If the word meditation conjures images of a Buddhist guru sitting cross-legged in a Himalayan cave, you’ve got some catching up to do.
Devotees of meditation do take time each day to sit quietly, close their eyes and focus on their breathing.
But they could also be practicing while sitting in traffic, standing in grocery lines, or stuck in a contentious meeting.
“It’s available to us in a lot of life circumstances,” said Sharon Salzberg, an internationally known leader of meditation retreats and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. “You don’t have to close your eyes. No one even has to know you’re doing it.”
Salzberg, who helped bring Asian meditation to the United States in the 1970s, will be in Charlotte and Durham for lectures next week.
As she does in her latest book, “Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation,” Salzberg will talk about how meditation trains the mind to concentrate. It also helps people become more mindful of the moment, instead of worrying about the past or the future, and to be more compassionate toward themselves and others.
“It’s really mental training,” Salzberg said, “in the same way you might go to a gym for physical exercise.”
Like exercise, meditation benefits both the mind and body. Modern scientific techniques and instruments, such as MRI, have enabled researchers to document that meditation lowers blood pressure, relieves chronic pain, reduces stress and protects the brain against aging.
Thanks in part to high-profile practitioners such as famed NBA coach Phil Jackson, meditation is growing in popularity with mainstream America.
There was a time when you couldn’t even say the word without people rolling their eyes, said Alexis Stein, one of five leaders of the Insight Meditation Community of Charlotte.
“People are so blitzed out with stress,” said Stein, a marriage and family therapist. “Meditation is really catching on.”
Secular, with roots in religion
While meditation has roots in religion, becoming a Buddhist is not a requirement.
“Many people come who are either strongly allied with another faith tradition, or have no faith tradition,” Salzberg said.
One of the most popular forms of meditation – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – was adapted for the secular health care setting by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at University of Massachusetts.
Since 1979, more than 19,000 people have completed his eight-week program there, learning to cope with pain and other chronic illnesses.
Some who have taken the course now teach it in centers around the world. At Duke Integrative Medicine, more than 2,500 students have taken the course, taught by eight instructors.
“It’s all about mindfulness,” said Dr. Ron Vereen, a Durham psychiatrist and one of the Duke instructors. “Most people have probably experienced it, when we’re out in nature, and for a moment, we’re at one with what’s happening … That kind of paying attention – on purpose, in the present moment, with nonjudgmental awareness – it’s different from ordinary attention.”
But with practice, it can become more automatic.
“I use every experience as an opportunity to practice, whether I’m talking on the phone to an insurance company and getting more and more irritated … or enjoying an epicurean meal,” Vereen said. “Mindfulness helps us live larger.”
Joy LiBethe, who started the Insight Meditation Community of Charlotte in 2010, said she had been meditating for years without really knowing it.
As a child, several deaths of loved ones caused her to spend a lot of time contemplating the meaning of life. She often sat alone for hours in a cemetery.
As a teenager and young adult, LiBethe tried all types of meditation. In the 1980s, she became aware of Salzberg’s Insight Meditation Society and liked how it blended with her work as a psychologist.
“It’s helping you gain insight into the way your mind is working,” she said. “We just live so much in the past … or we start worrying about the future. The more we can live in the moment, the more peace we have.”
Surrounded by silence
On a recent evening, the Insight Meditation Community of Charlotte met at a fitness studio in the Cotswold neighborhood. Five men and 16 women sat in a circle. About half were cross-legged on floor pillows; the rest in straight-back chairs.
A bell sounded for the start of the 30-minute meditation period. Everyone got quiet and closed their eyes.
Debbie George, the evening’s guest leader, guided them into the practice:
“One who is relaxed and centered becomes concentrated and aware,” she said.
“One who is concentrated and aware in the body and mind sees things clearly.
“One who sees things clearly lets go of the ways of struggle of the mind.”
A fan hummed in the background. Cars whooshed by outside. One woman coughed, left the room and returned a few minutes later.
No one seemed to notice.
Experienced practitioners know that when the mind starts to wander, they can bring their attention back to their breath – inhaling and exhaling. When it wanders again, they just bring it back. Over and over.
Leaders of the Charlotte group say they’ve seen tangible effects from daily meditation.
“When we do workshops, we eat in silence,” said Stein, the therapist. That forces people to be more mindful about what they eat, to appreciate the tastes and eat only enough to be satisfied.
Results of regular meditation
Ordinarily, “most of us read or talk when we’re eating, so you don’t taste your food,” she said. “I am convinced that’s why there’s so much obesity.”
Ward Simmons, a certified public accountant and the meditation group’s board chairman, has been meditating for 13 years and says it has made him more compassionate and patient.
If somebody does or says something hurtful, he’s able to “just pause and observe what is happening, and think, ‘What’s a skillful response here?’ instead of just automatically reacting.”
When standing in line at a restaurant or a bank, Simmons said, “I bring my attention to my breath and feel the breeze on my skin, or feel my feet grounded on the floor. When we meditate, we bring our attention to body sensations that would otherwise go unnoticed.”
The primary goal is not to avoid becoming impatient, he said, but to become aware that impatience is present. And then to be able to make the choice to be patient.
“I undertook the practice to change my mind,” Simmons said, “but the most important thing that has happened is that it has changed my heart.”