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So my good friend Erin had a meltdown over the weekend. Family troubles and overwork have gotten her so stressed out that unwinding meant drinking a couple bottles of wine every day for three days and capping off this bout with a couple pints of vodka Monday morning. We spent a couple hours chatting that day and she seemed stone-cold sober to me. OK maybe a wee bit crazy but that's normal for her and one of her best features. Sure had me fooled. I played therapist slash litigator and gently put her on the stand, asking her a bunch of questions the answers to which would clarify things like how much alcohol she had consumed over what length of time, and more importantly, why. I needed to ask, because she needed to hear the answers. It's what any good shrink would do in my shoes.

It seems it was a bit of the work hard, play hard mentality in effect, but Erin has a history of drinking excessively which had even her worried that she had fallen off the wagon. In the wards I was taught as a physician to use the CAGE questionnaire to diagnose alcoholism, and the E stands for eye opener, so busted. Hey, it happens. As long as it doesn't happen again. I reviewed my own drinking history, all those years of enjoying 4 to 6 libations per day. It all started after living with three fellas from high school got me in the habit of treating liquor like food and needing some every day. And then came my brother's death and my parents' divorce which, coupled with a lack of success in my literary efforts, threw me headlong into the Miller High Life, which is a blanket term I sometimes use for the various forms of alcohol I consumed daily over the better part of 15 years. I say better because it was fun, until it wasn't.

And drinking too much - I hesitate to use the word alcoholism, since it has a connotation and in these hyper-vigilant days is flung at anyone who drinks more than two drinks in a sitting ever - drinking too much is often a way of coping with a life stressor. The major ones - stressors that is - are the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, injuries and illnesses, as well as imprisonment and even a move away from home. Erin hasn't recently experienced any of these major life stressors, but if she keeps up the binge drinking it could lead to many of the very things that cause people to gravitate to the bottle in the first place. I gave her a best friend's advice but stopped short of suggesting that she meditate for fear of coming off overly pious. Besides I already sent her an article in the June issue of Mensa's magazine about meditation and she has yet to give it a try. She should, because the high is out of this world, and much more intense than the red wine buzz, which always left me feeling flat and hung over the next day. But rather than preach I simply sent her a penis pic, since she needed a pick me up and a picture is after all worth a thousand words. How's that for an "eye opener"?

In the subsequent issue of the Bulletin, readers wrote in with their rave reviews for the meditation article. One reader offered this advice to new meditators: "As you sit in silent awareness, thoughts will repeatedly intrude; each time they do, let them go, and gently bring your attention back to where it was. Don't concentrate hard; don't try to force it. Keep it gentle." This is good advice and recalls the hints that the sage Ramana Maharshi gave to disciples when he said: "When thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: ‘To whom do they arise?’ It does not matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, 'To whom has this thought arisen?'. The answer that would emerge would be 'To me'. Thereupon if one inquires 'Who am I?', the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source." 

The advice of this 20th century sage echoes the counsel Krishna gave to his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita when tells yogis for all time: "As often as the wavering and unsteady mind goes forth, so often reining it in, let him bring it under the control of the SELF." 

No matter which rendition you prefer, the advice is the same: Watch your thoughts and remain fixed in the source of thought until thought disappears. There are many different kinds of thoughts, and not all are detrimental to one's well-being. To solve an algebra problem you need to think, but the equations you perform in your head are in the moment, and there is no math above simple arithmetic in my meditation. But the thoughts that carry you into the past, if indulged in excessively, lead to worry and even guilt; while the thoughts that carry you into the future, if unpleasant, often lead to fear and anxiety, and pleasant expectations give rise to lust and longing. While reason and reflection have an important role in separating human from the rest of the animal kingdom, fear and guilt are so many names for distraction. Meditation is not a place for any of it. And when distractions do enter my head, I say, "Out to lunch, come back in an hour," and I eat them up so they never return. Because you can't really watch your thoughts. You either get carried away by what you are thinking, becoming the thought, or seeming to, or you catch yourself in the act of thinking and the thought instantly disappears. There's no in between. Wait. The in between is you. The in between is everything. In meditation all thought, from the trivial to the sublime, is distraction. You cannot control the thoughts that come into your head. It is enough not to follow those thoughts that do intrude. In other words, don't allow yourself to get carried away!

Today I had a breakthrough of my own. Usually I sit in front of a candle flame for 30 to 45 minutes and count the seconds while blinking only every twelfth second. I have learned that it is more comfortable to sit in the half-lotus posture than with both ankles touching the ground. Try this for yourself. Also, today I followed my usual meditation with the process of counting breaths. With eyes closed, I focused on my breathing, inhaling for two seconds and exhaling for two seconds. I did this 108 times, which is about 7 minutes, and repeated the exercise for a total of 4 sets, totaling about 30 minutes. Then I lay back in silence and just enjoyed the stillness. 

A few moments later I felt a rush of exhilaration not unlike what comes after doing ecstasy - a full body orgasm, really - and began to see mandalas, or many-petaled flowers, in my mind's eye. A barrage of these kaleidoscopic images appeared before my closed eyes for the period of about a minute and then all subsided into darkness once again.  In his commentary to the Chinese book of meditation titled The Secret of the Golden Flower, the psychiatrist CG Jung discusses the significance of the mandala. The mandala is an Eastern image, yet many of Jung's European patients drew pictures of the mandala independently of an Eastern influence. He believed this illustrated a parallelism between Eastern philosophy and the unconscious mental processes in the West. It seems the image of the mandala was originally drawn upon by meditators plumbing the depths of their own mind, and even today a yogi practicing anywhere in the world can be privy to this product of the collective unconscious. Accessing cosmic consciousness as meditation allows exposes one to all knowledge. Maybe next time I'll come away from meditation with the latest hit app. No, I'm not a smartphone user. But the rush is out of this world! 

And yet, as Maharshi reminds us, the images and sensations that occur in meditation are, like the rest of the phenomenal world, only relatively real, here today and gone tomorrow, or gone a moment later. They are thus distractions in our search for the eternal. Therefore the question we must ever come back to, our constant refrain, is "Who do these images and sensations happen to?" The answer for each of us is the same. "To me." 

The I is everything. And it contains everything. The whole world is merely an appearance in consciousness - even the universe, which the mandala is said to represent. 

When I recommended meditation to my friend Michael he said that with a daily routine which includes gardening, running barefoot and playing with my dog what need have I for solitude and stillness? It's true that these pursuits are like a moving meditation, but one still needs one's ritual. A soccer player is in great cardiovascular shape. At practice he travels miles around the field. But if he wants to complete a marathon he must devote a certain amount of time each day to simply run. The practice of meditation prepares you for the marathon of life. Besides, if I didn't do it, I wouldn't feel right about recommending it to you. Meditation over masturbation, my friend.


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