Ten minutes into my first meditation class it occurred to me that, outside of sleeping, I hadn’t sat that still and quiet for years. It’s harder than you think. To get things underway, all I had to do was settle into a comfortable position, keep my back straight, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing, counting each inhalation and exhalation. Within minutes my mind was howling, as random thoughts, worries, and minutiae filled my head. But then, as time ticked by, something wonderful happened. The mental noise subsided, and I fell into a steady rhythm where I was able to turn inward and really concentrate on the breath leaving and entering my body. Soon the instructor sounded a bell, indicating the first part of the meditation class was over. While it had only been 15 minutes, it still felt like a victorious accomplishment. Now if I could only keep the good vibes going as I explored this ancient practice at a couple of local businesses.My instructor, Dale Guadagna, started meditating in the mid-1990s as a way to relieve stress from his job, which required him to travel every week. “I had a lot of stress and anxiety and needed to do something,” he says. Using instructional DVDs, he’d meditate in his hotel room at the end of the day. The routine helped calm his nerves, which led Guadagna to The Peaceful Dragon in Charlotte, where he began martial arts training. After years of practice, Guadagna earned a certification in Tai Chi, which involves focusing on specific body movements as a form of meditation. Guadagna opened the Lake Norman Tai Chi Center with his wife Maricris in 2009. He recently moved to a new location in Cornelius, where he teaches a variety of classes, including a Chinese form of meditation known as Ch’an. Today, Guadagna says he tries to meditate for at least 20 minutes every morning, and it’s had a profound impact on his life: “I’m more focused, relaxed, and happy than I’ve ever been.” Meditation has been around for eons, within nearly all religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and New Age practices. Of course you don’t have to align yourself with any particular religion or belief system to meditate or reap its rewards. Dr. Cheryl Dodds, a board-certified psychiatrist at Carolinas Psychiatry and Behavioral Wellness in Huntersville, says it’s well documented that even a few minutes of meditation a day can lower blood pressure, combat autoimmune diseases, improve sleep, relieve stress and anxiety, and make you a happier, nicer person. Far more than glorified napping, Dodds says meditation actually changes brain wave patterns and triggers the release of chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, which help create feelings of compassion, euphoria, and calmness. But some people find meditation challenging, even upsetting, says Dobbs. “People are so used to constantly multitasking and checking emails and texting that just being still and alone with their thoughts makes them uncomfortable.” Indeed, for many people, sitting still for an extended period of time is a struggle. But there are many physical activities you can incorporate into meditation that help occupy the mind. For example, Dodds says when she first started meditating about eight years ago she folded towels. “And I mean I folded baskets and baskets of towels, and focused all my attention on that. Then I moved to walking meditation, and I would slowly walk around my house multiple times. It looked weird, but it worked.”Guadagna used a similar approach at the Lake Norman Tai Chi Center during my lesson. After the first 15-minute portion of the class, I assumed the same cross-legged position, but this time around I was instructed to focus solely on consuming a small cup of tea and a cookie—the smell, tastes, and sensations of chewing and swallowing.Following that was a session of walking meditation, during which Guadagna and I both walked in circles around the room, swinging our arms, focusing on each step. It may have looked strange, but at the end of the class, while not quite floating on a cloud of Zen tranquility, I definitely felt calmer and refreshed—and eager to learn more. The next evening I attended a class with Gen Kelsang Tilopa, an ordained Buddhist monk who teaches meditation at The Bindu in Cornelius. I had to fight rush hour traffic on the way there, and by the time I arrived I was frazzled and annoyed. But the stress melted away as, along with four other people, I sat and faced Tilopa. He was dressed in traditional Buddhist robes and spoke in a soothing, almost hypnotic voice, which by itself helped put me in a meditative state of mind. The class started with a brief meditation session, and then Tilopa talked about aspects of Buddhist philosophy. On this particular night the main thrust of the discussion was a pretty universal message: that we should live life to the fullest and be kind and compassionate because we could die at any time. Tilopa concluded the class by instructing everyone to meditate on the evening’s discussion and how we could apply it to our everyday lives.Like Guadagna, Tilopa has been meditating for about 20 years, but discovered it later in life. Born in Scotland, he became interested in Eastern religion and philosophy and, at 50, started taking meditation classes with a young monk. He was ordained in 1998, and has taught meditation all across the Southeast; he’s the resident teacher at the Vajradhara Buddhist Center in Charlotte. Now 70, Tilopa says meditation has drastically changed his life, as he’s more peaceful and less reactive. “I can’t remember the last time I got angry,” he says. “Meditation is a way of familiarizing our minds with ways of thinking that create peace and happiness,” he says. “If we can experience those feelings more often, ultimately we lead a better life. Happiness, after all, is a state of mind, not how big our house is or how much money we have in the bank.” I’d like to say that I embraced all these words of wisdom and experiences, started meditating daily, and now live a life of contented bliss. That didn’t happen. But what did happen is that I now make more of an effort to set aside 10 minutes a day to simply sit, let go of the noise in my head, and breathe. Deadlines still stress me out, I still get angry when someone cuts me off in traffic, and I still get irked when my daughter uses my laptop computer as a coloring book. But now, at least, I have some new tools to deal with the stres of being a wonderfully imperfect and flawed human being.
Try This at HomeGen Kelsang Tilopa says that meditation is a skill that takes practice, just like it takes practice to improve your golf game. To get started, follow these simple steps, which you can try daily, starting at 10 minutes each session. Sit comfortably, either in a chair or cross-legged on the ground, with your hands resting in your lap, keeping your back straight, neck relaxed, and chin slightly tucked in. Close your eyes, and breathe through your nose, focusing on each breath, observing any sensations you feel in your body or any smells, sounds, or tastes you detect. Turn your mind inward, count each inhalation and exhalation, and focus on how your body feels. It’s impossible to shut your mind down, so when thoughts start to pop up, don’t get frustrated or admonish yourself, simply turn your attention back to the breathing, start counting again, and try to block out everything else. Start to become aware of how your body feels, and any sounds, smells, or tastes. Slowly open your eyes. Picture in your mind what you’re going to do next so you don’t lose the calm and awareness you’ve created.
Lake Norman Tai Chi Center20823 North Main St., Suite 117, Cornelius704-900-3005www.lakenormantaichi.com
The Bindu11138-C Treynorth Drive, Cornelius704-237-3635www.thebindu.com; www.meditationcharlotte.org