Buddha Groove’s Guru Series brings insight from experts across the fields of mindfulness, natural wellness, yoga, and meditation. This article features wisdom from author and writer, Judie Sigdel.
Flip through any health magazine and you’re likely to find an article touting the many benefits of meditation, including relief from ADHD, anxiety and depression to improved blood pressure, pain relief, brain function and immune system response.
As a longtime meditator, I have experienced many of meditation’s physiological, mental and spiritual benefits. Some of them seem to have been specific to the type of meditation that I was practicing, but it’s likely that practice and spiritual growth also played a role.
I first started meditating in the late 80’s as part of my 12-step program of recovery. The 11th step states, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” As a Christian, I was already adept at prayer, particularly of the petitioning variety. But I had no real experience with meditation. And the step clearly said, “prayer and meditation,” not, “prayer or meditation,” so I searched for a class.
My first class was conducted at a Zen center in Manhattan. The instructions were simple, and mainly concentrated on following and counting the breath. If our minds wandered, we were supposed to start counting over at one. I quickly learned, of course, that this wasn’t so easy. I sat zazen (seated meditation), mainly at home, every morning for a year. One day, a recovery friend asked me whether it was “helping.” After a moment’s reflection, I told her that I no longer tried to multitask. Prior to starting my practice, I would watch TV, eat dinner and read at the same time. Thanks to meditation, I had gradually shifted towards doing one thing at a time, which is healthier and saner, since humans can’t really multitask. Rather, we jump from task to task, not performing any of them as well as we could if we focused on doing them one at a time.
Eventually, I let my meditation practice lapse. The center where I had learned to meditate had moved to Brooklyn, so I spent several months “temple hopping,” searching for a meditation center where I felt comfortable. After attending a number of classes, I joined the New York Insight Meditation Center (NYIMC), which teaches mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation. Basic mindfulness meditation is not unlike Zen in that practitioners focus on their breath. I began practicing at home while I continued to attend Dharma and meditation classes. But the turning point in my meditation practice, my spiritual life and my life “off the cushion” came when I was introduced to Metta or lovingkindness meditation by one of NYIMC’s teachers.
Metta is a form of meditation in which you direct “lovingkindness” towards yourself, someone you love, someone for whom you have neutral feelings, someone you dislike or consider to be a difficult person and, finally, towards all beings everywhere. You do this by repeating phrases or “wishes” such as “May you be happy,” “May you be well,” etc. After practicing Metta for a short time, I noticed that situations that would have annoyed or angered me in the past, such as people bumping into me on the sidewalk, no longer did. I started feeling genuine compassion for friends, family and, most remarkably, for strangers, because I realized that everyone wants essentially the same thing: to be happy, safe, healthy and peaceful. I also grasped that we were all interconnected, so others’ wellbeing has a direct impact on my own. As a result, my connections and conversations, even fleeting ones with shopkeepers and taxi drivers, became deeper, kinder and more sincere.
A couple of years ago, I started looking for Insight meditation classes near me, since the main center is in another part of town. I couldn’t find one, but I stumbled upon a New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) meditation group that meets at a church near my apartment once a week. During the first class, I realized that this, the East Village “satellite branch” of the Kadampa Meditation Center NYC, was the spiritual home that I had been searching for and that the branch’s teacher was “my” teacher. The small, intimate meditation class quickly became my Sangha (spiritual group), where I felt loved and supported in my practice. My teacher, Katy Brennan, is generous and compassionate and focuses not only on meditation, but on teaching Dharma in a systematic manner that I soon learned is part of NKT’s philosophy of making Buddha’s teachings accessible and relatable to modern practitioners.
My daily meditation practice hasn’t changed dramatically since I started attending the NKT group. It still consists primarily of focusing on the breath. What has changed is my dedication to and my faith in my Buddhist practice. I attribute this to finally having all of the Three Jewels ― Buddha, Dharma and Sangha ― firmly in place. For me, Sangha was the essential missing piece. Before, my practice was like a three-legged stool with a missing leg. I could balance on it and learn and develop spiritually to a certain extent, but my practice was too unstable to provide complete support. Now that my stool has three legs, I have the support that I need to progress in my Buddhist studies and in my practice. If that’s not a gift, I don’t know what is.