The power of meditation

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.

Fradkin, who owns a Chinese medicine and acupuncture practice in Reisterstown, joined the Dharma group in 2006.

“I meditate every day,” he said. “I’m an intense person, and meditation allows me to be more focused and it just makes me, well, softer. I’m more relaxed, and I find it easier to deal with everyday stressors and challenges.”

Every Thursday night Fradkin drives to Ellicott City to meditate with the Howard County Dharma Group, which includes about 10 core members.

“Tich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, said, ‘If you try to cross the water, it is a whole lot easier in a boat than it is to swim,’” Fradkin recited. “When you practice with like-minded people, you empower each other. The meditative practice itself is amplified by everybody around you, even if it’s just one other person.”

Howard County Dharma is open to those experienced in meditation. To learn about the roots of meditation and how to begin a daily practice, many in Howard County sign up for Tom Kight’s quarterly class at The Yoga Center of Columbia. His Foundations of Meditation class meets Wednesday nights and teaches those with little or no experience everything from sitting postures to breathing techniques to using the body and its sensations as objects of meditation.

“Most students sign up for the class because they’ve seen or read something recently that talked about the physical benefits of meditation, and then there are students who sign up for a deeper understanding of meditation and the potential influence it could have on their quality of life,” said Kight, a psychologist by training who has taught meditation since 2003. “My class is almost like a college course, where we build up layer by layer what they will need for a sustainable, authentic practice.”

Revealing, not reaching

While a group class or workshop is how most learn about meditation, some need one-on-one attention to learn techniques for quieting the mind, particularly those dealing with emotional concerns or substance abuse recovery.

Marianne Becker, a psychotherapist in Ellicott City and founder of, has found success incorporating meditation in treating her patients using neurofeedback -- a type of biofeedback that uses electroencephalography (EEG) to display brain function in real time as a tool for controlling central nervous system activity.

“In more than 20 years of psychotherapy, it became apparent early on that being able to develop a meditative practice that quieted the mind would contribute significantly to the mental health of many of the patients I see,” said Becker, a licensed clinical social worker. “The need to quiet the mind is significant, but it’s also one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.”

Eleven years ago, she attended a conference on neurofeedback and began incorporating the equipment into her treatment plans with great success. Utilizing the EEG provides a visual tool for patients to recognize when they have produced a calm brain frequency, also known as an alpha brain state.

“Once they experience how quiet the mind becomes, they want more of it,” she said, adding that her patients “sleep more restfully and walk around in a quieter state. They also become less reactive to the stressors in life and think more before an emotional response.”

Most of Becker’s patients learn to achieve a meditative state in 10 to 20 office visits. She also brings a certified instructor into her practice on a regular basis to lead patients in group meditation.

When Soulen first began learning about meditation, he said it took about two years to really understand and incorporate meditation into his life and feel the full daily benefits of it.

“It’s like anything in life. You wouldn’t just sit down at the piano and decide to play Chopin,” he said. “You have to take the time to practice.”

So has he been able to experience a realm other than ordinary existence?

“Yes,” he answers without hesitation. “I’ve seen what’s in the spiritual realm, and things I wondered about for 40 years I just don’t question any more. It’s beyond words to describe, although I’ve read others describe it as feeling like your body and mind drop away and all that remains is a radiant sense of simple awareness.”

Fradkin, too, has experienced meditation on a profound level.

“You lose yourself. It just melts away to this egoless state,” he described. “But that’s part of what meditation is all about -- peeling away layers over time to uncover your true nature, the purity of who you really are. To uncover the incredible being who has always been there.

“That’s what meditation is about -- not reaching, but revealing.” 

4 common elements in meditation

1. A quiet location. Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet place with as few distractions as possible.

2. A specific, comfortable posture. Depending on the type being practiced, meditation can be done while sitting, lying down, standing, walking or in other positions.

3. A focus of attention. Focusing one’s attention is usually a part of meditation. For example, the meditator may focus on a mantra (a specially chosen word or set of words), an object or the sensations of the breath.

4. An open attitude. Having an open attitude during meditation means letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them. In some types of meditation, the meditator learns to “observe” thoughts and emotions while meditating.

Source: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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