Meditation - The Unlikely Ashram
by Harshada David Wagner
Teaching meditation to hospital patients illustrates the invincibility of the soul within the suffering body.
I was teaching meditation in an ashram when the hospital first approached me with an idea. My wife is a paediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and was part of a team setting up a program for kids who were seriously ill or dying. The idea was to introduce meditation as a complimentary practice along with the other services offered at the hospital. After a decade of working in traditional ashram settings, moving to a hospital venue felt like a real challenge.
At first I tried to do small group meditation sessions. It proved difficult in the hospital - patients and parents often could not make it at the scheduled time and busy hospital staff found it difficult to sit through the sessions without their pagers going off. It was only when I decided to switch to a one-on-one format that the program began to take off.
My first patient was a 20-year-old man who was undergoing treatment for cancer. He had never meditated before but was eager to try. I went into the hospital room to meet Michael, who had a large tumor in his arm. The room was filled with machines - some delivering his chemotherapy, others monitoring his heart rate and blood pressure. There was an intercom speaker near his bed that was periodically blaring announcements for the other staff on the floor.
I sat down and introduced myself and spent some time explaining to the patient what we were about to do. This was a challenge. In this setting, I didn't have the luxuries of an ashram. The patient didn't know any of the yoga jargon, he had never practiced yoga before, he didn't know what meditation was. I couldn't really talk about tantra, or prana, or consciousness, or satchitananda. I had to strip the practice down to its bare essentials and explain it in the simplest language possible.
The conversation went well, and Michael was eager to begin. As soon as I began the dharana - a simple visualization with the breath, I felt a palpable sense of grace and power in the room. It was like there was a deep stillness descending all around us. I opened my eyes to peek at Michael - he was 'gone'. He was upright, so I knew he wasn't asleep - but he was completely still, deep in meditation.
After the session, when I invited Michael to describe his experience, he described going into a very peaceful, light-filled space. He said he felt that he was floating in that space and felt wonderful. Afterward, he said that he felt 'stoned' - like he was intoxicated. The next time I came to the hospital, Michael jumped at the chance to have another session.
This first bedside session set the tone for the hundreds of subsequent sessions my team and I have facilitated over the past two years. We've sat with kids and parents and siblings. We've sat with kids as young as four and grandparents in their '80s. Most of the people we see have no prior experience with meditation. It's such a treat to hear them describe in very simple ways classic mystical experiences.
Sometimes, patients go into a very deep state of sleep after their sessions. Sometimes they want to open up and talk about their feelings. Sometimes they just want to turn the TV on again, but no matter what they do, I have the sense that my time with them was well spent. Usually the sessions are less than 20 minutes long, but people report having the effects of their sessions last well into their day.
I've learnt many valuable lessons in the hospital as a teacher and as a student of meditation. I've learned to embrace the moment. The experience of meditating in a hospital is one of taking a moment and spiraling inward into the heart of it - no matter what it is. In the past, I approached teaching by creating the ideal environment - a dark room, nice incense, maybe the sound of a tamboura playing softly. In the hospital, none of these supports are there. Generally, we meditate in the patient's room full of beeping and humming machines. Nurses and other medical staff often barge in during the session. Announcements blare over intercom speakers; the rooms are sometimes foul-smelling, and the patients are often in pain. I have learnt by necessity to take everything in the patient's awareness and turn it into meditation. I will often have my patients actively listen to the sounds around them or to feel acutely the pain from which they are suffering and go deeper into it, beyond it but not away from it. The situations we see in the hospital are the ones that most people spend their whole lives avoiding or worrying about: illness, death, cancer, surgery, pain. There is something very liberating about being in these situations and breaking through to the inner light despite the often dire circumstances.
I've also learned that the soul is never disturbed. The goal of our meditation sessions is always to experience soul or spirit. I describe the soul to patients by drawing a diagram of concentric circles - each circle represents another layer of experience: life, body, mind, emotions, in the heart of all of the circles is the center core - the bull's eye, the soul. In the sessions, we begin in the life circle by taking into awareness everything around us - the hospital, the illness, the noise, the situation. Then we gradually move inward into the felt sense of the body, then into the breath, then into the subtly felt sense of the breath, then in, and in and, eventually, we emerge into the place that I call soul. This place is the place of the pure self - the place of deep meditation. No matter what the situation is, or the age or condition of the patient's body, the soul experience is basically the same for everyone. In the soul, we're powerful, in the soul we're free. The soul that they experience lying in their beds is the same soul the great beings write poetry about - the same inner experience that the yogis wander the ends of the earth in search of.
By getting the patients in touch with this place, we're introducing them to a whole new vantage point from which they can experience their hospital stay. Their body may be suffering, but their soul is always free. Their mind may be worried or grieving, but in their soul, they're supremely complete and perfect and filled with love.
David Harshada Wagner is the founding director of Banyan Education, a New York-based organisation with the mission to teach the art of sitting meditation and help people to cultivate inner life.