In the late 1980s, Corinne Mol was a highly accomplished college student with a plum job editing the student newspaper. But she wasn’t happy. “I was overworked, overachieving, and overthinking,” says the 48-year-old Shady resident, who was also plagued by stress-induced insomnia and depression. Desperate for change, she signed up for a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat and hitchhiked seven hours to get there. Mol knew nothing about meditation but found herself in a silent, monklike immersion, waking at 4am and sitting for up to 10 hours a day. It was hard: Her back hurt and she craved movement. Yet, as the days passed, she felt calmer, learning to let her thoughts go and drop into the present moment. Mol took intense pleasure in the smallest things: food, nature, her own breath. She recalls with a laugh, “When it was over and we were able to break silence, the first thing I said was, ‘Wow, that was better than drugs.’”
Science Says It Works
Scientists have been studying the benefits of meditation for over 30 years, and the news only gets better. Herbert Benson pioneered the field in the 1970s, when he turned his attention to a group of Transcendental Meditation practitioners and found that the body responded to meditation with a drop in heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure, and metabolic rate—all antidotes to the body’s stress response. But new research goes further still, showing that meditation can actually change the shape of the brain and rewire it for the better. A recent review of 52 studies on people who practice mindfulness meditation found heightened activity in brain areas associated with attention and concentration. And in January of this year, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital reported that subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had increases in gray-matter density in the hippocampus and other brain regions associated with memory, self-awareness, and empathy, and decreases in gray-matter density in the amygdala, the center of anxiety and stress.
Yet all of this white-coat science pales next to the hands-on experience of dedicated meditators themselves, who will let you in on a secret: They have found a way to be happy. “People come to meditation because they don’t want to suffer anymore,” says Mol, who went on to attend several more retreats after college and eventually started to teach Taoist meditation alongside a complementary focus on Qi-Gong. For Mol, meditation was her respite from a mind that couldn’t turn off. Now she helps her clients develop inner resources so they don’t feel tossed around by the whims of their emotions and reactions. “The negative, critical inner voice loses its power, and the mind becomes gentler with itself and the world,” says Mol. “You learn how to be present with whatever happens, gaining spaciousness and a greater relaxation into life. It’s about self-acceptance: You wake up to who you really are, discovering that contentment and compassion are your natural state. Self-acceptance can then blossom into self-love and a love of life, however it arrives.”
The Beatles did it. Al Gore does it, and so does Richard Gere. Nearly every spiritual tradition from Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity offers some form of meditation somewhere in its doctrines or teachings. It was The Beatles who almost single-handedly imported Transcendental Meditation to the West after their famous 1968 trip to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India. Based on ancient Vedic philosophy, Transcendental Meditation involves meditating on a mantra and bringing the attention back to this core phrase whenever the mind wanders.
Mindfulness meditation—the subject of so many of recent studies—came into fashion in the 1990s thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical doctor and student of Zen Buddhism who has made a life’s work out of integrating the two practices. You can credit Kabat-Zinn, author of two best-selling books, with making “mindfulness” a household word among the progressive set. The word suggests complete engagement with the present moment, which may seem elusive but becomes accessible through practice. Meditators begin with quiet sitting and a focus on the breath, and then move on to watch every thought as it comes and goes, whether it’s worry, fear, discomfort, hope, or bliss. When thoughts arise, they’re not suppressed or judged but simply noted and observed, and the breath is an ever-present anchor.
Also rooted in Buddhism, Vipassana (or insight) meditation has quietly revolutionized the lives of practitioners since the time of Buddha. A Burmese teacher named S. N. Goenka has helped Vipassana spread in the West by opening a series of retreat centers, including one in the Berkshires, in Shelburne, Massachusetts. Retreats are free, including room and board; first-time retreaters are not even permitted to make a donation. The 10-day course is rigorous, with 10 hours a day of meditation that explores the connection between mind and body through attention to the breath and bodily sensations. “At first you feel the pains in your body more, but then you learn to relax around the pain and it lessens,” says Mol. “The mental pain of resisting it dissipates as well. You learn to stop resisting life—and life itself becomes less painful.”
Choosing a Path
You can do it on a zafu cushion or on a simple mat. You can do it in yoga’s pretzel-legged lotus pose, or you can prop yourself up in a straight-backed chair. You can do it in nature, walking, with a focus on your body in each slow step. Some meditations fill the imagination with vivid Technicolor dreamscapes while others aim to leave it as blank as an empty film screen. There are meditations to satisfy the most sacred and the most secular of mindsets.
Clark Strand—a Woodstock-based meditation teacher, former Zen Buddhist monk, and author of spiritual books—has studied in seven or eight traditions and has explored several meditation techniques within each one. He draws from this wealth of experience to help groups of students find their own personal practice. “I don’t teach or favor any single modality because each person is predisposed towards a certain kind of practice already, oftentimes without realizing it,” says Strand. “The last thing I want to do is introduce an element of conformity that makes certain people feel comfortable but alienates others.” Strand compares his teaching style to the 12-step movement, which favors a spiritual but not a religious approach. “I invite people to explore the possibility of having a practice in their lives. The only important thing is that they have one—and that it works for them.”
Strand’s own practice has evolved over the years into what he calls Green Meditation, a deep meditation practiced for up to two hours at natural waking points in the middle of the night. Green Meditation grew out of his experience with insomnia and sleep fragmentation, which Strand chooses to redefine as “the hour of God”—an ideal time to practice. He meets with a meditation group every Thursday evening in Woodstock, and he’ll be leading a Green Meditation workshop and retreat October 2-7 at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck. “My goal is to help each person find a connection to the numinous or the spiritual, which is natural for everyone,” says Strand.
Meditation or Medication
Once you have a practice established, it can become a sanctuary—a place to work through whatever life brings. That’s how it is for Lisa Matkin, a nationally known yoga and meditation teacher based in Garrison and New York City. Matkin started meditating two decades ago after a bout of drug and alcohol addiction in her 20s. At the time, the tall blonde beauty was working as a model in New York City and also struggling with eating disorders. Through therapy Matkin was able to move past her addictions, but it was the meditation that really helped clear her food issues. “Eventually, I gave up my loathing of the physical body because meditation tapped me into my spiritual body,” says Matkin. “I found a love there for myself. I found wisdom, rather than using my intellect. I stopped feeling stupid, I stopped feeling ugly, I stopped feeling like I wasn’t enough. Through meditation you remember who you really are and what you came here to do, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Even when a meditation practice is going well, life happens and obstacles can come up. After the birth of her first child, Tatiana, over nine years ago, Matkin developed severe postpartum depression. Her doctor suggested that she take medication, but Matkin said, “Wait. Let me try going deeper into my practice.” She chose meditation—along with daily yoga and a strong “wise women” support network—over antidepressants, but she knew she had to change the way she was approaching it. “There are two ways to go with meditation. I was using it to get out of my feelings, but I had to go in and face them,” says Matkin. After developing more intimacy with herself through practice, and also sharing the process with her support network, the layers of shame lifted—and so did the depression. “If I hadn’t had a practice already in place, I would never have gotten through it without drugs.”
But meditation is not a cure-all. Matkin, who works with many addicts and trauma victims, cautions against tossing the prescriptions too fast. “If you need medication, take it. If you don’t have a meditation practice already, you’ll be putting too much pressure on it to heal yourself. Western medicine has its place. In the meantime, build your practice. You can wean yourself off meds, but that has to be done with an expert. These drugs are doing some pretty intense things to the brain. And so is the meditation.”
Take a Seat
To reap the healing fruits of meditation, it’s imperative to commit to a regular practice. Some begin by trying out a meditation group like Strand’s that meets locally. Others prefer the type of boot-camp immersion you find at the Vipassana centers, which help students build a mature, deep practice relatively quickly. Guided sessions are available as audio downloads online—including a Cleansing Meditation created by Matkin exclusively to accompany this article at www.chronogram.com. Matkin will also be teaching a Moving Meditations workshop that blends meditation, yoga, and pranayama (breath work) at The Matkin Yoga Garrison Studio on August 12 from 7 to 9:30pm.
“Meditation is counterintuitive, right?” says Matkin. “I’ve got a ton of stuff that I’m worried about; I’ve got a million things to do. So I’m supposed to sit and do nothing?” She laughs. “Meditation is about learning to pause and listen. It’s a wonderful way to get past your willfulness—that ego-driven, fearful self—and to find your highest wisdom.”
Corinne Mol (845) 679-5472
Clark Strand (845) 514-0037; firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Matkin (917) 733-8779; www.matkinyoga.com
A Cleansing Meditation created by Lisa Matkin exclusively for Chronogram readers is embedded with this article at www.chronogram.com.