(click here to view the main article at Wellness with Gina Marie at the Albany Times Union)
Gina Marie: What is mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practice?
Lenore: Mindfulness practice is learning how to be present to whatever is happening in your life without a lot of reactivity, judgment of our selves or others, and with an openness to what it is to be a human being. Human life is fraught with ups and downs, happiness and unhappiness, suffering and joy. Our inclination is to push away the things we don’t like or are painful, and to want to hold onto the things we perceive bring us happiness and love. Many of us experience challenges and have had difficult childhoods. If we don’t acknowledge it in a way that is mindful, we can’t learn anything from it. If we push it away, suppress it, or pretend it didn’t happen; it doesn’t make it go away. Whereas if you can open yourself up and create some space around the pain, maybe something will happen. That’s what we teach people to do in a skillful way. Opening yourself up to the bad experience is hard for people because our conditioning is to move away from things that hurt and move towards things that feel good.
Gina Marie: What kinds of people come to Solid Ground and why do they come?
Lenore: Very much a mix of folks from all walks of life. We have people who come from very pragmatic backgrounds who come here; professors and teachers, psychologists and social workers, house wives, students, etc. People come for a variety of reasons. People who have a stressful situation in their life, people who are changing jobs, who have had children returning home, people who are caring for ailing parents, people who have had some sort of difficult challenge in their life such as an illness or a chronic pain problem. People who are self identified as depressed or anxious and they want to be able to handle that a little bit better. Sometimes physicians will refer people to us. Age doesn’t matter, gender doesn’t matter – we’re all facing the same issues and struggling with a lot of the same things. We encourage people to see it that way because that is one of the first steps to being able to be more self compassionate; to recognize that you’re not alone in your suffering. Everybody can feel a little sad or a little unsafe, or judgmental about themselves, or inadequate in some way.
Gina Marie: Let’s talk about the 8 week program. Is it of your design?
Lenore: The 8 week program was designed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Over the years we have added more self compassion practices, only because we feel people really need it, but we basically stick with the framework of the original program because it works. We begin with body awareness, then we move into sitting meditation practice. We work with practical, every day tools that people can use.
Gina Marie: Do participants of the 8 week course have a universal experience or is it different for each person?
Lenore: Always in the beginning of the 8 weeks we say to people that the amount of effort they put in will be directly proportional to the benefit that they derive. This is a time commitment. We’re going to give you some things to do in between classes. You’re not going to have to report back that you meditated five times this week or you only meditated once. It’s really for you to reflect more on why were you not able to make that time for yourself. Almost universally at the end of the 8 weeks, people report feeling calmer, happier, less stressed, more aware of relationships and the good things in their life. We focus a lot on that. We work on recognizing gratitude for the things that we have – if we have good health, if we have family that loves us and we love them, if we have a good job or a safe place to live. There are many studies that have been done, there’s the neuroscience studies that show the change in the structure of the brain that have been found at the end of the 8 week program. Happiness and depression improves, so all of that is a lot of empirical evidence that this is a good program.
At the end of the 8 weeks people recognize that it’s just the beginning and they always express a hope that they are going to be able to sustain the practice. That’s why we offer the opportunity to come [to monthly Meditation and Mindfulness Practice Group on Thursday nights] and we don’t charge people for that.
Gina Marie: At the end of the 8 weeks do the participants report that there’s been a change in their relationships?
Lenore: Some people more dramatic than others. I had a woman who lived over an hour away and came to one of the winter classes. She came every week and she really worked hard and at the end of the 8 weeks she reported a dramatic shift in her ability to be happier, less anxious, a whole bunch of really nice things for herself. Sometime after that Steve and I had a table at a fair and she came with her family from Vermont and her family thanked us. “Mom is so much happier and so much easier to live with” and generally enjoying her life, which is what they really want. They wanted to see her that way and not getting herself all anxious. We do have couples who come occasionally and take the course together. Steve and I encourage people to practice together. We’ve had mothers and daughters who have come in support of one another and have benefitted from the ability to support one another. People who live alone report more satisfaction with that, they become more comfortable with living alone.
Gina Marie: What are some common apprehensions of people who are thinking about learning mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practice? What are their fears and concerns about what might get in the way?
Lenore: The time commitment is a big thing. We do tell people that for this 8 weeks, we ask them to make a commitment to carry it through and at least try all of the things that we introduce. We have ac couple of people with very demanding jobs and moving parts in their lives, and we say try it for 8 weeks and see what will happen. Open yourself up to the possibility that this can be something that can be useful or you. Most people can do that. Some people are worried about the meditation part of I – that we’re going to make them sit on the floor or do some funny things. We’re very casual and very open here. Some people will sit on a cushion because that’s what they’re used to. Many people have said that in the past they tried and failed to start a meditation practice on their own by listening to tapes, but there’s no substitute for the live experience, for having the interaction with a teacher, and also the group dynamic of hearing other people’s stories. People open up to each other a lot over the 8 weeks. We try very hard to create a safe environment but people won’t know that until they come into the environment, so I think people are a little worried about that. We do screen people for mental health issues, which is a justifiable concern for some people. If they have some sort of attention deficit disorder or anxiety disorder, being able to sit for long periods is difficult, so we address that and work with them on that. On our intake form we ask if they are going to therapy, if they have talked to their therapist that this is a good thing for them to do. We ask them if it is OK with them if we talk with their therapist if we feel we need to (in all of the time we’ve been doing this, that has only happened once.) A lot of people come because they have read about the benefits of it. We always encourage people to come and meet us. The [monthly Meditation and Mindfulness Practice Group on Thursday nights] is a nice opportunity for that. It doesn’t cost them anything and they can get a sense of what it’s like. We want people to be comfortable coming here. Come meet us, come see the Center, we’re happy to talk with them. Sometimes people are concerned that we may have an agenda, but we teach from a very secular perspective. Sometimes people associate meditation with Buddhism, and that’s not what we teach here. Some [8 week course] groups have a little more inclination to it, so we might include a little bit more of it into the course, but that’s not where we come from.
Gina Marie: Is there anything else you would like people to know about Solid Ground Center for a Balanced Life and the work done here?
Lenore: People can come here and test it out at the Thursday night practice group without a commitment, and inquire and talk with us to find out if the 8 week course is right for them, or any of the other programs we might be running at the time. People can come here and see that this is a nice place without any weird things going on. We offer other educational programs, too. We keep our prices very affordable and we offer a lot of scholarships. We don’t turn people away. If they can’t pay us, we work with them in some way. For example, students who have limited income. People who come to our programs make donations and we use that money to support our scholarship program.
For more information, please visit Steve Flynn and Lenore Flynn at the Solid Ground Center for a Balanced Life, 148 Central Avenue, Albany, NY 12206. Phone (518) 339-9443. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Website http://www.solidgroundny.org