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Meditation Wins U.S. Converts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Remember when meditating was something only hippies did? Remember when it was something only New Age crystal carriers did?

No more.

East increasingly meets mainstream West these days as meditation and other relaxation techniques--often with roots deep in Eastern philosophies--gain acceptance and credence among Americans ranging from true spiritual seekers to yuppie Type-A’s just trying to relax.

Consider: On Thursday evenings at the Golden Temple, a woman in a white turban, pants and T-shirt begins a yoga class with a deep breathing exercise. The class ends when her students--retirees, social workers, students--meditate together.

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In Washington on Fridays, the Pentagon Meditation Club meets in the Pentagon chapel to meditate for peace. Members of the group call it SDI--the Spiritual Defense Initiative.

On any given day at Johns Hopkins Hospital, patients suffering from stress-related symptoms such as headaches are treated with a combination of meditation, biofeedback and relaxation techniques, says Richard Waranch, director of the Behavioral Medicine and Biofeedback Clinic at the hospital.

“I think part of what enabled meditation to go from the ‘guru image'--you know, people who went to India and things--to mainstream was the use of machines and scientific research” to confirm its efficacy, says Diane Dreher, an English professor at Santa Clara University in California and author of the recently published “The Tao of Peace.”

“Americans seem to be able to deal with things when they can use technology, when they can see it objectively.”

The result of all this research has been a gradual change of outlook within the medical community toward meditation--a practice that involves sitting quietly, disassociating oneself from one’s thoughts by sometimes repeating one word (with or without spiritual meaning).

“We used to get (patients) who had been to about 20 doctors and nothing worked. The referrals we got were those very, very difficult, hard-to-treat cases. Now we get cases, even children, whose doctors say ‘Try these techniques first,’ ” says Waranch, who has used relaxation and biofeedback techniques at Hopkins since 1978.

Some people, initially drawn to meditation for physical reasons, find it has other benefits as well. Rosinda Alexander, a retired social worker, for years has taken yoga classes that include meditation at the Golden Temple--a health food store, cafe and meditation center--because she had a bad back.

Not only has her back improved, but “you come in here with a lot of family problems on your mind and (the class) leaves you at a very quiet place. The problems don’t go away, but you feel on top of them,” she says.

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In the wake of the so-called decade of greed, an increasing number of people are apparently searching for a wealth of happiness rather than--or sometimes in addition to--a wealth of possessions

“We live in an age where there is more pressure and more information fed into our minds than ever before,” says the Rev. Robert H. Stucky, Episcopal rector of St. Mark’s-on-the-Hill and leader of a meditation group. “No matter how much you have and you own, you can’t go without sleep. The message is that somewhere inside of us is a replenishing thing.” Meditation puts you in contact with that, he says.

“There are definitely more people participating in meditation but not necessarily in groups,” says Daya Singh, owner of the Golden Temple. He points to the proliferation of books, magazines and videos that deal with meditation or Eastern philosophies as indicative of increased interest in the subject.

Last year, Shirley MacLaine’s book, “Going Within: A Guide for Inner Transformation,” was No. 1 on the New York Times and Publishers Weekly nonfiction best-seller lists. An accompanying video, “Shirley MacLaine’s Inner Workout,” was popular as well.

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MacLaine’s status as New Age advocate who speaks of past lives may weaken her credibility for some, but the person who helped market the video was former congresswoman Bella Abzug--who says she was never able to meditate till she took one of MacLaine’s classes in 1987.

Americans are drawn to meditation because “you can come to it on your own terms,” says Singh. “Your meditation can be deeply devoted, you can be spiritually one with God, or you can do it for the physical relaxation.”

That flexibility allows Siri Atma Khalsa, a clinical social worker and a Sikh, to meditate as part of her religion and at the same time to teach yoga classes at the Golden Temple and run Reconnections, a business that teaches on-site relaxation classes to corporate employees.

Put simply, meditation “really fits the American mentality well,” says William Roll, a who teaches a course in the psychology of meditation at West Georgia College. “It fits what the scientific world tells us. It has practical consequences for people who do it.”

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Practical consequences or not, Father Stucky still sees the interest in meditation as an inward-bound quest for happiness.

“I think there is a genuine spiritual thirst in this country, which explains the incredible number of teachers and teachings and self-help groups and books and New Ageism and religious revivals and everything that is going on.”


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