Meditation class on Martha's Vineyard
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
Now that the Obamas have flown off, Earl has blown over, and another too-busy summer winds down, Islanders look forward to a peaceful autumn. Time to take a break, get organized, do those home repairs. But before we know it the stresses, anxieties, doubts, and frustrations will be back. When our minds spin full with the newest storm, family upset, or flat tire it can feel like there is no way out.
But Elliott Dacher, MD, insists there is and he's prepared to point out the right direction. "It's amazing," he said. "You really can alleviate suffering." All suffering takes place in the mind, he insists, and can be changed by using appropriate techniques.
Dr. Dacher, a physician trained and experienced in Western medicine, began exploring Eastern disciplines and the connection between mind and body in health care years ago. Over time, he has incorporated some of those ideas into his practice. Author of several books on body/mind health and countless articles, Dr. Dacher lives on the Vineyard but spends considerable time pursuing spiritual development with teachers in India and around the U.S. Since 2008, he has shared the fruits of this journey with Island meditation students.
"There is a cause for the overactive mind, stress, distress, and suffering," explained Dr. Dacher. "And just as with any 'medical problem,' if we identify the cause we can apply the proper remedy. In these classes we examine the underlying causes for these common mental disturbances and learn the remedies or inner practices that can diminish them and allow for a life of greater peace, happiness, and well-being of body, mind, and spirit."
Dr. Dacher begins two new 10-week class sessions late this month at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. The courses are under the auspices of the hospital's Wellness Program, which offers opportunities for healthy lifestyle practices to staff and community members. Dr. Dacher said he and the dozens of students who have already taken his classes are grateful to the hospital for its continued assistance and support with the meditation program.
Both the beginning class, entitled Meditation and the Art of Happiness, and the advanced Practice Enhancement class include readings, class discussion, and individual consultation. Students are strongly encouraged to establish a daily meditation practice. Beginning classes relate to "taming the overactive mind, understanding and undermining the causes of stress, distress, dissatisfaction, and mental or physical suffering."
The advanced class requires previous meditation study and an established practice, and allows students to "refine and upgrade" their practice, according to Dr. Dacher. "Once we achieve some capacity to quiet the mind, we can expand our meditation to take us towards even higher levels of insight and well being," he said.
Quieting the mind
Past students say the benefits of the classes are enormous.
They speak of positive changes that include greater ease in dealing with family and work issues, diminished reactivity to inconveniences and annoyances, more mental clarity, and less anxiety facing health concerns. One student, warmly remembered by her fellows, participated courageously and serenely in the classes before her death from breast cancer.
Unlike some meditation teachers, Dr. Dacher does not advocate using a mantra, counting breaths, focusing on an image or phrase, chanting, or following guided relaxation. Instead he espouses "dropping into stillness," simply allowing the mind to quiet, and when thoughts or images arise simply noting them and letting them dissipate like clouds. Just as clouds are illusory, he says, so are the thoughts and worries that distract and plague us.
Dr. Dacher believes that meditation not only allows one to step back from the chaos and turmoil of everyday life — from work, family, and financial tensions to traffic tie-ups, ill-behaved computers, and cluttered kitchens — but it also enhances understanding of oneself and others, deepens compassion, and promotes insights about life. Meditation, he believes, also has a positive effect on physical health and healing.
"Participants who complete this program extend their capacities and resources to work with the mind and bring forth its rich qualities of happiness and well-being," Dr. Dacher said. He stresses the value of a regular, daily meditation practice, but says it is important to bring that practice out into the world too, not remain cloistered in a retreat. "The approaches we will use are not new. They are time-tested and effective ways to bring about happiness and optimal well being."
Experiencing the stillness
"I had taken meditation classes in the past, but this was framed in a different way," said Cathy Brennan, RN, a primary care nurse from West Tisbury who took the beginning class last spring. She was drawn to the class by seeing the effects of meditation on friends. "They had a peacefulness about them I was seeking for myself."
Ms. Brennan said that her previous courses aimed at relaxing the body and mind or relieving stress. "This was more to help us experience stillness, quiet," she said. "Freedom from suffering is the ultimate goal and getting to that still point during meditation. Pretty immediately it changed my perspective on day-to-day encounters and challenges and allowed me to be more peaceful about them."
Ms. Brennan said that although she meditates at home she looks forward to joining a structured class again.
"It's so easy for the busy, chattering mind to take over life," she said. " "It's difficult to overcome that without the support of a teacher and class."
Marie Laursen of Vineyard Haven, also a nurse, said she had "dabbled in meditation" for a long time, from Transcendental Meditation to Buddhism, and had always been interested in spiritual life, "the big questions." Colleagues at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital had reported benefits from Dr. Dacher's classes.
"I was intrigued to have a teacher from my own culture with a similar background in medicine," said Ms. Laursen. "He brought things into focus in a way I hadn't experienced. He demystified the process of spiritual development for me."
Ms. Laursen said that as a westerner, Dr. Dacher made concepts more understandable to her than had Buddhist teachers.
For Nancy Rogers, a musician and gardener from West Tisbury, meditation was a brand-new experience when she began with Dr. Dacher in 2009. Since then, she repeated the introductory class and last spring attended the advanced class. "I loved it immediately, and just knew I was in the right place," she said. "It was something I needed; I was ready for it."
Ms. Rogers said she quickly saw benefits in her everyday life. "I am a much better listener, and I'm learning to be more compassionate," she said. She finds herself better able not to take other people's negative behavior personally, recognizing that the person may be suffering.
"I'm taking the beginning steps," said Ms. Rogers, "but it has made a huge difference."
Meditation and the Art of Happiness, Tuesdays, 6-8 pm, beginning Sept. 28, $125; Practice Enhancement, Wednesdays, 6-8 pm, beginning Sept. 29, $125. M.V. Hospital Medical Staff Library. For info and registration call Allison Walker, 508-862-1940.