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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Eyes Closed, Mind Open : A beginner becomes a believer in the benefits and amazing power of meditation with a guided session.

June 09, 1995|CINDY LaFAVRE YORKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Growing up, I adored "Kung Fu." I was positively awe-struck by the wise sound bites that shaped the behav ior and character of the Buddhist monk played by David Carradine.

However, prayer generally proved less appealing than Led Zeppelin in my girlish days, so I neglected to explore the truths behind the TV. (My strict religious upbringing didn't help either.) Now that I'm older, I'm fine-tuning my Judeo-Christian-Buddhist-Feminism. I decided to try meditation.

I read a bit on the subject and learned that some Christians meditate, so I no longer felt like a subversive sure to be excommunicated from the church. I also learned that some of the mantras--chants used to focus the mind on the spiritual business at hand--are actually prayers composed by saints. I tried this on my own and found it's a bit like wearing the emperor's new clothes; you can't tell if you are simply naked or if something subtle yet wonderful is happening.

I signed up for a guided meditation class at a local yoga center. I didn't feel any pressure to dress up in fancy aerobics attire, so I wore an old footless unitard (bare feet are a must) and a sweat shirt. Good thing, too; the other students were mostly in sweats. I paid $12 for an hourlong session that included relaxation stretches performed to peaceful music and a silent meditation phase. The instructor was a beautiful blond woman. Her sinewy thighs toned from yoga positions, combined with a calm demeanor, were equally covetable. She explained that the objective of meditation is to reach into yourself. By doing so, it's easier to reach a level of elevated consciousness and maintain an emotional equilibrium in a crisis, alleviating many of my "Calgon, take me away" moments.

On a hard wooden floor, students laid out colorful blankets to prepare a comfortable sitting area. Everyone was quite silent. It was hard for me, little Miss Chatty Cathy, to get the hang of it. I reminded my bull-in-a-china-shop self to relax. It was all the more difficult since I was the only new student in the class.

We began with arm, leg and back stretches. The idea is to release some physical stress from your body and, in a way, separate your body from your mind. The instructor beckoned us to become aware of individual body parts from foot to head, talking us through the process. This prepared us to free the spirit from the body itself. This effort proved liberating and peaceful.

Our instructor then guided us to dig deeper into that feeling, into the "nothingness" as she called it. She reminded us to forget the troubles and problems of the day. (I fought the urge to obsess over forgotten dry cleaning.) We stayed out in a kind of bliss for some time, as she told us to imagine ourselves on a white cloud. This felt nice so I reveled in it, imagining blue skies and a cool breeze. She then slowly led us back to reality so we could sit up and begin the actual meditation.

My mettle seemed ready for the method.

Once we sat up, I learned (much to my relief) that the lotus position (a cross-legged seated posture in which both feet are placed on opposite thighs) is not required. Most elected the cross-legged approach. The instructor told us to connect our index fingers to our thumbs to close the physical circle of the body, so to speak. She dimmed the lights and turned the music off. I wasn't sure what to expect next, but I kept an open mind.

There was no chanting, but rather a suggestion to pay salutations to my mother and father, out of respect, she said, and also to the Divine One. She left this open out of respect for all religions. We closed our eyes and imagined a third eye in the middle of our heads. She told us to lift up our closed eyes to the imaginary third eye. My unfocused mind imagined cyclopean images, but I redirected my mind back to a more quiet state.

Then we moved deeper into our spirits and the instructor's voice trailed off. This is a gray area for beginners, and a time when minds are sure to wander. Since I read about meditation first, I decided to think of the mantra I tried at home: "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace," a fragment of the St. Francis of Assisi prayer. This kept the dry-cleaning notions away.

What happened next was amazing, and probably sounds like something out of the book "The Celestine Prophecy." Open minds only should read on. I found myself moving toward a white light and came into it, where there was a feeling of community within the light source. It felt warm and inviting. I managed to stay with that feeling for a few minutes, but was not able to hold onto it for as long as I would have liked. As I felt myself moving out of the light, I "heard" a message explaining that it was OK to take some of that light with me.

I was able to do exactly that. When the instructor guided us to a more observant state, I realized my feet had gone to sleep. She beckoned us to imagine harmony among world leaders and pay homage to "the Divine One." It was an uplifting feeling.

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