I’ve wanted to join my friend Nancy Wood at her meditation group on Tuesday mornings for a while now, and a couple of Tuesdays ago, I finally made it. Nancy’s been going to the group for around two years, and she told me that she likes having uninterrupted time to find a calmer, more focused state of mind. She also said she enjoys being with people who are sensitive to each other’s thoughts and insights. Ed Merck leads the guided meditation sessions, which last around an hour at the Unitarian Church. Because there were only five us that Tuesday, the session felt very intimate and connected.
I’ve tried meditating in large groups, participating in centering prayer sessions in my old diocese in Syracuse, N.Y., and meditating or “centering” alone, and I’m a big reader of spiritual books. Like everybody else, I’m always searching and trying to find that connection to the sacred and to others. And considering the way we live these days, it’s not easy. For some reason, meditation in this small group felt as comfortable as meditating at home alone. Usually when I’m trying out some kind of official-seeming meditation, I psych myself right out to point where there’s no way I’m going to calm my mind. I keep wondering to myself, “Am I doing it right?”
I asked Ed about his experience with meditation, hoping he could shed some light on why it’s something I keep going back to, even when my mind is jumping from thinking about buying light bulbs at Granite to why my breathing sounds so loud in my head.
“I started meditating back when I was in my early 20s,” Ed told me. “I went on a weeklong silent retreat, and I only lasted three days.”
If Ed, the facilitator of a guided meditation group, couldn’t maintain that state of awareness right off the bat, then I didn’t feel so badly myself. One thing I do know is that if I take time, sometimes only 20 minutes or so, to sit calmly early in the morning, it’s easier to go back to that peaceful place throughout the rest of the day.
“In my own view, meditation works at a variety of different levels,” Ed told me. “On the sort of very basic, practical level, it helps me develop a greater buoyancy, peace, relaxation, mental clarity, and concentration.” There are proven physical and medical benefits, such as less pain, better sleep, and lower blood pressure, to name a few.
“These are the practical benefits that one begins to witness in themselves as they practice meditation,” he said. “Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, working mom, a 70-year-old dealing with grandchildren or a of CEO of Pfizer, it’s not a bad thing to have better mental clarity.”
We talked a bit about the spiritual aspects of meditation as well, and enjoying a sense of connectedness to the other people in the room. “The notion of oneness, interbeing, there isn’t a mystical tradition or religion that doesn’t point to oneness as a heightened state of consciousness. Many people today are saying we will only survive as a species if we’re able to modulate from separateness to interconnectedness,” Ed said.
I asked Kay Mayhew, a columnist at The Times and someone who meditates with Ed’s group every week, how she benefits from meditation. “I’ve been going nearly two years,” Kay wrote in an email. “It has helped me cope with some very difficult times when I was desperately unable to. I do see a big difference when I miss; I miss my friends in the group as well as the comfort of group meditation.”
It’s kind of funny, but I couldn’t really tell you what was going through my mind while I meditated that Tuesday morning. And that might be a good thing. Maybe it means that absolutely nothing was going through my mind, maybe I was simply “present.” Quieting my mind and sitting in silence doesn’t come easily for me.
“It’s both simple but profoundly difficult because of the way we’ve been schooled in the West,” Ed said. “People in the East look at us and think, What’s the problem? It does ultimately go back to how we see ourselves as separate. That can lead to profound loneliness and isolation, and that leads to pain and suffering. Mindfulness meditation is an attempt to rebalance that.”
Ed said that if you aren’t able to meet with others for mindfulness meditation, the next best thing is sitting in silence on your own.
“Silence is one of our best teachers, but also one of the hardest places for people in the West to go,” he said. “Allow yourself to sink into the silence. Go out to your garden and sit in the garden with your eyes closed for an hour. Go to the ocean’s edge and sit on the shore. I like to close my eyes and allow the sound of silence to permeate every aspect of my being. It’s not something you’re actually doing — it’s something you’re allowing. The state of unity consciousness is already there. It’s like clouds in the sky. We just need to give it time through silence to clear so that we can see the true reality, which is unity.”
Looking back on it, that morning spent in guided meditation was the best hour I’ve given myself in a long time.
The free guided meditation group meets every Tuesday from 9:30 to 10:30 am at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Vineyard Haven. All experience levels are welcome, including beginners.
The Federated Church in Edgartown has some big news: It’s been named as a site on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. In 1857, Frederick Douglass gave his speech “The Unity of Man” to an audience at what was then the First Congregational Church (now known as the Federated Church), and at the Edgartown town hall. On Tuesday, July 3, there will be the fifth annual reading of the Douglass speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro” at noon at the church’s meetinghouse. Following the reading, the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard will unveil a special plaque, listing the Federated Church as Site 29 on the historic trail, honoring Frederick Douglass. Light refreshments will follow the free event. For more information, call the church at 508-627-4421.
Also from the Federated Church, summer hours begin Sunday, July 1. There will be two services on Sunday — one at 8 am and another at 9:30 am. The earlier option is an abbreviated service lasting about a half-hour, and the 9:30 am gathering is a full service that includes music by the church’s choir, led by Peter Boak.
Finally it’s feeling like summer, and the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury knows how to get us in the mood. The congregation hosts its 30th annual Strawberry Festival on Saturday, June 23, from 12 to 4 pm. Volunteers gather at dawn to the get the berries ready, and the treats include strawberry shortcake, strawberries with ice cream, strawberry smoothies, and strawberries with whipped cream, and the berries will also be for sale. Don’t buy them all up, though, because the parishioners take the leftovers and make jam, selling it the following week. The event is a big fundraiser for the church, and helps to offset operating expenses throughout the year. You don’t want to miss it.
I just want to put this out there: If you miss Sunday service next week, try the Ritz instead, where you’ll hear the McMahon Brothers and friends playing Dirty Gospel. Our family went last Sunday, and listening to Siren Mayhew sing “Amazing Grace” was a heavenly experience.