When I was given the assignment to write for this week’s Healthcare supplement, I immediately jumped on the idea of writing about meditation.
It’s something I have been, well, meditating on for a while.
Much research has been done on the benefits of meditation for alleviating stress and anxiety, some even suggesting it can help reduce blood pressure in young adults at risk of hypertension and ease anxiety in cancer patients. Once associated exclusively with Buddhist monks and 1960s hippies, there’s been a renewed interest in the ancient Eastern practice of late as people in the Western world attempt to find some calm in a constantly connected, fast-paced environment.
Until now, the extent of my meditation experience had been in the context of short, guided breath work during yoga, which I practice regularly. The assignment, coupled with my New Year’s resolution to “just generally meditate more,” seemed like a great opportunity to get started. I set myself a challenge to meditate once a day for seven days.
On Day One I step into MNDFL, a Greenwich Village meditation studio that offers daily guided sessions; I’m a little on edge as long subway delays on the morning commute set my day slightly off-kilter and my overactive mind is racing with the general to-do lists and nervous chit-chat that I’ve come to recognize as my brain’s status quo. I’m feeling tired and sluggish. (Did I mention this experiment coincided with an attempt to wean myself off a coffee addiction?) But stepping out of the crowded subway and into the beautiful downtown space seems to have an immediate calming effect. The exposed brick walls are painted white and gray. Ceiling-height indoor plants hug the corners and moss accents line the entryway, which feels like a cozy living room. The studio is packed with people milling about, drinking the complimentary tea and lounging on the sofas in the no-phone, no-shoes zone. It’s busy but there’s a palpable softness that seems to fill the room. These people must be regulars, I think.
I’m slightly anxious. I’m at the tail-end of a cold. Will i spend the next 30 minutes unsuccessfully stifling coughs and sneezes? What if I want to leave midway through? We file into the studio and onto the surprisingly comfortable cushions.
The instructor, Yael Shy, leads the class and begins with a body scan.
“Feel your hips ground into the cushion,” Shy says. “Feel the weight in your legs.” I immediately feel an itch in my legs. “Feel the heaviness in your torso, shoulders, arms.” It takes all my wits not to scratch the itch that immediately crops up in my — you guessed it — torso, shoulders and arms. My mind begins to fight with itself. “Don’t scratch. Don’t think about scratching. Stop thinking about thinking about scratching,” it reels.
“Acknowledge your thoughts. But don’t dwell on them,” Shy says. And surprisingly, slowly, the chatter in my brain begins to subside and my thoughts begin to slow down. Shy leads the class through some more breathing exercises, then the room falls comfortably silent. When the chime is sounded at the close of the practice, I don’t want to leave the cushion.
I step out into the dark street and down into the subway. The tightness around my chest feels a little looser, as if a tight cord wound around it has finally begun to unravel.
Later I spoke to Shy over Skype about her meditation journey. Now 36, she began practicing meditation when she was a college student at NYU. At the time she was suffering from lingering anxiety due to relationships that went sour and the general stress of living in post-9/11 New York City. Her mother gave her a pamphlet for a Jewish silent meditation retreat in upstate New York. Without any previous experience in meditation, she went, but about halfway through the retreat she was miserable and on the cusp of leaving. One of the guides sat her down and told her to “shine a light on your fear.” She stayed until the end and attended the retreat again every year for the next six years.
”It was the beginning of a transformational shift as to how I understood my anxiety,” Shy said.
She later trained in Jewish meditation and now regularly leads classes and workshops on meditation, interfaith engagement and spirituality around the city. She’s also a director at the Global Center for Spiritual Life at NYU and the founder of MindfulNYU, a program that brings yoga and meditation to the NYU students.
She recently released a book, “What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond” (Penguin Random House), which is part memoir, part descriptive manual on meditation.
To Shy, there is a strong resonance between her Jewish faith and meditation. “It’s really a practice of learning our own hearts and minds, and incorporating [meditation] into our life,” she said. “If you look at the Shema, you can look at it in the traditional interpretation as monotheism, or in this mindful light that everything you look at from day to night is one. And isn’t that a beautiful thought.”
Some Jewish meditation practices borrow from Buddhist and Jewish traditions, weaving Torah thoughts and Kabbalistic concepts into traditional Buddhist methods of sitting, walking, breathing or silent meditation.
“Isn’t the practice of Shabbat really just a call to be mindful?”
Elaine Retholtz, 65, a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (formerly JCC Manhattan), explains that “Bhavana,” the Pali word for meditation that is used in Buddhism translates literally to “cultivation.”
“Meditation is how we meet the wandering mind,” said Retholtz, who has been practicing meditation for over 30 years, and teaching it since 2004. “And isn’t that an essentially Jewish practice? To cultivate a mind and heart that is in alignment, and that brings the mind and heart closer together and closer to God.”
So much of Jewish practice, like Shabbat and the blessings before and after food, is exactly that, Retholtz continued. “We pause creating, and just be … Isn’t the practice of Shabbat really just a call to be mindful?”
As the week progressed I tried different kinds of meditation; sound, breath and one version that was focused on emotions and feelings. I sat down on the cushions at other MNDFL studios on the Upper West Side and in Williamsburg. I practiced inside the Calm City mobile meditation van parked on Park Avenue, with the sound of Midtown traffic in the background. I practiced on the floor at home and standing on the No. 3 train headed downtown during rush hour. It wasn’t easy. But there was a certain lightness that always followed me afterward. I began to look forward to my daily sessions. At the end of the week, I asked a friend if she noticed any difference in me. “You seem more patient,” she said. When the week was up, I continued for a few days longer, not wanting to relinquish the calm it brought my day.
“Mindfulness is not just about setting down the snow globe, but rather about developing the capacity to see more clearly how the mind works.”
Retholtz compares MBSR to the effect of shaking a miniature snow globe. “Our mind is like a snow globe, and the snow is like our thoughts. When we do meditation it’s like putting down the snow globe and allowing the thoughts to settle. Mindfulness is not just about setting down the snow globe, but rather about developing the capacity to see more clearly how the mind works.”
For people who are looking to start a meditation practice, The Makom center at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan offers free instructed meditation daily, as well as the MBSR program and regular workshops. And in Brooklyn, the Jewish Meditation Center offers volunteer-led classes. Aside from that there are studios like MNDFL, which offer 30 and 45 minutes classes, and a plethora of apps (Headspace, Omvana, Calm) as well as YouTube videos that can be great places to start.
Shy recommends approaching meditation as you would a physical workout. “Think of it as going to the gym; you wouldn’t expect to pump 200 pounds straight away. It takes time and work to train your heart and mind to see what’s going on. Remind yourself why you’re doing it. Create a goal and reason for doing it and write it down.”
Shy is confident the results will be worth it. “I believe [meditation] has the power to transform people’s lives. And then when they are transformed and have their hearts open, they build a better, more compassionate world.” ◆