Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"A Meditation On Meditation"


(There is no reason a warning necessarily has to be bad.)

I’m a jumpy guy. That’s part of the package that, when you put it together, makes me. I have mitral valve prolapse, hair that’s been slow to turn gray, an ability to write, and chronic jumpiness. Among other attributes. Some “Yahoo!” (my mellifluous singing voice), some “Eh” (I’m borderline on height), and some “Could somebody please that this back?” I will keep that list of disappointments to myself.

A doctor once attributed my jumpiness to an “anxious temperament”, prescribing blood pressure medicine for the rest of my life. I hate being classified that way. An “anxious temperament.” I wanted to punch the doctor in the face. But I didn’t. Which only added to my anxiousness.

Here’s the deal. I know this is true about writing, but I believe it’s equally true of other impossible tasks. It may even be an natural law of the universe.

In order to successfully write – or hit a golf ball, or play the piano, or face a man down in a gunfight – to perform at your optimum level, it is necessary to be in a physical state of

Relaxed concentration.

Write it down.

Without “relaxed concentration”, you will never be performing entirely at your best. Separate the two – it doesn’t work. Relaxed without concentration, you’re unfocussed. Concentrating without being relaxed, you’re too tight. But put them together – relaxed concentration – and you’ll achieve things that will amaze you, your parents, your teachers and your friends.

How do you get there? Well, I’ve known writers who pursued that objective by various means, some involving breaking the law, spending large sums of money, and endangering their livers. These were not options for me. I try not to break the law, I avoid spending large sums of money on products that disappear quickly and require urgent replacement, and since I have but one liver, I try to act kindly towards it.

But as I said, I’m a jumpy guy. And jumpiness and relaxed concentration do not comfortably coexist.


“You don’t say ‘Relax’ to a jumpy person.”

“Okay. Then concentrate.”

“How can I concentrate if I’m not relaxed?”

So there it is. A conundrum. A dilemma. And a problem.

It’s the seventies. People are trying different things. One of them is “Transcendental Meditation”, or TM. For better or worse, it is not in my nature to participate in anything spiritual, either new or longstanding. I am extremely wary of all belief systems. No gurus for me. No mantras. No being reborn. Being born once was traumatic enough.

But I needed help. I was too jumpy to write at my best.

I found this book, I don’t remember how, maybe I read a review of it somewhere. The book is called The Relaxation Response, by Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson studied a whole range of meditation techniques, and from his exploration, he distilled a biologically supportable, ideology-free meditation process, offering a grounded claity to jumpy people, who didn’t want to pray.

I’ve been using it for thirty years.

Every morning, when I wake up, the first thing I do (or the second, if I have to “go”) is I meditate. Here, I’ll save you the price of the book, I’m sure Benson won’t mind. This is what you do.

Sit in a comfortable position, with no constricting clothing. Close your eyes. Relax your body (by breathing into the tight places). And breathe.

Inhale through your nose, slowly, then slowly exhale, through your nose. One more thing and we’re done.

Instead of focusing on some meaningful word or phrase as you exhale, Benson determined you could use anything. He suggested the generic word, “One.” (Not “The One.” Just “One.”) The point of the word – and you can repeat any word or sound you want – is to concentrate the mind on something, to keep it from doing what minds do – race around crazily from thought to thought.

That’s all there is. Inhale through the nose. Exhale, and think…”One.” Inhale through the nose. Exhale…“One.” If your mind wanders – and it always does – gently bring it back to what you’re doing. Inhale through the nose. Exhale…”One.” The thought that flashed into your mind may be important. But to me, nothing’s more important than the immediate task at hand.

Meditating sets up the entire rest of the day.

Two examples, demonstrating the contrast. Actually, it’s the same example, two times. Which makes it scientific. ((I know “science” is a belief system too. But this one you can validate.)

Every, I think it’s July, the national TV-writing press corps flies to Los Angeles, to screen the pilots of the new shows gracing the schedule during upcoming season. It’s a ritual, which I believe has been cut back, if not curtailed, by the recent economic downturn. But they used to do it all the time. (Actually twice a year.) The press corps screens the pilot, then interviews the lead actors and the show runner(s).

It’s 1984. I’m the Executive Producer of The Cosby Show. But I hadn’t written the pilot (actually a fourteen minute presentation), so I didn’t think I’d be involved in the press activities. I was wrong.

I was completely unready. I wasn’t dressed right. (I had to borrow a sports jacket from (Cosby Show co-owner) Tom Werner. More importantly, believing I’d be enjoying a day off, I hadn’t meditated.

My performance before the television press corps was, being generous, not my best. Responding to their questions, I was unfocused, meandery, and not funny. When it was over, I introduced Cosby to Dr. M. This was his post mortem to her concerning the event.

“I hope you husband can write. Because he certainly can’t talk.”

Ouch but true.


Five Julys.

It’s Press Junket Time again. I am the Executive Producer of a new series called Major Dad. This time I’m ready. I’ve gotten a haircut. I’m dressed appropriately.

And I’ve meditated my ass off.

I “kill” at the Press Junket. My respond to their questions, spontaneous and unrehearsed, elicit thunderclaps of laughter; whatever they’re drinking is squirting out of jaded reporters’ noses. Strangers are congratulating me, saying I’m “funnier than Letterman.” The following week, my effusively received ad-libs, in their entirety, are printed in TV Guide.

The difference between the two press conferences?

Inhale through the nose. Exhale…”One.”

Meditation works.

Have you ever reached a totally relaxed state?


Have you gotten close?

I don’t think so.

But you still meditate.



Because it’s better than being jumpy.

Way better.
In reference to unsolicited submissions: In my day, we were instructed never to open an envelope that did not come to us from a reputable agency, for fear of legal repercussions down the line. I cannot speak with any expertise as to the situation today.


Jess Kiley said...

Earl, scanned through your bullshit as usual. Hang in there.

A. Buck Short said...

Blonde wearing a Sony Walkman goes into a hair salon. Before the beautician starts cutting, she says “Please cut around the headphones, and don’t knock them off my head." Beautician complies -- with, shall we say, mixed results. Next visit, same thing, Third time, the hairdresser’s had enough, removes headphones and sets them aside. Blonde immediately drops to floor, unconscious. Beautician picks up headphones and hears, "Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out...."

Y’know what I find extremely relaxing, strategic name dropping.

In a prior century, I worked for the Boston YMCA, America’s first, and the one that actually invented exercise. Yes, it’s true. In the 1880’s, their phys. ed. Instructor was a gentleman named Robert J. Roberts, who, in addition to apparently having a healthy respect for economy of nomenclature, was famous for sporting “the world’s most perfectly developed back,” and also as the model for the Lexington Minuteman statue. Before Mr. Roberts showed up with his dumbbells, medicine balls and Indian clubs, people didn’t need to exercise. They got plenty of exercise already. It was called manual labor. They had also gotten to run around a lot – and duck with deep knee bends -- in the Civil War. Then everybody either took clerical jobs or went into some kind of management, and, well, we all sort of let ourselves go – ultimately resulting in the need for the Total Gym Fitness System ™ and Richard Simmons.

As part of our fitness program, I had the pleasure of working with two legends at the Harvard School of Public Health. One was Dr. Herbert Benson – whose mind-body-spirit continuum fit in rather nicely with ours. (Although I have to admit, my favorite of all his studies was the one that showed third party prayer, even including a large group of people outside your friends and family, was of absolutely of no help whatsoever in getting somebody through a medical crises. In fact, Benson found that patients who knew others were praying for them, actually did worse going through heart bypass surgery than those who were receiving prayer without their knowledge. The thing I liked most about the research is not that Benson is still a spiritual being in the less conventional sense, but that the $2-million study was underwritten by Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis, obviously hoping for a more fortuitous result.

The other legend was Dr. Bernard Lown, Nobel Prize-winner and inventor of the defibrillator. Shooting a public service announcement for the Y’s new cardiovascular stress test program which had been developed under his auspices (or at least somewhere in the vicinity of his auspices), we had former Boston Celtic great Tom “Satch” Sanders, being monitored on a treadmill by one of Bernie’s assistant physicians. Suddenly it was, cut, cut, cut as Satch’s EKG started going ballistic. Turns out, irregular EKG’s are not atypical for professional athletes, especially those north of 6-foot-6, and our alarm was unwarranted. Still, I hate it when something like that happens.

Jess Kiley said...

It is relaxing Buck Short, I totally agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds powerful. Just wondering how long you have to meditate to reach relaxed concentration. A minute? An hour? How do you know when you are there?