August 6 is Canada’s National Day of Prayer and Mindfulness, an initiative of Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers across the country. On the day, Albertan Mary Dumka reflects on how learning simply Buddhist mindfulness practices have helped her in the moment and in the world.
I was introduced to Buddhist meditation in 1994. Since then I have been supported in many ways by the teachings of the Buddha, especially at the time of the sudden death of my husband. I share with others what I have learned through a weekly meditation group: canmoretheravadabuddhism.ca
I was first encountered meditation at a weekend workshop. The only meditator in the room was the teacher. The rest of us were green. After some explanations we closed our eyes for a 10-minute meditation. Prior to this moment, I had seen myself as a well-adjusted and happy person with no major problems. Before the 10 minutes were up, I discovered I had an out of control mind. It's too long ago to remember what I was thinking, but I vividly remember wanting to run, screaming, out of the room. I had never met this mind before because I had never sat in stillness. I was always incredibly busy.
Thankfully, after the sitting meditation, we did walking meditation. We were instructed to walk slowly from one end of the room to the other, turn slowly and walk back. I felt like a beautiful ballerina. Focusing on walking totally calmed my mind. And the focus on my body allowed me to experience the beauty of movement. I wasn't going anywhere. I wasn't trying to accomplish anything. I was simply walking, and loving the sensation!
In the following two weeks, I had three life changing experiences that hooked me on meditation. The first experience was of walking from the hospital, through a park, to the train station to get to my afternoon clinic. Prior to the meditation workshop, I never saw that park. I was always focused internally: post-hashing the patients I'd seen that morning or pre- hashing the patients I would see in the afternoon. But on that first day after the workshop, I put my learning into practice. I was "in the moment". The only details I can still remember are seeing the trees and the interesting seed pods they held, and then noticing a bald eagle flying overhead. I remember feeling joy at the vibrant beauty of my surroundings, and feeling astonishment that I had missed this beautiful daily walk for nine years!
The second experience was of not getting my expected transportation to a conference. I went into a panic. Then I remembered what I'd been taught in the meditation workshop and turned my attention from my distressed thoughts, to my breath.
I could literally feel the panic drain out of my body, through my feet, into the ground. Of course, it was back again shortly. But each time it returned, I returned my attention to my breath and then re-experienced the feeling of calm. In the moments of calm, I could think clearly and made a plan as to how I was to get to the conference.
I was thrilled with the calm that I had created myself. But the biggest surprise was once I was in the lecture hall. I had arrived just in time for the first speaker. I listened carefully and took notes. About half way through the lecture I suddenly realized that I was listening to the speaker! Of course, that was my goal: to get to the conference on time and listen to the speakers. But in the past, if something distressing had happened to me, I would not have been listening to the speakers. I would have been post-hashing my "trauma".
The third experience was of preparing dinner for some friends. As usual, I hadn't left enough time for all the preparation, so started to agitate. The agitation was the cue that caused me to remember the meditation instructions. So, instead of focusing on the fact that I wouldn't have dinner ready when the guests arrived, I focused on what I was doing in the moment. I was peeling carrots. The peels were making beautiful spirals. I really “got off” on their beauty. Next, I was mixing a cake and the oil and other liquids were making a beautiful, changing pattern. I "got off" on that too! When the company arrived, I felt relaxed and invited them into the kitchen to chat while I finished the preparations. In the past, in a similar situation, I would have felt like a limp dishrag and been too exhausted from stressing out to enjoy my company.
These three experiences showed me how simple the meditation technique was, yet how profound its positive consequences.