Meditation instructor Alice Dan mindfully meditates at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago.
The shrine room at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago in Rogers Park was warm—almost uncomfortably warm—and, as expected, smelled faintly of incense.
About 15 people sat in the room, silently meditating on either chairs or square meditation cushions called gomdens—and all of them had their eyes open, staring at the floor.
While the room suggests a spiritual environment, religious and spiritual devotion are not required for people to learn meditation here and for meditation to increase awareness and bring a sense of peace.
Some people who practice at the center are interested in Buddhism and eastern philosophy, while others are trying to manage their stress levels and be more relaxed, said Thomas Adducci, the center’s executive director.
“You don’t have to become a Buddhist or practice any spiritual faith, but meditation could still be a benefit," Adducci said.
I mirrored the actions of my meditation instructor, Alice Dan, and bowed to the shrine in the front of the room before taking a seat on a folding chair in the back, assuming the posture I had learned during my 15-minute crash course.
Back upright but relaxed - feet firmly on the ground - hands resting comfortably on my thighs - gaze focused at a spot on the ground six feet away - eyes in soft focus.
“The main idea of the posture that we take is that it allows you to be relaxed and alert at the same time,” said Dan, 70, just before we entered the shrine room together. “You can think of yourself like a queen on your throne. It’s a sense of dignity when we sit.”
I felt surprisingly comfortable in my posture even though it was my first time meditating. I focused on being still and aware, taking note of how it felt to have the chair cushion support my bottom, how my feet seemed to sink into the floor.
I was practicing mindful meditation, a form of Open Monitoring (OM) meditation where you peacefully monitor experiences around and within you. OM meditation greatly differs from forms of Focused Attention (FA) meditation, which requires a person to voluntary focus on an object for a sustained period of time and essentially erase the rest of the distractions around you.
I tried to relax into my breath and did my best to practice what Dan, who has meditated for more than 14 years, had taught me.
“Our breathing is natural,” Dan had said. “It changes depending on our state of mind, and when we meditate, we don’t make any attempt to change our breath. We simply follow it—we simply experience what it’s like to be a breathing human being.”
The North Side meditation center has about 160 regular supporting members, Adducci said. But the center attracts one-time visitors as well.
“People come because they’re curious, and they would like to experience it. They’ve heard about meditation and wonder, ‘Why would somebody meditate?’” Adducci said.
Despite the wealth of scientific research on meditation, particularly how the practice promotes stress reduction and relief from chronic pain and how the brain changes in response to long-term practice (neuroplasticity), Adducci said there is still a gap in research.
“It doesn’t take into account the personal experience,” Adducci said. “A big part of meditation has to do with one’s own experience with the practice.”
Experimental psychologist Peter Grossenbacher, director of Naropa University’s Consciousness Laboratory, leads a research program on meditation and contemplative spirituality focused on understanding the personal experience of meditation in an attempt to fill the research gap.
Naropa University, in Boulder, was founded in 1974 by Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. According to the college’s website, the institution combines contemplative studies with Western scholarship and research.
“I use an interviewing questionnaire to find out from meditators what effects meditation has had on their lives,” Grossenbacher said. “This research has focused on things that people can talk about and are measurable through self-report, but are not so readily studied, at this point, by looking at brain function.”
According to Grossenbacher, one of the most reported effects from long-term meditation is increased awareness.
Many meditators become more aware of what is going on around them, Grossenbacher said.
“[The awareness] can be external or environmental, but it can also be internal,” he said.
A shift in perspective was also a common effect reported.
“This can be coming to see the world in a different light, coming to have a different understanding of reality, even understanding what life’s about, or what one holds as important.”
Grossenbacher described this as a change in someone’s “personal world view,” which includes “individuals’ attitudes, values and beliefs about the world, life, reality of mind and body, and so on.”
Chicagoans Jeff Adams, 38, and Joy Reese, 79, meditate at the Shambhala Center regularly and both have noticed a shift in their perspectives and awareness since they started meditating.
Adams, who works for a non-profit, said a trip in 2000 to Nepal and Tibet compelled him to self-reflect and learn more about Buddhism, Hinduism and meditation.
“I just noticed that I was pretty self-driven, pretty selfish,” he said. “I wasn’t really concerned too much with the people around me.”
He said greater eastern philosophies and meditation have helped him cultivate compassion for other people and have given him a heightened awareness of his emotions.
“The biggest thing it has done for me is it prevents my emotions from getting the best of me,” Adams said.
Reese, who has been meditating for more than 40 years, experienced the same shift in self-awareness and found that meditation has softened her.
“Before I started trying meditation, I was not in a very happy place,” Reese said. “I had been kind of a loner for my whole life, so it opened me up. I became much friendlier and more open to people. Now, I’m much less judgmental with other people and myself.”
My 30-minute meditation session did not yield any major personal changes like those experienced by Adams and Reese, but I did notice I was much more relaxed and awake once it was over.
Both Dan and Grossenbacher said that what I was feeling was normal, but that I would not notice any of the long-term effects of meditation until I practiced consistently for a long period of time.
Dan suggested putting aside a few minutes a day to establish a meditation routine.
“It took me a while to establish a regular practice,” she said. “It was 10 minutes a day if I was lucky.”
But brief sittings started to add up, Dan said.
“And gradually, over the course of a couple years…this practice really began to change my life,” she said.