“When I see children even do a small amount of meditation, they come out like free birds, freed from their cage of emotions."
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If you live in the United States, you might not have heard of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Around the world, the Indian spiritual leader is a living legend, arguably as popular as the Dalai Lama. In fact, the two have collaborated on a number of issues. But his reputation could soon take a major boost in America thanks to an initiative he hopes will counter the tide of school gun violence.
He wants to teach kids how to meditate.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]When I see children even do a small amount of meditation they come out like free birds, freed from their cage of emotions.[/quote]
It might sound easier said than done, but Shankar, 61, has an impressive resume to back it up. Like many other spiritual leaders, there’s a mythos about him. He reportedly only sleeps around three hours a night and travels to 150 cities a year to spread his message of happiness and stress reduction through meditation. He regularly consults with world leaders and in 2015 was credited with helping facilitate the historic ceasefire between FARC rebels and the Colombian government.
“I like a challenge,” Shankar tells me with his signature smile while sitting on a couch at the Los Angeles location of his Art of Living Foundation, which teaches courses on yoga and meditation and offers a 21-Day Happiness Challenge.
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His organization is involved in a number of causes around the globe: water scarcity, zero-budget farming, prisoner rehabilitation, disaster relief, and refugee crises in countries like Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
He’s quick to tout the benefits of science. He says the existential question of “who am I?” is where spirituality can serve a role while questions of “what is this?” lead to science. Yet, he celebrates the intersection between spirituality and science too; he points to the number of studies touting the health benefits of meditation. “Science has shown that meditation does help you to reduce stress,” he says. “It’s a do-it-yourself technique.”
Shankar was recently in Los Angeles to host one of his Art of Living workshops in which participants spend two days studying meditation techniques and attend workshops on the principles Shankar has outlined.
At the end of his first day of workshops, Shankar and I move to his “sanctuary,” a small room hidden away from the throngs of admirers and volunteers attending the workshop. The first thing I ask him is how someone who has built a global reputation on stress reduction can stay so relaxed while maintaining such a hectic schedule.
“I think it’s possible to be in a busy life while still adopting a few techniques that can keep you very centered,” he says. “If you ask anyone why they are doing what they are doing, they will say, ‘to be happy.’ And this happiness is right there within you when you are free of stress.”
In addition to his workshops, Shankar has a full schedule while he’s in Los Angeles. He received a global leadership award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center on April 17. Although he himself is a Hindu leader, Shankar focuses much of his activism on interfaith dialogue, saying that meditation and yoga and are not “threats” to any religion.
“We honor him for courageous deeds on behalf of forgotten victims of violence and terrorism,” Wiesenthal Center associate director Rabbi Abraham Cooper said during the award ceremony. “As a leading Jewish human rights NGO we also thank the Hindu leader for his longtime friendship and empathy for the Jewish people.”
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The Art of Living organization has been working with everyone from gang members to Los Angeles Police Department officers to teach the same meditation and stress reduction techniques. He’s also worked with more than 2000 war veterans, using techniques like yoga and meditation to reduce the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It pains me so much to hear that so many of those soldiers are taking their lives on a daily basis,” he says. “This should not happen. In using their own breathing patterns, they can find solace.”
Shankar’s organization also has a program called Yes! for Schools, which teaches meditation to students and teachers. In recent years, the program has focused on how meditation and non-violence teachings can help reduce the number of school shootings. They’ve taught similar courses at schools in Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica.
“The classroom violence here is appalling. They should be exposed to more human values than violence,” he says. “When I see children even do a small amount of meditation they come out like free birds, freed from their cage of emotions.”
Yes! for Schools’ Jeff Knepper says getting students interested in meditation poses its own set of challenges and rewards. “Surprisingly, one of the hardest things is getting them comfortable with taking their shoes off,” he says. “We do 5-minute ‘stress buster’ exercises in their P.E. classes so it’s a comfortable environment.” Knepper says they’ve seen a big transformation by having the students practice a short meditation before they take a test to help students focus on reducing anxiety. “It really helps them build self-confidence,” he says.
Though practices like yoga and meditation and rarely controversial, some have accused those in the West of appropriating Indian cultural practices without properly acknowledging their origins. Shankar shakes his head, saying that if anything, he wishes more people from all backgrounds and beliefs would adopt the practices as they best see fit.
“They simply have to be made aware that a happy person is not a threat to the world,” he says. “It doesn’t reject anyone. It creates an inclusive mindset. It only brings up the humanness inside of you.”
Before our interview began, Shankar asked if I would be distracted by a few volunteers who were coming in and out of the room. I joked that I was only “distracted” by the impressive pile of snacks he had next to him while we spoke. “After the interview,” he said, laughing.
And true to form, the moment our interview ended, Shankar presented me with a ceremonial scarf and a small container holding two date snacks. “There’s two left: one for you and one for me,” he said with a smile.