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The Trouble with Meditating Together

Having people to encourage you and keep you accountable to your practice is great. But there can be a downside, as two sisters discovered on a recent meditation retreat. Find out what went wrong.

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When my sister Maria and I signed up for a weekend-long meditation retreat in Tarrytown, just 25 miles from Manhattan, with the David Lynch Foundation (DLF) last November, we were looking forward to a quick and easy, stress-free getaway. The added bonus: Reconnecting with each other as well as our meditation practice. I had been practicing transcendental meditation, or TM, on-and-off since January 2013 and Maria followed suit maybe a year later (though some form of meditation had long been part of her lifestyle). Our intentions for the short escape were silently understood—neither of us felt the need to say it aloud. But in hindsight, I wish we had talked about our expectations in advance more frankly.

As the two-day retreat progressed, Maria and I found ourselves not quite at peace or calm. On the contrary, we were feeling a bit testy, but only toward each other. For example, after watching a few video clips with the group (30 or so attendees and three TM teachers) about the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced TM to the U.S. (you can learn more about him and the ancient practice here), Maria and I got into a debate-turned-argument about his philosophies back in our shared hotel room at the Tarrytown House Estate. I can’t remember the specifics of the discussion, but I do recall going to bed (my back turned to hers across the way) feeling annoyed, which is not a sentiment you would expect to bubble up in such a blissful setting. Though our well-meaning goals for the trip were supposedly clear, something intangible was souring our experience.

Some months afterward, the unexplained incongruity still bothered me. Why had my sister and I, who are otherwise very close and in sync, experience such dissonance when meditating together?

It later occurred to us that our discord could have been a result of operating on different schedules. For much of our time “together” we had been practicing our prescribed yoga sequences, breathing techniques, and TM, which took about 50 minutes to complete, in our hotel room at different times while the other was still in the room. While I was focusing on releasing stress, Maria was playing catch-up on sleep. When I was in the bathroom showering and getting ready for dinner, she performed her sequence. “It’s about synchronicity. A weekend retreat is absolutely healthy, rejuvenating, and satisfying, but it really is important that everybody is on the same page,” says Bob Roth, the executive director of DLF. “Had you and your sister been on the same sequence, it would have gone a lot smoother. As an old Chinese proverb says, ‘You can’t put two tigers in the same cage.’”

The author (left) pictured with her sister.

Overall the best approach comes down to personal preference. “Some people prefer meditating individually while others prefer in a group. You can do as you wish; whatever is most comfortable. So you may find that at these events, you might want your own space. Some couples like to practice together and others like to have their own room,” says Roth, who has been teaching TM for 40-plus years.

Meditating with relatives doesn’t always warrant such intense results. For father and son David and Ethan Nichtern, meditating as a family is what brought them closer, especially during challenging periods. “There were times, like any teenager, where I tried to push dad’s buttons. But I think the fact that we were practicing helped us turn it into a game with a sense of humor,” admitted 36-year-old Ethan, who runs a meditation center in NYC, to The New York Times. I agree, meditation has made Maria and I more accepting and patient with each other in the long run. But that doesn’t mean we need to repeat our mantras in the same room. Maybe just in our own apartments, which are separated by two floors (yes, we live in the same Brooklyn building; we’re that close).

That said, collective consciousness can be very a powerful and an overall positive experience. Whenever I meditate with others I find it encouraging and comforting to hear that many of us share the same struggles with staying dedicated and focused. But when we all close our eyes together for those 20 minutes of silence, something amazing happens. Stress doesn’t always melt away, but nine out of 10 times, I can feel my shoulders slightly lower from my ears and suddenly my workload seems a little more manageable. That’s even if I’m spend the entire session writing work emails in my head while repeating my mantra.

“When you meditate on your own, it reduces stress and wakes up the brain. When you meditate with a group, it not only decreases stress for the individual but it also has a spillover effect. It can help lower stress and tension in society as a whole,” explains Roth. Several studies support this, including a new report published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research this May. Researchers found that after-school programs focused on teaching Chicago high schoolers breathing and meditation exercises significantly decreased violent-crime arrests by 44 percent and overall arrests by 31 percent. It also helped reduced dropout rates and improve school attendance.

What is it about calm and stillness that’s contagious? Roth compares the effects of mass meditation to a principle in physics called constructive interference. “If you put two speakers on either end of a long hall and play them, they are only as loud as two speakers. But if you put them side-by-side, two can sound like four. If you have three speakers, it can sound as loud as nine. If you’re in synchrony with one another, it has a far greater effect, but if you are at odds with each other, it levels out,” says Roth, who’s working with DLF to create programs in large schools where hundreds of thousands of students can meditate together and foster a peace-promoting effect on the population. In the meantime, Maria and I can do our part for the harmonizing cause by getting on the same page about our practice—at least when we’re on a meditation retreat.



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