Remember Transcendental Meditation?
It first piqued my curiosity, in the 1960s. It sounded cool, especially since, with three other people, I could raise tables as proof of mind-over-matter. That was a rousing attention-getter! But I knew that was just for fun. Meditation, I suspected, would put some dignity and adventure into that sort of mystery.
With more questioning, TM began to sound like a devotional practice for very religious people from the Far East; people who didn’t have to live in our world of pursuing an education or a career. I was doing both at once and had no time for sitting around.
After certain friends of friends began experimenting with it, I associated meditation with mind-altering substances.
Without the help of any techno-oracle like our Internet, answers to my questions were slow and unclear. When I asked about the goal, the most consistent remark was “to achieve nothingness, to clear one’s mind of all thought.”
What was the benefit of nothingness or thoughtlessness?
Someone kindly loaned me a book, but I was so busy trying to wind my life up that any focus on calming down was counter-productive. Though I was inexplicably drawn to the concept of meditation, I could not conceive of how it would be something I needed in my life at this time. I put it on the back burner.
Over the next 15 years, as I matured, I embraced a demanding career. I also studied at University at night, married a gentle, creative man, and continued pushing myself to take on more and more responsibility in order to attain some semblance of success.
In 1979, while I was Managing a financial firm in a city that was exploding due to the Oil market, I was told that I was susceptible to being plucked by some kidnapper and held ransom. My instructions were clear; I had to make several changes and to rotate them continuously: change cars, change times of travel to and from work, change routes and change any stops along the way.
A country kid, raised with a streak of decency, I did not take kindly to being controlled by such negative forces. I asked my husband if he was prepared to visit friends who had just moved to a very small island on the West Coast. Thankfully, he was not only prepared, he knew the flights we could take.
As the ferry pulled into the Harbour of this tiny island, my eyes were so filled with tears that I could not see the detail of its welcoming bounty of nature. I knew I was home.
We moved from our demanding urban careers to our new island home a few months later. We planned endless days of peaceful nothingness. Not surprising, we had to admit that we were too young to retire. I found myself another career that, for different reasons, turned out to be even more stressful than the one I had left.
In the past career, I knew the parameters of the business world. However, in this new position, I was fair game, 24/7, to be in my politically-charged role whether I was hiking up a mountain or standing in the check-out counter at the local grocery.
An onset of disconcerting headaches and nausea caused me to seek out an island doctor. Thinking I would find an old country doctor who would hardly understand my lifestyle, I was shocked to be sitting in front of a man my age who was telling me he had just returned from a medical conference in Hawaii.
“I haven’t seen you before. Tell me a bit about yourself and why you are here.” He jotted a few notes on my fresh chart as I explained my responsible position in this small community and mentioned some of my symptoms.
When I was done, he asked, “What do you know about stress?”
“I’ve read the book ‘Stress without Distress’ by Hans Selye”, I told him. “But I don’t have any of those symptoms, Dr. Quinn.” (Not his real name.)
He checked me over and asked some more questions. Then he said, “At this conference in Hawaii, we learned a technique called ‘Quieting’. We practiced a bit, but there was no time to really see how it works. I need someone to test this process and report back to me weekly. Are you willing?”
I jumped at the opportunity. Being a guinea pig was certainly preferable to being diagnosed as a weak person showing signs of stress.
I left the office armed with Book One and a promise to be back in one week. Once home, I opened the booklet and scanned the detailed instructions. Stage One would be my first plummet into meditation. A quick perusal showed that my first week’s goal would be simply clearing my mind. Aha…nothingness.
The booklet contained sections for recording details of the experiences during Week One. I grabbed a pen and wrote “Attained nothingness”; a perfect display of Type A behaviour as prescribed by Hans Selye. My thought was, ‘I’ll just note it right now since I have time. Obviously, I’ll get there.”
Thankfully, my conscience nagged me into diligence. I went back to the beginning of the booklet. There I discovered the step-by-step process through which I would undergo a slow, gentle build-up to longer and longer periods of meditation, toward achieving nothingness. That was reassuring indeed.
The six weeks were a challenge. My mind raced endlessly, I was continuously distracted by noises, but there was another troubling matter that I did not want to confess to any medical person.
After the final week of practice, as much as I wanted to report success, I knew I had to be honest. I had to confess in Book Six that I did experience infrequent nanoseconds of ‘no thought’, but it lead to anything but nothingness.
I fought the feeling of failure. I told Dr. Quinn my dilemma.
“You have what?” he asked.
“Music. Classical music. There’s a whole orchestra playing. It’s not music I’ve heard before and I cannot get rid of it. Does this mean I can never clear my mind?”
“Amy, do you hear individual instruments?”
“Yes. There’s every kind of instrument playing this music. Sometimes solos will happen. That’s the closest I come to ‘quiet’. Guess I didn’t get it, eh?”
“Do you read music?”
“No, not a note.”
“So you couldn’t write down the music you hear?”
“No. Maybe I could hum it at the time. Why?”
Dr. Quinn assured me this was a gift. Whether or not I could read music or play an instrument, he assured me that this was a valuable experience. “I’d love to have symphonies playing in my head,” he said with a grin. I left his office unsure of what I had gained, but the stress symptoms had disappeared.
The next time I went to see the doctor, the medical assistant told me we had a new doctor. Dr. Quinn had moved off-island for personal reasons. The medical assistant had known about the Quieting experiment because she and I had shared some laughs about it. As I was about to leave the office, she added, “Oh by the way… Dr. Quinn told me he was planning to find time for Quieting. You see, he plays classical music on his 12-string guitar.”
We both laughed hysterically. And thus began my search for nothingness.