Face it. Your brain is dirtied with deadlines, sullied with schedules and clogged with responsibilities. You need a psychic bath. It’s time to manage what meditation experts call your “monkey mind”—the modern brain that jumps from thought to thought like a monkey on steroids.
Meditation has been found to lower cholesterol, ease pain, speed healing, curb insomnia and boost the immune system. It can also help slay the demons of depression, anxiety and the kinds of compulsions that send you back three times to check the stove. By practicing meditation, you’ll feel more energized, gain self-knowledge and achieve a healthier state of mind.
For too long, Americans sniffed at meditation as little more than paranormal twaddle peddled by gurus of dubious expertise. Californians, of course, braved the psychic frontier. In the early '60s, Stanford grad students Michael Murphy and Dick Price saw that the times were a-changin’. On the craggy cliffs of Big Sur, the weird and wonderful world of Esalen Institute was born, and, along with it, the human potential movement. Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac are just a few of the luminaries who have shared Esalen’s good vibrations.
Once known for its wacky workshops and counterculture figures, Esalen now enjoys a more mainstream success. You can still explore the esoteric, but meditation, yoga and mineral baths are the main attractions. After a $5 million renovation, Esalen is hipper than ever. It’s not unusual to see stars like Penelope Cruz and Orlando Bloom soaking in the famous hot springs.
Further down the coast, in the redwood forests near Santa Cruz, master yogi Baba Hari Dass inspires visitors to the Mount Madonna Center to meditate their ways to peace. This singular monk has taken a vow of silence, and not so much as an “om” has crossed his lips since, oh, 1952. Sound daunting? Fear not. Weekend silent retreats offer a manageable introduction to the power of quiet reflection, while regular (talkie) two- and four-day retreats focus on meditation, yoga and personal growth. Even better, they're tailor-made for busy folks seeking tools to face the rigors of everyday life.
At Oregon’s Breitenbush Hot Springs, accommodations in rustic cabins or lodges set the mood for soulful simplicity. Visitors enjoy a remote location among 154 acres of wildlife sanctuary in the Willamette National Forest. This non-denominational center offers weekly classes ranging from Sufi dance-meditation to contemplative writing. Simply taking in the gorgeous surroundings restores sanity. By the time you’ve hiked through old-growth forest and soaked au naturale in the hot springs, you’ll be well on your way to nirvana.
Shambhala Mountain Centerin Colorado is another place where natural beauty inspires mind-body relaxation in a camp-like setting. Well-known Buddhists help visitors cultivate compassionate head-space among rustic buildings and ponderosa pines. Meditation is the focus, but you can also get a taste of Zen archery, Jewish mysticism, Chinese Qigong and various kinds of yoga. The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, a memorial to Shambhala’s founder, is an architectural wonder that brings a little slice of Nepal to the American West.
Hawaii has a tradition of non-violence and ancient teachings that emphasize harmonious living. Hawaiian healing massage, chanting, herbal medicine and cleansing rituals are powerful tools for tapping into wellness. Indigenous meditation techniques merge with Eastern traditions to form a special strain of mind/body medicine. The Ala Kukui retreat center harnesses Maui’s heavenly setting and Native Hawaiian healing modalities to teach meditation and emotional balance.
New York may not be the place you’d expect meditation centers to flourish, but upstate has a long tradition of nourishing alternative communities. In the 1800s, table-turning spiritualists, free-love advocates and utopians found a haven among New York’s scenic mountains and peaceful valleys. Today, visitors seeking quiet getaways and personal enlightenment flock to the Omega Institute, America’s largest center for holistic living. This beautiful retreat in the Hudson Valley offers classes on meditation, stress management, exercise, nutrition and play. Tree-lined paths and country lanes soothe jangled nerves, while the Wellness Center provides massages and bodywork.
And just in case you thought that the Far East had a monopoly on meditation, the Trappist monks at The Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky are here to prove otherwise. Established in 1848, the abbey was the first on American soil, founded by a colony of Trappists who left France. Visitors are welcome to take retreats at the abbey for several days or more. Rules are strict, but hiking the serene trails and attending daily prayer and chanting sessions are refreshment for the soul. The monks are famously friendly, and they make delicious cheeses and fruitcakes.
From the relaxing to the all-out mystical, our guide to America’s best meditation retreats offers places to achieve wellness in some of the country’s most inspirational natural areas. You work your abs. You watch your diet. Why not nourish your spirit? You’ll be helping to chill out the planet, one person at time.