With the new year, and with entering our third year of this pandemic, I’m looking for ways to reduce stress and improve my health and wellbeing. Probably many of us are, right? And with meditation now being the second-most popular mind and body practice in the United States (just behind yoga and just ahead of seeing a chiropractor), it quickly came up in my search for ideas.
So I gave it a try and learned some things along the way.
I found a free seven-day guided meditation challenge within the 10% Happier app created by Dan Harris, who is the host of a popular podcast by the same name. I promptly sat down for my first session. The program starts slow and builds from there, with the first session being a very short, allegedly manageable practice session.
“Four minutes of meditation,” I thought to myself. “I can do this,” I assured myself naïvely.
I hit play, settled in and followed the directions as we closed our eyes and mentally scanned our body from head to toe, releasing tension as we went. We were going to leave our thoughts behind, focus on our breath and be with our body, which reminded me, I needed to switch a load of laundry to the dryer. And while I’m down in the laundry room, I should grab something out of the chest freezer to thaw for dinner. Oh, and I need to wash out that Wait! I’m meditating! I brought my attention back to my breath.
Then, feeling sure that I was almost done, I glanced at the timer on my app: 3 minutes and 38 seconds left. Crap.
This wasn’t the enlightened experience I was going for. To truly experience the benefits of meditation, I figured I could use some help, professional guidance even. So, I reached out to Daniel Hessey, an Acharya, or spiritual teacher, with the KarmeCholing Shambhala Meditation Center in Barnet. To my relief, he says it is natural for your mind to be running when you sit down to meditate.
“There is no magical trick here,” says Hessey of being able to practice meditation. “It’s a matter of training.” He encourages practitioners, including new ones like myself, to be kind to themselves when it comes to being distracted by our thoughts.
“It’s a discipline,” he explained. “It takes time and practice.” And that can be contrary to what people often expect when they approach meditation for the first time: to feel better instantly or to gain a sense of achievement for having completed the task.
What type of meditation you choose, and how you choose to do it, are important distinctions, too.When it comes to developing a meditation practice, Hessey says it helps to understand the deep and rich history of Buddhism and meditation. Meditation is like music, with different varieties. To choose the right one for you, he suggests considering, “What am I trying to accomplish?”
One way to think about your aim is to unpack the words, themselves. “The word ‘gom’ is Tibetan for ‘meditation,’” Hessey explains, “and it means ‘to become accustomed to.’ And so, you can ask yourself, ‘What is it I am trying to become accustomed to?’” One goal could be to experience less anxiety. “That is a completely valid thing to bring to meditation practice, and there are a variety of ways to address that.”
With my own goals in mind, I reached out to the Vermont Insight Meditation Center in Brattleboro to join their Sunday morning meditation practice held over Zoom. Cheryl Wilfong, who is a teacher at the center, says that, while apps like the one I was using can be helpful for meditation, you have to remember to open them. And, she points out, with all the apps we have on our phones these days, it can be hard to remember to do that.
Books are also great resources. They give the perspective of what others have learned, both about meditation itself and from their practice. But they can only take you so far; you can teach yourself up to a point.
Says Wilfong, “Students who come to my classes often say something like,’I bought a meditation book, but —.’ This is the reason it’s good to sign up for a class or go to a weekly meditation. These are what help you keep living your intention.”
This time, as I sat to meditate with the group over Zoom, I felt more at ease, calmer, and more willing to let my thoughts come up, then watch them pass by as I returned to my breath. But after about fifteen minutes, I found myself popping an eye open to check the time. When I started to feel tension in my neck, at about twenty minutes in, I decided it was time to end my practice for the day.
As I looked for other opportunities to learn more and practice, I found Cultivating Peace Vermont, a group that holds talks, events and guided meditations. Ginger Cloud, of Barre, is part of the group, and she has been practicing a type of meditation called “mindfulness meditation” for twenty years. She finds it goes along nicely with her professional work as a mental health counselor.
“I personally get a more engaged life, more awareness,” she says. Her practice helps her feel connected to herself, the Earth, and other people, and as a result she feels less alone.
“We can get this idea that my fears are mine alone,” she explains. But practicing meditation with others helps people “to be able to understand these aren’t individual problems, they’re universal.”
This view can shift our relationship with our thoughts, feelings and worries. This is, in part, why practitioners of meditation report increased calm, decreased anxiety, decreased worry, an increased sense of well-being, increased happiness and joy, and a richer experience of everyday life. And while these benefits are welcome any time, they are certainly most needed during a pandemic.
“With the chaos going on in our world, it’s a great tool,” says Eileen Genette Coughlin about meditation. She is the owner of Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center on Merchants Row in Rutland. Her center offers eight immersion rooms to help get into a meditative state. The rooms are designed for folks who can’t sit still for meditation or who find meditation overwhelming.
The mandala room, for example, features changing mandala imagery and binaural beats delivered via headphones. Another room, the Edfu Temple, offers a multi-sensory experience using scent, color, touch, crystal energy and more. A Himalayan Salt Cave, one of only a few in the country, provides another opportunity for deep relaxation.
“We all need that now,” says Coughlin of relaxation. “People are teetering, we need these coping mechanisms.” And, she points out, stress is bad for our health.
Coughlin is a mother of four and, prior to owning the center, was a business woman. “The thought of meditation and relaxation never entered my mind,” she said. “There was no time for that.” But as she explored modalities like sound for herself, she says, “I found changes in me and in my life, and I felt called to help other people get there.”
She says she can see the benefits ripple out into the world, as one person comes in by themself, and then they come back with their family and friends. She says, “If we’re going to change the world, the only place we can make change is in ourselves.”
Meditation is not, however, without risks, and not everyone has a positive experience with it. Rosy Metcalf, who lives in Waterbury, is a member of the Care Team at Cheetah House, a nonprofit based in Rhode Island. The group researches adverse effects of meditation and supports those experiencing distress from meditation. Most of the people on the team have personal experience with these negative impacts from meditation in their own lives.
Metcalf found mindfulness meditation during grad school, while she was studying to become a counselor. She started practicing regularly and was seeing the benefits, but then in 2014, “it all flipped on its head.” Her anxiety and fear intensified, and yet her teachers told her the answer was to meditate through the emotions, or to meditate more. “Now, we know this is bad advice,” she says, but at the time she was experiencing these symptoms, there was little in the way of support.
Now, she tells people, “If the practice isn’t helping a person toward their goals, they should stop their practice or seek other practices.” But that does not mean they can’t access the same benefits. She points out that the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” form a huge umbrella under which there are so many other ways to achieve reduced stress and better health.
With all of this in mind, I sat down with my app again, after digesting these conversations and experiences. I again hit play, settled in, mentally scanned my body to release tension, and focused on my breath. Thoughts came and went. The session was 10 minutes, but this time, I didn’t even notice the seconds ticking by. What I noticed instead are things I was trying to become accustomed to: a sense of connection and a few moments of clarity, peace and calm.