Stressed? Try doing nothing.
Meditation is often associated with yoga, tantra or other eastern practices, but it’s made a stunning transition to western culture since its popularization in the 1960s.
The practice works by transforming the mind to create an internal environment of peacefulness and joy, which can provide relief during difficult times.
It’s integral to the Buddhist religion as a method of transcending the anxiety, sorrow and confusion of human life.
But it’s inaccurate to characterize meditation as essentially “eastern” or tied to Buddhism.
It’s now commonly used as a calming exercise and stress reliever for anyone, from nuns and monks to extremely busy undergrads. By concentrating on virtuous things like love or compassion, the practice is meant to clear your mind of negative thoughts.
The best part about meditation is that there’s no need for high-tech gear or draining membership fees. All you need is a peaceful space and an open mind. For most of us, the practice is simple enough to even do in our dorm room.
I was first introduced to meditation in a Buddhism course last year. I enjoyed it enough to start taking classes at the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on my own. My experiences at the Kuluta Centre and in my own private meditations have drastically improved my struggles with anxiety and anger.
To learn more about the finer points of meditation technique and background, I spoke to one of Queen’s own specialists in the field, professor Ellen Goldberg.
Goldberg teaches multiple courses in the department of religious studies, including Buddhism in the Modern World and Yoga in India and the West. Many of her courses also include a meditation component.
“I have had a lot of feedback on meditation from students over the past 20 years and I have to say that all of it has been positive,” she told the Journal via email.
There are many different approaches to meditation, but Goldberg personally favours quiet serenity.
“I prefer private meditation. In my view, privacy is essential for the mature practitioner,” she said. “However, group meditation can be extremely beneficial as well, especially for beginners.”
During the meditation component of Goldberg’s classes, she often brings students to the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on Wellington St. They’re then walked through their first breathing exercises, in addition to learning various meditation postures and settings. One exercise, called black and white breathing, encourages students to visualize breathing in white smoke and breathing out black smoke. As they breathe, they’re told to imagine inhaling good energy and exhaling bad energy. Another beginner posture is half lotus, which resembles a cross-legged position with the hands in prayer position.
The Buddhist Centre is a place for quiet group meditation under the guidance of the resident Buddhist nun.
Nun Kelsang Denpa has presided over the Kuluta Buddhist Centre for the past three and a half years. Denpa discovered meditation through the Buddhist religion upon moving to Kingston from the Maritimes, and has never looked back since.
“It was actually at Ban Righ [Centre for Women],” she said, over a steaming cup of tea. “I met a woman who gave me a brochure for the Kuluta Centre and that’s how I got here. I suppose if I hadn’t gone to Ban Righ that day, well, who knows.” Her state of mind has changed significantly since discovering meditation and her new religion.
“I was miserable and angry before I came to Kingston. Now, I am happier than I have ever been.” For Denpa, meditation is a practice that has the power to drastically improve someone’s life through commitment and devotion, but can start with the simplest of exercises.
“All our emotions are connected with our breath, so when our breath becomes steady and calm, our mind and emotions settle along with it,” she said, referring to the beginner’s exercise of concentrating on your breath.
While it may seem boring to simply do nothing but breathe for an extended period of time, Denpa is quick to prove otherwise.
“I find that most people do not naturally have the ability to focus on anything for more than a second!” she said, laughing.
It’s a statement that rings truer with university students more than many others, who are constantly bombarded with deadlines and crammed schedules. “I think that is the most important realization though, is to come to some understanding of what state your mind is in, and what the solution is. I know my mind was full of distractions at first,” she said. “I could not sit and simply enjoy my mind, which I can now.” Denpa describes her new mental state as more accepting.
“I tend to now simply take things as they come. All things are just appearances that are arising, and whatever appears is okay,” she said.
“We are happy with whatever appears.”
As I was leaving the Kuluta Centre, Denpa offered one last imparting of wisdom on the practice of meditation and her Buddhist teachings.
“I now know that one cannot find happiness out there at the mall. It has to come from inside. That’s the most important thing for everybody to know,” she said. “Everything improves from that point on. I find it’s just an easier way to live: less drama, more dharma.”
If there’s anyone on campus in any position to find the happiness in peace of mind alone, it’s Gordon Clarke.
“Well, I live in the smallest room of my house, which is basically a closet,” said Clarke, ArtSci ’17.
“So my hobbies are kind of limited to the space. I love meditating though — I do it every morning.” Clarke has been practicing meditation for nearly three years and doesn’t start his day off without it.
“Every morning I shower, stretch and sit down on my floor in front of the mirror for about 15 minutes every morning.
That’s it,” he said. “It’s insanely easy to do and has helped me so much.” Like Denpa, Clarke finds himself in an overall healthier state of mind.
“I’m less tired, I’m more relaxed. I had a really big problem with anxiety before I started and I find I am a way less angry person now,” he said. “I honestly don’t count my day as having started if I have not meditated first.”
While he’s firmly supportive of all religions, Clarke said he doesn’t personally affiliate himself with religion as a concept, and doesn’t apply it to his meditating either.
“It’s just something I’ve always done,” he said. “It’s something I like doing and it makes me feel happier, so that’s why I do it. I know some people think it has to be related to some religious experience but that’s really only if you choose to pursue it in that way.”
Although it may seem like just another ball to add to your weekly juggling act, meditation can have a lasting impact.
Nearly everyone I talked to attested that just 15 minutes of meditation a day left them feeling more calm and energized. Even if meditation acts as an outlet for anxiety or anger, it can easily be integrated into your everyday life.
We’re lucky to have resources available at Queen’s, such as the Meditate At Queen’s Facebook group, which organizes weekly meditation meetings. There’s also the Kuluta Centre’s free weekly classes at Ban Righ.
Whatever your skill level may be, it’s never too late to start taking control of your mental state.
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