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More and more people are rediscovering meditation–a practice that takes you inside for an out–of–the–world experience.

If typical American media hype is to be believed, a watershed in the legitimacy of meditation happened precisely on July 28, 1993. On that apocryphal day, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, Mutual of Omaha, announced that it would reimburse individuals who took Life Choice, a program developed by the celebrated Dr Dean Ornish. The program promised to reverse the consequences of heart disease using meditation, and diet and lifestyle changes.

In India, too, meditation is finally coming home after spreading the message all over the world. Ironically, till as recently as 10 years ago, most of us believed that meditation was for misfits, misanthropes and plain nuts. Itinerant and often half–baked swamis went about giving rousing discourses on the spiritual life. But all they could recommend was japa, the monotonous repetition of god’s many names.

The times have changed and so have the pathways to salvation. Today, tens of techniques are available off–the–shelf. “Yes, interest in meditation has picked up in the past three to four years,” says Swami Chaitanya Keerti, an Oshoite. Adds Sudha Suri, a naturopath based in New Delhi, India: “A couple of years ago, you ran into the same circle of people at every meditation course or personal growth workshop. Today, that circle is widening.”

What is also new is that the latest converts are on–the–go urban, educated, well–heeled Reebok runners. In fact, at the conclusion of the 10–day vipassana workshop I attended on the outskirts of New Delhi, the line–up and pedigrees of limousines that came to fetch the 60–odd participants were like a fashion parade of automobiles. Surprisingly, too, most converts to the contemplative practices of Buddhism are the elite and intellectuals.

Interestingly, some of the Buddhist systems taking hold in India had Far East origins. Take the example of the Soka Gakkai sect, founded by Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th century Japanese monk believed to be the last Buddha to appear on the earth after Gautama. The sect’s main practice is chanting the mantra, namyo–ho–renge–kyo (literally, “I bow my life to the law of cause and effect”). Not strictly meditation? But then Daishonin taught that one should meditate vociferously, with eyes open!

Meditation is now even studded with glamor. It is getting immense publicity through free, sometimes inadvertent, endorsements by movie stars and sundry celebrities. Clint Eastwood has been practicing transcendental meditation (TM) for years. The rumor is that Canadian musician Leonard Cohen spent six months every year in a Zen monastery in the US. Mitch Kapor was both a disc jockey and a TM teacher before he wrote software history by creating Lotus 1–2–3. Even the hard–as–nails pragmatic corporate sector seeks stress management through meditation. According to an Indian business magazine, a large number of top Indian CEOs religiously practice meditation and yoga. Once they are hooked, the idea filters down the line. Blame it on economic liberalization, says DR M.B. Athreya, a proselytizer of Indian values in management. “Liberalization has increased competitive pressure, leading to all–round stress,” he observes.

Meditation is also finding use as a therapeutic tool in medicine. A growing number of corporate and up–market hospitals use it as a complementary therapy. DR Ornish’s program too is being cloned. In New Delhi, DR Bimal Chhajer, who briefly trained with Ornish, has started the Saaol heart program, in which the Jain system of meditation, preksha dhyan, is a key component. In one exercise, Chajjer makes the patients visualize a green light penetrating into the arteries to open cholesterol blockages. It works, he says, because psychoneuroimmunology, a cutting–edge science, has indicated that whatever you think in a positive way is fulfilled by the brain and the body by secreting appropriate chemicals.

Besides psychosomatic diseases, meditation is also being used to treat behavioral and psychiatric problems. In Mumbai, western India, psychiatrist Rajendra Chokani uses vipassana for his patients and claims a success rate of 80 per cent. “I recommend it to neurotics, (but not for serious mental cases) and most of them recover enough to go off drugs completely,” he says. Vipassana is also being used by various Indian drug rehabilitation centers.

What is perhaps giving impetus to the wide acceptance of meditation is the considerable research conducted on it. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the first one to parade research findings to promote TM in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Since then, other gurus have been eager to use scientific validation as a marketing ploy. Briefly put, meditation gives rise to a distinct neurophysiological state. Even as it leads to a state of relaxation comparable to deep sleep (indicated by parameters such as slower breath and heart rates), the mind becomes more alert than during the waking state, as recorded by the EEG. Deep relaxation releases stress, unblocking energy and creativity. Long–time meditators show an increased productivity at work and they also score better on personality development and self–actualization scales.

Although most people take to meditation to cope with the pressures of modern life or as a self–improvement program, spiritual evolution comes inevitably. According to Mahesh Yogi, as well as some other gurus and mystical systems, there are four more states of consciousness beyond waking, sleep and dreaming, which we are all familiar with.

The fourth is experienced momentarily during meditation when the thinking process ceases but awareness is not lost. This is called pure consciousness, because consciousness here is conscious of nothing but itself. In yoga, this state is called samadhi, and in Zen Buddhism, satori. With regular practice over years this state starts to coexist with the first three. It is called cosmic consciousness. Then the realization is: I am the eternal, immortal Self. You may call it enlightenment, but there is scope for more evolution. The sixth state is God consciousness in which the world and everything in it is seen suffused with God light. The acme of spiritual evolution is reached when beyond the subtlest level in the phenomenal world, the omnipresent Absolute is realized. This is called unity consciousness.

In the Indian ethos, the aim of life was considered to be a full spiritual flowering and a total material well–being together. A resurgence of interest in meditation underscores reclaimed pride in our own traditions. But the export of yoga and meditation has predictably raised eyebrows of the Church in the West. Liberals, however, argue that eastern techniques should be welcome because Christianity is not known to have developed meditation practices. In her book Encountering God, Diana Eck raises the question: “Can one follow Hindu and Buddhist practices and still remain a good Christian?” Her unequivocal answer: “Yes.”