Be in the Moment Through Meditation
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.