Meditation: Growing popularity for stress relief, spirituality
Features - May 02, 2004 JAKARTA POST
David Kennedy, Contributor, Jakarta d_kenn
In the last month, no less than three major spiritual leaders -- Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Amma and Dadi Janki -- have visited Jakarta and Singapore as part of their world tours. Known around the world for their powerful messages of peace and love, they attract hoards of followers and encourage hundreds to take up meditation and prayer regardless of religion.
Is it the latest craze to hit Jakarta's spiritual shoppers and seekers of esoteric powers? Or is there more to the increasing popularity of spiritual meditation than meets the eye?
You almost get the feeling that we are in the midst of some kind of spiritual revolution. If we are, then meditation is a major part of it.
Major worldwide spiritual and charitable organizations such as Ravi Shankar's Art of Living and Dadi Janki's Brahma Kumaris offer a secular approach to meditation that attract people of all faiths and even those who have none.
Media reports of medical research into meditation and pranayama breathing techniques used to treat insomnia, depression and other ailments have undoubtedly raised people's awareness or meditation and many are attracted for the novelty value. However, according to Jim (he uses one name only), a meditation teacher at Brahma Kumaris in West Jakarta, the majority of newcomers are united by one wish: They are looking for peace of mind.
"Some are also looking for powers," he said, "but we ask you at the beginning what you are looking for. If you want to fly, well, this is not the place. If you are looking for peace, happiness and love then we can teach you".
It may come as a bit of a surprise to the aspiring yogi searching for an empty mind, a spot of levitation or even some moments of bliss, but meditation centers today tend to teach more than breathing techniques, chanting and altered states of consciousness.
Meditation tends to be taught within a wider framework of self development and re-evaluation of people's working and private lives. The mind altering part is the easy bit.
More than 5,000 people have attended the five-day Art of Living (AOL) Basic Course over the last decade. Designed by Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the course, which is taught in more than 140 countries, includes self-development workshops, "ego busting" sessions, yoga postures, chanting and the guru's renowned trademark breathing technique, the Sudershan Kriya. The Kria, as it's known by AOL followers, is believed to detoxify the body and prepare the mind for deep meditation.
"Some people come for stress relief, some for health reasons but more are totally blank and come because they are curious or heard about it from friends or family," said Sonia Lakhiani, a course instructor at the AOL Ashram in Sunter, North Jakarta.
"They have no spiritual knowledge of the ancient wisdom so when they hear it they receive it openly."
The content of the AOL basic course is a mix of basic yoga postures, breathing techniques combined and philosophy distilled into common sense guidelines for living, not unlike those found in all religious teachings or even in self-help books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by management guru Stephen R. Covey.
The icing on the cake is reputedly the Sudershan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing technique developed by the guru in 1982 after 10 days of meditating in total silence. For followers of his system, meditation is only possible through the breath.
"After the rhythmic breathing it's very easy to fall into meditation. You don't have to sit; you don't have to struggle or make an effort to clear your mind of thoughts. It becomes very natural and effortless after the Kriya because the mind becomes so calm and focused," explained Lakhiani.
"Once the mind is settled you don't even realize you are breathing, the breath is so subtle. But we use the breath to focus, to calm the mind."
Other systems of meditation offer similar self-development courses. Brahma Kumaris gives free short courses on "Positive Thinking" which introduces newcomers to meditation. However this system, developed by the organization's founder Prajapita Brahma in 1936, uses no physical techniques and sees chanting, breathing exercises and yoga postures as hindrances to what is essentially a spiritual practice.
"We teach Raja Yoga, yoga of the soul," says Jim. "What we do is spiritual so it has nothing to do with physical things."
"Do you know the real meaning of the word 'yoga'?" he asks, referring to the popular misconception that yoga is about only physical exercise and contortions rather than mental attitude, behavior and most of all spiritual meditation.
"It's about 'union'. We connect with the Supreme and meditation is one step before that. You get to it through silence. You start to relax your body and then you go inside."
There are almost no techniques in the Brahma Kumaris meditation system. Once the mind is focused the body and breath calms down automatically. Practitioners meditate with eyes open and with their regard fixed on a point on the wall focusing on one set of spiritual thoughts.
Jim advises newcomers to only meditate for five minutes a day and to gradually extend the time when they become more comfortable. He does not agree with using techniques to empty the mind.
"We don't empty the mind because with that you get nothing; maybe a bit of peace and serenity but then what? And anyway, it's not possible to empty the mind. You get 80 percent of your thoughts from your senses and 20 percent from your memory -- how can you control all that?"
Brahma Kumaris also teaches karma yoga -- meditating and connecting to God during our daily activities.
"That's more important," says Jim, "because as soon as you leave the house and face the traffic and pollution all that peace you collected in the morning is gone... the mind itself is like endless traffic that never stops. So we also have remembrance five times a day like Muslims do. We stop thinking about things that are not useful. And why not even do that for one minute each hour?"
In line with the rule of karma that what you give you also receive, Brahma Kumaris does not accept payment for courses. Other centers offering free tuition in traditional systems of meditation do not even advertise but have a regular flow of students via word of mouth.
The Sahaj Marg (Natural Path) system is taught in a private house in South Jakarta and does not publicize classes but rather waits for people to come looking. Adapted from the ancient Raja Yoga system used by Indian guru Shri Ram Chandra in the late 1800s, the system involves relatively no techniques and focuses entirely on spirituality.
"It is not necessary to control the breathing and do postures and chanting and so on. Our yoga deals with the spiritual needs of a human being. When you do this meditation the breathing, physical poise and everything follows automatically," said meditation teacher Ram Narayan.
Sahaj Marg is also concerned with self development and uses a meditative process of "cleaning" out deposits of old thoughts and desires which are said to enslave the mind. According to Ram Narayan, "when your mind is regulated through meditation your life also gets regulated; everything falls into place".
With so many varieties of meditation on offer it can be hard for newcomers to choose a system. Shopping around for the right one for you is probably the best bet, although knowing what you really want is a good starting point.
It may be the latest craze for some who enjoy the shopping and a path to spiritual enlightenment for others. In any case people's enthusiasm for meditation is likely to grow simply because it offers relaxation at least and a powerful tool for self development at best.
As one experienced yoga teacher recently replied when asked which technique is best, "it's only the result that counts; all this talk of mind, breath and chanting just leaves you confused. Whatever the technique the goal is still the same".
The only question that remains is what is the goal: Spiritual enlightenment, relaxation or special powers? Take your pick.
For more information see www.artofliving.org; www.bkwsu.com and www.srcm.org