Oprah Winfrey, David Lynch, Bill Ford, Russell Simmons, Steve Jobs, Paul McCartney . . . other than monumental success, what do these people have in common? Meditation.
Mindfulness meditation, to be specific. As described by York University’s Healthy Student Initiative (HIS),
“Mindfulness involves bringing awareness to one’s immediate, present experience free of reactions or judgements . . . by way of the attention to breathing sensations. This practice originated from Buddhism, but is now a frequently researched application in healthcare, performance, and wellness. Scientific evidence increasingly indicates the practice is associated with benefits like improved attention, memory and emotion regulation, and neurophysiological benefits like increased cortical thickness (a sign of healthy brain tissue).”
Gone are the days of the new-agey stigma surrounding meditation as a daily practice in North America. Improved attention, memory and emotion regulation, healthy brain tissue — it sounds like a winning formula for a successful student to me. The application of mindfulness extends far beyond the student life of exams and papers, however, with directors, hedge-fund managers, record company founders, musicians and athletes now more avidly turning to meditation to help set themselves apart from the pack.
Fortunately for us, thanks to the generous services of HIS here at York, students currently have the opportunity to experience mindfulness meditation every day of the week, completely free of charge. Operated by a collection of student leaders from various health-science backgrounds, all trained and supervised by the York clinical psychologist and principal investigator Dr. Paul Ritvo, HIS allows students to partake in one-hour mindfulness sessions Monday through Friday in time slots between 10:30am and 1pm. You can view the exact schedule on HSI’s website.
Of course I wouldn’t send you to do anything I haven’t tried myself, so my blogging colleague Garima and I, both of us new to the practice, decided to check out one of the meditation sessions together. You can read of her experience tomorrow, but here’s what it felt like for me. I’ve divided my experience between my expectations before going and my insights after having finished the session.
Venturing into my first mindfulness session, I actually don’t know quite what to expect. Really, my main goal is just to not fall asleep. More seriously, though, based on what I hear from friends who meditate, I have a feeling the session will place a strong emphasis on “being in the moment,” something I have had difficulty with all my life. I imagine a mindful session being similar to the period between turning off all the lights and external stimuli and eventually falling asleep, when it’s just you and your thoughts. As anyone with an overactive mind can probably agree, especially when you are trying to fall asleep, thinking about absolutely nothing is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. What do I have to do tomorrow? Was today a successful day? Ah, I need to submit that summary tomorrow. Why did no one tell me that my fly was down the entire day? These kinds of thoughts relentlessly bounce around in your head as you try to force yourself to sleep. As much as I am scared that this kind of mental chaos will hinder a fruitful mindfulness meditation session, the thought of potentially making progress in understanding how to place and maintain myself in the moment is actually very exciting.
So I was right. Being in the moment is everything. The moment you sit down in the open, naturally lit room, you are asked (in my case by Dr. Ritvo himself) either to focus on one fixed thing in the room or to close your eyes completely. Sitting up straight (on chairs or the ground, as you please) so as to “not obstruct your breathing mechanism,” you are then told to begin taking note of your breathing as an in-and-out cycle. I noticed after a while that my body fell into a natural pace of breathing, something that Dr. Ritvo spoke to throughout the session. This made me realize how shallow my breathing is on an everyday basis. As expected, my mind quickly began to wander, which we were assured was completely normal. To bring yourself back to the present, Dr. Ritvo emphasized focusing on the ins and outs of your breathing. To me, this translated to picturing the words in and out as I went through the motions. As simple as it sounds, it helped my mind from scurrying off to other places. Regardless, undoubtedly due to my lack of meditation experience, I found it very difficult to not to let other thoughts consume my attention. Dr. Ritvo reinforces that it’s completely OK to let these other thoughts enter your mind. As long you bring your attention back to your breathing, and thus to the present moment, that’s all that matters. Although I would say that I spent 95 per cent of the time trying to bring my attention back, the 5 per cent that I did manage to “be in the moment” made for a truly unique experience. My cohort Garima described it perfectly in saying that it felt like she was under water.
Walking out of the session, I definitely felt a need to learn more. I can now see the appeal of incorporating meditation into your daily routine, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes a day. There is a resonating feeling of relaxation and clear-headedness that stays with you long after you finish meditating, even though both Garima and I walked out with minor headaches as well, which is supposedly normal for new meditators.
As someone who has never before meditated in his life, I found HSI’s mindfulness session to be approachable and supportive. Between the two sitting sessions (there are actually two meditations, roughly 20 to 30 minutes each, within the overall hour session), you are encouraged to ask questions, and there is spoken guidance throughout the entire hour. For those unable to make the in-person sessions, HIS offers multiple online audio versions also guided by Dr. Ritvo on their website. To top it off, all these services are completely free of charge.
Given the amount of successful people from all different walks of life who practice some sort of meditation, there has to be something to it. So I say, grab a friend (or go by yourself), head over to the Behavioral Science building and try it out. And be sure to check back in tomorrow, when Garima gives her own insights into mindfulness meditation.