This month Port Clyde resident John McIlwain has begun offering weekly classes in meditation at the 47 Main Street Studio in Tenants Harbor. The hour-long sessions will include, he advertises, “Practice, instruction, talks.”
McIlwain, a lawyer who is now retired from what he calls “a very satisfying but high-stress career in affordable housing,” says that trying to deal with the stress of that career is what got him started on his own meditation practice about 17 years ago. “I was in a senior position at a major corporation in Washington, D.C., and was lucky enough that they provided a [health] coach and one day she said, ‘You’re under a lot of stress,’ and I said, ‘What else is new? That’s what these jobs are.’ I told her I’d always been under stress and she said, ‘Yes, but you’ve never been this age before.’ I was in my mid 50s at the time. She added, ‘You need to take better care of yourself.’”
That experience led McIlwain to psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, founder of Washington’s Insight Meditation Community. “It really felt like the culmination of a lot of exploration and other practices that I had been exploring over my life. So that started a 17-year practice of daily meditation and exploration and study of Buddhist practices.”
At the time he started studying with Brach, McIlwain says, daily meditation wasn’t something a person talked about very much. “The perception of meditation in our culture has changed a lot in the last 10 years. It’s like yoga used to be—you didn’t want people to know. But now lots of psychologists and psychotherapists are recommending meditation to their clients for their own healing.”
And as practicing meditation has become more commonly recommended for reducing stress, the larger benefits are becoming better understood. “Of course, being Americans, if something new comes along we have to test it out scientifically—and we have,” McIlwain says with a wry grin. “Now there are all sorts of studies going on about meditation and this disease or that disease, this illness or that stress or whatever. And it’s amazing the number of health benefits that scientists are documenting that come out of meditation.”
McIlwain also points to what may seem the surprising fact that the U.S. military has also been studying meditation and offering meditation practice to troops. “It turns out that what these warriors are saying is that frequently in today’s kind of combat you’re in a civilian type of environment, but you don’t know who is dangerous and who is not. So if something happens, the tendency is to react first with your guns, often killing innocent people. But what they are saying is that they have found that meditation helps them be able to stop for a second and discriminate, to realize that no, that was a car backfiring, not someone shooting at me.
“So as people settle into meditation, they get more of a sense of relaxation, more of an ability to react in a much more relaxed way to the inevitable bumps and upsets and disagreements and things like that in life. This is something I’ll be talking about in the class, about how we’ll begin to be able to see some of those benefits—and then over a period of time we’ll see health benefits, see how meditation increases the auto-immune system so you’re less likely to get colds and illnesses because your immune system is healthier because you’ve been sitting there doing nothing.”
That “doing nothing,” of course, is what the “practice” in “meditation practice” is all about.
“I’ve taught regular classes in New York City for many years with many beginners but also with people of many different strains of meditation experience and backgrounds.” McIlwain notes.
“One of the things I love doing is working with people wherever they are, whether they’re just beginning to come together and want to learn a little bit about meditation or whether they are people who have a lot of experience in meditation but know the satisfaction of meditating with other people because of the energy that seems to be created. But in any event, one of the things I certainly have found over and over with people who are meditating—because I ask—is that, particularly when you are starting, it’s easier to do it in a group. So in these classes I’ll bring a few people together and provide some simple guidance and that will help people go through a 20- or 30-minute meditation even if they’ve never done that before.”
McIlwain says that he personally meditates about a half an hour each day, bringing his attention into his body and then bringing attention to his breathing, in and out. Thoughts arise, but he gently, firmly pushes them away and returns to the breath. A person’s brainwaves literally change, he says. The point is to be aware of thoughts and feelings, but in a non-judgmental way.
Importantly, learning not to judge one’s thoughts and feelings during meditation, McIlwain observes, helps people be kinder to themselves. “We live in a society that is harsh, that is very judgmental. And so this is another thing I’ll be talking about in my classes—how do we learn to be kind to ourselves, to deal with the fact that we are human beings and often have wonderful thoughts and feelings, but we also have nasty thoughts and feelings? For myself, not only do I have nasty feelings but then I’m upset with myself for having those nasty thoughts or feelings. So meditation practice is just a way of slowly accepting that we are human beings and that makes it easier to forgive ourselves. I find that the more I am kind to myself, the kinder I am to the people around me, so it starts to spread out.”
For people who might worry that to take on a meditation practice they might have to take on particular religious or spiritual teachings, McIlwain, himself a Christian in background, notes that Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions all utilize forms of mindfulness practices. “Although the types of meditation I use come out of Buddhism, they all predate Buddhism. Christians have a tradition of centering prayer, for example, which is much the same.”—JW
PHOTO: Antonia Small