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McSorleys Wonderful Saloon

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews McSorleys Wonderful Saloon by Joseph Mitchell.


Other segments from the episode on June 20, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 20, 2001: Interview with Andrew Newberg; Interview with Michael Baime; Review of Joseph Mitchell's essays "My Ears Are Bent" and "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Dr. Andrew Newberg talks about his experiments with
meditation and prayer and their effects on the brain

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

People who meditate or pray often say that the practice alters their state of
mind. My guest, Dr. Andrew Newberg, is a researcher who has long wondered if
that perception of an altered state could also be biologically observed or
scientifically measured. If we could see the brain, could we observe the
changes brought on by prayer or meditation? He and his late colleague, Eugene
D'Aqulli, designed an experiment to find out.

They invited several practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and several Franciscan
nuns to meditate or pray while their brains were monitored using brain imaging
technology. The researchers found that when the person meditating or praying
felt that they were entering a transcendent state, there were observable
neurological changes in their brains. These findings made the cover of
Newsweek magazine. Dr. Newberg reports on these findings in his book "Why
God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief."

Dr. Newberg teaches in the Department of Radiology and the Department of
Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I asked him how this
study compares to previous studies measuring the physiological changes
associated with meditation or prayer.

Dr. ANDREW NEWBERG (University of Pennsylvania): There has been a fairly
large literature in the past which has explored these kinds of questions.
Usually, they have used techniques which are a lot less sensitive than the
ones that we were using. In the 1970s, when people were very interested in
transcendental meditation, for example, people were looking at the electrical
activity of the brain. People would sometimes measure physiologic changes,
changes in blood pressure and heart rate that went on when people had certain
types of practices. And there are a few people more recently which have
looked at certain specific parts of the brain and how they may be turned on or
turned off. But to my knowledge, our work is really one of the few which is
looking at this from a very broad perspective, both in terms of the
scientific, as well as the spiritual or religious, perspective.

GROSS: Let's look at one example of an experiment you've conducted. Let's
take an example of somebody who's practicing meditation...

Dr. NEWBERG: Right.

GROSS: ...while hooked up to your brain imaging equipment. Tell us, first of
all, what you've asked the meditator to do.

Dr. NEWBERG: What we asked the meditator to do is to perform a specific
practice of their meditation. We actually spoke to the meditators prior to
doing the whole study to figure out exactly how they were planning on doing
it, whether they were going to have their eyes open or closed, all the
different factors that maybe related to how the brain actually works, because
the brain is a very sensitive thing and it can detect and respond to many
different ways in which we behave or things in which we sense. So, for
example, we wanted to know whether they would use incense during the
meditation, because that can stimulate the areas of the brain that are
involved in our ability to smell and sense that kind of smell.

So after we got all of that information about what they were going to do and
what they felt comfortable, we actually had them go through a meditation
session while they were in the laboratory themselves. We tried to create an
environment that was as conducive as possible to having them achieve the kind
of experiences that they were used to. And even with regards to the imaging
itself, they didn't actually have to meditate while they were in the scanner.
We have the ability to measure what goes on in their brain by injecting a
substance into their body during the meditation, and it's done through an IV
that they actually have very minimal feeling from 'cause that's done at the
very beginning of the study.

So we're actually able to do a fairly realistic version of what their practice
is and then we hope to be able to get a snapshot of what their brain is doing
at those sort of highest states of the experience that they have during their

GROSS: Can you sum up what you found was happening in the brain while
somebody meditates? And I realize that what you found in the brain probably
varies from person to person and from meditation style to meditation style.
What do they have in common?

Dr. NEWBERG: Well, one of the things that we were actually looking to do was
to bring people who could all do the same basic kind of practice. So in that
regard, there were a lot of similarities that we found between them. When we
looked at the people doing a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation, some of the
changes that we saw were, for example, increased activity in the front part of
the brain, the part of the brain right behind the forehead. We know
that that's activated in a variety of tasks were people are focusing attention
towards different things. And we had hypothesized that that would be an area
that would also be activated during meditation because in many respects
meditation is where the person is actually focusing their mind, focusing their
awareness on something.

One of the other areas that were were particularly interested in is an area
that's located towards the back top part of the brain. We sometimes refer to
that area as the orientation area because it takes all of our sensory
information and helps to create for us a sense of the self and also to find a
way of orienting that self in the world. We had actually hypothesized that
during a practice such as meditation that a person would progressively block
the sensory input that gets into that area and in so doing they would continue
to try to develop a sense of the self but have less and less information upon
which to base that on and ultimately lose that clear boundary between the self
and the rest of the world. And that is exactly what we saw in the imaging
studies, which was that there was decreased activity in that orientation area.
And it was particularly interesting that the more people increased the
activity in their front part of the brain, the more they decreased the
activity in that orientation area.

GROSS: Now I'm under the impression that during some of the experiments, you
had people who are, you know, secular and practicing a secular form of
meditation. During other experiments, you had people who were religious
practicing a religious form of meditation or prayer. Were there differences
in the secular and the spiritual approach?

Dr. NEWBERG: We actually looked at some Franciscan nuns doing a form of
meditation which was more prayer-based. They were looking at a particular
phrase out of the Bible that they would focus their attention on. And in that
particular case, their goal was to allow themselves to be open to being within
the presence of God. And, of course, that is a little bit different than what
the Tibetan Buddhists were actually striving to accomplish in terms of their
practice. We saw areas of activity in the Franciscan nuns in terms of the
parts of the brain involved in language because it was a much more
verbally-based meditation as opposed to the more visual areas that were
involved in the people doing the Tibetan Buddhist meditation where they were
actually visualizing an object before them.

Now with regards to if we could actually delineate something specifically
spiritual, I think that will be very interesting to see but I think that a lot
of these experiences do exist along a continuum in what somebody ultimately
defines them as may have a lot to do with their own particular background,
traditions and culture.

GROSS: Now the parts of the brain that you have mentioned coincide with the
feelings that someone praying or meditating is likely to describe: A loss of
a sense of self, a focus on the prayer or the meditation. Did you notice
surprising things in the brain that don't correlate with what somebody in
prayer or in meditation would describe?

Dr. NEWBERG: Well, we had actually developed a fairly comprehensive model
about all the different parts of the brain that we would expect to be
activated, and that included the parts we already mentioned. It included some
of the emotional centers of the brain, and even some of the lower centers that
are directly connected to the body and the body's functioning in terms of
regulating heart rate and blood pressure, which we know are altered during
these kinds of practices. But we did find things that were at least
unexpected based on where we had gone in our model.

And one of the areas that was particularly activated, which we did not really
anticipate initially but made a lot of sense to us after we saw it, was an
area of the brain called the thalamus. And this is a very central structure.
It's a very critical relay in terms of connecting the different parts of the
brain. And since we actually think that it is a very active kind of process,
it makes a lot of sense that this area that basically reflects the changes in
activity and inner-connectedness of the brain to the different parts, would be
very active during that kind of practice.

So I think as we continue to do this kind of research we'll discover more and
more about the details of these biological underpinnings of these kinds of
experiences. And in that sense, help us to understand not only how we
perceive these experiences but just how the human mind and the human brain
works in these incredibly complex and really wonderful kinds of experiences
that people have.

GROSS: Dr. Andrew Newberg is my guest. He's director of Clinical Nuclear
Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the
new book "Why God Won't Go Away," which is based on the research that he's
been conducting on brain science and the biology of belief, meditation and

What kind of questions is this research provoking you to ask about religion?

Dr. NEWBERG: Well, I think one of the things that we have focused on
specifically are how religion actually gets developed in terms of how we think
about that. How do we conceptualize of various religious principles and
concepts? For example, we very frequently take for granted the fact that the
brain is capable of seeing and perceiving causality in the world. We see a
ball roll across the table, hit another ball, we know what the cause and
effect is going to be. We know that the other ball is going to go into
motion. And we do this--our brain actually does this almost fluidly. We
don't really think about the fact that we're perceiving that.

But we can actually think about what would happen in terms of our ability to
analyze and order the world if we didn't have that ability. And when we
think, for example, about how we understand the concept of God, particularly
in the Judeo-Christian background, we frequently think of God as being the
fundamental cause of all things, the ultimate ground cause of being. And,
again, we could sort of postulate, well, would we still have that same
conception if we couldn't perceive causality in the world? So how is it that
our brain function helps to constrain our ability to understand the different
types of religious concepts. And that's something that is of great interest
to myself and my colleagues, that we get a better understanding of how these
religious principles and concepts are based, to some extent, in terms, of what
our brains can actually do in terms of understanding the world.

So I think from that regard it helps us to get a better understanding of how
we bring religion into our lives and how we bring spirituality into our lives
in terms of our perspective, in terms of how we derive meaning and different
aspects of meaning from religion into our lives and ultimately translate that
into our thoughts and behaviors.

GROSS: Do you think that the things that your finding with your brain scans
might reveal anything about whether there's a biological predisposition toward
religion that we have, that we can enter these, you know, almost mystical
states through meditation or prayer? And that religion might, in part be a
way of explaining those states and understanding those states?

Dr. NEWBERG: We actually think that that very much is the case, that people
have had these kinds of experiences throughout history and that many times it
is those experiences that help form the basis of different types of religious
beliefs and different types of systems. But it does make a lot of sense to us
that because those particular kinds of experiences are part of that biology,
that we would have them fairly easily and that we would ultimately use them to
help us understand the world and ultimately to create those concepts of
spirituality and religion which have been so pervasive throughout human

GROSS: Some researchers are finding a connection between prayer and healing
or meditation and healing or just relaxation and a strong immune system. Do
you think that your research can help explain any of the reasons why?

Dr. NEWBERG: Absolutely. I think that our research is actually in some ways
one of those clear links between the effects of spirituality on the human body
both in terms of physical and mental health. When we see many of the studies
that have taken place over the last five or 10 years, how people who are
spiritual or people who are religious tend to have improvements in their
overall physical health, they have lower rates of heart disease and lower
blood pressure problems; they also have better psychological health in terms
of better sense of well-being, greater sense of who they are, lower levels of
anxiety and depression.

In our model itself we talk about some of the parts of the brain that are
specifically related to changes in blood pressure, changes in hormones and
immune function. And we may also even be able to ask the question of when are
those certain types of practices not good for us because there certainly have
been studies which have shown that and I think will be very interesting to be
able to look at that overall framework about what happens in the brain and
happens in the body during those experiences and how it ultimately relates to
our overall health and well-being.

GROSS: OK, well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. NEWBERG: And thank you for having me on the program.

GROSS: Dr. Andrew Newberg teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His
new book is called "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of
Belief." We'll talk with Dr. Michael Baime, who practices and teaches
meditation and participated in Dr. Newberg's study after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

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Interview: Dr. Michael Baime talks about his experiences with
Buddhist meditation

Dr. Michael Baime was one of the participants in the study we just discussed
about the neurological changes brought on by meditation and prayer. He
practices Tibetan Buddhist meditation and was formally authorized to teach
mindfulness and meditation in 1983. Dr. Baime is also a medical doctor and
assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of
Medicine and the co-founder of the university's Penn Program on Stress
Management. I asked him what he experiences when he meditates.

Dr. MICHAEL BAIME (University of Pennsylvania): It begins just with
relaxation. So ordinary kind of relaxation, no big deal, like you might feel
when you sit down on your sofa at the end of the day and there's a moment of
rest. And as you continue to practice, as the meditation deepens, there's a
feeling of a kind of an enhancement of a sense of meaning. It's as if the
surface of the world has a kind of a depth or a clarity to it and then as that
experience deepens, sort of as the continuum progresses, then there is a sense
of as if a loss of boundaries almost, like a loss of sort of the protective
barrier that we put up between ourselves and the world, and through that a
kind of connectedness to people and things and our life. So that deepening
seems to be in the dimension of something that I would call felt experience or
meaning. But it just begins with ordinary relaxation.

GROSS: Now when you saw the picture of your brain while you were meditating,
which you were able to do by looking at the brain scan, what did it mean to

Dr. BAIME: Well, I was glad to find that I had a brain. You know, people
have asked me that before and the truthful answer is that it wasn't a big
surprise. I didn't need to see a picture of my brain functioning in a
different way to know that something really important happens to me when I do
this. And having seen that picture, I don't feel any more motivated to do it
more or to work harder at it. The reason why I do it is how it effects my
experience, not what's happening in my brain. I don't think it would have
made any difference if nothing had happened or if any particular kind of brain
function pattern had been recorded.

GROSS: But you must feel on some level, like, now you can tell your students,
for instance that, `Look, empirically, it's proven that your brain is altered
by this.'

Dr. BAIME: You know, it's so completely necessary that that would be the
case, that I don't think that there's anything that's particularly news in it.
What is interesting is the specific regions of the brain that were activated
and how that fits into a theory about experience or meaning or depth or
spirituality and religion.

GROSS: How do you use meditation in your life?

Dr. BAIME: Well, it depends on how difficult a life I'm having at any
particular moment. I run a program that is a stress management program and
stress is kind of an icon or a euphemism I guess for all the different ways
that life in the 21st century causes us discomfort. So sometimes meditation
just gives me a safe harbor, a place to allow myself to just be without
constantly chasing my own tail, without being drawn into the unceasing
activity that seems to be how we all live. That's why people come to
meditation I think. That's why most people who I see in our stress management
program come.

But that's not why they continue and that's not why I continue. There's
something else that happens, I feel more connected to my life. When my wife
needs me to listen to her and to be present I can do that more easily. When I
play with my son I feel it more. And that kind of experience, which is really
what compels people to continue a meditation practice, becomes very important
and really begins to line up with the reason why I care so much about life in
the first place. It's how I connect to it, how much I can fully be present in

GROSS: Let me bring up something, I hope you don't mind be mentioning this,
on the way over to the radio station for this interview, you left your wallet
in the back of your taxi cab. Talk about stress-inducing. This is like the
typical daily headache that people get--Right?--doing something like that. So
do you think that you handled it any better because you meditate every day?
Do you think it helped?

Dr. BAIME: I think that I could have been a lot more upset about it. I
could be stuttering and shaking in my chair.

GROSS: But, wait, let me witness here. Let me witness here and say you were
pretty calm about it. And our producer Amy Salit was saying, `Do you need to
make calls right now? Do you need to call your wife? Do you need to call the
credit card companies?' And you're saying, `It's OK, you know, I'll deal with
it later. There's a few days that they give you or a few hours, whatever, to
make the call.' You were really pretty calm about it.

Dr. BAIME: Well, it had already happened so there wasn't anything that I
could do about it and when it was time to deal with it, I deal with it. And
that kind of attitude, not being stuck in the past, not torturing myself about
what a fool I was, not dwelling in the future about how I was about to be
charged for a yacht on my MasterCard.

GROSS: Right.

Dr. BAIME: Like the past is gone and the present isn't here yet and I'll
deal with it when it's time to deal with it. That approach really does come
very much from meditation. And that approach is why meditation helps people
in businesses and people with medical problems, people who have difficult
lives like we all do really benefit from being able to give themselves a

GROSS: Now how did you first get into meditation? Was it through a more
spiritual approach or through a relaxation approach?

Dr. BAIME: I'm not sure. What happened is that when I was a child, when I
was somewhere between six and seven, maybe eight years old, I began to have an
experience that is like the experience that comes from meditation. And I
found that I could make it happen; I could make it happen by walking at a
certain pace and paying attention to that pace. Sometimes I could make it
happen by thinking thoughts at that same particular pace. And when that
experience happened it was like the world would open up and there would be a
very powerful experience of this sort of depth of meaning that I'm talking
about. And then when I was a little bit older and started reading and looking
for an explanation of what this experience was, I began to read about

Now in the 1960s in Pittsburgh, a 12-year-old kid didn't have a lot of
opportunities to learn about meditation. The only thing that was available to
me at that time was transcendental meditation and they wouldn't let me do it
until I was 14. So it was my 14th birthday present from my parents. Then I
became kind of an omnivore for meditation. I started looking for anything
that I could find. And I practiced several different techniques until, when
in 1979, I actually became in a more formal way a Buddhist meditation

GROSS: Dr. Michael Baime directs the Penn Program on Stress Management at
the University of Pennsylvania. He'll talk more about meditation in the
second half of the show. By the way, shortly after we recorded our interview,
he got an e-mail from a woman who found his wallet in a taxi, reassuring him
that its contents seemed intact and asking how to return it. I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dr. Michael Baime. He
practices Tibetan Buddhist meditation, teaches meditation and runs the Penn
Program on Stress Management at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also
teaches in the medical school. He became a Buddhist years after he discovered
meditation. I asked him if becoming a Buddhist changed his experience of

Dr. BAIME: I think that my emphasis was more on the experience. I mean, what
actually happened when I became a Buddhist was that I was in the Sinai
Desert and I was...

GROSS: Literally?

Dr. BAIME: Literally. I was on Mt. Sinai. I was doing some work there. I
was doing research as a medical student in Israel and I went to the Sinai
Desert and climbed Mt. Sinai and I had one of these experiences, which was one
of the most intense experiences of that type that I had had since I was a kid.
And in that experience I had the conviction--absolute certainty that
practicing the Buddhist techniques that I had learned was the most direct way
to cultivate and deepen that experience.

So I came back to the States and finished medical school. And it was really
at that moment that I became a Buddhist. And it was based not on any kind of
belief or that I thought the teaching of Buddhism made more sense to me or
were smarter, but just that the practice, itself, cultivated this experience,
which seems to be at the core of all of the world's religions and which had
become really important to me.

GROSS: Do you think--still think of yourself as a Buddhist.

Dr. BAIME: Yes, absolutely. But that's just--that's the clothing of the
technique, although I owe a tremendous amount to the teachers in the tradition
of Buddhism who have taught me and guided me.

GROSS: Would you describe the approach to meditation that you take?

Dr. BAIME: Mindfulness meditation is really just a very, very simple act of
settling down and bringing your awareness into the present. Actually, every
meditation technique uses something that serves as a focus for the attention.
So you're always directing your attention to something that's stable and that
you can rest with. And then as that stability deepens, what one begins to
find is that the experience of their own self, of their mind and of their
depth in life also begins to deepen. It's almost as if what distracts us on
the surface of life begins to just settle and we begin to see through the
turbulent surface of the pond and actually see the cooler depth below with
fishes and plants and all sorts of stuff that we hadn't noticed when we were
so busy dashing about on the surface.

GROSS: What do you use as the focus of attention?

Dr. BAIME: Usually the breath. And that's the way that we teach the people
to meditate in our stress-management program. But, ultimately, the goal of
meditation is not really to have a good meditation. It's to learn to use that
kind of stability in everything that we do so that--I practiced meditation to
create that kind of stable awareness, but then the goal is to take it out into
the world so that I could do it right now, so that the people who are driving
in their cars through rush hour can actually stop and feel their presence,
just their being for a moment and then rest with that. And then it doesn't
matter so much if you lost your wallet or if you're in a traffic jam.
Nothing's really happening.

GROSS: I mean, when you talk about focusing on the breath, are you talking
about just feeling those long, slow breaths or counting your breaths or
visualizing the breaths? Like, how much of a technique is there to focusing
on the breath?

Dr. BAIME: Actually, all the things that you mentioned are traditional
Buddhist techniques. In the Zen tradition, you might begin with counting your
breaths, which is a little bit easier because you have something to hang on
to. It's number six and then it's number seven. In the technique of
meditation that I was first trained, you might actually imagine the breath
going out, almost as if you could feel it or almost visual it going out. In
other traditions, you might use the sensations of the breath; say the
sensation of the belly moving as you breathe in and breathe out as the focus.
And it wouldn't really matter because what you're training yourself to do is
just to rest your attention with that constantly shifting, changing cycle of
breath over and over again.

And when you do it for five minutes, nothing happens. It's like, `OK, so I
watched my breath for five minutes.' But there's a deeper kind of settling
that happens and that's why in our stress-management program, we really
require that everyone who comes to the class practice these techniques for 45
minutes a day for those eight weeks. At the end of those eight weeks they
can decide what to do. But there's some kind of threshold that you have to
pass. You actually have to do it enough to have this experience of
relaxation which becomes depth or a feeling of connectedness.

GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people say to you, `If I had 45 minutes a day to
devote to this, then I wouldn't even need to do it 'cause I'd have more time
in my life than I have and I'd be a calmer person as a result of that.' Do
you hear that?

Dr. BAIME: I hear that all the time and I don't think it's true. If your
day were 45 minutes longer, you would fill it up. You actually have to do
something to--in a deliberate, proactive kind of a way to change the speed and
the pace and the velocity that we move at. And it's your life. It's the only
life you get. Your life is just made of one moment after the next. And if
you're not present for it, if you don't train yourself to do that in some
way--and I don't think it need be meditation--it's over and then you sort of
shake your head and say, you know, `What happened?'

When we teach meditation to people with cancer--and we have a program funded
by a grant from the Arcadia Foundation to provide a program for women with
breast cancer--they come because they're hassled; chemotherapy is difficult;
they're sick; they're worried and anxious. And then they continue because
they realize that whatever their fears about the future; whatever their worst,
catastrophic predictions are, right now, while they're still with us, they
have a life. And entering fully into that life as completely as possible for
themselves and for all the people who are around them and love them is really
the point of the whole thing. That's why we all want to live so much in the
first place.

GROSS: Now I want to get back to just the technique and practice of
meditation. You talk about the need to get beyond the kind of turbulent
surface and see beneath and have more clarity and calm. So when you're
sitting and breathing and trying to focus on that, stray thoughts are going to
come into your mind. And, you know, most of us have minds that are like
buzzing all the time with problems related to the past, present and future.
So these things start buzzing by what are you going to do with them?

Dr. BAIME: Well, they are definitely going to buzz by, but you don't really
have to carry on a conversation with them. You just notice that they're
there. They're another event in the room. You back hurts. There's a noise.
The telephone rings. Something happens. You have a thought. You have an
emotion. That's what your experience offers to you and you just notice that
it's there.

What happens in ordinary life or as we buzz about our lives, as you said, is
that we have a thought and then we're gone with it. It's time for a vacation
and then pretty soon we're in Tahiti with that banana daiquiri and our feet up
on the beach and we're totally gone or, more painfully, we have a problem at
work and we think about it and pretty soon we're fired and we're selling
apples on the street and our children can't go to college. And then we live
that reality just as if it were happening. And that's not necessary because
whatever, however vivid your fantasy life is, the real life that you have
isn't going to happen exactly that way.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Michael Baime. He runs the program on stress
management at the University of Pennsylvania. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Baime. He's a clinical professor of medicine at
the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He's practiced meditation
since the age of 14 and directs the Penn Program for Stress Management. He
teaches mindfulness meditation.

When you were starting to meditate, did you ever nearly fall asleep during
the process?

Dr. BAIME: I still do. Sure, because I'm tired. I live a life just like
everyone else. It's too full and I don't sleep enough and sometimes the first
thing that happens when I settle down and actually come into my body and feel
it is that I realize how tired I am; how hard I've pushed and I can fall
asleep. There's no problem with that. I think if that's what I really need
at that moment, that's what I should get, so I wouldn't say that that's good
or bad. It's just what happened.

GROSS: Well, you know how sometimes you're in that state of neither here nor
there? You're not waking and you're not sleeping and you're in that state
where it's as if you're dreaming but you're not quite sleeping either, so
images will come to mind and you'll be off in this thought that's very three
dimensional and then you'll kind of drift right out of it and do you like
that state or do you find that annoying in the process of meditation, as
opposed to on your way to sleep at night?

Dr. BAIME: Well, I like it a lot if I'm actually paying attention and the
part of my awareness that's seeing that is completely present and with it.
Sometimes it happens in an unconscious kind of a way or an automatic kind of
way that I'm just lost in the thought and there's no awareness. And then
that's not meditation. That's just wandering mind. But there's a different
way in which full awareness is still present, even as the mind drifts. And
that can be extremely pleasurable and very powerful.

I like to do meditation practice when I first get up in the morning and my
brain isn't really awake, so I watch it wake up. And it's a wonderful

GROSS: Now, see, I sometimes think--well, say you're going to meditate. Why
would you want to do it first thing in the morning because you're,
theoretically, already calm then. You've just gone from somewhere's between
maybe six and eight hours of lying down and sleeping and breathing deeply and
being very rested. The stress of the day hasn't interfered with you yet
because you haven't even gotten out of the house yet. So, you know, are you
kind of like wasting the meditation because you haven't built up the stress

Dr. BAIME: I wouldn't say that I us meditation just as an antidote for
stress, so it doesn't really matter. Sometimes at those moments before
anything happens, I have the deepest experience of complete openness and
rest. And the depth of that experience actually stays with me. So I'm not
trying to fix something that's damaged or been bruised by the travels through
my day. It's more I'm trying to connect with something that's there all the
time. And the more that I can experience that fully at the start of my day,
the more likely I am to carry that with me through the whole day.

GROSS: Do you ever have students who just can't do it; I mean, who just
can't sit still for the 45 minutes?

Dr. BAIME: I don't think that there's anybody who can't do it, although I do
think that it can be difficult for people and so we do tailor the techniques
somewhat. We might emphasize a more physical discipline; something that
would be more like yoga, but using yoga not as an end in itself, but just as
a focus for that awareness and asking people to maintain their present
awareness through the activity--or walking. There are all sorts of ways to
get around the restlessness, although that restlessness is actually
something that it's really helpful to bring into meditation practice because
that restlessness is the same restlessness that we feel when we stand in a
supermarket checkout line and have to wait, or when we're in a traffic jam and
start getting uncomfortable and then start pounding on the horn. So working
with that actual sort of residue of the pace of our lives is really
important. And I think that meditation might just give you the opportunities
to take a good look at it and maybe even relax with it some.

GROSS: I want to go back to when you were six, was it, and you first started
realizing that you could somehow get yourself into this altered state? I'd
like to know how you stumbled on it, if you have any idea?

Dr. BAIME: I don't remember. What I do know is that for many years that
experience became the most important thing in my life at that time; that I
was constantly monitoring this sensation of openness or depth, and that I was
doing everything that I could, you know, as a six- or an eight-year-old to
heighten that experience. And I remember going through days and days when I
would be constantly internally monitoring that. I don't think that it looked
like anything special, but it became so important to me and I played with it
all sorts of different ways, like kids do; spinning around in circles until I

would fall down; hyperventilating; really exploring what happened when I lost
that sense of separateness.

GROSS: Since you've been--I think it's more or less since you were a
child. Why do you think you became a doctor and a teacher of meditation as
opposed to, say, a mystic?

Dr. BAIME: Well, I had some kind of a notion that by being a doctor I could
help people. Really, that sounds a little bit hokey, but, you know, even
though doctors are caught up in the same struggle that everyone else is,
often people enter into that profession because of a genuine sympathy for
other people. And that feeling of connectedness that I had with others I
identified, in some sense, with helping people. Then when I actually began
to practice medicine, I wasn't finding that that was what it felt like. It
felt hurried and rushed and, honestly, kind of difficult and claustrophobic.
And I also found that the things that most of my patients came to me with
weren't problems that I could fix with a pill or an operation or technology.
They were issues that had more to do with their being or how they experienced

So I began to teach people in my private internal medicine practice
meditation. And one thing led to the next. A hospital administrator did the
program. It became a hospital-based program and then it began to be focused
towards specific kinds of patients or people with specific problems.

GROSS: You're teaching meditation techniques that are based on Tibetan
Buddhism, but you're often teaching these techniques in medical settings or
in, you know, a corporate workplace to people who have recently gotten out of
prison. So they're not in a religious setting. They're not necessarily
at all interested in Buddhism, so does it change the nature of the technique
or the context of teaching it? Does anything change?

Dr. BAIME: That's an interesting question. It doesn't change the technique
or the context at all. And, of course, we're taking these techniques, which
do come through us through a long tradition that really developed them
empirically and using them in a completely secular, up-to-date way so that if
you're, for instance, doing one of our programs at a corporate work site, you
don't run out of your cubicle, throw up your hands and say, `I saw God.' It
doesn't happen that way, but the buzz word in corporate America might be
thinking outside of the box.

And maybe what you find is not so much that you have to think outside of the
box, but that you have a bigger box and that there are other people in that
with you. And you start noticing that things work better if you work with
them and take their needs into account. So you get a bigger world that's more
connected to all the people and things around it. And I also think that it
helps to free you from some traditional, sort of habitual patterns of thought
that limit us. And, ultimately, I think that that experience might be very
much the same as what the nuns in the study or what the Tibetan Buddhist
meditators in the study were experiencing. But it's being framed in a
completely different context and so it takes a completely different meaning.

GROSS: Do you ever find that there are Tibetan Buddhists who almost
disapprove of what you're doing because you're taking a discipline that comes
out of a religious discipline and using it in a secular way to help people in
the corporate workplace or to help people with the stress of daily life, but
you're stripping it of the larger, you know, Buddhist context?

Dr. BAIME: Well, there's some tension around that, but, actually, the
meditation teacher who is currently the head of my lineage of practice in the
United States, Sok Yung Mepam Rimposhay(ph), who heads Shabala
International(ph), is very, very interested in taking these techniques and
offering them to people sort of outside of the traditional structure because
the goal, after all, is to help people to have less suffering. It's not to
build a bigger religion or to have money or more adherence. It's to use them
to help. So I think that he and that organization are really more than
supportive of it and more than interested, themselves, in finding new and
innovative ways to offer these ancient techniques to people now.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. BAIME: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dr. Michael Baime teaches meditation and runs the Penn Program on
Stress Management at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also teaches at
the medical school.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a newly reprinted collection of essays by
the late New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Joseph Mitchell's essays "My Ears Are Bent" and
"McSorley's Wonderful Saloon"

Legendary writer Joseph Mitchell chronicled the life of New York City's
streets, bars and tenements from the 1930s through the 1950s. Most of his
work was first published in The New Yorker. Two collections of Mitchell's
essays have just been reprinted. They are "My Ears Are Bent" and "McSorley's
Wonderful Saloon," but critic Maureen Corrigan has these thoughts on reviewing
Mitchell's writing.


The trouble with talking about Joseph Mitchell is that you sound like such an
ass; specifically, the very kind of nostalgic, superlative spewing ass that
Mitchell would have turned his back on in a crowded bar room. It's not just
that unassuming populous prose style of his that makes fans like me go gaga,
it's his whole `keep your chin up, though the chips are down' worldview; a
worldview that probably was shaped by the Depression, which is when he
started writing about New York.

Like that other great literary stroller of New York neighborhoods, Walt
Whitman, Mitchell delighted in cataloging the human multiplicity of the city.
He talked to bearded ladies and Gypsies and con artists like Joe Gould and the
Mohawk Indian construction workers who hung in the air to pound rivets into
the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge. Mitchell calmly
took note of all their eccentricities, failings and triumphs. He didn't
whitewash, but unless provoked, he usually didn't judge, either. And unlike
the generations of New Yorker who proceeded and followed him, he was never
cynical. I imagined that if there are such creatures as recording angels,
there divine reports would sound a lot like Joseph Mitchell's essays. But
there I go again, gushing, comparing Mitchell to an angel.

There's been a Mitchell revival in recent years and so, consequently, two more
collections of his essays have just been reprinted. "My Ears Are Bent," a
collection of his earliest pieces from his days as a reporter for the World
Telegram, and "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon," portraits of the city and its
people that were published in The New Yorker. If you haven't read much of
Mitchell, it's the second book that's a must and the 1940 lead-off essay
that's a standout among classics.

At the time that Mitchell was describing McSorley's, then and now, the oldest
saloon in New York City, the bar was still lit with gas lamps, coins for ale
were dropped in soup bowls rather than a cash register, and the clientele
consisted of truck drivers from Wanamaker's, clerks from the second-hand
bookstores north of Aster Place and crusty, old Irishmen who'd been drinking
their since they were young; all changed; changed, utterly.

Mitchell says of the old Irishmen, `Some of them have tiny pensions and are
alone in the world. They sleep in bowery hotels and spend practically all
their waking hours in McSorley's.' A little farther on he comments that
they're, `insulated with ale against the dreadful loneliness of the old.'
Hear Mitchell's tone? It's neither pathetic nor disapproving nor, God
forbid, coy. It's the voice of an adult with a gentle, poetic bent, just
stating the way things are, so drink up.

Almost all of Mitchell's subjects, like those old bar flies in
McSorley's--like McSorley's, itself--are holdovers from a vanished, perhaps
never-existent golden age in New York. But anyone who charges Mitchell with
the venal sin of sentimentality needs to read a lesser-known 1940 essay in
this collection called "Santa Claus Smith." Smith, Mitchell tells us, was a
white-bearded old man who wandered the United States during the Depression,
bumming meals and shelter from big-hearted strangers. In return, Smith wrote
them checks on the Irving National Bank of New York for amounts ranging from
$90,000 to $600,000. He decorated his checks with a smile face.

Mitchell learned all this by reading through the files of letters received by
the Irving Bank from Smith's benefactors, many of whom hoped that the checks
might be good. Throughout most of the essay, Mitchell regards Smith with
amusement, as though with his phony checks the old man might even be sending
up capitalism. Then, in the last paragraph, Mitchell realizes that not
everyone is in on the joke. Here's how he ends his essay.

`For a day or so after I read the letters, I thought of Smith as a benevolent
old screwball. Then I began to be troubled by the memory of those crude,
grinning faces with which he decorated so many of the checks. I began to
think of the vain hopes he raised in the breasts of the waitresses who had
graciously given him hundreds of meals and the truck drivers who had hauled
him over 100 highways and to feel about John S. Smith that there is something
a little sinister.'

In addition to a sympathetic appreciation of human frailty, a good recording
angel needs to have a cognizance of evil. Mitchell had both and his writing
had, still has, wings.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Joseph
Mitchell's collection of essays, "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon," has just been
reprinted by Pantheon.

I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a song from a new CD called "Irving Sings
Berlin," which collects some of Irving Berlin's demo recordings. This is a
song he wrote for his 1949 musical "Miss Liberty" about a young photographer
who falls for a girl he mistakenly believes was the model for the Statue of
Liberty. This song was written for a young woman reporter who has a crush on
the photographer.

(Soundbite from Irving Berlin song)

Mr. IRVING BERLIN: (Singing) Hey, there, Mr. Photographer, turn your camera
my way. Say there, Mr. Photographer, I've got something to say. What do I
have to do to get my picture in the paper? What do I have to do? Do I have
to murder someone? Must I rob a bank? Or just be nice to you?

Who do I have to be to get my picture in the paper? Who do I have to be? Do
I have to be a Morgan or a Vanderbilt before you notice me? Show me the
birdie that has gained renown. I'll gladly take a look. Now that I've
caught you with your camera down, I'd like my picture took.

What do I have to pay to get my picture in the paper? What do I have to pay?
Do I have to bribe the editor; become his creditor or just be very nice to

What do I have to do to get my picture in the paper? What do I have to do?
Do I have to murder someone? Must I rob a bank or just be nice to you?

Who do I have to be to get my picture in the paper? Who do I have to be? Do
I have to be a Morgan or a Vanderbilt before you notice me? Show me the
birdie that has gained renown. I'll gladly take a look. Now that I've
caught you with your camera down, I'd like my picture took.

What do I have to pay to get my picture in the paper? What do I have to pay?
Do I have to bribe the editor; become his creditor or just be very nice to

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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