The royal poinciana, also known as the flamboyant for its flaming scarlet and yellow flowers, is arguably the most beautiful tropical tree in the world. As I settled into a comfortable meditative pose, looking out over the leafy tree tops of the Sandy Lane estate as the morning sun reflected on the stunningly blue waters of the Caribbean, it occurred to me that if there was ever a time and place to “transcend”, this had to be it. My mantra kicked in, and the mind gradually descended into an increasingly comfortable layer of consciousness. Exactly on cue, the random chain of thoughts began, mostly trivial, frequently interesting, and sometimes profound. Some pretty cool stuff happens under trees, I thought. Take the Buddha, for example, didn’t he receive his enlightenment under a peepal tree in Bodh Gaya…was the dude actually meditating naked? sort of creepy…ok, back to the mantra…how about Newton, didn’t an apple fall on his head and he shouted “eureka!”…fuck no, that was Archimedes, Newton was a Brit, he probably apologised to the apple…back to the mantra…funny how Callaway started using the Newtonian apple and the “can’t argue with physics” tag line for the new Big Bertha woods, maybe I should buy one…back to the mantra…does Tiger Woods meditate? he could almost will those putts into the hole, wonder if I could do that…actually screw Tiger, I want to be like Yoda, would be so cool to do Jedi mind tricks, actually move stuff with my thoughts…back to the mantra…is it 20 minutes yet? no, 3 minutes to go…back to the mantra…wonder what’s for breakfast, love those almond milk blueberry smoothies…ok, time’s up back to reality…shit, that was pretty cool, now chill for a couple of minutes…
While the setting is never quite as surreal, this stream of consciousness is fairly typical of a transcendental meditation (TM) session, for me and apparently for most others according to my guru, the inimitable Michael Miller. Michael is the complete antithesis of what one might expect a Vedic instructor to look like. To start with, he’s from Iowa. No saffron robes, and instead of a flowing beard he sports a manicured two day stubble that is de rigueur for millennial GQ man. He is articulate and silky smooth, has an engaging manner and infectious laugh, and most importantly has the ability to reduce the incredibly complex to the absurdly simple, which is the hallmark of any great teacher. In four two-hour sessions conducted in a labyrinthine mews house in London’s tony South Kensington, Michael proceeded to show us the path to transcendence. While the process requires disciplined instruction (i.e don’t try this at home), the fundamentals are straightforward. To start with, a unique mantra is assigned to you by your teacher. While this is essentially a meaningless sound, it is fundamental to the Vedic meditation process, serving both as the trigger and the anchor for your mind. In fact, one could define a meditation session quite simply as an interval of time – 20 minutes is the standard – where your intention is to focus on your mantra. For reasons I don’t quite get, if I told you mine I’d have to kill you, but lets just say it sounds very much like a Pakistani cricketer’s first name. Somewhat counterintuitively, you embrace rather than reject the random thoughts that inevitably come your way i.e it is perfectly fine if much of the 20 minutes is spent reflecting on what’s for lunch. The distinction from plain daydreaming is simply the intent to reflect on your mantra, which after some practise and instruction, genuinely does seem to take you to a different level of consciousness.
Deepak Chopra, the self appointed Dean of the “alternative spirituality” community, says that the essence of TM is “finding the space between your thoughts”, which is also the key to finding “yourself”. Sort of an anti-Cartesian (non cogito ergo sum) view of the world I suppose. This is interesting, but I’m not necessarily looking for myself, actually I’m afraid of what might turn up. Finding nothing is my greatest fear, in which case (according to Chopra, at least) I would be nothing, which is sort of depressing. Chopra also has this all encompassing theory that unifies ancient religion and quantum physics, and in his world TM provides an Einstein bridge to an alternative existence where connected souls live in harmony and make the world a better place. My personal view is to leave world peace to Bill Clinton, spiritual awakening to the Dalai Lama and quantum physics to Richard Feynman, the reality is most of us don’t really give a shit.
Which of course begs the fundamental question; why bother? My natural cynicism about modern prophets like the controversial Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or the unctuous Deepak Chopra was a significant impediment to signing up in the first place. At a personal level, I was persuaded by my father, who despite his scientific training routinely prescribes TM as a panacea for diseases of all variety. Those in the finance world might be swayed by Ray Dalio, the legendary hedge fund manager who is surpassed only by George Soros in the all time investment sweepstakes. Dalio has his own magical version of the “2/20” formula – twenty minutes of meditation twice daily – and he is on record as saying that TM is “the single most important reason for whatever success I’ve had.” This from a man who started with $300 and is still going strong at $10bn plus. As it says in the Vedas, or so I’m told, “money talks, bullshit walks”.
Parenthetically, Dalio got his inspiration from the Beatles and the Fab Four’s famous trip to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh in 1968. This was of course the Swinging Sixties, and John, Paul, George and Ringo, having recorded Sergeant Pepper’s while tripping on LSD, needed a fresh creative boost. The enigmatic White Album was an immediate by-product, along with a cult following for the Maharishi and TM in the West. In a sense, much of 60s rock music reflected this yearning to somehow “transcend”, with hallucinogenic drugs or TM, and frequently both, being the preferred means of transportation. My idol Jim Morrison said it best in Track One, Side One (if you’re old enough to know what that means) of the monumental album that introduced The Doors to the world – Break on Through (To the Other Side).
My own experience thus far is encouraging. I cannot claim to be putting like Tiger, but now when I miss a tiddly three footer – as I did twice on Tuesday – I laugh. In the grand scheme of things, that may well be a greater gift. Tangibly, my heart rate and blood pressure have both dropped materially, presumably suggestive of reduced systemic stress. Every session is different; some drag on forever while others reduce to a single blissful moment. There is almost always that one experience, the golfing equivalent of that singular perfectly struck shot, that keeps you coming back for more. Along with shedding daily baggage, occasionally pockets of stress – anger, guilt, sadness – long held in the system somehow bubble up to the surface. Last week, for example, a memory from the distant past appeared on my TM radar. “Never trust statistics”, said the man, “if you did you would believe the average American has one ball and one tit”. The time was 1984, and this was Professor Shiv Gupta’s opening line for his Quantitative Analysis MBA course at the Wharton School. This quirky old man was in fact instrumental in persuading me, then a clueless 20-year old, to attend and in fact admitting me to Wharton. Shamefully, I never bothered to stay in touch, nor did I ever really think about him until I read he had passed away twelve years after my graduation. Too late for the warm embrace that was his minimum due for engineering one of the pivotal turns in my life. Yet, somehow in this one transcendental moment that is difficult to describe, I made my peace with the memory of Prof Gupta. One less bag to carry.
As Yoda might say, Mother Teresa I will never be, but less of a jerk I may become. Buddha I am not, but more chilled out I am. Live forever I will not, but like James Brown, I feeeel good. Move stuff with my mind I cannot, but wtf, give me some time. Meanwhile, may the Force be with you.