Proponents of mindfulness meditation claim benefits like reduced stress, self-awareness and even improved physical health. As we shuck 2019 and cozy up to a new year, is it time to revisit an ancient tradition?
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This is a beautifully simple prayer. But, cloaked in its conciseness perhaps, is that this level of objective insight requires an incredibly strong mind.
Whether you’re of the philosophy that our thoughts become things outside of ourselves – think of a million-dollar check long enough, and it’s only a matter of time before it manifests – or if you’re a little more down-to-earth, we can agree, our minds are powerful. How we process and react to the thoughts that invade our psyche can affect our mood, our mental and physical health, and our actions – or inaction.
For millennia, meditation has been used as a tool to strengthen the mind and achieve what we like to call today mindfulness. It’s a mostly secular practice in present-day Western culture, but mindfulness meditation has roots in ancient Buddhism and Hinduism.
An article titled “Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness” published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review – a magazine published by The Tricycle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available – reads, “Mindfulness means the ability to keep something in mind. On the Buddhist path, it functions in three ways: remembering to stay alert on what you’re doing in the present moment; remembering to recognize the skillful and unskillful qualities that arise in the mind; and remembering how to effectively abandon the qualities that get in the way of concentration, then developing the skillful ones that promote it.”
Intro to Basics
As a chronic overthinker riddled with anxiety – and occasional depression – I’ve always suspected that a habitual meditative practice could help to aid what ails me. I love that meme that goes something like: “My mind is like an internet browser. There are 19 tabs open, three of them are glitching and where the fuck is that music coming from?”
I’ve dabbled in guided meditation, using the assistance of the app Headspace, but I abandoned that when the seven-day free trial ended. In preparation for this story, though, I signed up for a half-day silent meditation retreat at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit; along with regular community meditation sessions, they offer the retreat the first Saturday of most months.
True to form, I arrived promptly five minutes late. The teacher ushered me in whispered breath into a large room, Buddha at the helm. My fellow meditators were already in position, sitting cross-legged on large pillows, bean bag cushions under their bums and facing the walls. The instructor led me to one of the few remaining spots, right near him at the head of the class, as karma would have it.
He gave a few last-minute instructions as I locked eyes with a cute, dreadlocked girl seated right next to me. I was happy to see another brown face. She and I silently mouthed “hi.” The teacher said to us, “I’d tell you to have fun, but have whatever you have,” and we were off.
I sat up straight, legs crossed, hands resting lightly on my knees and aimed to focus on my breath and nothing else. Well, the thoughts came knocking, but as I’d read to do, I tried my best not to rudely shoo them away or chastise them for having dared to interrupt but to instead acknowledge the intrusion, politely explain that I was currently engaged and send them off.
This worked pretty well, but I found that just as I’d get back to my breathing, another thought would come knocking. Oh well. I’d get back into my groove. A lot of it felt like that 10 minutes between tucking yourself into bed and actually falling asleep. I’d embrace that fuzzy feeling for a while, but then that felt too passive, and also, I was worried I’d actually fall asleep.
The other problem was the burn. I’m a notorious sloucher, so to align my spine, unsupported, for that extended time forced me to engage muscles in my back, shoulders and chest that are used to just phoning it in. Workout or meditation? I couldn’t tell. But I tried, as best I could, to ignore the pain, remind myself that it existed apart from the me in my mind and return to my breath. It got easier after a while, and the schedule was mercifully 20 minutes on, 10 minutes off with a walking meditation tossed in the middle.
Afterwards, I cornered the dreadlocked girl, Reatta Jefferson of Detroit, in the temple’s kitchen. This was her first retreat as well, though she told me she’d attended a few of the temple’s community sessions, and she’s been meditating on her own, on and off, for about four years, “since I’ve been on my spiritual journey.”
Jefferson said she was first introduced to Buddhist principles by the lessons her kids’ martial arts teachers impart during classes and training. She says, “I just want to give my children solid foundational principles. They go to church with their dad, and I don’t go to church. So, they’re like, ‘OK mom, we know you’re about peace and love but . . . ’” She says she wants to be able to frame her principles in a digestible format and be able to field questions about her personal philosophies and spirituality – and have information to back it up.
Though Still Point Abbott “Anzen” Melanie Davenport reminds that mindfulness meditation is not at odds with the Christian faith. She says, “I think the practice is a great way for black people to practice compassion for themselves, especially when the world is closing in on us. I’ve heard meditation and mindfulness practices described as ‘listening to God instead of just to talking to Him or Her.’”
Davenport adds, “Your first task, just embarking on a regular meditation practice, is to learn how to exist in the moment and not time travel. Meaning, when you’re sitting, you’re not thinking about what happened before that moment or what happens after. You learn to exist with things the way they are – in your own head, rather. Mindfulness – as they call it these days – is just an offshoot of learning how to do that. If you can’t learn how to quiet or control your own mind, how much effort are you going to extend to controlling anything else outside of you?”
Health and Wellness
Renowned psychologist Dr. Gail Parker says, “A meditative mind is not a quiet mind. It is an observed mind.” Parker shuttered her traditional practice about four years ago and is now a certified yoga therapist and yoga therapy educator with the Beaumont School of Yoga Therapy in Royal Oak. Here, she employs yoga and meditation as therapeutic healing modalities for self-care practices and to restore and maintain emotional balance, with a focus on race-based stress and trauma.
“In meditation, as well as in all forms of yoga – particularly in restorative yoga – you use breath as a focal point. We’re always breathing no matter where we are, no matter what’s going on. And once you learn that your breath is a conduit and a way of supporting health and restoration and growth, and once you learn how to utilize your breath in that way, you can do that anywhere,” she says.
“You can decrease anxiety by using certain breathing techniques. You can elevate a mood by using certain breathing techniques and move beyond depressive states, for example. These are not miraculous cures and they’re not quick fixes, but over time, as you become more involved and engaged in a meditation practice – particularly like in recovery – it teaches self-regulation. It teaches you how to pause before you act on the impulse to do something that may not be in your best interest.”
Before Beaumont, Parker taught meditation training to peer recovery coaches at Detroit Recovery Project, the drug rehabilitation nonprofit. “The model was designed to be culturally relevant for the primarily African American population that the organization served.”
In 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins published a study for which they combed through nearly 19,000 meditation program studies, including 47 trials for which self-selection biases were accurately accounted. They concluded that mindfulness meditation programs, in particular, produced small improvements in anxiety, depression and pain, with moderate evidence and small improvements in stress. The evidence gathered was insufficient to indicate a significant improvement in attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep or weight.
It’s thought that meditation works by quieting the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight system responsible for anxiety, tension, fatigue and depression – while activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
The Journal of the American Heart Association published a study in 2009 for which researchers randomly assigned 201 African Americans the task of either transcendental meditation (not the same as mindfulness meditation) or attending educational classes in traditional risk reduction, like dietary changes and exercise.
After nine years, the group that meditated showed a 47% reduction in heart attacks, strokes and death. The AHA analyzed this and multiple other studies in 2017, and deduced a possible benefit of meditation on cardiovascular health – but said that the quality and quantity of the data was modest and that more research is needed.
Data shmata. Top meditation apps Calm and Headspace enjoyed 8 million and 5 million downloads respectively in 2018 alone, according to Sensor Tower, which analyzes app figures. Like our ancient ancestors, we’re still in search of enlightenment and clarity, and these and similar apps are promising to show you the path, if you can afford it. Headspace offers an annual subscription for $69.99, billed after a 14-day free trial, or you can opt for a month-to-month commitment for $12.99 per month, billed after a seven-day free trial, which works out to $155.88 annually.
Most meditation and yoga instructors are white. Parker says her black patients and others she’s spoken to in her work believe that the benefits offered by meditation would be enhanced if the instructors looked like them and shared the culture, but she says yoga and meditation training is very expensive.
“The expense factor in and of itself kind of makes it challenging for members of our community to participate in those particular trainings,” she says. “Bringing the conversation about racially and culturally relevant modalities is important. It’s time for us to start having the conversation if yoga and meditation are to benefit all of us.”
Of African Americans in particular, Parker says, “We live in a culture that is embedded in trauma, unhealed trauma” cause by wars, street violence and centuries of racism, experienced firsthand and indirectly. “When you are chronically stressed, that means you’re not even aware that you’re stressed. You’re just – quote – ‘managing your stress.’” Which she says is not the same as actually dealing with it and working to heal it.
Head of wellness brand W.I.F.E. Comma (soon to be W.I.F.E. Your Life), Toni Jones echoes the doctor’s sentiments. She says, “The black community, first of all, has to understand how rooted they are with divinity. We have been indoctrinated with so much carnality and ego and trauma that we almost have a cultural identity with struggle. But, before that, our identity was rooted in divinity and royalty, and when we connect to that, we can give ourselves more permission to remember our souls and remember spiritual maintenance.”
That one retreat at Still Point, lengthy as it was, didn’t transform me in any profound way, but I’m even more intrigued and more apt to give meditation a real try in the new year. If nothing else, it felt strangely productive to sit silently with myself and do nothing, something I hardly ever do. Somehow my barrage of thoughts seemed way less scary in the quiet place; could it be that the noise I use to distract is actually counteractive?
It felt mighty to take some semblance of control over my own thoughts, to wear my angst instead of letting it wear me. As we wrapped the session, the teacher read from The Way of the Bodhisattva, a text written in 700 A.D. by the Buddhist monk Shantideva. The passage concluded: “… For the sake of all that lives do I conceive the Spirit of Enlightenment, and likewise shall I too follow these practices.”