Quiet time: Meditation can improve mental clarity, overall health

Posted Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Where to meditate

There are more than 500 books on meditation available through the Fort Worth Library. While independent study may be helpful, experts agree that attending a class reaps better results. According to teacher Pat Dorraj, the power of meditation increases exponentially when three people are present.

• Fort Worth Meditation, Center for the Healing Arts, 312 W. Leuda St., Fort Worth

7 p.m. Thursday

817-290-2117; www.fortworthmeditation.org

• Kadampa Meditation Center Texas, 609 Truman St., Arlington

Class times and locations vary.

817-303-2700; www.meditationintexas.org

• Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, 5251 Rendon Road, Fort Worth

9-11 a.m. Saturday

817-483-8670; www.thienvienquangchieu.org/english

• Siddhayatan Spiritual Retreat Center, 9985 E. Texas 56, Windom

Offers two- and seven-day retreats.

903-487-0717; www.siddhayatan.org

• Unity Church of Fort Worth, 5051 Trail Lake Drive, Fort Worth

Monday, Thursday and Sunday (times vary)

817-423-2965; www.unityfortworth.org

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He walks the golf course, thoughtfully pressing into the soles of his shoes, heel to toe, for 18 holes. He traces the path beneath his feet and consciously recognizes the sensation of the wind whipping his skin or the sun warming his face. Instead of thinking of what could be, he’s grounded to what’s going on right now.

NGA Tour pro Travis Klutts is meditating. It has been an integral part of this 24-year-old’s golf game for the past five years.

Like Klutts, millions of people worldwide are incorporating meditation practices into their daily lives. Locally, meditation classes have been opened to people of all faiths and spiritual backgrounds — most at no charge — and stressed-out workers interested in achieving a more relaxed mental state can forgo that week at an ashram in India and opt instead for a weekend at a meditation retreat center just north of Dallas.

Spiritual enlightenment for all

Nearly all religions exercise some form of this centuries-old practice. While Christ-centered meditation involves quieting the mind through prayer in order to hear God’s call, Buddhists and followers of other Eastern religions strive toward a state of enlightenment where the “monkey mind” is silenced, if only for a brief moment.

Devotees recommend imagining the mind as a river clouded after a storm — sediment, leaves and rocks swirl throughout angrily. The more it’s disturbed, the longer it takes to settle and become clear again. Meditation can help, they say.

Pat Dorraj, a retired educator who was raised Catholic, has been practicing meditation for 25 years and teaches weekly classes at Unity Fort Worth and seasonally in the Japanese Garden at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Bob Jones Nature Center and Preserve in Southlake. She explains that prayer is a powerful part of Christ-centric meditation and says she meditated on the Prayer of Saint Francis, repeating it several times each day, and it was her most successful experience praying in words.

Dorraj says she recalls sitting in church on Sundays as a child in Fayetteville. No air conditioning meant the windows would be open. She could hear bees buzzing and smell new-mown hay. “That is what gave me a feeling of connectedness,” she explains. “I didn’t know what to call it then.” Today, if given the opportunity, she prefers to be in nature, “using the outdoors as a classroom.”

For your health

Hundreds of studies of the health benefits of meditation and yoga have been conducted since the 1950s, and scientists at Harvard Medical School are getting close to proving what meditation devotees know to be true. Using neuroimaging and genomics technology, psychiatrist John Denninger is conducting a five-year study on how meditation affects genes and brain activity in chronically stressed men and women.

Denninger is director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals. In an article published by Bloomberg last month, he notes: “The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain.”

In stride with the burgeoning meditation and mindfulness movement, hospitals have begun to offer meditation classes and designate areas of solace and respite for patients, staff and visitors.

One example is the Morris Meditation Garden at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, which spans half a city block in a setting that mimics a central Texas stream.

“Throughout the garden they have quotes from Ecclesiastes to center people on the spiritual path that is so important to our organization,” says Susan Shields, director of cancer care services at the hospital. According to Shields, “It’s about treating the mind, body and spirit.”

Staff members can often be spotted in the garden, along with caregivers and families. “It’s not a picnic,” Shields adds. No food is allowed in the meditation garden. “You have to be purposeful in visiting.”

The American Psychological Association reports that more than 94 percent of adults believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity, and that some types of stress can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death.

Increasingly, physicians are prescribing stress reduction for those with a medical condition, illness or disease that is exacerbated by it: allergies, anxiety disorders, asthma, cancer, depression, heart disease, chronic pain, insomnia.

Klutts, the young golfer, believes consistent meditation has made a huge difference in his career. “It’s night and day,” he says. Before meditation, his game was really up and down. “A lot of emotions come up on the course,” he says, but meditation helps keep him “level” throughout a round.

Think of meditation as if peering into a microscope, advises Buddy Fichera, managing partner at Radyx-Centered Advice, who facilitates the weekly meditation class at the Center for the Healing Arts in Fort Worth. He explains that mindfulness is the act of stepping away from the lens and coming back — recognizing the mind’s tendency to wander and bringing it back to a singular focus. Fichera adds that meditation is like sharpening the image in a microscope to see clearly.

Patience with the process

After all the information I’d recieved about this mysterious activity, it was time to give it a try. Soon, I was shaking my head in apprehension as I slowly walked up the steps to the Center for the Healing Arts one Thursday night. The beautifully restored home tucked away in Fort Worth’s hospital district appeared inviting. I paused on the expansive porch to take a deep breath, then heaved open the front door.

I sat nervously. My task for the evening was to be silent for 12 minutes. The mere thought caused me to shudder, but Fichera beamed and told me how good this would be for me.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, most types of meditation incorporate these common elements: a quiet space; a specific, comfortable posture; a focus of attention; and an open attitude.

My first guided meditation at one point challenged me to use my newly discovered self-awareness to fill my body, like the light of a candle that illuminates an entire room.

I learned to lengthen my inhalations to combat exhaustion. Conversely, a longer exhale of breath aids in boosting energy. Regardless, after 12 minutes of sitting still, I wanted to bolt for the door.

One week later, I had to try it again. With storms looming, flashes of lightning silhouetted trees just outside the stained-glass windows. The wind shook the top floor, where a dozen people knelt on black cushions. One of my knees went numb and I could hear dogs barking, wind chimes tinkling and a train horn. But I stayed put, and it felt good.

“That first encounter with the ‘monkey mind’ can be daunting,” Dorraj cautions. “It’s pretty scary.”

In the early stages of Fichera’s meditation practice more than a decade ago, he and his wife set an egg timer for two or three minutes at a time. “If you can’t be quiet for a short period of time, something is fundamentally wrong,” he explains. What meditation created for him was a sense of humility and determination. “I was resolved from Day One.” And that is what it takes, he says.

How to start

Life is subject to change at any given moment. Meditation is thought to build resilience to stress, even in children, but only when a person is ready to accept that he is likely adding to his own life experience, according to Fichera. He believes there are two major indicators of readiness to meditate: accepting where you are right now with honesty about your experiences and a willingness to be observant. “You behaved yourself into where you are,” he says.

A church rummage sale set Dorraj on the spiritual path of meditation. In an effort to lose weight after the birth of her daughter, she purchased a book of yoga practices for 25 cents. The meditations in the back of that book spurred her to learn more.

Fichera explains that yoga is a type of meditation; however, it is single-pointed meditation where focus is on the breath. Forget to breathe and you fall out of the pose. “Meditation takes that single-point focus and deepens it to a level of discernment,” he says.

When first meditating, it’s good not to be too serious, Dorraj explains. “Compassion starts inside.”

You can meditate anywhere — in a busy cafe, while washing dishes or when walking the dog. A journal is an essential component to record thoughts, feelings or emotions that crop up as a result of meditating. And it’s not for everyone, Dorraj adds. However, there are active forms of meditation, like Sufi whirling and energy work, that appeal to people who have trouble with the stillness of traditional methods.

One thing to remember is not to rush out of a meditation. Eventually, the idea is that the feeling of connectedness remains. It’s not a pill. It’s not a quick fix. You put in the work to reap the fruit of the labor, Fichera says.

“Your mind, body and emotions, they’re all together after a meditation,” Dorraj says. “Sometimes meditations aren’t successful. Try again tomorrow. The important thing is not to give up.”

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