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Dropping out of clock time: Amid holiday turmoil, meditation can manage stress

Marcie Wagner guides students into meditation as part of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. (Photos by Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 3
After meditation, the group practices yoga. 2 / 3
Melissa Olson, left, a yoga and meditation teacher and wilderness guide from Miltona, and Andrea Meissner, a 3-M operator from Parkers Prairie, meditate during a mindfulness class in Alexandria.3 / 3

The ringing of the brass bell is sweet and clear and the small group quickly hushes for a lesson in mindfulness.

They close their eyes to meditate. Some sit in their chairs, resting their feet on buckwheat-filled cushions. Two spread cozy blankets over their laps.

Teacher Marcie Wagner guides them away from busy daily life: "Dropping out of clock time and the doing mode and finding kindness for yourself, awareness of the body, and the body breathing."

Her voice and words themselves seem detached from clock time, taking on the soothing rhythm of the rising and falling sea.

These students are learning mindfulness-based stress reduction, a secular practice derived from Buddhist teachings that started in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It began catching on in the U.S. in the 1990s as a way to accept and observe thoughts, feelings, sensations and the surrounding environment.

Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can alleviate anxiety, depression and pain.

That may well happen for Wagner's students, who are learning how to respond differently to stress. Instead of fighting bad thoughts like pride or fear, they're told, they could instead welcome them and observe them.

"Meet them at the door, laughing, and invite them in," Wagner advises, referencing a poem by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi.

If there's ever a good time to manage stress, surely it's during the holiday season, five weeks of shopping, baking and visiting while bells jangle at storefronts and shoppers plug aisles with their carts.

This year, Wagner started offering mindfulness classes in Osakis and Alexandria. She hopes that it can help in rural Minnesota, where mental health remains a huge issue and mental health care can be difficult to access. She hopes to open the Laughing Buddha Meditation Centre in 2019.

To teach, she uses the principles of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He listed seven major pillars of mindfulness in his book "Full Catastrophe Living." They are:

• Non-judging. Pay close attention to your moment-by-moment daily experience, while observing your own reactions.

• Patience. Accept that things unfold in their own time.

• Beginner's mind. See things as if for the first time.

• Trust. Honor your own intuition.

• Non-striving. Simply observe your own ideas and reactions. Don't try to change them.

• Acceptance. Accept things as they actually are, whether it's cancer or being overweight.

• Letting go. Notice how your mind hangs on to good thoughts and pushes away bad ones.

Joe Albertson, a retired Walmart worker and one of Wagner's students, voiced astonishment that he could accept anxiety and turmoil.

"My whole life has been praying to God to take them away," he said.

Accepting them seemed foreign to him, but he said he had tried it and, during one upsetting experience during the previous week, did seem to gain a few moments of peace.

Wagner noted that prayer is not incompatible with mindfulness.

Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that mindfulness-based practices such as yoga and meditation have gained popularity since 2002. By 2012, yoga practice had nearly doubled to 11 percent of the population, while meditation rates rose from 8 percent in 2002 to 9.9 percent in 2007. Hospitals and clinics have also incorporated elements of mindfulness into patient care.

Still, after reviewing 47 studies about mindfulness, Johns Hopkins University researchers cautioned in 2014 that the practice is not a "cure-all." While they found that it helped with anxiety, depression and pain, they also found little evidence that it changed attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep or weight, or that meditation programs were better than treatments such as drugs, exercise or other behavioral therapies.

One of Wagner's students, Linda Hanstad, an executive assistant who lives in Alexandria, told Wagner that she is not used to meditating and kept getting distracted by noise and pain while trying it at home.

Wagner suggested that she observe pain and irritation. She has learned to do that herself when she gets ringing in the ears.

"When I get anxious, it's like screaming," she said.

She began observing the ringing, noticing how many tones were in it. Eventually, she was able to feel compassion and kindness toward the ringing. People can do the same with pain by wondering what started the pain and describing it to themselves.

"Now you're not letting the pain control you," Wagner said. "The pain is the same. It's our ability to perceive the pain that has changed."

She added, however, that those who meditate should not hold a pose that hurts.

"Get out of there," she said. "Take an ibuprofin."