Now more than ever, finding peace and rest is so important to a healthy life. Right now, nearly 7 in 10 Americans (67%) said that living through the coronavirus pandemic has been a rollercoaster of emotions, according to the American Psychological Association. With uncertainty surrounding the ongoing pandemic, not to mention the normal stresses of everyday life, many people are searching for a way to relieve their stress. If you find yourself in that category, then meditation may be something that can help. We recently talked with Bishop Gadsden resident Dr. Lester Pittman about the benefits of meditation and how to get started.
What is Meditation?
So, what is meditation? According to Dr. Pittman, “it’s a discipline of the mind and spirit.” That’s a broad definition; the word “meditation” is more of a category than one specific activity. Meditation is often used as an umbrella term for things like yoga, tai chi, mindfulness, prayer, and other activities. What’s clearer is how difficult it is for humans to settle and meditate. “We can’t stop our minds from thinking, from having thoughts,” says Pittman. “We can’t stop our body from feeling sensations. It’s an itchy nose or hearing sounds in our environment. Our senses are going to keep collecting those sensations regardless of what we do.”
But meditation won’t fix anything on its own – it’s not a magical cure for bad feelings. “Feelings an important part about being a human being,” says Pittman. “If we go into meditation upset or worried about something, then that’s not going to go away. And the paradox is, if we think that meditation is getting rid of thoughts, feelings, sensations, then we make it worse.”
Many people think of meditation as something only suitable for monks and those who have devoted their lives to it. But Dr. Pittman says it’s a practice that can benefit everyone, and there’s science to back it up. “We’re only becoming more aware in the West – in our scientifically oriented world today – that we can actually measure the benefits of meditation. So there have been studies done by neuroscientists on the brains of monks – both Christian monks and Buddhist monks – and they found that meditation affected their brains positively.”
Perhaps the most important benefit of meditation is the decrease in stress. According to the American Psychological Association, three in 4 adults who reported a high stress level during the past year. “The one thing that attracts most modern people to meditation is when they hear that it’s a way of dealing with stress,” says Pittman. “Stress is the number one health risk because it contributes to so many other health problems that we have, particularly as we get older.”
Pittman says he too struggled with stress, but a retreat to a monastery helped him learn to manage his stress through meditation. Upon returning from the retreat, he reached out to a friend at the VA. As a veteran, Pittman wanted to share with his fellow veterans what meditation had done for him.
As it turned out, the VA was and is fully aware of the benefits of meditation. The VA reports that meditation reduces stress and improves capacity to cope with any number of chronic disorders, including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD. It also says that having people over 60 meditate regularly could avert nearly 200,000 stroke cases and 50,000 stroke-related deaths over the course of 15 years. “The people who attend VA meditation are not the kind of people that would normally get into religious or new-age type of stuff,” said Pittman. “And yet, when they were given the skills to practicing meditation, even for just 10 minutes, they could see the benefits and started doing it regularly.”
Anyone Can Meditate
Even if you’ve never tried meditation, you may find it comes easier to you, especially if you are later in your life. “Older people are better at meditation than younger people. It’s one of those skills that can be very difficult sometimes for the young,” says Pittman. “I had the experience that most people do, that when I would try to meditate, I thought I was supposed to have a calm mind. I thought that I didn’t have that or if I didn’t feel something spiritual, it wasn’t happening. So I gave up.”
Many years later, Dr. Pittman was invited by a friend to join a group in centering prayer, a Christian-centered form of meditation. “My response was, well, thank you very much for the invitation, but I can’t do that. I’ve tried, it doesn’t work for me,” said Pittman. “He was kind of disappointed. And he said, well, would you just come and sit in the room for a half an hour while we do it? And that was the breakthrough for me. I just went into that room and sat in silence for 30 minutes, and I realized that I could meditate. Sometimes it’s something as simple as that: stop doing and just sit.”
How to Get Started
So, how do you start? Pittman says it’s best to start with others. “It’s kind of like how we learn to swim or to ride a bicycle; most of us don’t learn those skills by ourselves. We don’t learn to walk or talk by ourselves. We learn it with other people.”
Bishop Gadsden offers several opportunities for residents to practice meditation. Dr. Pittman instructs his own Tai Chi class each Tuesday and Thursday at 10:00AM in the Wellness Center. “Tai Chi might be a good way to start with meditation for a lot of people,” says Pittman. “The nice thing about Tai Chi is it’s a form of moving meditation. For many people, just the act of sitting still is a barrier that they cannot overcome because they’re just so tuned into moving.”
BG also offers Yoga classes in the Wellness Center on Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:00AM. Additionally, each Friday at 3:30PM, there is a group that meets for Centering Prayer in the Chapel. If you’d rather participate from home, Dr. Pittman recommends TaijiFit with David-Dorian Ross, who has free tips on his YouTube channel, and also leads live classes online at Taijifit.net. Mepkin Abbey (located in nearby Moncks Corner, SC) hosts meditation and centering prayer opportunities every Tuesday and Thursday at 8am live on Zoom
Outside of BG, Dr. Pittman recommends the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, specifically his book Wherever You Go There You Are.