Urban Zen's Rooftop Garden

"Urban" "Zen" - - these two words may seem contradictory until you visit fashion designer Donna Karan's serene living room-like setting tucked blissfully above her Greenwich Village Urban Zen Center.  This huge, open space with minimalist colors and couches is the home base for numerous Urban Zen Foundation forums.  The Foundation "creates, connects, and collaborates to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures and empowering children."(1)

With "Operation Warrior Wellness" the evening's topic, I was there to hear Norman Rosenthal, M.D., speak about his new book, Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation.  My own well-being in mind, I navigated through a buzzing cocktail crowd to Urban Zen's rooftop garden to chill out on this hot night before the speeches began.  Once there, I lay down on the garden's supersized, 'fit for a (fashion) queen,' lounge/bed.  I closed my eyes as birds, singing with surprisingly sweet NYC accents, transported me to Shangri- La, La, La.

When the forum began, designers, doctors, motion picture directors, and decorated military men all made fascinating bedfellows. Dr. Rosenthal, a Georgetown University Medical School psychiatrist, is the former N.I.H. researcher who first described seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  In his just-published book, Rosenthal mentions three fundamental categories of meditation a) focused attention, b) open monitoring and c) automatic self-transcending.(2) Rosenthal sees Transcendental Meditation (TM) as falling into the latter category, where "effortlessly thinking the mantra repetitively takes you beyond the mantra and into another state of consciousness."(3)

Also emphasizing the neurological benefits of TM to the packed audience were Dr. Fred Travis, Director, Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition(4), and the evening's co-host, The David Lynch Foundation, represented by its founder, renowned film director David Lynch(5).  As explained in the Lynch Foundation's booklet "Treating a Monumental Problem: Reducing the Human Toll and Financial Cost of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder":

"Research on the TM technique has shown that the practice reduces psychological symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression and also directly affects the neurobiology specifically associated with PTSD resulting in balanced serotonin and norepinephrine and a regulated sympathetic nervous system."

According to Rosenthal, to date there have been over 340 peer-reviewed articles on TM and evidence shows that TM reduces symptoms by 80%.(6) So what's new?

The Urban Zen event launched "Operation Warrior Wellness NYC," a wellness outreach to help 10,000 veterans overcome PTSD through Transcendental Meditation.(7) Thus the audience heard a World War II fighter pilot(8) and Vietnam vets explain how TM rescued them from their PTSD hell after more traditional methods failed.  Fittingly, graphic imagery of soldiers in battle surrounded us via multimedia projections on all four walls - - a jarringly effective contrast to my previous garden perch.  Yet a soothing space can serve as healing antidote to trauma.  So what role does the environment play in providing such an antidote?

Given the evening's topic, I wondered about the healing effects of sound, itself.  After all, the ancient Vedic mantras used in TM are said to be "particular soothing sounds, known by experience gathered over centuries to bring on transcendence. . . "(9) 

Speaking of sound, Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia, posits that "music may be especially powerful and have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions."(10) With such a perspective in mind, Don G. Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect, has co-founded  Aesthetic Audio Systems, Inc., and introduced "Harmonic Healthcare® auditory environments (uniquely created ambient, jazz and classical music) in healthcare spaces to enhance and reinforce the healing experience for patients, visitors, caregivers and staff."(11) (12)

And then there is my brother, Jayadvaita Swami,(13) who for 45 years has been chanting, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna,  Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."  Followers from all over the world revere him, so I asked Jayadvaita Swami, "Do you think it matters to one's well-being whether you are chanting Hare Krishna, repeating another mantra, listening to music, or to birds that sing? Though he said it does matter (content, he said, is not meaningless), he conceded that chanting Hare Krishna soothed him in the sixties when he was in hazy, hippy purgatory.

Yet, speaking about TM, even Rosenthal concludes:

"The mantra alone is not enough.  It is the 'vehicle' for effortless, universal movement of Mind, but it is not a magic bullet.  Using the mantra properly -- effortlessly, without concentration or deliberate control of the mind - - is as important as the sound itself."(14)

In Transcendence, with his M.D. hat on, Rosenthal gives a further nod to neurobiology, stating, "transcendence is not all in the mind; many descriptions hint at a concurrent bodily experience . . ."(15)

My brother, on the other hand, stated clearly, "Real transcendence has to do with spirit, not matter. In the traditional literature of meditation, there's the material body, there's the material mind, and transcendence involves going beyond both."  

One thing I know for sure is that whether meditating, chanting, listening to music or to birds sing, we are always somewhere. Thus, space that is an 'oasis by design'(16) including soothing sound, while not an end in itself, can contribute to the healing lightness of being.


1. See www.urbanzen.org/

 2. Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2011) According to Rosenthal, these three categories were identified by Fred Travis and Jonathan Shear.  The other meditation techniques are explained as follows:

  • - Focused attention - where the meditator holds the mind's eye on something in particular, such as an image (perhaps a picture of a flower) or a profound emotion (such as loving-kindness toward other human beings).
  • - Open monitoring techniques - which include Buddhist-type mindfulness meditation, [where] the meditator learns to observe the breath, or whatever thoughts and feelings may arrive without reciting to them - in order to become more aware of internal patterns. (p. 14)

3. Ibid., p. 14-15.

4. See  www.mum.edu/cbcc/

5. Director of Molholland Dr., and other Oscar-nominated films, Lynch is the founder and chair of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. See www.davidlynchfoundation.org/

6. Comments by Norman Rosenthal, M.D. , NYC, June 7, 2011.

7. "Operation Warrior Wellness" was established by the David Lynch Foundation.

8. Jerry Yellin, is co-chair of 'Operation Warrior Wellness' and co-author of the book, The Resilient Warrior: Healing the Hidden Would of War (TotalRecall Publications, 2011). 

9. Rosenthal, Transcendence, p. 16.

10. Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain ( New York: Random House, 2008) p. xiii. For further discussion of sound and neurobiology also see Ester Sternberg, M.D.'s book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being (Belknap Press, 2009) Chapter 3.

11. The other co-founders of Aesthetic Audio Systems include Annette Ridenour and David Corbin. See http://www.aestheticaudiosystems.com/

 12. Numerous posters at the recent Design & Health 7th World Congress and Exhibition in Boston also summarized studies indicating the positive effect of music.   For further discussion of sound, music and health also see Alan Dilani's article "Psychosocially supportive design" a salutogenic approach to the design of the physical environment" International Hospital Federation Reference Book, 2008/2009.

13. See http://www.jswami.info/

14.  Rosenthal, Transcendence, p. 16.

15. Ibid., p. 39.

16. For more on creating healing spaces through Design Psychology see www.oasisbydesign.net

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