Practice Meditation in New Hampshire
Meditation and mindfulness: going deep in the Granite State
Day planners are filled to capacity with scribbles on every line. Work days have never felt so crammed. To-do lists are longer than ever before. We are busy and we can feel it — in our bodies and in our minds. Although our society has made the idea of burning the candle at both ends sound fulfilling, the reality is that we just feel drained.
We know we can't fix the cause. Life does not slow down. Business must be done. No one has figured out a way to add more hours to the day or an extra day to the beloved weekend. We once thought technology would lead the way to a world without stress, a four-day work week. Go figure. In our technology-filled world where people can devise 3-D printers and self-driving cars, we can't invent our way out of stress.
So what if the solution isn't in the future. What if it's in the ancient past?
The practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years but today therapists are recommending it, doctors are prescribing it, churches are offering it, celebrities swear by it.
In fact, the practice was made trendy back in the 1960s when all four of the Beatles traveled to India to study meditation at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beatles went on to explore more radical paths to fulfillment like psychedelic drugs and revolution. Meanwhile, the Maharishi used his image, always robed in white and carrying bundles of flowers, to brand his own style of meditation. He appeared regularly on TV programs like the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. For a while he was one of the most frequently caricatured and mocked figures of the highly mockable 1960s but you also could say he was a forerunner to today's health and happiness celebrity gurus like Dr. Oz (and Oprah!).
While meditation isn't as shiny as a brand new app-filled iPhone and it isn't as simple as swallowing a pill, there's reason to believe it might actually indeed be a cure for the over-stressed. And if meditation is the answer, there are certainly a lot of different ways to do it.
The Maharishi Academy of Total Knowledge is housed in a former private college building on a back road in Antrim. Although it looks a bit run-down with chipped paint on the columns that hold up a drooping high porch ceiling, in fact it's one of two epicenters of the Transcendental Meditation movement (the other is in Fairfield, Iowa) — established by none other than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
New Hampshire Transcendental Program teacher Joan Rist lives there with her husband, Bill. Most of the old dorm rooms are empty, and the occupied portions are decorated with informational posters on Transcendental Meditation (TM) and portraits of the Maharishi. Rist says she doesn't get many questions about him anymore (he died in 2008). Mostly people just want to know if and how TM works.
"What happens when we meditate, when the mind settles down, we experience an expansion of the mind," Rist says. She says the technique is a simple and natural way to move the mind to move from the active thinking level to something deeper — at rest, but not asleep. What results is a rest that is actually deeper than sleep, she says. "We come out feeling better when we meditate. We expect to feel more focused and with more energy. I couldn't imagine starting my day without the focus that I get from my morning meditation."
Rist explains the most common complaint people have is stress but even after just a few meditation s, people come back happier and calmer. "It doesn't take 20 years to 'feel it.' You can meditate and transcend the first time," she says.
It's this immediacy of results that has attracted multitudes to embrace the practice, including a roster of the rich and famous including comedian Jerry Seinfield, director David Lynch, singer Sheryl Crow and, you guessed it, Oprah Winfrey, who paid for her entire staff to undergo TM training. The practice is taught over the course of four days of initial learning. Each student is given a unique mantra and the teacher explains how to use the sound in a systematic way. After the basic learning process, the teacher steps back and periodically checks to ensure that the new TM meditator is practicing correctly.
"To get all the benefits, you have to do the practice," Rist says. "You need a teacher because it is strong and powerful, but very delicate and you need guidance." The first level of commitment is 15-20 minutes twice a day. She says it is not difficult to learn but it does take time.
People come to TM seeking something to help their lives move more quickly in the right direction, says Rist. "The bottom line is to become happier, healthier individuals that can fulfill our life's goal more completely." While TM promises to deliver on that bottom line with the kind of efficiency that might appeal to modern Americans, it's not cheap. The TM course fee, including follow-up, is $1,500.
Twice a day meditation is the cure for what ails you at the Maharishi Academy of Total Knowledge in Antrim. Here program teacher Joan Rist engages in a session with her husband (right) and student Luciano Lipari.
photo by melissa boulanger
For those who are not in a rush to find their bliss (or simply more frugal), there is the meditation practice within Zen Buddhism. Zen Chaplain Gendo Allyn Field is professorial, as you might expect from someone who has worked for years at Ivy League Dartmouth College in Hanover. Ordained as a lay monk in the Rinzai Zen tradition, Field leads the Dartmouth Zen Practice as well as the Upper Valley Zen Center right over the border in White River Junction, Vermont.
He says his first task is often to guide interested persons through some potentially confusing concepts in understanding what the vague term of "Zen" really means. It's a term that has gained a pop-culture parlance as indicating something that can't really be understood, but Field says it's not that complicated.
"Zen is the practice of Buddhist meditation," Field says. "I think of meditation as contemplation, an investigation of experience and awareness. Zen emphasizes the foundation of the contemplation practice, investigating the nature of self and awareness. At the same time, Zen grounds this investigation in the stuff of everyday life, the sounds and tasks of daily life."
Field dismisses the idea of meditation as a cure-all for modern ills.
"Meditation practice has become viewed in our culture in terms of health and wellness, as something you can do to calm yourself and make yourself feel better. From a Zen point of view, the kind of practice that simply affirms yourself and bolsters your ego is not a good practice," Field says.
Zen calls one to question how he or she views the world, and to reflect upon it. "Zen is a practice, not a doctrine," Field explains. Zen is an investigation into experience, not "belief" in the way that we think of religion in Western culture. "The attitude of Buddhism is that there is no secret and nothing special here. The task is to look inside and find something that is already there," he says. "It is a matter of paying attention."
"Meditation is like an experiment performed on yourself that requires great resolve, and a curious and open mind," says Field. "If you enter into an experiment with investment in a certain outcome, the result is bad science. Instead you have to open yourself to the possibilities you never expected. The Indian tradition that produced Buddhism tries to understand reality from the standpoint of awareness, looking inside. From this starting point, the historical Buddha developed a disciplined investigation into the way we know the world, what this self is who looks upon the world and gives names to things around us."
In other words, it's by focusing on the process of meditation and not on the meditation that one draws closer to understanding Zen. Or something like that.
If Zen is a bit too esoteric, there are plenty of other options within the Buddhist traditions.
Lama John Makransky leads a session of Tibetan meditation at the Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield.
photo courtesy of wonderwell mountain refuge
"Meditation is the art of paying attention in a deep and sustained way," says Lama Willa Miller, director of Wonderwell Mountain Refuge, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center in Springfield. "When you meditate or when you learn to meditate, you are learning a skill of concentration and a skill that includes an element of relaxation. What is different, in this particular form of Tibetan Buddhism, is concentrating on how to grow and develop compassion and empathy in a really conscious way."
The Wonderwell retreat center looks how you'd want a meditation retreat to look, offering a breathtaking view of Mount Croydon and a colorful, light-filled meditation hall, all contained in a palatial house built in 1911 as summer retreat for a musician from the Washington D.C. Philharmonic Orchestra.
The original owners named it Wonderwell because it was the site of a deep well that produced water even during times of severe drought. The locals of Springfield continued to call it that, so the name was easily adopted by Miller and her Boston-based meditation and Buddhist group, Natural Dharma, when they relocated to Springfield in 2011.
Group lessons take place in a great hall near the fireplace, but it's a short walk to Lake Kolelemook and Gile State Forest for those wishing to test out their mindfulness in the beauty of nature.
Along with growing in compassion and empathy, the Tibetan lineage of Buddhism embraces the role of "embodiment" in meditation practices. "It means walking the walk," Miller says. "Embodiment means integrating your meditation practices into your daily life consciously." This is true no matter what you do for a living, from construction work to teaching to fine art. "We have to be good stewards of the practice," she says. Also implied by the term is the body itself that, along with the mind, serves as a tool of meditation: "… through great practices like hiking, yoga or being outdoors," says Miller.
All this helps explain why the center is based in the Mt. Sunapee region of New Hampshire. Miller says they were lured by the rural surroundings with opportunities to seek out sustainability, a great natural environment, a community to grow with and easy access to Boston. Although it's clearly a Buddhist retreat center, Miller and her group are open to all faiths and even to people who just want to seek out a quiet and calm weekend away, no religion required.
"Meditation is a tremendously profound tool and it is hugely beneficial for anybody, no matter the denomination," Miller says. "Meditation doesn't require that you believe anything. There is no doctrine. It happens to come out of the Asian tradition, specifically Buddhism, but it has been adopted by many different communities as a tool to settle the mind."
The process itself is simple, at least in practice. "For a beginner, we would instruct them to sit however they are comfortable. The only requirement is to sit up straight because having your back somewhat straight is important for meditation ." After proper posture is achieved, the focus is on relaxing the mind. "I would usually start very simple, like meditating on the breath and holding attention on the breath for about 20 minutes," Miller says.
Although Tibetan Buddhism does not guarantee specific results, Miller has seen the benefits.
"When someone comes, the most common reason is that they want to be more centered, relaxed and happy in their lives," Miller says. "They say 'I want more clarity, my mind feels so foggy and I feel agitated a lot.' People that have active or busy minds find that, underneath it all, there is a calm place they can go and be at rest."
Not everyone has the time or resources to pack off to a picturesque retreat center to meditate, reflect on some of life's questions and enjoy the mountain air, so Miller offers an easy exercise to begin practicing meditation that anyone can use.
"Just try for five minutes to hold your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale and let everything fall away," Miller explains. "It is very relaxing and it gives you permission to let go from everything you are planning and thinking. It allows you to enter a place of being rather than doing. It is not an escape, it is an engagement."
Meditative retreats on Star Island are hosted by the United Church of Christ and are open to all religions.
photo courtesy of UCC
Those who are more at home within the Western world of religious practice will find that meditation is alive and well in many Christian churches. Father Anselm Smedile, a Benedictine monk from Saint Anselm Abbey in Manchester, says, "We are so used to our Western mind and separating out any Eastern traditions that we kind of forget that the Catholic Church is made up of East and West."
Smedile is a young monk who attended Saint Anselm College as an undergraduate, later joining the Benedictine Order and is now the assistant director of campus ministry at the college. He knows his way around monastic life, demonstrating commitment to quiet reflection as well as explaining facets of the faith.
Smedile explains that Christian meditation actually first became popularized and rediscovered in the 1960s (about the same time the Beatles were sitting at the feet of the Maharishi). A Benedictine monk named John Main had been assigned to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. There he met Swami Satyananda who versed him in traditional meditation. Main saw the parallels between Eastern meditation and the writings of the desert fathers — monks who retreated from worldly life to live apart, often as hermits, and devote themselves to contemplation of God. He eventually brought the meditative practices he had developed to abbeys in Washington, DC, and London where he established Christian meditation groups.
The practice of meditation is not all that different from any number of means of preparing oneself for a higher calling, says Smedile. "It's a process of discipline. There is some work involved — daily, twice a day, for 20 minutes." Like its Eastern counterpart, the discipline of Christian meditation can incorporate a mantra. "The mantra that John Main recommended was 'Maranatha,'" he says. "It's an Aramaic word that means, 'Come Lord, Jesus.'" He explains the basic technique: "There is a heavy concentration on your breathing and saying the mantra in accordance with your breathing."
So the process is similar to that practiced by Buddhists, but the difference lies in what your focus is during that meditation. For Christians, it is Christ.
"You are praying that mantra, 'Come Lord, Jesus' and you are asking the Lord to come into your heart," Smedile says. "It is really a part of your relationship with the Lord, your friendship with the Lord. It is about being mindful that there is God — God is present in our world and in our individual lives."
Christian meditation is not self-help and it is not "emptying" the mind but rather about filling it with holy thoughts, enhancing one's relationship with God. That does not mean that there are not worldly benefits.
"Physically and biologically, the practice really slows you down," says Smedile. "Not only do you feel that lightness physically, but I think it carries over into your attitude and the way you conduct yourself. It changes how you act toward people you might bump into. It makes you more mindful in your thoughts, your words, your actions."
The important thing, he says, is the mindfulness, the awareness of the presence of God. "Once that becomes something you are daily in contact with, then I think the prayer, and the Lord, has an effect on you."
Whether it be from God or from nature, or whether it be about investigations into the self or newly recharged brainpower, what these meditation experts can agree on is that there is something there. There is something to meditation — something ancient and powerful but perhaps more relevant than ever in our busy modern world.
To find out if meditation is for you requires just three things, all quite simple, but somehow so hard to do.
You just have to stop, be quiet and look within.
Can Google Glass be used as a meditation teaching tool?
The Future of Meditation?
You'd think not much has changed about meditation in the two and a half millennia since Siddhārtha Gautama sat beneath the Bhodi tree and attained enlightenment. After all, it's hard to modernize a practice that involves little more than sitting down and shutting up.
But according to Bodhipaksa, the founder of wildmind.org, an online meditation resource, meditators have been early adopters of technology ever since the invention of the book. "The world's oldest printed text was a Buddhist book." He explains that they understood the potential. "Buddhists were on it, 'Oh, this is a way to reach people.'"
Bodhipaksa (pronounced bo-dee-pack-sha) started Wildmind as a grad student in Montana when he realized meditators were falling behind the curve in the Internet age. Now from his offices in Newmarket he publishes guided meditations online and via CD and mp3. He leads live Google + hangouts where meditators chat (and meditate) together. People from as many as six different countries have attended online sessions.
"For some people the sun was just rising and for some people it was kind of late in the evening and for some it was right in the afternoon," he says. "It was fascinating." On the other hand he has at least one student who attends classes online from just up the road in Newmarket.
Bodhipaksa offers guided meditations online and on CD with titles like "Meeting Pain with Compassion" and "Interconnectedness."
The wildmind.org website gets about a million and a half visitors a year, he says.
"Whenever new tools come out, my first thought is 'how can I use this to reach more people?'"
He's currently experimenting with Google Glass (pictured) and has found that it can be a tool for teaching good meditation posture and perhaps offer a view of a serene landscape to someone actually surrounded by a bustling environment.
With various apps and social media, it's possible to find support and fellowship online. "Someone who is geographically isolated can feel the power of being involved in this community," says Bodhipaksa. — Rick Broussard
Meditative Places in the Granite State
Cathedral of the Pines • May 1 to October 31 • Rindge • cathedralofthepines.org
Cathedral of the Pines is the ideal destination for those interested in letting the natural splendor of New Hampshire soothe their meditating minds. Non-denominational and free of charge, enjoy chapels, monuments and views as a deep and peaceful contemplation sets in on top of the Cathedral of the Pines hilltop.
Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette • Enfield • lasaletteofenfield.org
Christian in denomination but open to all faiths, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette has ample space to meditate and contemplate on their beautiful grounds open year-round. Planned programs and drop-by visitors are all welcome to enjoy the chapel, walking rosary (pictured) and pavilion.
AryAloka Buddhist Center • Newmarket • aryaloka.org
Although a Buddhist center, Aryaloka is open to all faiths and people at all points in their meditation journey. Their organized retreats offer new meditators an opportunity to learn how to bring meditation and mindfulness into one's everyday life in order to seek out greater awareness and contentment with the world.
Star Island • Mid-June to mid-September • Portsmouth • starisland.org
Shake off the mainland business and join Star Island on island time long enough to rejuvenate mind and body. Hosted by the United Church of Christ and welcome to all religions, Star Island is the perfect place to relax and let the sound of crashing waves help calm the mind in order to meditate and relax — right off the coast of the state.
Wonderwell Mountain Refuge • Springfield • wonderwellrefuge.org
Wonderwell offers retreats in their rural, country house with gorgeous New Hampshire nature surrounding it. Teaching incorporation of meditation into daily life, deepening meditation practices, and Buddhist principles, Wonderwell has organized retreats for every step of the process for people of any faith.
World Fellowship Center • Late June to mid-September • Albany • worldfellowship.org
Enjoy the White Mountains at this retreat center built around peace, social justice and the environment. With ample opportunities to enjoy nature in all forms or to take part in discussions on pressing issues, World Fellowship Center is a tranquil place to take a break from it all and refocus in a non-religious and multicultural environment.