IMAGINE YOU'VE BEEN paid a handsome sum of money to sit in a train station. That's it. You're just supposed to sit there. While you sit there, all you need to do is watch the trains come in and out. As the trains pass, you might name them: the excitable train, the sad train, the train that really needs a cup of coffee, the judgmental bitchy train, the quietly resentful train, the self-critical train... you get the idea. The point is that you see the trains, but you don't get on any of them. Try this for 60 seconds, and you'll probably find that you've gotten onto one of the trains. That's okay. Just go back to the station, and start again.
That, in a nut graf, is mindfulness meditation. The trains are your thoughts; you don't have to do anything but notice them. You're inside the station.
Mindfulness meditation is having a secular, Western moment right now, which may seem odd, given that Vipassana, or insight meditation, where mindfulness meditation is derived from, is a Buddhist practice, and an ancient one at that. Meditation's translation to secular communities arguably began with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scholar and student of Thich Nhat Hanh, who in 1979 began adapting elements of Vipassana practice into a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, later the subject of his 1991 book, Full Catastrophe Living. Kabat-Zinn designed his dogma-free program to benefit patients dealing with illness, pain, and stress, and it's since been replicated throughout the country, typically in a group setting over the course of six to eight weeks. If you've taken a class in MBSR, it's likely that it was modeled on Kabat-Zinn's curriculum.
But does it work? There's evidence that it does. A British study conducted in 2000 by the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research found that mindfulness meditation reduced depression sufferers' risk of relapse by 50 percent. In fact, the UK's National Health Service now covers secular mindfulness meditation courses as treatment for depression and anxiety. And here in Portland, results from a 2011 study at Oregon Health and Science University suggested mindfulness meditation could be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because, according to a press release from OHSU, "mindfulness meditation actually reorients the brain." In the release, Helané Wahbeh, ND, the researcher who conducted that study, explained that meditation may help "the frontal areas of the brain [become] better able to process over-reactive emotional responses that hinder people from leading normal lives."
Indeed, what's interesting about mindfulness meditation is that it's found backing from spiritual, medical, and mental health communities alike. In Portland alone, there are several Buddhist-oriented meditation centers (Zen Center of Portland and Portland Insight Meditation Community, just to name two), but there are also psychotherapy and counseling resources informed by mindfulness meditation: Psychology Today's online registry of therapists lists hundreds of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy practitioners in the Portland area, and there's even a private practice devoted to it, Portland Mindfulness Therapy. Mindfulness meditation is also set apart by its price point. Perhaps because generosity is a value of traditional Vipassana practice, it's relatively easy to find options for meditating that are cheap, or even free.
I didn't seek out meditation. I found it by accident when I went to a yoga class that, abnormally, began with the teacher giving a 15-minute talk on mindfulness, followed by an hour of yoga postures with no music and no perfect alignment and no talk of bandhas or chakras. If you've ever thought you were going to die while taking a yoga class with an overly zealous instructor, that might sound like a relief. But it was an incredibly hard class, because the aim was simply to inhabit your body fully. I had been doing yoga for a couple of years, but in that hour, I realized how truly uncomfortable and weird the postures I'd been doing were. I found myself becoming aware of odd, subtle details, like, "I'm really aware of my cheekbones right now" and "My yoga pants are so soft and warm."
It was a little like being drunk, or stoned, but with no intermediary substance to account for the feeling. I was simply paying attention to what was happening, while it was happening, amplifying my experience in new and strange ways, realizing that this process of amplification of details was, in fact, infinite in its potential. In other words: a complete and total mindfuck. It was a little bit terrifying. This was the instructor's refrain: "This is it." It was a reminder of mortality, an invitation to engage fully with the present, even for just a moment, even if it seemed impossible to sustain, even if your thoughts overwhelmed. Each moment seemed to hold the possibility of getting off of a runaway train headed nowhere