Ten years of meditation with Elliott Dacher

Hospital program supports practice of letting things come and go.

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Elliott Dacher has been leading the meditation program at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for 10 years. — Sam Moore

Take 10 deep breaths. Create a clearing of the overactive mind. Pick a focal point — maybe the place under your nostrils, or your chest or abdomen. Observe the rise and fall of your breath. Focus on the breath. Focus on the breath. Focus on the breath.

These are tips Elliott Dacher, M.D., shared with me at his Aquinnah home. Dacher has been practicing meditation since the early 1970s. Over the years, his practice has grown and evolved into a steady component of his life. Dacher started the Mindfulness and Meditation program at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital 10 years ago. Like his practice, the program has grown and evolved into a steady component of integrative health promotion at the hospital. The 10th anniversary meditation series begins on Wednesday, April 3, and continues every week for seven weeks from 6 to 8 pm.

“Meditation is a lifelong process of self-education,” Dacher said. “Everyone can learn to have a still, quiet, peaceful, healthy life. It’s like learning anything else.”

The course was originally offered to hospital employees only, as part of a stress management program. Now it’s open to everyone — all ages, all levels of experience, and all conditions of health.

“I see people that are healthy, seeking larger light to promote a sense of being,” Dacher said. “I also see people with significant illnesses — cancer and other dilemmas. People can get referrals from physicians on the Island.”

Dacher has run the course 28 times since the program’s inception 10 years ago. Classes are capped at about 25 participants — there are usually three or four repeat participants per class.

“But it’s not so much repeating it,” Dacher said. “The experience gets deepened. The material changes. It’s really like going on a retreat again … Largely, the group has been individuals who haven’t had any experience with meditation before.”

The program has reached about 500 Islanders, each group becoming its own “sweet little community,” Dacher said. “You just have to be open and willing.”

There are three components within the two-hour session. First, the group meditates together. Dacher then discusses an aspect of the teaching’s psychology or philosophy. Then there are questions, support, and sharing — allowing the group to open up about where they are in their practice, and what kind of challenges arise.

The biggest obstacle for people is an overactive mind. “It’s the most pervasive challenge,” Dacher said. “I try to teach people not to suppress, or struggle, or fight [their thoughts], because that’s not how to deal with them. It turns the whole thing into a big battle — it makes a busy mind busier, and more resistant.”

“Learning to sit quietly for more than 30 seconds was a huge, huge challenge,” said Deborah Mayhew of West Tisbury. She was part of Dacher’s program in 2014 and 2015. “It was an extreme challenge, especially in the beginning.”

Dacher said the true remedy for a busy mind is understanding how it works: “Understanding the nature of how thoughts, feelings, and mental images arrive, and how we turn them into distractions, events, and stories through the attention and reactivity we give them. Don’t grasp onto the commentary. Allow this show and display of the mind to come and go. This is how one learns subtly to let the mind be what it is, but not engage in overactivity.”

The second most common challenge for people is essentially the opposite of the first. “Some people fall asleep,” Dacher said. “Meditation isn’t a relaxation technique, it’s an awakening technique. Although relaxation is a result of meditation, it is not the aim of meditation.”

Dacher speaks clearly, calmly, and eloquently. He’s written entire books about holistic medicine, healing, and meditation. One of his more recent, “Aware, Awake, Alive: A Contemporary Guide to the Ancient Science of Integral Health and Human Flourishing,” is required reading for the course.

“The program slowly developed a manual,” Dacher said. It contains discussions written out, practices, and a CD guide. “The manual got bigger and bigger, and then became a book.”

At the end of the seven-week series, participants notice a shift. Local artist Judith Schubert has taken the course twice.

“I had no trained experience,” Schubert said. “I was doing it on my own, and really wanted some instruction.” The course helped Schubert gain a wider understanding of the process of meditation. “I was able to see things a little more clearly, prioritize what’s important, and what isn’t important. It doesn’t just benefit you, it benefits everyone around you. You find a centeredness, a calmness, an understanding. If your feathers aren’t getting ruffled by stuff going on in life, it helps others not get ruffled either.”

Sam Low is a writer in Oak Bluffs, and has also taken the course twice. “It wasn’t just about meditation,” Low said. “It was about seeing your life in a different way — adding pace and rhythms to it. It gives you the tools to calm down, and be more present. I’m a very impatient person. I find myself washing the dishes and being a little cranky — wanting to get it over with because I have so many things to do. Then I recall the practice Elliott is trying to present. Calm down. Use time spent on everyday things like chores as a time to say, ‘Look, this is what I’m doing now. And this is a time to do it quite well and take pleasure in it.’”

“People that have never really looked at the mind before realize, not only can I have quietness, but quietness is who I actually am,” Dacher said. “[Meditation] brings a set of qualities that come from the inside, rather than the outside. Happiness without treason. Serenity that is steady. An understanding of suffering and compassion. It enhances the quality of how relationships work.”

Dacher is a physician, and practiced internal medicine in Virginia for 21 years. He decided it was time to learn about the inner aspects of medicine.

“I came to Martha’s Vineyard to sit quiet for a while,” Dacher said. He spent a year in India and Nepal to study meditation, “studies that continue to date,” he said.

Dacher was an emergency room doctor at the hospital; “that was my first involvement with the hospital,” he said. He presented a book talk at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on one of his earlier holistic health books — he’s written five — and someone from the hospital asked him if he’d consider doing a meditation program at the hospital. The program mushroomed into what it is now.

Dacher hopes to see meditation and stress management become more integrated into general Western medical practices. “It can be integrated into cardio health, prenatal care, presurgical care,” Dacher said. “People can learn how to relax after procedures. It can be integrated into a variety of disease programs.”

The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) is a model for this integrative vision. Since 2006, the Benson-Henry Institute has provided a crossroads for the field of mind/body medicine and MGH’s clinical care, research, and training programs. “The program sees thousands of people every year with physician referrals,” Dacher said. “There’s a model within our system for this.”

Dacher’s program is a first step on Martha’s Vineyard, and Denise Schepici, CEO of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, is on board.

“I am a firm believer in both the science as well as the practices and philosophy [of mind/body medicine],” Scepici told The Times. “Though I haven’t participated in Elliott’s particular program, I have great respect for the principles and practices he teaches. With his medical background and training, and his journey of understanding Eastern teaching and practices in this arena, he is a credible sage to inspire mind/body balance as a better way to live a more fulfilling and healthy life.”

“People often ask me, ‘Do you miss medicine?’ I say, ‘I’m practicing medicine, but I’m doing it from the inside out, rather than the outside in,’” Dacher said.

Sessions start Wednesday, April 3, from 6 to 8 pm, and continue for seven weeks. Dacher recommends participants attend all seven sessions. For more information, contact Avery Langlois at mvhmeditation@partners.org, or call 508-957-9479.