From Houston Chronicle Article by Columnist Lisa Falkenberg, June 2015, in Houston TX.
“I have a little advice: Sit down and be quiet.
No, I’m not channeling my inner Steve Bannon here. Or trying to quash dissent.
But before we can take on the world or the White House or what have you, we have to confront what’s swirling within. You know, the grocery list of responsibilities. The destructive voice of self-doubt. The ruminations stemming from insecurity or post-traumatic stress.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had several people talk to me about the importance of meditation in their lives.
I’m a skeptic about such things. And I’m terrible at relaxing. Either my mind is charging ahead in a caffeine-fueled, Tasmanian Devil tornado or I’m snoring. I’ve known peace, sure – taking Holy Communion, hiking the Santa Elena Canyon, turning in a column on time, a rare event.
But the idea of some mystical middle ground seems as fanciful as Oz.
Still, the testimonials were intriguing. So when I got an email pitch about a free event at the Rothko Chapel – offering a chance to learn how an ancient form of Buddhist meditation can be “medicine” for our mind-wandering and emotional entanglements – I decided to find out more.
The Rothko event – happening today at noon, if you’d like to drop in – will be taught by Alejandro Chaoul, an assistant professor and director of education at MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine program. Among his responsibilities are conducting research using mind-body techniques with cancer patients and holding group and individual meditation classes.
I attended one of Chaoul’s classes last week at MD Anderson with more than a dozen others, mostly cancer patients and caregivers. We sat in a mirrored, sunlit room, several of us first-timers, while Chaoul explained different meditation styles for different symptoms: Breathing helps with stress. Movement improves sleep. Certain sounds can help with “chemo brain,” cognitive impairment that can follow chemotherapy.
Chaoul likes to mix it up in his class, sometimes incorporating tea or writing. Regardless of style, he recommends 10-15 minutes a day of quiet and focus. Research has shown meditation can lower the stress hormone called cortisol, decrease blood pressure, balance the immune system and even “modify gene expression” to decrease inflammation.
‘Get lost in the shuffle’
Logically, I’m sold. But could I do it?
I listened as the others explained why they’d come. A patient with a rare Stage 4 cancer said she was just there to “de-stress.” A woman brought her sister just to get her out of her hospital room. A wife caring for her husband said she needed to find balance, “because it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle when I’m trying to take care of things.”
On this day, we were supposed to focus on nature. We could find it in a large, framed photograph of blue hydrangea on the wall, or out the window, in the gray clouds or the small garden of branches laid bare by winter.
Chaoul, an Argentine native with his gray hair in a tight knot behind his head, uncrossed his legs in his chair and pressed his socked feet against the linoleum. Half the time, he said, our mind is not in sync with our body. We’re looking at our children, or our spouse, maybe even nodding our heads. But our minds are somewhere else.
“Can you actually be here? Fully here?” he challenged us.
He told us to quiet the chattering in our heads, the “monkey mind.” Breathe lower, he instructed. Relax the eyes, the jaw. Melt the stress.
I was trying, but the monkey kept swinging. I scribbled a question in my notebook that I needed to ask my 7-year-old about school.
Somebody coughed. A cellphone buzzed. The PET scan machine in another room vibrated.
Look at nature, the clouds, the tree, I told myself, indecisive. Apparently the monkey chose the tree, then ran off down a long branch: “The house is clean,” I thought. “I should cook dinner. Too much takeout. What would the little one like? Lately, she’s been eating vegetables. Caldo. She ate caldo the other day. Why does she like that and not my chicken soup? The potatoes. I’ll make something with potatoes.”
“If your mind gets distracted, bring it back with your breath,” Chaoul said.
I try again. Just in time for meditation to be over. He invited questions.
“How do you quiet your mind?” a hospital volunteer asked.
Chaoul described a process that to me seemed like a ballerina’s spotting technique.
She doesn’t get dizzy because each turn, she connects with one stationary point in the room.
The woman with Stage 4 cancer had looked at the photo of the blue hydrangea – her favorite flower, she said. Her mind had gone to the ocean near her home in Alabama, and the walking path that gives her peace.
Someone asked Chaoul if, after 16 years of meditation, he was able to remain in a constant state of focus.
“If you ask my wife?” he said, prompting laughs. He said he has improved through the years and has stopped having panic attacks, once spurred by darkness and fear of death, but he still loses focus and gets angry.
He encouraged us to practice mindfulness throughout the day, even in traffic: “Don’t get frustrated. Don’t grab the phone,” he said. “Say ‘thank you, red light – what a great opportunity to breathe in and out.’ ”
We chuckled. After class, I asked the cancer patient how she liked it.
“For me, I can get lost in it,” said Patti Harris, 70, a retired businesswoman. She said it’s a powerful tool she uses often, along with her faith in God, to try to will the cancer out and keep positive.
Chaoul had told us: “When the mind wanders, usually it wanders into negative things.”
Quieting the noise
Harris knows this. So she doesn’t let it go there: “My friends say: ‘You’re so calm. You’re so at peace.’ Yes, I am.”
I’m not there yet – nowhere near. But Chaoul’s class inspired me to try again at home, with YouTube guidance. Each time, the monkey seemed a little calmer.
Chaoul said he’s seen meditation do everything from relieve acute pain to help someone overcome addiction. He loves doing the Rothko event, because he loves the chapel – a settling, embracing place, he said – and because he can introduce more people to meditation.
On Wednesday, he plans to focus on community as a source of support. It’s a good topic these days. We need each other – even when we’re at each other’s throats. If we can’t find all the answers in the noise, maybe we’ll have better luck in the silence.”