Memories of Manhattan spur S&H Editor at Large Stephen Kiesling to reflect on the "masters of deprivation."
I recently spent some lovely time on the phone with yogini Seane Corn talking about her book Revolution of the Soul for our July/August issue. The book is both a fun and fine read that starts in the '80s in Manhattan, where Seane began her awakening while tending bar at a gay sex club called Heaven, which was hidden upstairs in an old church-turned-nightclub called Limelight. How all that led Seane to God, meditation, yoga, and the worldwide activism of her organization, Off the Mat Into the World, is quite a tale. It also caused me to reflect on some twists along the spiritual path.
I too was in Manhattan in the '80s, working for American Health magazine. My focus was sports performance and my training often involved high intensity intervals in which the goal was to fail so completely that it took 48 hours to recover. Those workouts were horrible, but the goal was the Olympics, so horrible was bearable, and I became curious about the extremes of rest. I’d read that yogis could practically stop their own hearts. Maybe meditation would improve my recovery?
One of the great benefits of working for T George Harris (founding editor of American Health and S&H) was that he knew everyone in the field. And that meant I got to learn meditation from Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Mind Body Medical Institute and author of such classics as The Relaxation Response. Dr. Benson was the first researcher to be allowed to perform such indignities as inserting rectal thermometers into sitting Tibetan monks. Benson’s team also filmed previously hidden Tibetan practices. Perhaps the most dramatic footage was of monks high in the Himalayas wrapping themselves in wet sheets and drying them with heat from their bodies. The monks appeared to be taking a steam bath outside in a snowstorm by thinking hot thoughts, or no thoughts at all.
Benson’s thermometers and video footage provided early and impressive evidence of how much the mind can control the body. The Tibetan practices also made practical sense. High in the Himalayas, where the air is thin, food is scarce, and the human population could quickly become unsustainable, peaceful survival would dictate that many men would need to go to monasteries and spend their lives perfecting the art of sitting still while using their minds to keep their bodies warm, dry, and blissed out.
But as much as I admired the monks, the lessons of those I considered “masters of deprivation” didn’t seem to apply to life in Manhattan or training for the Olympics. Quite the contrary. My own attempts at meditating made me anxious, and I also realized that a more effective path to sports recovery involved a hot sauna and a cold plunge. The natural high that followed was a great prelude to going out to the Limelight, where, as Seane Corn told me, “I may have got you drunk, or stoned, or laid.”
Over the decades since then, I’ve seen Dr. Benson many times, and he always starts his lecture with meditation. He practices what he preaches and seems to grow more saintly year by year—living proof that the meditation he helped to make famous really does create better, happier people. Seane Corn also seems like she’s heading toward saintliness with her yoga, her clear-eyed kindness, and her worldwide activism. I’ve been fortunate over the years at S&H to meet people like Herb Benson and Seane Corn, and to see with my own eyes that there are many different paths to spiritual awakening.
One of my own more difficult awakenings was the realization that the masters of deprivation were actually onto something that had nothing to do speeding athletic recovery—or even with deprivation.