How to Start Practicing Mindfulness

Turns out, there are many ways to reduce stress and anxiety and to become more self-aware. Here are some options for training your brain, either alone or in a group.

Levy says, “We live in a world that is so pressured and comes at us hard and fast, so we develop defense mechanisms that allow us to deal with our everyday life, and unfortunately that comes at a cost: We get numb, and that’s how we navigate our world. So when we start to do meditation practice and open up and find the technique that allows you to be present with who you are,” he pauses, “a lot of things comes flooding back.”

I see this firsthand at what I think will be a calm evening of meditation at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland. I’ve gone with the intent of getting a glimpse of the origins of mindfulness meditation and to get a free dinner (hey, I needed some incentive to make the trek all the way to Cumberland after work on a snowy Wednesday).

Little do I know, the evening will throw a massive curveball in my notion of mindfulness meditation as an always relaxing practice.

The evening starts out pleasantly enough, with the free dinner of curried lentil soup proving delicious and the other meditators, friendly and welcoming.

My boyfriend and I make small talk with a curly-haired woman who sings meditation’s praises. Then an enthusiastic man takes us on a tour through the maze that is the Zen Center before reuniting with our teacher for the evening: Theran Van Ostrand, a young dude with a beard and warm eyes. This will be his first time leading an introductory meditation class.

Our small group of novices sits with him in a circle. Van Ostrand’s mentor, Nancy Hedgpeth, joins us to make sure he doesn’t forget anything.

We grab cushions to prop up our butts, since the traditional meditation pose is something like criss-cross applesauce but with your knees touching the floor. “Yep, just like that,” says Van Ostrand as I contort my legs. “But you might want to put another cushion under your butt.” He explains a little about the practice, how if your legs start to go numb you can get up. “But do it slowly,” he warns. “We’ve had people stand up too suddenly, one leg was asleep and they fall over.” Who knew meditation could be dangerous?

Once we settle into our cushions, he tells us a mantra that will help us to focus.

“It goes ‘clear mind,’ and when you breathe out, ‘don’t know.’ It’s a really nice little mantra, since sometimes you just don’t know why things are, and that’s okay.”

As he finishes his explanation, a middle-aged woman in the group cries out and crumples to the floor. She starts sobbing, and Van Ostrand, looking confused, watches as his mentor takes control and tries to comfort the woman who, in between cries, says, “I’m so sorry, I should leave!” Her whole body heaves, and another woman gives her a hug, assuring her that there is no shame in crying. She eventually leaves the room, but later rejoins the group when we do our grand hour-long seated and walking meditation, her eyes dry.

Her twenty-two-year-old son had recently died, and the simple “don’t know” mantra triggered her anguish.

The woman’s rather traumatic first experience of meditation isn’t uncommon, and as Dr. Levy says, “Things come flooding back.”

In fact, a study by Brown University and the University of California found that there are negative side effects to meditation and mindfulness. Sixty people who practiced meditation of some form were interviewed for the study, and the results concluded that 82 percent of people questioned had experienced fear, anxiety or paranoia. In the words of the study’s technical jargon, “the associated valence ranged from very positive to very negative, and the associated level of distress and functional impairment ranged from minimal and transient to severe and enduring.”

Meditation isn’t something to be thrown around willy nilly, I conclude. Someone who has never practiced before and who has had traumatic life experiences probably shouldn’t go to an intensive meditation session without concurrent support.

For me, it wasn’t as much of a problem since my therapist had helped me unravel the muck and the mire; meditation was more of a way to stay aware of why I sometimes have the thoughts I have, and for me to non-judgmentally deal with my anxiety.

But for others, like the woman at the Zen Center, without concurrent therapy it can be traumatic. The question becomes: With a surplus of apps, meditation centers and yoga studios offering loosely guided meditation sessions, is there an option for people with more serious needs?

Turns out there is.