Be in the Moment Through Meditation

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Practicing meditation is said to reduce stress and pain, while boosting happiness. Here, Marni Jackson gets mindful.

The first time I meditated was in the 1960s, in an airless studio above a store on Yonge Street. Both yoga and yogurt were still unknown in Toronto. Our teacher was an East Indian gentleman dressed all in white, with a white beard.

“Breathe into your third eye,” he instructed us.

I breathed into my third eye and felt very silly. It’s not too late to take up Highland dancing instead, I thought.

But by the end of the meditation, I became aware of a blue light gently blooming behind my eyelids – a blue light I now associate with the long, sinuous alpha waves of a brain that is allowing itself to relax.

A few years later, as an enterprising hippie footloose in Europe, I sat in with a more advanced group of meditators doing some Kundalini yoga in a dank stone farmhouse. Kundalini can be strong stuff.

“Imagine your consciousness as a serpent coiled at the base of your spine,” said our instructor. “Imagine it rising up the spine to the top of your head where it becomes a shower of white light.”

Okay, I thought, I’ll give it a whirl.

But because I was new to the practice, something strange happened during that session –an alarming slippage of the self. A sense of disintegration. There was some white light involved, too. I broke out of the moment, but it left me disoriented for days. Apparently, I had poked the serpent with my blunt stick and, because I hadn’t laid the proper groundwork (a daily practice and a good teacher), the serpent bit back.

That was my first experience with the potential of meditation to wake you up – either gradually and gently or all at once.

I didn’t go back to meditation for several decades until Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Massachussets professor of medicine and the author of Full Catastrophe Living, launched the mindfulness movement, with its focus on stress reduction.

I was researching a book on chronic pain at the time and attended some workshops where people who were recovering from serious injuries learned to use MBSR, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, to help them cope with severe pain.

Meditation doesn’t banish pain, but it can dramatically change our relationship to it. (As some Buddhists like to say, “Suffering = pain x resistance,” and mindfulness helps reduce our instinctive resistance.)

Now, mindfulness programs are popping up everywhere from corporate retreats to prison rehab, as more evidence pours in about the measurable and positive changes that meditation can have on the brain. In this device-driven era, we’re starved for peaceful focus, and mindfulness addresses that.

But what about the spirit or the soul – those old-fashioned concepts? For me, the downside of mindfulness is its popularity as yet another striving, self-improvement “tool”: meditation as a means to an end. I was hankering after something with a more spiritual, communal component that didn’t necessarily come with a religion attached to it.

And I think I’ve found it.

For several years, I’ve been a regular at the Monday night gatherings of a Toronto group called The Consciousness Explorers Club. (Yes, pith helmets are featured on the website.)

The CEC’s slogan is “meditate – celebrate – activate.” The group truly lives up to its name, offering weekly meditation sessions at the Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre, regular group discussions focused on social change and monthly dance parties in a mid-town bar. (Apparently, DJing can be a spiritual practice, too.)

The CEC was created by Jeff Warren, an author driven by the over-thinking and isolation of the writing life into the practice of meditation. (His book The Head Trip maps out consciousness in its sleeping, dreaming and waking states, and he’s at work on a new book about the impact of advanced meditation.)

At first, the CEC was just a handful of friends, mostly other overthinking writers (I was one) who got together in the living room of his Kensington Market house. Five or six of us would sit on yard-sale pillows and meditate on the whoosh of the ancient furnace going on and off.

Now, every week about 50 people fill the big room at Octopus Garden, where Jeff leads a 45-minute meditation followed by a session of “social practice” – playful experiments in applying the insights of meditation to our relationships.

Jeff’s approach draws on a broad range of disciplines from Zen Buddhism to neuroscience, but his main teacher is the veteran meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Shinzen is a delightful nerdy, hyper-rational figure with a PhD in Buddhist studies. His instructions are simple but subtle and rooted in sensory experience. Disentangling our thoughts from what we see, hear and feel is where it all starts.

I love these Monday nights and always leave them feeling clearer and calmer. I particularly like the list of things I’m NOT doing whenever I meditate: texting, posting on Facebook or doing online banking while watching Game of Thrones. The CEC is a warm, lighthearted community that thrives outside the domain of social media – no small feat.

This year, I took the next step and signed up for a week of daily yoga and meditation at a resort in Mexico – a retreat organized by the CEC along with the Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre. But I had one small anxiety: would I, at 69, be the oldest person in the room? And would that matter? Most of the CEC regulars are in the mid-30s.

I’m okay with being the creakiest one in yoga class but I wondered how I would fare with marathon sessions on the meditation cushion.

Mar de Jade is a small family-run resort on Chacala Beach, north of Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita. It was established 30 years ago by physician Laura del Valle, who has also created a medical clinic and an after school program for the local population – as well as a 17-acre organic farm that provides fresh produce for the resort’s excellent Mexican-Californian meals.

Most guests are there for yoga retreats or “wellness conferences,” so not a lot of late-night karaoke goes on. But the bar makes an excellent Margarita, and the rooms are set into a lush, jungly cliffside that overlooks a secluded beach, so the comfort level is high.

Our group of 21, near-equally divided between men and women, turned out to be mostly in their mid-40s – old enough to afford this sort of vacation and young enough to get up into Wheel pose. There were two psychiatrists, two yoga teachers-in-training and several people like me on their first retreat. The meals were served buffet-style on a patio facing the ocean, which gave us all a chance to sit down and get to know each other – but not too much.

The week had just the right balance of silence, solitude and socializing.

The days began at 6 a.m. with a silent half-hour of meditation, followed by an hour of  yoga led by Scott Davis, the retreat’s co-organizer and a senior instructor at Octopus Garden. We gathered in a broad bright pavilion that faced the ocean, where the waves seemed to breathe along with us.

For the guided meditation sessions later in the morning, we made our way up a spiral staircase to a glass-walled room at the top of a tower. Draped in blankets, we sat in a circle, drew a few deep breaths and closed our eyes.

The goal of meditation, Jeff reminded us, is not to banish thought but simply to become more aware of how our mind behaves. How it skitters and skates. (Mine behaves like a raccoon: it tends to get trapped in small spaces and make loud noises when I’m trying to be quiet.)

Jeff’s teaching style is lively and hyper-articulate. “Trying to describe how consciousness behaves is like putting Posties on the ocean,” he said.

Then he used another simile to explain how easily our experience can narrow down.

“It’s as if we live in this big mansion but we keep thinking it’s much smaller. We say I can’t go in the living room. That room didn’t work out … and the attic is definitely off-limits. Can’t go back in there – until we end up living in a tiny vestibule of our lives, saying ‘No, no, it’s okay. This is fine.’

“The point of meditation,” he continued, “is to become more aware of the inner space that is always available to us, once we learn to focus on it.”

After the bell sounded to end these sessions, we would share notes. Some had wildly dramatic, cinematic experiences (“It was like my heart had giant nostrils and was breathing it all in.”). Others were too distracted by inner chatter to settle down. But even a ragged “unsuccessful” meditation can have a good effect.

“It’s like training a puppy,” Jeff said. “Whenever your mind runs off, gently lead it back to your focus. Just keep doing that, over and over, and eventually it’ll get the idea.”

Afternoons were free. One day when the surf picked up, I tried a little bodyboarding and got shredded in the washing machine of a big wave. Sand entered every orifice, and I staggered out of the surf coated in dirt, my bathing suit askew. There is no legal cut-off age for bodyboarding, but I decided to take a pass on the full-day board rental. Maybe next year.

Every day before dinner, most of us gathered for a session of Restorative Yoga, led by Scott. This kind of yoga involves lots of paraphernalia: blocks, ropes, blankets, bolsters. It’s a bit like an S&M dungeon. The ropes were attached to the walls, so that we could dangle in positions that take the strain of gravity off the spine. Scott’s instructions were simple but knowledgeable, without a shred of attitude. I’m a desultory yoga student but I’ve had four or five teachers over the years, and he’s at the top of the heap.

And the days slipped by, with wacky after-dinner sessions that were a taster’s menu of conscious exploration. One night, Jeff DJed a “dance meditation” that got us moving around the room in ever-sillier ways. Another evening, we were given an introduction to the basics of Tantra (eye-gazing but no group sex required). We walked across the lawn barefoot under the full moon, with Jeff telling us to “imagine your feet as hands.”

There was a campfire on the beach and the singing of Broadway tunes. Indeed, at times the retreat more closely resembled a kid’s 10th birthday party. Or an adult camp for body, mind and soul. All in a good way.

I soon realized that my anxiety about being too old for this kind of vacation was exactly wrong. In fact, meditation tries to cultivate the very qualities that tend to deepen with age – perspective, acceptance, and self-awareness.

“Being present in the world” is something the old never take for granted as we face our mortality.

This kinship between meditation and the aging process is something Jeff has explored in the regular column he contributes to the online magazine Psychology Tomorrow.

“Contemplative techniques like meditation …” he writes, “allow practitioners to experience the best of old age’s wisdom and perspective in the prime of life, instead of at the end. You could say they accelerate the aging-gracefully gradient.”

The aging process, he says, can either be your ally or your enemy. Meditation helps us see age as a merging with broader, more impersonal concerns – as an “expansion of identity” rather than the opposite.

By the end of the week, I still hadn’t managed to get up into Wheel pose. But my experience of meditation had begun to shift.

It wasn’t simply the welcome blue light of my first time, 45 years earlier, or the ego-dissolution of my Kundalini freakout. It had some of the calm that a mindfulness practice provides, but there was more to it than that. I noticed that the effects of meditation were beginning to seep into the rest of my day.

Whenever I catch myself walking down the street caught up in some self-chiding inner narrative, oblivious to the world, I try to “come to my senses,” as I’ve learned to do in meditation. I reconnect with what I’m seeing, hearing, and feeling in my body – a simple but radical choreography of consciousness.

And for the next three seconds, I feel present and happy.