Adapted from the memoir
HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties
By Rifka Kreiter
to be published May 16, 2017
I’d been living in San Diego for over a year when I found myself, one day in 1971, seated cross-legged on the floor before a photo of an Indian guru, in the bedroom of a woman I’d never met before, in a house on Coronado Island.
My Aunt Ruth had started practicing Transcendental Meditation. TM became popular when the Beatles and other celebrities took it up, all looking ecstatic in newspaper pictures posed beside the thickly bearded Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought this ancient practice to the West.
On a recent visit to Michigan, I’d gone with Ruth to a meeting where, for the first time, I sat quietly in a darkened room full of people meditating. There was an ineffable energy in that place that I found calming.
Despite his flowing robes and long hair, Maharishi presented TM in secular terms, supported by empirical evidence of its tangible benefits. This approach appealed to me as someone with no spiritual beliefs—I was still very much a materialist. But I could certainly see the value of reduced blood pressure and changes in blood chemistry and characteristic brain waves which indicated that the body rests deeply during twenty-minute periods of meditation. Maharishi taught that all you had to do was practice his simple technique twice a day for twenty minutes.
When I returned to California, I decided to take the weekend course to begin my own meditation practice. One fine day in January, with a sense of venturing into the unknown, I tooled over the new Bay Bridge in my hand-painted, pink VW bus, to a private home in Coronado where the class would be held. As instructed, I brought a flower and a piece of fruit. I suppressed any cynical thoughts about “primitive rituals” as I entered the bedroom, fragrant with incense, where the meditation teacher sat next to a makeshift altar with a photo of Maharishi’s own guru.
Jonathan was a well-groomed young man who wore, as all the TM teachers did, a suit and tie. This made it seem all the more incongruous to see him sitting on the floor, intoning Sanskrit words as he offered my flower and orange at the altar.
Transcendental Meditation, I had heard at an Introductory Lecture, is a simple, natural process of focusing your attention on a mantra, a syllable or syllables which were said to have special power inherent in their particular sound vibrations. In this initiation, I would be given my own personal mantra which I was never to say aloud.
When Jonathan finally whispered the mantra in my ear, I felt disappointed. The syllables didn’t sound exotic enough to me. But I was determined to follow through to see if I could reap some of the benefits Aunt Ruthie had raved about.
Three other people were initiated that day, two students from UCSD and a housewife from Encinitas. We practiced our newly-learned technique together in the spacious, well-appointed living room with cathedral ceilings. When Jonathan guided us into meditation, I was astonished to find how many thoughts took form in twenty minutes: Will I see Robbie tonight? I’ll make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner (mouth waters); wait, the mantra… that incense smells too sweet. My nose itches, should I scratch it?…the mantra… image of Lady Flea purring on my lap…Oh, yes, the mantra… Damn, why can’t I keep my mind on that mantra? I’ve always had good focus, after all, Phi Beta Kappa… Oh, no! Back to the mantra…
Afterwards, we discussed our experiences and asked questions. I mentioned that my mind had wandered incessantly, as if on automatic pilot. Jonathan said this was natural and that, no matter what, when you become aware the mind has strayed, you should “gently bring your attention back to the mantra.”
One of the first things I learned from meditation was that being gentle with my mind was not my usual practice.
When we discussed our experiences as a group, it was clear that anything and everything can come up in meditation: anger or sadness, sweetness, strong physical sensations, boredom. Jonathan taught us to disregard the content of these experiences and just see them as signs that the inner stress we normally carry in our bodies was being released. Whatever. I just knew that I felt subtly refreshed after each session.
* * * * * *
Today is the second morning of the initiation course. I am in a deep armchair, facing the glass doors overlooking the Big Bay, alive with weekend pleasure boats. The other initiates are seated around me in the living room.
In his soft voice, Jonathan tells us to close our eyes for meditation. As instructed, I focus on the mantra. Once again, the mind does its crazy dance from one random thought to another. Again and again, I return my attention to the magic syllables.
Now, all of a sudden, I find myself up near the ceiling! I can see the entire room below and the tops of the heads of the meditators. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice dust on the ledge above the glass doors. I feel marvelous—so light. Looking down I see me, sitting in the armchair with closed eyes. As usual, my hair needs combing.
“My God,” I think, “I’m out of my body!”
Thwaack! I’m snapped back into my seat as though released by some giant rubber band. Disoriented, I continue to sit for the rest of the session, focusing and re-focusing on the mantra.
After twenty minutes, Jonathan says, “You may open your eyes now.” Then he asks, as he does after each meditation period, “It was easy?”
When I describe my experience, he says calmly, “This is just another sign of unstressing.”
This explanation strikes me as incomplete at best. I’d felt, simply, like the ordinary me up there looking down, seeing everything through my own “eyes.” But, I have no plausible way of understanding this, so I let it go.
In the years that follow, this out-of-body experience remains a vivid memory.