Richard and Suzanne Friedericks and myself traveled to Assisi, Italy five years ago to do a spiritual retreat with our teacher Cynthia Bourgeault. Looking back on that time, I can now recognize the significant turning point in my life that emerged at this propitious moment.
Five years ago during Easter vacation I was very sick and panicky. A recurrent stomach bug since mid-January had left my immune system in tatters and for the first time in my life, I wondered if maybe I would lead a short life. In desperation I googled “strengthen immune system” and, to my surprise, one of the top choices was meditation. “That does it,” I thought, “I’m doing this.” I was headed to Assisi, Italy for a retreat with my spiritual teacher, Cynthia Bourgeault, in three weeks’ time, and I had not embraced her spiritual practice of choice, a Christian form of meditation called Centering Prayer, despite having been thoroughly introduced to it by Father Basil Pennington in the mid-90’s. My health, my teachers, and Google were all in alignment. How could I refuse?
Five years on spiritual practices have become the new cornerstone of my educational approach, and I have a bubbling stream of enthusiasm for all things contemplative. Yet students regularly want to know what I really get out of it, a query I often ask myself. It’s hard for me, of course, to say with certainty about the benefits of something that is by nature so highly subjective. A year after I started Centering Prayer, however, I did record some fairly consistent changes: infusing spiritual practice in all my teaching, a non-reactive posture towards life, and a centering of identity in the heart, all of which remain prominent themes four years later. However, I recently read an article on mindfulness that better captures the changes over the last five years, which led to the writing of this piece.
Before starting, however, I want to say a brief word about my practice. I aim to meditate every day and have little resistance regarding this goal, but my intents are frequently interrupted by the demands of life. Looking at my life presently, I do a short 8-minute meditation most mornings with my teaching colleagues, engage in practices in my classes, and meditate at home or before bed frequently. While I can’t say I practice 20-minute twice as day – the normal prescription – it is a daily part of my experience, even if on some days for only a few minutes.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Thanks to researcher Hooria Jazaieri’s article on mindfulness, I now have some very useful conceptual categories with which to understand my own growth over the last five years. She describes a recent study in Germany:
“Seventy students ages 20-30 received pings via smartphone six times a day over the course of nine days. The pings included questions about the positive and negative emotions they had experienced recently, any unpleasant hassles that had occurred, and how mindful they had been, along three specific dimensions of mindfulness:
- Present-moment attention: The ability to focus on what is happening in the present (beyond your own activities).
- Nonjudgmental acceptance: Withholding judgment on your experiences, sensations, thoughts, behaviors, and emotional states (rather than agreeing with statements like “I thought some of my thoughts/feelings were slightly off”).
- Acting with awareness: The ability to focus your attention on your own activities rather than doing things mindlessly or automatically.”
The researchers found that these different dimensions of mindfulness were linked to different benefits. First, present-moment attention was the strongest predictor for increased positive emotions—the more attentive people said they were, the better they felt overall. Second, nonjudgmental acceptance was the strongest predictor for decreased negative emotions—the more people reported nonjudgmental acceptance in their lives, the less negative emotion they reported experiencing. For participants who had encountered a hassle in their day, adopting a nonjudgmental stance also seemed to protect their positive feelings (which took a bigger hit when people were less accepting of their hassles).”
This study succinctly explains my experience with spiritual practices over the last five years.
Present-moment attention: Every mindfulness teacher, including my spiritual teacher Cynthia, emphasizes the maxim “be here now.” As a matter of course now, I do strive to tune into a multitude of present-moment events throughout my day rather than being lost in ruminations and anxiety. To name the most frequent, I find myself concentrating on:
- My breath
- Sensations in my body, especially my fingertips and feet.
- The wind and weather
- Sights and sounds in my environment
- Trees and plants (after reading Stephen Buhner’s work).
As Cynthia says, these changes occur in nano-second increments, yet despite their transitory nature, it does seem to make a difference. I’ve come to believe that this shift of attention to the present moment has increased my sense of beauty, wonder, and awe of simply being alive. These microbursts of positivity nurture my inner self in small but decisive ways.
Non-judgmental acceptance: When I was growing up I had a voice in my head that seemed far more critical of myself than anyone else. “Why aren’t you like [him/her],” “Get your act together,” “Stop procrastinating” and other interior recriminations were ever-present self-talk in my head. I was aware of the internal contradiction that I was far tougher on myself than on my family members, colleagues or students, but I seemed powerless to change.
However, when I committed to a regular practice of Centering Prayer, which teaches letting go of all thoughts, I then began to realize, and diminish, the destructive power of my Inner Critic. Now I catch myself when I slip into self-critique; instead of berating myself repeatedly, I register the complaint, and decide if I should act on it or dismiss it rather than ruminating on it. As this research predicts, this newfound nonjudgmental acceptance has brought a greater sense of self-compassion into my life, resulting in less negative emotions.
Students frequently ask, then, if this relaxing of my inner disciplinarian has decreased my productivity. I can’t answer this question with certainty, but I find myself agreeing with Kristin Neff’s findings on self-compassion and motivation, that the Inner Critic may produce more short-term gain, but the individual suffers long-term. Perhaps I don’t push myself like I used to, but healing the contradiction between how I treat others and how I treat myself suggests a wholeness of spirit that I believe helps me approach life with greater equanimity and compassion.
Acting with Awareness: Again, every teacher speaks of doing everyday activities with mindfulness rather than acting out of “automatic pilot,” which was my regular habit before doing meditation. Being a teacher, I was glad to do anything I could mindlessly because I was on the anxious treadmill of always thinking about the endless myriad of preparations for classes and activities that has been my life as a high school teacher.
Yet doing spiritual practices has seemed to provide a microsecond of cushion or margin around my thoughts, feelings, and actions that allow me to be less reactive and more responsive. If I have a strong emotional response to a life event – those daily triggers – some part of me is now strengthened in its ability to detect that I’m “having a moment.” That brief red flag of self-observation gives me a chance to pause, breath, and reflect.
I often tell the story to my students of an incident a couple of years ago when I entered into an unexpectedly intense discussion with my boss about an issue I cared deeply about and was quite emotionally-laden for both of us. As the conversation and tension ratcheted up, somehow my body acted as that Early Warning System, but most oddly, it seemed to then act of its own accord. I felt myself breathe deeply from the belly, and it seemed to give me that split-second of awareness to think clearly and with less emotion. The conversation remained tense and frank, but not the kind of falling out that can be disastrous between colleagues. But what struck me about the whole event was the sense that my gut breathed me back into a state of awareness rather than the mind as “command center” saying, “Breathe, breathe! You are in a state of stress.”
Overall, the daily stress of school that previously threatened to overwhelm me seems far more manageable now. Just one example of this is that grinding my teeth was something my dentist noted years ago, but now this no longer seems to be an issue. Life still gets very busy, but my coping mechanisms are far more capable than some years ago.
More positive energy, fewer emotional dramas, and mindful action are all significant psychological gains that mindfulness has brought to me, but I’d like to address a couple of areas in the even more amorphous area of spiritual growth.
Ache to Yearning: Looking back some 15 years ago, I was in a slow burn existential crisis in my spiritual life. While Christianity still captured aspects of my imagination, there were at the same time so many holes that I had an underlying sense of angst. I still was doing exciting work with service-learning that kept me busy, engaged and even inspired – in imitation of the activist Christ in the Gospels – but the ultimate questions about God, spirit, human purpose, life after death, and more were left unaddressed. However, once I met Cynthia and began to understand something about the Wisdom Tradition, the contemplative core of the world’s religions, I came to understand that there was a mystical essence in every faith that could be practiced in very concrete terms. I could remain in my home faith of Christianity and at the same time learn from Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, indigenous cultures, and more. Although there was no single dramatic moment of change, there was a slow shifting from an ache of absence to a yearning for presence. This has resulted in a heightening of spiritual energy that has been palpable.
Letting Go of God: It seems that the big question for most people is whether a spiritual world – a subtler invisible realm of power – actually exists, all of which can be boiled down in its most basic form to the question, “Do you believe in God?” Hearing this bald question today seems to assume an Otherness that is distant and separate from the here and now. Five years on into meditation, it seems I’ve let go of this abstract notion of “God.” What has emerged in its place is the implicit assumption that these subtler energies exist everywhere. Ethical decisions, prayer, singing, spiritual practices, serving the poor, etc, are all carried out in connection with this invisible realm that I believe is very real. At the same time, I refrain from trying to describe what it is; rather, it becomes the air I breathe, the ocean I swim in. It is sensed best when not looking for it directly.
This brings to mind the time Albert Einstein was asked what was the most important question that we need to answer to today. He replied, “Is the universe a friendly place?” Whether the universe/God/Reality cares about our existence remains a sea change question that each of us has to face. The end result of these subtle, but pervasive changes in my worldview has been a more relaxed relationship with the universe. I seem indeed to have a greater sense of confidence that the universe is on our side.
With the help of Hooria Jazaieri’s research, I can say after five years of regular spiritual practice, that I have more positive engagement in the present moment, less attachment to negative emotions, and take more deliberate action responses, all of which benefit my psychological health and relationships. Having plugged some of my energy leaks, I can invest more of myself in less fear-based and more loving energy states. At the same time and as a consequence of these internal rearrangements, existential emptiness has slowly given way to promising engagement with my spiritual self.
In closing, I would like to send out a future intention based on present intimations. It seems that these psychological and spiritual shifts are opening me to new possibilities reminiscent of one of Cynthia’s most oft-quoted passages from Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski, who describes the heart to be “in spontaneous connection to the cosmic mind….Awakening the heart…is an unlimited process of making the mind more sensitive, focused, energized, subtle, and refined, of joining it to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” It is my hope that in years to come that this connection to the cosmic mind, the infinity of love, becomes a greater tangible reality.
Meeting with my spiritual mentor Father Basil Pennington in 2004 in Spencer, Massachusetts. I visited Father Pennington a half dozen times in the mid-90’s to learn about Centering Prayer from him, but I didn’t finally manage to commit to the practice until 2012.
Celebrating our time in Assisi overlooking the Tuscan Plains.
The day before my first retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault in New Zealand in May, 2015.
Now in October, 2017 I co-lead a spiritual retreat for HKIS colleagues at the beautiful Tao Fung Shan retreat center in Shatin, Hong Kong. After five years of growth, it appears time to share these learnings closer to home.
The following articles are very useful snapshots of the state of the field of mindfulness research:
- “The State of Mindfulness Research” by Jeremy Adam Smith, Kira M. Newman, hooria Jazaieri, and Jull Suttie in Greater Good Magazine.
- Leading researcher Richard Davidson and long-time writer
on mindfulness Daniel Goleman team up in their new book Altered Traits to describe the benefits of meditation. In this article for Greater Good online magazine, their findings are summarized in this way:
According to the authors, there are five main ways that meditation—particularly when practiced consistently over time—can make a deeper impact on us.
1. Meditation improves our resiliency to stress
According to neuroscience research, mindfulness practices dampen activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, both of which help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it. “These changes are trait-like:
they appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state’” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more permanent way.
2. Meditation increases our compassionate concern for others
While many of us may espouse compassionate attitudes, we can also suffer when we see others suffering, which can create a state of paralysis or withdrawal. But studies have shown that practicing loving-kindness for others increases our willingness to take action to relieve suffering. It appears to do this by lessening amygdala activity in the presence of suffering, while also activating circuits in the brain that are connected to good feelings and love. “The cultivation of a loving concern for other people’s well-being has a surprising and unique benefit: the brain circuitry for happ
iness emerges, along with compassion,” write the authors.
3. Meditation augments our capacity to focus and pay attention
It’s not too surprising that meditation would affect attention, since many practices focus on this very skill. And, in fact, researchers have found that meditation helps to combat habituation—the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Studies have shown that improved attention seems to last up to five years after mindfulness training, suggesting trait-like changes are possible. This outcome of meditation is particularly important, because it “undergirds a huge range of what makes us effective in the world—everything from learning, to realizing we’ve had a creative insight, to seeing a project through to its end.”
4. Meditation helps us to feel lighter and less self-focused
Though related to compassion, this is a more specific finding about how mindfulness helps you to stop seeing yourself as the center of the univer
se. According to studies, activity in the “default network”—the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activity, ruminates on thoughts, feelings, and experienc
es—quiets down in longtime meditators, suggesting less rumination about ourselves and our place in the world. Long-term meditators also seem to have a smaller nucleus accumbens—a part of the brain associated with pleasure, but also addiction. According to the authors, “These regions very likely underlie what traditional [Buddhist] texts see as the ro
ot causes of suffering: attachment and aversion, where the mind becomes fixated on wanting something that seems rewarding or getting rid of something unpleasant.”
5. Meditation leads to some improvements in markers of health.
The authors outline other possible benefits of meditation which have less robust findings. But, while the evidence for these can be fascinating, Davidson and Goleman dutifully report the counter evidence as well, trying to employ “the strictest experimental standards” to avoid making unfounded claims. They even question some of their own findings, such as Davidson’s research on changes in the brain for meditators, which they later decided didn’t have great experimental controls.
“The differences found [between meditators and non-meditators] could be due to factors like education or exercise, each of which has its own buffering effect on brains,” they write. “Then there’s self-selection: Perhaps people with the brain changes reported in these studies choose to stick with meditation while others do not.” In other words, use caution when championing results.
In general, the authors lament the poor quality of many studies and the way these are used to justify mindfulness applications in many arenas. They worry that too many studies lack rigor or that some well-done studies are never published because they don’t have positive findings. These and many other caveats about the research affirm that we are in the hands of experts who know their stuff. The result is a book that both enlightens those interested in the topic and calms the skeptics. For those who may be on the fence about meditation, I suggest reading the book and coming to your own conclusions. Perhaps, it will do the same for you.