the mere founding of world dogmas. If dogma is of any benefit. I see it as a source of strife. Down with dogma! But science tells us that sitting in silence and focusing the mind for a set time each day reduces stress, improves concentration, reduces cravings, increases self-awareness, happiness and acceptance, slows aging and bolsters the immune system. In addition, meditation makes your brain more plastic, increases gray matter, improves sleeping, reduces blood pressure and relieves pain. 

David Lynch, the creator of the highly-anticipated Twin Peaks reboot, has been practicing transcendental meditation for decades, and he credits this practice, coupled with a good diet, for keeping him young. Indeed the auteur looks younger than his 71 years despite chain-smoking for most of his life. And he has snazzy hair.

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When was meditation founded? It is believed that a Japanese monk discovered Zen on a visit to China in 653 AD and introduced the practice when he returned to his homeland of Japan by opening the first hall for meditation. But meditation extends much deeper into the past. After all, Muhammad was born in 571 AD, Christ around 1 AD, and Buddha in 623 BC, which takes us back nearly 2700 years. Indeed the word Zen is borrowed from the Sanskrit term dhyana, which means meditation and points to India, the birthplace of Buddha, as the country of origin. Where did Buddha learn to sit in silence? The best guess is that the Rishis of ancient India, who authored the Hindu scriptures called the Vedas between 1500 and 1000 BC, were the earliest practitioners, and the sacred texts they composed were the product of their meditations. Buddha was a Hindu by birth. 

In one ancient text, the Bhagavad Gita, which is set during the Kurukshetra War of 3067 BC, the Lord Krishna gives what may be the earliest recorded instruction in the age-old practice to his disciple, Arjuna. 

Krishna says: "Let the yogi seated in solitude and alone, having mind and senses under control and free from desires and attachments for possessions, try constantly to contemplate on the Supreme Self. The yogi should sit on a firm seat that is neither too high nor too low, in a clean spot. Sitting and concentrating the mind on a single object, controlling the thoughts and the activities of the senses, let the yogi practice meditation for self-purification. Hold the waist, spine, chest, neck, and head erect, motionless and steady, fix the eyes and the mind steadily between the eye brows, and do not look around. With serene and fearless mind; practicing celibacy; having the mind under control and thinking of [God]; let the yogi sit and have [God] as the supreme goal. Thus, by always keeping the mind fixed on the Self, the yogi whose mind is subdued attains peace of the Supreme nirvana by uniting with [God]."

Additionally, Krishna counsels yogis (yoga means union, and the goal is the union of the mortal human with his immortal nature, or Self) to be moderate in eating, sleeping, recreation and working. To be free of all desires and be steady like the candle in a windless room. Which is why practitioners often sit before a flame. The result is contact with your true nature, bliss, and the freedom from sorrow. And freedom of sorrow was exactly what the Buddha preached in his 4 noble truths and eight-fold path, proving that meditation, which he learned first by reading the scriptures and later verified in his own personal life, is the best method of Self-realization.

"This yoga should be practiced," Krishna goes on, "with firm determination and perseverance, without any mental reservation or doubts. Totally abandoning all selfish desires, and completely restraining the senses by the intellect; one gradually attains tranquility of mind by keeping the mind fully absorbed in the Self by means of a well-trained intellect, and thinking of nothing else. Wheresoever this restless and unsteady mind wanders away, one should bring it back to the reflection of the Supreme. 

"Supreme bliss comes to a Self-realized yogi whose mind is tranquil, whose desires are under control, and who is free from sin. Such a sinless yogi, who constantly engages the mind with the Self, easily enjoys the infinite bliss of contact with [God]. 

"Because of perceiving the Self (abiding) in all beings and all beings (abiding) in the Self; a yogi, who is in union with the Self, sees every being with an equal eye. Those who see [God] in everything and see everything in [God] are not separated from [God] and [God] is not separated from them....

"One is considered the best yogi who regards every being like oneself, and who can feel the pain and pleasures of others as one's own."

You will notice that Krishna doesn't mention downward dog or other yogic poses once in the Gita. This would come much later, via Patanjali's Sutras. But true yoga lies in stilling the mind, and through it you develop compassion. We're all in this together, and all is one. Let us love each other and be kind to our pets. And happy posing, if you're into that sort of thing. I prefer to watch.

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The greatest benefit of meditation is that it allows, in the words of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed the system used by Lynch, "the individual life to come in conscious contact with the cosmic life of absolute Being of eternal status." Thus the "conscious capacity of the mind is enlarged and the whole ocean of mind becomes capable of being conscious," enfolding the full mental potential and expanding the mind to its maximum limit. 

What Einstein said about our using only a small fraction of the brain is true for most of us, as the conscious mind can only deal with what it perceives, and it is able to glimpse such a smidgen! Expanding the mind through meditation enlarges the purview of its conscious component, the result of which is nothing less than pure genius. Here's to using your intelligence wisely. The wise person, who is also the smartest, always does.


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