To understand the impact meditation can have on the human mind, picture a glass of muddy water. If you stir it, the water stays cloudy and anything that might sink to the bottom is instantly sucked back into motion. But if you allow the glass to become still, slowly the dirt settles to the bottom and the water begins to clear.
Meditation means different things to different people, but most agree that it is a means of quieting the mind, of stilling the parade of daily distractions and becoming less reactive to the stimulation that assaults our senses and emotions every waking hour. By achieving such stillness and clarity, meditation practitioners experience a sense of focus, insight and peace that they describe as nothing less than transformative.
“The way most of us live our lives today means our minds are horrendously busy,” said Dr. Jeff Soulen, an Ellicott City psychiatrist and founder of the Howard County Dharma Group. “Thoughts can be unruly and all over the place because so many distractions are vying for our attention, and often we’re not even aware of it.”
For Soulen, the members of his group and many of his patients, the answer can be found in regular meditation, which he describes as “cultivating the capability to put your attention where you want to, when you want to, for as long as you want to.
“There’s a misconception that you have to clear your mind in order to meditate,” he added. “Meditation is about clearing the mind. It’s about achieving a state of mindful awareness of what is going on around you without judgment so you are observing it rather than getting caught up in it.”
The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine acknowledges meditation as a “way to become mindful of thoughts, feelings and sensations and to observe them in a nonjudgmental way … to result in a state of greater calmness, physical relaxation and psychological balance.”
Meditation exists in many styles and has numerous places of origin. And while it has roots in spiritual growth and enlightenment, many of today’s practitioners use it simply as a tool for relaxation and stress relief.
In Howard County, residents have many options for learning or practicing meditation, from in-depth courses to informal meditation groups to machines that help train the brain to relax.
“Meditation can be nothing short of life changing, and the irony is, you sit down to meditate with no purpose, just a powerful trust in the process,” said Mark Fradkin, a Dharma member.
‘An amazing clarity’
When he was in his 40s, Soulen, now in his 50s, found himself wondering about life beyond what was in front of him every day.
“I was raised in a very scientific household, where faith and belief were downplayed,” he said. “But I’ve always been interested in questions about the spiritual realm.”
That curiosity intensified after he read “The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion,” by Ken Wilber.
“The book talked about realms other than the one we live in every day, and how you can know what goes on in any realm,” he said. “That got me very excited, the idea of possibly seeing the truth of the spiritual realm.”
Soulen began reading up on the subject and attending workshops. When he felt ready to really immerse himself in the practice, Soulen signed up for a weeklong seminar for health-care providers in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which joins meditation and yoga. He was sure the five hours of daily meditative yoga would intensify the mindfulness practice he’d been cultivating for some time and lead him to the spiritual breakthrough he’d been waiting for.
“I was ready to see the realm of the divine instead of the realm of the ordinary,” he recalled.
But by the end of the week he felt only frustration. “The week was completely ordinary, and by the end, the only thing different was I was really confused and my knees hurt.”
Soulen left the seminar unsure of his future relationship with meditation -- until he returned to work on Monday. That week he met with four patients who had been struggling with four very different problems, and each one had recently stalled in his or her progress.
“At each appointment it became perfectly clear to me exactly what they needed,” he described. “I had an amazing clarity of vision that I’m convinced had everything to do with the previous week, and I thought, if this was the result, I have to do this for the rest of my life, because I owe my patients no less than this.”
In 2004, Soulen formed the Howard County Dharma Group, a collection of area residents who come together weekly for group meditation.