By Maxine Wally
It is a mad, unrelenting world outside. Cars honk, whizzing by, angry drivers cursing under their breath in soundless frustration, strip malls and suburban expanse cloud the natural scenery of the surrounding world, stress envelops citizens, curling around their weak bodies, all exhausted by the ills of life.
And yet, once one steps into Woods Cove Room A of the University of California, Irvine Student Center, where the meditation group, “Aum at UCI” meets every Tuesday at 5:00 pm, it is a different environment entirely.
The lights are dimmed, and a group of four to seven individuals are sitting cross legged in a circle. Some wear button up collared shirts, some have glasses on, some have dark hair, others are decked out in full hippie regalia: flowing white floor length skirts, patterned ponchos, bare feet. But they are, for the most part, average people. They are your stock citizens, a host of everyday individuals, unified under one passion for meditation.
Aum—both standing for Association of University Meditators and representing the Sanskrit mantra thought to be the sound of the universe, “Om”—was conceived in 2005 by public health major Rajiv Ramdeo. Ramdeo had gone to a retreat in the summer of that same year. While abroad, he had realized the importance and positive effect of meditation amongst a group of people during a set time of day. When he returned to the States, he searched for a meditation organization on campus but came to realize that one did not exist at UCI. After discovering Brian Chang, another student who shared his interest in creating a society for those interested in the art of meditation, the two joined forces to create the Association of University Meditators.
I am greeted in the low light by smiling faces and outspread arms. One man enthusiastically approaches me, pumping my hand up and down in a vigorous handshake saying, “Hello, hi!” Another gets up from his seat on the carpet to bow his head of auburn curls while holding on to my wrist. A guy grins toothily at me as he introduces himself. The members of the group engage in light conversation until a woman with a flower in her fierce mane and an outfit of breezy cotton enters the room, smiling and waving. The buzzing hum of conversation begins to din as the president of the group, psychology major Alexandra Ramon brings everyone together by clapping her hands and saying, “OOOOOkay! How’s everybody doing?” Everyone grins at each other, seeming so at peace, in fact, when Ramon probes deeper into how everyone is fairing, almost all reply, “Chill.” They are content, and nothing more or less; not necessarily euphoric, nor extremely stressed or anything in between. They sit, shoulders back, spines straight, complacently beaming at one another.
And why shouldn’t they be? The members of Aum engage in one of the oldest holistic disciplines that spans across more than six religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam. Meditation, where the meditator sits in a quiet, comfortable setting, with hands placed in a restful position, allowing all thoughts to merely pass in the mind, allowing one to empty their head of all worries, concerns, or even elation. It is a state of ultimate relaxation, described by Alexandra Ramos as a “constant state of being,” where the body and the mind work together to calm the soul.
Historically, meditation has been mostly an Eastern phenomena. Siddhartha Buddha, also known as the Enlightened One, was said to be sitting under a Bodhi tree, meditating when he found “The Middle Way” which led to the foundations of the religion Buddhism. Still, many people of the Western world meditate as well, including Shirley Maclaine and Russell Simmons, who has recently installed a meditation room in his 49,000 square foot New Jersey compound.
Meditation is not just any practice, however. There have been numerous studies preformed across a span of Universities and research facilities proving the scientific advantages involved in meditation. In 1984, Jon Kabat-Zinn and a team of doctors took ninety patients that experienced chronic pain and trained them in basic meditation for ten weeks. At the end of the ten week period, the subjects experienced cogent reductions in negative feelings, including inhibition of activity by pain, mood disturbance, and depression. Then in 2000, Kabat-Zinn assembled a team of Columbia University doctors to perform a study in which 22 study participants with anxiety disorders tried meditation as a form of therapy for three months. The patients had overlapping anxiety symptoms, including a type called agoraphobia, which is an anxiety complex that involves being fearful of situations where help is not nearby. In the end, results proved that the subjects, who’s anxieties had spiked dramatically right before the treatment, experienced a significant decline of anxiety during the treatment, and a relatively low levels after treatment was finished.
Alexandra softens the lighting more, lowering the switch and saying, “We should start with a short little relaxation meditation, if everyone is okay with that,” while shoving her right foot over her left thigh in the cross legged zazen sitting position. Everyone begins getting comfortable, sitting up straighter, closing their eyes, taking deep breaths. Silence befalls the room as Alexandra mutters instructions in a low voice.
“Take deep breaths into your stomach, inhaling, exhaling. Inhaling. Allow all thoughts that cross your mind to just pass back and forth, like a cloud.”
One boy seems as if he is in a trance—like state, his eyes open, glassy and unmoving. How are they so patient, I wonder? After what seems like hundreds of breaths, Alexandra instructs the room to come to, and they relax their hands, smiling at each other, taking deep breaths, remarking on how good it feels; how good they feel.
The meeting ends after a bit of dancing, and I leave the room feeling like I have never seen anything quite like this, as if it were possibly the strangest encounter I have had with a group of people I do not know.
The next week, I return for another meeting that goes much like the previous one. I sit, eyes and notebook open as the members also sit, meditating. By the third meeting, I decide I will try sitting; perhaps joining in will allow me to get a better feel for what meditation truly entails. Alexandra seems excited at the prospect of me actually experimenting with meditation rather than just watching others do it. It is surprisingly easy, I think, as I try breathing with my stomach while not letting thoughts settle too deeply within me before allowing them to pass, as Alexandra instructs.
When asked how meditation affects her way of life, Alexandra Ramos is vibrant. "It's a lifestyle. It's a way of being. Once you start meditating, the people in your life even begin to change. They also have to do with meditation. In essence, everything is a meditation."
The heart felt for the practice is palpable. But not only are people meditating, they are also living their lives as a meditation, explains Ramos. People are giving, caring, understanding, loving and outgoing. The next week, we are instructed to get to know a random member of the group. I am partnered up with Gia, a frequent participant in Aum. He is ecstatic.
“I just got accepted to the UC Irvine graduate school this morning!” He says, smiling widely and excitedly, pushing up his large wire-rimmed glasses atop his nose. “I was jumping up and down for hours!” He laughs.
Gia, (pronounced “Yah!” he says with a flourish), was born in Vietnam to a highly spiritual family. His father, a vegetarian and regular meditator who Gia describes as “very cognitive of his actions”, was a large contributor to Gia’s meditation schedule today.
“I would say I have been meditating regularly for about four years,” he explains. “I meditate every morning for five minutes, and five minutes before bed. I count from one to thirty and breathe accordingly. I think that thirty breaths is enough for me.”
He associates nearly all positive aspects of his life with his meditation. “During finals week, sometimes I skip meditation because I am short on time, or perhaps I am just too unfocused to get in the mindset. But in the end, I just end up being more stressed So I come here, I meditate, I learn to relax and be thankful, associate myself with positive images. It ends up being a very good thing.”
We rotate after about ten minutes, and I am linked up with a man named Kundan. He smiles nonstop. He is bouncing as he speaks. His email is “whyareyousolovable”. He is positive, yet calm: quintessentially chill.
He moved here from Burma seven years ago to attend a small college in Menlo. When I tell him I am from Berkeley, he says, “Oh I love Berkeley. On my first trip there I got lost and asked for directions, and they not only offered directions, they also offered to carry my bags!” He giggles, folding his right hand up to his heart. “I guess that is a trait I value in people, yes.”
Kundan grew up in a family of meditators. His brother spent ten days in complete silence on a non-speaking, backpacking meditation trip in Burma, and his entire life thus far has been spent meditating, learning, contemplating the impermanence of life. I am anxious to ask him about his unique physique, so I lean in close and stumble over a question concerning his long arms and shorter legs. He seems a bit taken aback.
“I was born with a twisted ankle, and I got an operation to fix it. I don’t have any bad feelings about my body. I am a calm person and none of those things really matter to me,” he shrugs it off, and I ask him his favorite form of meditation. He instantly brightens.
“I have made up my own form of meditation that involves touching your entire body. It’s the softest, most loving touch. It’s like you’re giving love to yourself, you know, it is important to fill yourself with love all the time. I just call it ‘self love, self touch.’” He demonstrates, flitting his fingers up his arm, muttering, “I love you,” as he traces his hand across his entire body, his eyes closing, a smile playing about his lips.
The last meeting I attend, I participate in the sitting once more. The thoughts float in and out of my head, and I let them pass through. I think of my mother, I think of my homework, I think of the Oreos and peanut butter that await me in the larder at my apartment. I am surprisingly calm, in a state of peace I have never experienced. At the end of the meeting I walk back onto busy Campus Drive, but for some reason I am relatively unfazed by the loud cars, the angry people, the stressful environment. Just then, a grin forms, my mouth begins to curl upwards and I can do nothing to stop it.
Lengthy interview with Alexandra Ramos, current president of the Aum Club: http://oc-groups.blogspot.com/2010/02/aum-at-uci.html
Interviews with members Gia and Kundan, regular meditators and followers. At least 15 minutes with each.
Attendance of weekly meetings throughout the month of February and into March
Participation for last two weeks of sitting in meditation.
Research for work:
-Columbia University meditation study: http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/content/full/65/4/564?ijkey=ad6454f747329753c6e432b298e4953c38cc6857
-Columbia University study number two: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/149/7/936
-Further studies and experiments: http://www.springerlink.com/content/w812027301216527/
-Background information: http://www.meditationinnewyork.org/
Information concerning the club itself: aumuci.org