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What Happens When a Journalism Student Is Forced to Attend a Meditation Retreat in Pune?

“Chaotic breathing” is the first step in Osho dynamic meditation.

Breath should be “intense, deep, fast, without rhythm, with no pattern” — and always through the nose — a slow, pre-recorded tenor informed me the first time I tried it at Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune, India. Only exhale, the voice commanded. Inhalation comes naturally.

Music began. Deep, percussive, unmelodious, and measureless. I inhaled, gazed into my blindfold, and prepared to plunge.

This encounter was only a preview of dynamic meditation. The one-hour routine begins at 6:00 a.m. daily at the resort. While meditators breathe, scream, jump, freeze in place, and then dance freely, they’re told to disassociate themselves from their bodies and instead observe physical and spiritual sensations.

I came to Osho on a mandatory pre-reporting trip retreat with five classmates, instructed to taste religious experience before meeting sources in Mumbai. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an appetite. I already practiced a faith I loved. I grew up casually Catholic, flirted briefly with fundamentalism and atheism, and then rediscovered the sacrament of Confession. After a few more years of study, practice, and daily conversation with divinity, I call myself “committed.” Compared to my college peers, I might be devout. For now, I’m off the spiritual market.

But rejecting social norms, especially organized religion, grounds Osho’s teaching. The guru opened the Pune compound in 1974 for followers of his philosophy, a mix of Zen, New Age, and countercultural ideas. His practices endure in meditation groups in 72 countries. Thousands of annual resort guests try dynamic meditation in their welcome session.

“Witness,” instructors repeat throughout. “Witness what is happening to you.”

For a moment I held my hesitating breath, then sincerely expelled it through my nostrils faster and faster. As promised, my body managed inhalation, but it came in heavy spasms that whipped me forward from my diaphragm. My head pounded with uneasy spurts of oxygen. Each time I felt my lungs ease into a pattern, I blew faster, faster, then slow again.

After two minutes my head felt fuzzy and light, like the oxygen had overridden my fuse box and switched off every circuit in a puff of smoke. A gong banged from the ceiling speakers.

Stage two. I giggled about this stage the first time I read its description: “EXPLODE! Go totally mad. Scream, shout, cry, jump, kick, shake, dance, sing, laugh.” Expelling academic frustration — that sounded great. But I only kicked and shouted for about five seconds before my peers’ screams reached me. Immediately mine ceased.

Chest-deep, lung-crushing, primal screams flattened me like grizzly hands on a balloon. Minutes ago the people around me seemed so friendly. Now they sounded like animals. My blindfold trapped me. Alone and surrounded in darkness, I felt like prey.

There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, Matthew’s gospel narrated. Chills seized my sweaty legs. My hands bent to my sternum; I tried to sing five-tone scales to combat chaos, but I couldn’t find a major key. Instead I ducked ungracefully to my knees, holding my whole body to itself lest I lose a piece to the cacophony.

And then — this feels crazy in hindsight, but it’s accurate — I felt a pit of anguish opening near my heart, like a portal to a dark planet had rooted in my chest. Osho’s alien music pounded through my ear canals toward it. I witnessed myself clinging to the last bit of land on the edge of a deep well. The screaming tore at my goosebumps and my fingers slipped. Be still and know that I am God, David reminded me. Be still. It ended with the clang of a gong, and I trembled to my feet.

My cross necklace clung to my sweaty collarbone. Normalcy, I exhaled. My cross is something of a talisman — a gift from my grandmother, blessed by the Pope. But it’s also a literal reminder that calm should hang over my heart. Divinity doesn’t panic. The peace of God surpasses all understanding. My fingers fluttered at the ends of my limp arms, expelling fear. I’m okay. I’m okay. I raised my hands above my head for stage three.

The next morning I tried dynamic meditation again. Goosebumps rose again as I flip-flopped toward the black glass pyramid where Osho-goers meditate in early-morning semidarkness. I’d hoped the welcome session’s distress was an aberration, but the strange new space-portal in my heart unfurled as I climbed the stairs. It sucked at my chest again.

The marble-floored meditation room stretched wide before me, and I lingered in front of the door in case the room tried to swallow me too. My heart tried to race but felt sluggish against my lungs. Chaotic breathing began.
I started to exhale with the gusto I had the day before, but my chest constricted. I breathed slowly and deeply, stretching oxygen to my belly button, and again, when I tried to accelerate, my heart swelled and my chest tightened. I witnessed. I stood outside my body, and I watched it resist me.

Frustrated, my eyes flew open (no blindfold today) and a circle of convulsing bodies collapsed toward me. I forced my lids shut and they popped back to my brows. The ragged animal breathing flicked my eardrums. I dragged my limbs toward rib cage to slow my heart. I couldn’t.

Seven minutes into dynamic meditation, I fled.

Osho explains that, to be liberated, people have to awaken primal instincts dulled by childhood socialization. He says those impulses are creative and expressive. The trouble is, they’re also greedy, impatient, pleasure-seeking and, in my case, overwhelmingly fearful. Children might create with abandon, but they’re also afraid of the dark.

In hindsight, I don’t think breathing or screaming scared me. I think I peeled back a tiny corner of social normalcy. Most of my confidence comes from day-to-day competence, and no one is competent in chaotic breathing. Losing control is the point. When I did, I saw my mind crowded with fear, hate, rejection, and crippling self-doubt. Shaking bodies and mangled shouts gave those affinities life.

Usually I consign those feelings to divinity. I guess this is what people mean when they say religion is a crutch: I rely on prayer to deal daily with doubt. God is integral to my self-definition. Osho doesn’t preclude praying, but witnessing required total focus. Instead of lifting my demons to heaven, I tried to expel them through my nose. I couldn’t. Prayer may be a placebo, but it works.

I don’t know if I’m ready for self-realization. What I know of my un-socialized core is jealous, panicky, and vengeful. I don’t want to know my primal side. I want to be at peace, and I don’t see much peace inside myself. It’s outside, in prayer, intimacy, and nature. Dynamic meditation proved that. I tried looking inward, and I fled.

Osho would condemn my ignorance, I imagine, if I told him I prefer external truth to internal. So be it. I rely on my faith for comfort and assurance, and it delivers. I’m willing to sacrifice some childhood creativity if it means I’m not alone in the dark.

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