In pursuit of mindfulness

Michael Muckian walks readers through what he’s learned along the way about mindfulness and meditation, and how you can get started, too.
person standing in a ring
Illustration by Nicole Xu

The first time I tried to meditate several decades ago, very little happened. My brain struggled to quell its usual collision of thoughts so I could reach what I assumed would be an exalted state of awareness. Instead, I fell asleep.

It didn’t help that my wife, Jean, and I were lying on top of the bed in comfortable repose, assuming that would help us quickly reach satori, or sudden enlightenment. Thoughts of work, kids and tasks around the house refused to let that happen. Finally, I just checked out of consciousness, at least for the short term.

“You were snoring,” Jean said.

“How do you know I wasn’t meditatively chanting?” I replied.

I received one of those “oh, please” looks that every husband knows so well. I tried meditation a few more times and the same thing happened. That was the end of it for me. I had a busy life of mental and physical pursuits to think about and really didn’t see meditation fitting into that picture.

COVID-19 changed all that. As someone who defined himself by what he did, I suddenly found fewer and fewer opportunities to do. That meant I really no longer was that person. In fact, I wasn’t sure exactly who I was at all.

Jean, who since that early attempt has earned her doctorate in nursing, kept on meditating. At first she did so occasionally, then regularly, while continuing her studies on the subject. Any lingering doubts she may have had as to its efficacy were pushed aside in 2015 when her physician recommended the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program through UW Health to curb her rising blood pressure. The treatment worked, and she now meditates daily.

“I loved it,” she told me at the conclusion of the series, “but I don’t think you’d have the patience.”

What did she mean by “patience?” Was “appreciation” or “understanding” — maybe even “courage” — the word she was looking for? With her gauntlet gently tossed, clearly I would have to look into this.

I knew I’d have to start again slowly and put any notion of immediate enlightenment aside. I found a simple breathing exercise that could be a possible remedy for my sleep issues. The process begins with a deep inhalation designed to fill the lungs. Hold it for four to five seconds, then slowly release the breath through the nostrils or partially closed mouth. The full oxygen load helps curb the “fight or flight” reaction caused by short, rapid breathing, thus enhancing relaxation. Follow the exhalation by paying close attention to each subsequent breath to help focus the mind and reduce random thoughts. From there, experts say, it should be a short trip to dreamland.

The process didn’t always work, but it worked often enough that it became a regular part of my sleep regimen. It showed me the value of combining mental, emotional and physical resources in new and different ways. It also introduced me to the value of mindfulness meditation practices in serving matters of the mind, body and spirit.

I continued my search, especially as the pandemic dragged on, tentatively latching onto my wife’s meditation habit. Last summer, Jean and I listened to a webcast series by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I also read “Full Catastrophe Living,” Kabat-Zinn’s 1990 seminal text exploring mindfulness meditation and its various applications.

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” Kabat-Zinn writes. Essentially, it’s turning toward oneself and away from external stresses and distractions to find answers and start self-healing processes. To the beginner, the concept is as simple as the practice is difficult. It’s also a revolutionary methodology for those of us looking to redefine our lives, a process Kabat-Zinn claimed could be accomplished one mindful and measured breath at a time. I needed to know more.

The Intersection of Mindfulness and Meditation

michael muckian and jean

This feature story’s author, Michael Muckian (left), shares a meditative moment with his wife, Jean. Muckian says he’s come a long way from his first session several decades ago, during which he fell asleep. Photo by Chris Hynes

Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness encapsulates a wide array of knowledge and practices, but it’s just the start, says Melissa Rosenkranz, assistant professor with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Psychiatry and a distinguished chair in contemplative neuroscience at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison. With knowledge comes enhanced ability, she says, and with ability comes increased social obligation.

“There’s a bit of a misconception as to what constitutes mindfulness,” Rosenkranz says. “It’s being aware of the contents of your mind rather than being immersed in them. It’s an entry point for beginning meditation and can invoke an empathy for ourselves and create levels of self-compassion.”

The standard image of sitting cross-legged on a pillow in a dark room is one way to practice mindfulness, but by no means is it the only way — or even the best way, Rosenkranz says. One can practice mindfulness while lying down, standing up, walking around or performing mundane household chores if those activities all are done mindfully in the present moment. While mindfulness can help practitioners come to terms with unconscious bad habits, it also serves as an entry point for repairing and rebuilding relationships with others, she adds.

“It’s a humanizing practice and can address divisions among people,” Rosenkranz explains. “Our mistake as a culture is losing the knowledge of connection between people and goodwill-toward-others practices. Mindfulness is the intentional cultivation of that goodwill and well wishes for other people.”

Despite its resounding benefits, issues occasionally arise for those who don’t approach mindfulness, well, mindfully, or at least are not fully aware of what they’re doing.

“Anything can be harmful if it is not done properly or without the right intentions,” Rosenkranz says.
Meditation can bring up thoughts and feelings for which people are unprepared, she says, recommending that those with a history of trauma have someone guide them through the process.

“Training your mind is like training a muscle. Moving too far or too fast in the wrong direction can cause strain,” she says.

Mining the Metaphysical With an App

Meditation has long been viewed as part and parcel of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. The terms “sati” in Pali and “smriti” in Sanskrit roughly translate into “that which is remembered” or, in modern-day parlance, mindfulness. But all religions and even many social cultures have contemplative aspects, says Cortland Dahl, research scientist and chief contemplative officer with the Center for Healthy Minds and its affiliated nonprofit, Healthy Minds Innovations.

“These kinds of meditation practices are universal,” says Dahl, who also developed the Healthy Minds App. “You will find them in all major religions and humanistic traditions, including early Greco-Roman philosophy. Humans have always found ways to develop a rich inner life and well-being.”

The app, which is free for anyone to download and use, offers guided meditations and education in developing practices. According to Dahl, it provides an avenue for people interested in meditation, especially those who don’t know where to start.

“The concern we hear a lot is, ‘Well, I tried to meditate but I was too distracted or too restless, and I don’t think it’s for me,’ ” Dahl says. “That’s like saying, ‘I was going to exercise, but I was too out of shape.’ That’s the whole point. The conditions of our lives are programming our brains to be scattered, anxious messes. It’s a sign that we can benefit even more from mindfulness meditation.”

Moreover, one does not need to completely clear the mind of outside thoughts in order to meditate properly, Dahl adds. Those thoughts will inevitably come, and the trick is to recognize them, acknowledge them and then let them move on as they inevitably will.

“Meditation helps you train your mind to promote well-being,” Dahl explains. “Like physical exercise trains your body, meditation pushes your mind to its limits and strengthens core capacities of mental health and psychological fitness.

“Over time, through exercise, you build up your physical capacity,” he adds, “and the same thing happens to your mind through meditation.”

Four Threats, Four Pillars of a Healthy Mind

Mindfullness Collage

Melissa Rosenkranz (top left) says “training your mind is like training a muscle.” Rosenkranz is assistant professor with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Psychiatry and a distinguished chair in contemplative neuroscience at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison. Richard J. Davidson (top right) is founder and director of the center, which launched a Healthy Minds app (bottom right). The app was developed in part by Cortland Dahl (bottom left) a research scientist and chief contemplative officer with the Center for Healthy Minds and its affiliated nonprofit, Healthy Minds Innovations. Photos courtesy of Center for Healthy Minds and UpSplash

Richard J. Davidson — founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW–Madison, where he has been a faculty member since 1984 — knows from personal experience the challenges and rewards of meditation.

“Meditation is a word we give to a family of methods that enable us to be the best we can be and function at the top of our game,” says Davidson. “We meditate to promote human flourishing, to be actualized as human beings and take full advantage of our individual potential.”

Davidson identifies four societal threats to that “flourishing” that can negatively impact our lives and thinking. Those threats are distractibility, which could lead to general unhappiness in the population or even increased attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, in young people; loneliness, which also affects our physical health and contributes to early mortality; negative self-talk and depression, which Davidson says is on the rise, especially among women; and loss of meaning and purpose in life, which also can predict an early death.

As Davidson was explaining, it occurred to me that, at one time or another, I had suffered from all four of those threats — and sometimes still do.

In response to these threats, Davidson and his colleagues have also identified four “pillars” of a healthy mind that are the focus of the center’s research and can lead to greater well-being. Those pillars are awareness, including the capacity to focus attention and resist distraction, as well as “meta-awareness,” or knowing what our minds are doing and why; connection, which refers to qualities, such as kindness, appreciation and compassion, that nurture harmonious interpersonal relationships; insight into the narrative we tell ourselves and the ability to change our relationship to that narrative from negative to positive; and purpose, which promotes the feeling of meaningfulness in what we do no matter how mundane that activity may be.

Demand for efforts that encourage human flourishing has only increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the psychological and emotional damage it has inflicted worldwide, Davidson says.

“Research indicates that COVID-19 has caused an equally serious pandemic of mental health crises,” he says. “Rates of depression have tripled for certain age groups, online teaching has become a crisis for kids and students across the board, not to mention harm done to adults trying to work remotely and those who can’t work at all.

“I’ve been busier over the last year since the pandemic started than I have been in my entire professional life,” he adds. “People are really hurting.”

Certain behaviors are necessary to help curtail the pandemic’s spread, but “social distancing,” Davidson says, is an unfortunate term that may be exacerbating the current conditions. “We need to be physically distanced, yes, but not socially distanced.”

The pandemic will eventually end, he says, but the damage is already done. Nonetheless, behaviors have emerged, particularly among health care and other essential workers, that have given Davidson optimism in what is otherwise a bleak psychological climate.

“The pandemic has reminded us of the inherent generosity of spirit and kindness at the core of human nature,” he says. “If we can express our appreciation to these people, we can reconnect with a core part of who we are as human beings. If we can nurture more warmth and kindness, this world could become a better place.”

Testing the Thesis

Kabat-Zinn’s notion of mindfulness meditation as “paying attention on purpose” may have caught my attention, but Davidson’s and his colleagues’ explanations changed my mind. The simplicity of their comments and the logic of their science explained meditation in ways I had previously not understood. Or maybe the simplicity had been there all along, even 20-plus years ago when my journey started and stalled. I had been seeking something I assumed would be vastly complicated and difficult to understand, when in reality meditation might be one of the simplest concepts of all.

Jean and I had the opportunity to put this insight and information to the test in February 2021, when Healthy Minds Innovations held its first virtual retreat. “Cultivating Healthy Relationships” was a sort of pre-Valentine’s Day gift hosted by Dahl and meditation trainer Stephanie Wagner. Roughly 60 people from across North America and Europe, as well as Peru, Costa Rica and Israel, participated in the three-hour online series of guided meditations and lectures. The retreat’s trajectory and purpose included compassion for ourselves, our loved ones and, ultimately, every sentient being on Earth.

“People always wait for ‘The Big Wow’ when meditating, but that’s not what it’s about,” Dahl said on camera. Instead, he explained, compassion develops like ripples in a pond, starting first with compassion for ourselves and then radiating out to include those we love and even those we don’t.

During that Saturday’s guided sessions, Jean and I were always mindful of our bodies and our surroundings and never felt like we were floating away on a cloud. But by then we understood that’s not what it’s about. Enlightenment — if that’s even the right word — occurs gradually and concurrently, and with acceptance of the premise that happiness starts in our hearts and minds and radiates outward with those ripples, opening up possibilities and even glimmers of joy.

“It’s not what you do but who you are that’s important,” Dahl said that day. I appreciated his words — but they no longer seemed as important to me as they might have been at the start of this process. We are who we are, not what we do, and our only obligation is to make the most of ourselves through self-actualization and, when possible, find ways to share ourselves compassionately with others.

At least, that seems to be the direction I was given. Now the work begins.

Meditation Resources
In addition to the Center for Healthy Minds, Madison offers other mindfulness meditation resources through various area health programs and the Madison Metropolitan School District. Local meditation centers include the following:

Kadampa Meditation Center
Through classes, lectures, special events, festivals, celebrations and individualized sessions, Kadampa teaches participants meditation and relaxation from a strongly Buddhist perspective. Classes are currently held online, and one does not need to be Buddhist to participate. 1825 S. Park St., 661-3211, meditationmadison.org

Madison Zen Center
An active center for Zen meditation practices open six days per week, the center follows the teachings of Philip Kapleau, author of “The Three Pillars of Zen” and other works. 1820 Jefferson St., 255-4488, madisonzen.org

Shambhala Meditation Center
Shambhala offers a spiritual path of study that guides participants through meditation and the contemplative arts. It emphasizes engaging with the world while opening doors to the compassionate care of ourselves and others. 408 S. Baldwin St., 441-8868, madison.shambhala.org

Snowflower Sangha
An international group based in France, Snowflower Sangha follows the teachings of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn in its meditation practices. Though currently meeting online only, the group historically gathers four days per week, often at the Society of Friends Meetinghouse or in practitioners’ homes. Society of Friends Meetinghouse, 1704 Roberts Court, snowflower.org

Michael Muckian, a Madison writer, is a regular contributor to Madison Magazine.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"