It was during the inimitable late ’60s. Perhaps bowing to pressure, our usually conservative high school sponsored M.O.R.E. Day — an acronym that stood for Multi Oral Relevant Education. This academic fest offered an array of workshops in various rooms. I felt drawn to the session on Transcendental Meditation, which sounded exotic. A shy, gangly teen, I anxiously joined a room full of physics whizzes, artists, debaters and math geeks for instruction in deep breathing and the technique of TM. I had no idea at the time that an exercise in deep breathing would continue to be useful for decades afterward.
The TM instructor was a young guy with an exceptionally hypnotic voice. He explained the benefits of daily meditation. We closed our eyes and began a sacred journey. He asked us to focus on the sound of his voice. We needed to relax from head to toe. He offered calming invocations like, “Picture each toe relaxing, one by one. There. Relaxed. Becoming soft…like butter pats.” The image of toes as butter was new and surprising.
He moved on to the top of the feet, ankles, knees and thighs. Traveling up the body, we relaxed “the pelvic girdle” (a tactful reference for teenagers), abdomen, trunk and heart. We sailed metaphorically down the upper arms, forearms, hands, and fingers. From there, we relaxed the neck and what he fondly termed the “heavy, heavy head.” We released tension in the eyes, nose, jaw, ears and scalp.
Then came the most valuable part of the instruction; we then turned our attention to the breath. We began by filling the abdomen, trunk and chest, in that order. Once we had filled every available micrometer of space inside, the last step was to lift the shoulders slightly to make room for all the inspirited air. We held that breath, slowly counting to 5 or 6.
To release the breath, we would simply reverse the order and slowly release the air, using the diaphragm to push out the last remaining cubic inches. As we exhaled, we were to let the expiration become audible, making a sound like wind through the vocal cords to let us know how evenly we were releasing the breath. This, too, had a calming effect. Three of these very long, systematic breaths, and we were truly composed, focused and ready for meditation.
The instructor then took us on a rare journey. He reminded us to allow our breathing to proceed more naturally, rhythmically. Our bodies were becoming light, he quietly suggested — light as cotton, light as clouds. The next thing we knew, we left the body — securely attached by a silver cord — and slowly elevated toward the sky.
We took us up, up into the clouds, and we looked down on the high school and entire town of Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania. He described all the pleasant, peaceful emotions we were having as weightless beings, having left the heavy earthly weight behind. After a while, he returned us to our bodies. He reminded us to carry this relaxed and peaceful feeling into the day.
On a reverse count, we opened our eyes and returned to the room and the present situation. Everyone — even the most cynical among us — was bleary-eyed but awed by the experience this skilled instructor had afforded. I could hear some indistinct proclamations of “Wow!” and “Far Out!”
After that day, I would meditate daily after school. I was still a newbie, unaware of enhancements like altars, incense or special cushions. I simply sat on a linoleum floor in full lotus position, my back to the door leading from family room to the garage.
A man I would later meet on the West Coast named Little Crow used to say, “Every breath is a prayer.” Looking back, I now understand more fully what he meant. One hour of one rare day in a high school classroom transformed me into a more peaceful, meditative soul. What I learned from this valuable class was that conscious breathing is an affirmation of life.