The Empty Chair | 888 Days of Transcendental Meditation

I can’t remember the last time I was so nervous picking out flowers. There I was, standing in the florist section of the grocery, my eyes scanning the flowers and wondering, “Will these be right?” I wasn’t choosing a bouquet to impress a date. I wasn’t trying to find the right arrangement to cheer-up a friend. I was selecting fresh cut flowers to take to a man I had never met who was about to teach me how to meditate.

If you are not familiar with the process of learning Transcendental Meditation, the new meditator is expected to present to the teacher a few pieces of fresh fruit, flowers and a white cloth — commonly a handkerchief (no, there is no crying or sneezing or runny noses as part of the learning process).

My worry over the flowers was unfounded. My teacher cheerily accepted them, took me into a private room for a brief enchanting ceremony and I learned my mantra — to forever be held private — and I was introduced to the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique that I would learn more about with four other new meditators over the next three days. Nearly nine hundred days later I am still meditating twice a day using the simple and natural technique.

Long before I learned TM, I practiced mindfulness meditation with some regularity and found it to be a natural part of practicing yoga, a part of my weekly routine. It might seem that the yoga studios, often steeped in Vedic traditions with the bright and sometimes gauche colors and incense wafting around, would be where I would have first encountered TM — itself originally drawn from ancient Vedic traditions (though as practiced today, not at all Hindu in any recognizable way). But that was not the case for me.

My first encounter with TM was on a business trip to Phoenix Arizona in the late 1990s. The flight from Louisville Kentucky was a familiar one for me and my coworkers. We usually took advantage of the nearly four hour flight to catchup on work items, plan for meetings and listen to music. We usually put some effort into separating on the flight considering we would have days together in hotel lobbies, restaurants, rental cars and the office. However, on this trip I found myself seated next to a coworker, so I struck up a conversation as we taxied to the runway and through take-off.

At ten thousand feet the familiar “bong” signaled we were all clear to boot up our laptops, turn on our MP3 players (iPods weren’t a thing just yet) and move about the cabin. Seemed right to me to just keep the conversation going so I yammered a bit more when, somewhat abruptly, my coworker raised his index finger and said, “Will you excuse me for about 20 minutes here? I am going to meditate.” A little surprised, I nodded and turned to face the seat back in front of me. I remember thinking that I should give him his privacy, as much as possible, because I always thought of meditation as a private activity.

Curiosity got the best of me and I found myself looking out of the corner of my eye. Then, I just turned my head to confirm what I was seeing. It was completely unimpressive in every way. I am not sure what I expected to see. But I did not expect to see my coworker comfortably seated in a regular posture with his eyes gently closed and his hands resting on his thighs in no particular way. It was so… plain. So regular in every way. And in just about 25 minutes or so our conversation picked up right where it left off. I was a bit caught off guard by how unassuming the whole thing was. Nothing ceremonial about it at all.

It wasn’t until we had returned to Louisville several days later that I found the confidence to ask him what that meditation was all about. That was when I first heard about TM, the natural and easy to learn meditation technique that has captivated the west ever since Maharishi Mahesh Yogi arrived in the US in 1959. Some twenty years after hearing about TM from my coworker I found myself nervously handing a small bag of flowers, fruit, and a handkerchief to a man in his seventies who had himself attended lectures given by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Why do I invest in the 20 minutes of meditation twice a day? The benefits, which were almost immediate for me, are simple and powerful. After learning my mantra that Saturday morning I had a meditation in the evening and one the following morning ahead of the small group discussion Sunday, which included a group meditation. It was after that group meditation, my third meditation in about 36 hours, that I noticed a serene clarity. I had a feeling that I had had the most restful sleep and had awakened to a nearly worry free state of mind. On the drive home I was not at all troubled by the traffic nor the timing of the traffic lights. I didn’t play the radio or make a phone call as would have normally been the case. Instead, I was aware of the subtlest of sounds like the tires on the pavement and the slight whooshing sound of the air around the car. It all seemed just fine, not one thing warranted critique. Everything just was and I was actively witnessing it, free from judgment or purpose.

This is not to suggest that in those first days or since I haven’t had a share of bad days, or frustrating circumstances. I have, of course, experienced and felt all of the emotions that I had experienced and felt before I learned TM. And the technique never claims that it prevents negative experiences or somehow makes for a flood a great and positive experiences. It is clear to me however that regular practice is a stabilizing force that grants access to a deeper state, one where the Self — free of daily disruptions and turmoil — can be connected with. This is done in a natural way that does not deny the self that lives in a state that does encounter disruption and turmoil. The practice of TM allows for that self to connect with the deeper Self and thereby experience a greater day in and day out stability. I am grateful for this.

My sleep is more restful. My moods are more regulated (though I still experience “bad” moods on occasion). I have more patience with myself, situations and others. There is nothing magical about any of these benefits. There is nothing magical about the TM technique save for the reality that it is available to anyone with a little time to learn it — that accessibility and ease of use seems almost magical in these trying times.

Why the title The Empty Chair? TM is commonly practiced in a comfortable seated position, usually in a chair. With few exceptions, I have meditated in the same chair found in a quiet place in my home. I see this chair throughout the day and it is usually empty save for the times I meditate in it; in those times I am not “seeing” or perceiving the chair at all. As such, the most common visual reminder for me of TM is this empty chair and it is this emptiness that is striking to me.

The chair is still in its emptiness. It is quiet and undisturbed in its emptiness. Stillness and quietness are among the most important qualities that TM has brought to the forefront of my life. Though the whole world is moving around me, I have direct access to a stillness that is natural and available to everyone. There are sounds and yet I have direct access to a quietness. During meditation I am undisturbed. What I hope for, the deeper benefits of TM, is that I will be this way — just as the chair is — throughout the day, even when not in meditation. Quiet. Still. Undisturbed.

Check out this terrific article by fellow meditator JB Minton.

Learn more about TM

Of note — TM is not a religion and has no belief requirements. It is a technique that is natural, easy to learn and easy to practice. There is a great deal of scientific research from Harvard, the National Institutes of Health and many other sources that support the benefits of TM.

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Paul Higgins

I like exploring ideas through stories. In my story, I’m the one I’ve been waiting for.