We amass for baseball games, concerts, conferences and church. We’re a group nation. But a group meditation nation? At first the idea sounds like an oxymoron. Meditation is a quiet, inward expedition, while thousands of people coming together usually means a whole lot of noise. Usually. As I enter the dimly lit, high-beamed conference hall at The Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California, more than a thousand people sit in hushed calm, hands in prayer position over their hearts. I take a deep breath and know instantly that the 2015 Global Meditation for Compassion is no ordinary gathering.
“We have come together with the understanding that by focusing our collective intention on compassion, we can create a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier, happier world,” says Deepak Chopra, the Harvard-trained physician-turned-spiritual teacher with 22 New York Times bestselling books.
Chopra dreams big: use the power of numbers to shift awareness on every continent. Elevate compassion, caring and love. We’re not talking protests in the streets — “Even moral outrage is rage,” says Chopra — or even donating large sums of money and time to charity. Do the utterly simple: close your eyes. Sit quietly. Feel your inborn nature. When we befriend the intrinsic compassion abiding in our quiet center, it’s reflected in all we think, say, do and ultimately, are.
Sometimes simple isn’t easy. Who among us hasn’t favored social media, snacks or even doing taxes over sitting silently with ourselves? As the digital age serves up more ways to stimulate our minds, meditation is a welcome antidote. Last year’s Global Meditation for Peace broke the Guinness Book of World Records record for the world’s largest meditation, with 140,000 people from countries far and wide. This year, nearly as many people from 170 countries, from Iran to Ireland, are tuning into the synchronized broadcast. A community in Ethiopia is joining the livestream before dinner and tea; Australians are communing in the middle of the night to observe the silence.
I’m among 1,100 people sitting with Chopra. I don’t generally seek crowds, but this feels different — like a room full of people I’ve never spoken to but who are nonetheless friends.
“WE HAVE COME TOGETHER WITH THE
UNDERSTANDING THAT BY FOCUSING OUR
COLLECTIVE INTENTION ON COMPASSION,
WE CAN CREATE A MORE PEACEFUL, JUST,
SUSTAINABLE, HEALTHIER, HAPPIER WORLD.”
CREATING A CONSTANT STATE
“If meditation is effective it should take you to the source of thought, which is not a thought. It’s a field of awareness where we are all inseparably one,” Chopra explains.
“You begin your day with at least an hour, right?” Gabrielle Bernstein, a mindset guru in her own right, asks Chopra from atop a white couch on the blue-lit stage.
“I’m in meditation right now,” Chopra answers. “The center of your Being is where you should be all the time. Don’t allow the scenery to overshadow the seer.”
The Indian-born doctor’s serenity has calmed the masses, at least on the outside. Chopra will soon lead us (hopefully) beyond the mind’s usual highway of fast-moving traffic. But first, singer-songwriter Trevor Hall brings his soulful mix of acoustic rock and reggae to the stage. “Hoping one day you will see that what’s inside of you is what’s inside of me,” Hall sings and strums. With that one song, it feels like the whole room has moved farther from our heads into our hearts.
COMPASSION FOR ANOTHER, COMPASSION FOR MILLIONS
Then Chopra begins. “Bring your awareness to your heart and ask yourself: how do I practice compassion for myself and others?” he says, instructing us to close our eyes. “As you ask this question,
allow any thoughts, feelings, images, sensations to come up.” I feel a warm glow inside, along with sights and smells of cooking for my boyfriend or my mom. Whipping up something yummy for loved ones nourishes me.
It’s easier to find compassion for people we love, Chopra says, so we start by thinking of someone we care about or admire. “How do you feel in your body? What is your state of mind?” Then, he asks us to recall a time this loved one was suffering, noticing how we feel witnessing this person’s distress.
I have a flashback: I’m crying in desperation in a hospital bathroom after an oncologist told our family my mom had advanced ovarian cancer. Rivers of tears, confusion, disbelief, the glaring lights. I immediately resolved to do everything in my power to help her, soothe her, save her. It was a spontaneous response all those years ago, and I feel I’m reliving it.
“Notice if you feel a desire to serve this loved one in their time of stress,” Chopra says. “Now with the image of this loved one before you, silently send them compassion, kindness, harmony, love.” He repeats the words again and again and before long, love overshadows my fear.
Next, our guide suggests we send that same compassion to people we’ve never met in countries far away, then everyone on the planet. The next five minutes are quiet, as we silently repeat a Sanskrit mantra for compassion, om karuna swaha. I am pulsating in this sea of meditators. It’s like time has stopped and we are suspended together in grace.
Chopra closes by asking we commit to spreading this kindness in the world, giving something each time we interact with another — a kind word, a smile, prayer, a little time and our compassionate listening.
FRIENDS AMONG STRANGERS
When the crowd starts milling about, I’m drawn to participants Amber Deylon and Laura Greiner talking intimately in the rows of emptying chairs. It turns out Deylon hails from San Diego and Laura Greiner from South Carolina. They just met today, but seem like old friends talking about how to be more compassionate to others and themselves.
“That was so big for me when he expressed that about compassionate listening,” Deylon says. “You’ve got one mouth, two ears, do the math! Am I listening to speak, or do I really want to hear what you have to say?”
Greiner says, “I let go of being late and start being grateful that those red lights are actually just a bell of mindfulness to breathe.” She adds, “I don’t want it to sound complicated because it’s really a matter of taking a breath and if I feel any bit of relaxation, that’s a meditative moment.”
I happen to run into my friend Chris Wakeman, who whisked his daughter Adlai away from her studies at UC San Diego for the Chopra event. He starts each day with a 20-minute practice, observing one focal point, like mantra, breath or physical sensation. “It really calms the mind, focuses your energy, starts your day with more awareness,” Wakeman says.
I share how meditation has grown compassion in me without my trying. Since starting a daily practice of Transcendental Meditation four years ago, I feel more creative, productive, joyful and loving. I reflect how a few years back, I hired my gardener to do some hazardous tree trimming.
I resented how much he charged. Last week, the trees needed grooming again. I felt instinctively concerned about his safety plucking those prickly barbs, and offered more money than he quoted.
Sometimes remaking ourselves on the inside comes in baby steps, but they add up. Chopra goes farther to say all the world’s ills, from climate change to terrorism, stem from disconnection to our true nature, and that meditation is the pathway home.
Now that I’m outside at the sunshiny yoga class offered after the meditation, my eyes glisten with wonder that my beloved mom defied the odds and is, miraculously, thriving 18 years after her grim diagnosis. As I salute the sun with hundreds of warm, happy people on the palm-tree-flanked grass, it feels like we are in this together. If one suffers, we all suffer. If one succeeds, we all succeed. The solution isn’t out there. It’s inside, in the simple act of resting in our own essence.
At the beginning of your day, sit quietly for one or two minutes and place your awareness in your heart. Reflect on the questions: who am I? What do I want? What’s my purpose?
“If you live those questions, life has a very interesting way of moving into the answers,” says Deepak Chopra. Throughout your day, watch as circumstances, people, relationships and events conspire to move you into your heart’s desires.
If you’re new to meditation and want to start with a guided version, here’s an option by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey.