Penn Jillette: On Meditation

March 21, 2016

Penn Jillette lost over 100 pounds and got his blood pressure under control by changing his entire way of eating, and tracking it all using Withings devices. But along the way, Penn also decided to give meditation a try. Read all about it in this exclusive article by the man himself.

Hippie Meditation for an Old Punk

By Penn Jillette

Jonathan Richman, who I know from The Modern Lovers and many others know from Something About Mary, was one of the bunch of people who invented punk rock. When I tried to give him credit for doing it all by himself, he told me that what he should really get credit for was being the first person to hate hippies. Of course, many parents didn’t like hippies, but it took the punks to teach me to disrespect hippies in the right way. I’m old enough to have listened to the music of Woodstock, but young enough to have moved on from it the moment I heard Jonathan, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, etc. When someone in a leather jacket is screaming over three chords, hippies sure look stupid.
I have the same brand leather jacket as the original Ramones jackets, which I bought at the same store they did. I wore that leather jacket with a ripped t-shirt, ripped jeans, and Keds with no socks, year round in New York City in the 70’s. I had longer hair than Joey Ramone, but we weren’t hippies. No synthesizers, incense, or meditation for us.
Years went by and I got wicked fat and my blood pressure went to U.K. voltage and I ended up in the hospital. I had believed the hype that my hypertension was genetic, but then Ray Cronise hipped me that it might actually be because I was fat and eating grease-covered salt licks.
My buddy Sam Harris (the thinker not the singer) was all over me to try meditation. He wrote Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Sam’s atheist credentials are pretty solid, so I read the book even though it had “spirituality” in the title. The book didn’t have god and it did have science, but it was a little hippie. Sam is smart and careful and makes a good case for meditation and . . . LSD. I couldn’t bring myself to try LSD, but I decided to give meditation a try. With the help of Ray and my Withings scale, my leather jacket was just starting to fit again, but maybe some mindfulness could get my blood pressure down a littler further without meds. Sam sent me a lot of real science links about mindfulness, and an MP3 of him talking me through some guided meditation. Sam worries more about inner voices than I do, but, he’s a smart guy and a good atheist, so what the hell? Maybe I’d try being awake once in a while.

Eventually I got sick of Sam’s single ten-minute MP3, so I tried a few apps and finally ended up using one called Headspace. The guy has a hippie voice, but there’s no god, or Transcendental or Krishna in the app – it just helps calm and focus my mind. I don’t feel like there’s that much work to do. Even though I yell on stage, I don’t feel like I’m filled with demons. I’m pretty calm. I also don’t have a lot of trouble with focus and energy, but there’s always room for improvement. So every morning (I’m a creature of habit, I don’t do many things “once in a while”), after I’ve finished writing a few pages in my diary like the Junior High school girl that I really am, I turn off the music, sit quietly in front of my computer, and follow my Headspace. I have some candles burning and there I sit. I like it. I’ve added some mindful exercises before the Penn & Teller show, and even sneak a little bit in while I’m backstage during Teller’s solo numbers. I grab a mindful moment when I first get in my car and then again right before I get out of my car.
After my main Headspace in the morning, I slap on my Withings BP cuff and check my blood pressure while still in my mindful place. I’m still on low doses of two meds (but not on the monster doses of six meds I was on before Ray and Withings), and my BP is pretty good and seems to be getting better. I don’t know if the meditation is helping that much, but I like it. I can observe in a detached way my thoughts of enjoyment of it.
It’s ten minutes a day to think about thinking. The idea is not to stop thinking, but just to experience the thoughts coming and going – to separate myself right now in the moment from the thoughts that float by. I’m trying to perceive thoughts as thoughts and not as me.
I don’t know, I’m eating vegetables, whole grains, and flax seeds; I might as well meditate, right?

Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.

Hey ho – let’s go!
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Watch videos and more here: How Did Penn Lose Weight?
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Photo credit: Jordan Matter