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Chan Meditation at the University of Toronto

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Three strikes of the wooden fish signal it’s time to sit down on the cushions, get comfortable, and ready for the twenty-minute sitting ahead. One… Two… Three… Everything is quite slowed and carefully paced in this environment, known as “The Quiet Room” in the third floor Koffler Centre at the University of Toronto.

Keith Brown, who leads the Thursday evening practice says “my role as a facilitator is not to teach so much as it is to allow the wisdom of others to arise in its own time.” Janusz Kuras, echoes these sentiments as the other facilitator. He says “I don’t really consider myself a meditation teacher. For me meditation is something to explore rather than to learn as some form of technique. So what I am trying to do is to facilitate and create opportunities to practice meditation together with others.”

Since 2012, The Chan Meditation student group at The University of Toronto has held free two-hour meditation sessions on Thursday evenings from 7-9pm, open to the general public. Although many practitioners are students, there are several professionals and people generally curious about the practice that will join. And over time, the group has gathered a few regular practitioners.

The night usually starts off with people slowly trickling in. While some wait, they usually sit down and practice a bit before the eight-fold moving exercise, the practice that starts off the evening that is meant to relax the body in order to make it more flexible and prepared for the long meditation sitting.

After a few minutes of slow, rhythmic instructions, Keith instructs practitioners to “join feet and palms… and bow.” This is to signal the end of the first stage, with a careful ceremonial practice of paying respect to one another, and gratitude for the opportunity to meditate together. Practitioners are then asked to sit back down in their cushions.

Many people come for different reasons. Warren Fernandes is a regular practitioner who believes meditation has helped heal him of a traumatic past and issues with addiction. He says “It has completely changed the way I react to most situations, and I don’t let small insignificant issues get to me, as I’m able to stop the negative thought before it can take control over me and potentially ruin my day. It has even helped me to concentrate better in class and to focus on my studies.”

Ayeshah Haque, a healthcare professional at Etobicoke General Hospital who completed her psychology degree at the University of Toronto, says that mental health concerns usually arise during a person’s early twenties, as it had for Warren, because it is when most people will face adversity in life. Haque says “For young adults, bipolar, schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and addictions happen. Usually because challenges in their life can trigger these issues.”

In a report released in September by the Canadian Association of Colleges and University Student Association, they conducted an online survey of over 43,000 students from 41 Canadian institutions. The largest and broadest ranging database of findings on the topic of mental health among post-secondary students, they collected information on students’ health behaviours, attitudes, and perceptions, with findings revealing that mental health continues to be a concern for students, with anxiety and depression as top mental health concerns that students face.

Moreover, the data has reported a record high in the number of mental health workers among students feeling overburdened and underfunded. Registered nurse Randal Stenger at St. Joseph’s General Hospital Elliot Lake says “Regarding whether or not we are successful in our mental health treatments differs from facility to facility.” This he attributes solely to how well-funded the facilities are, and how many resources are available to patients.

This unfortunate lack of mental health services may contribute to the increased reports of anxiety and depression. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group, suggesting they need the resources the most.

Despite this, it seems that research and personal experience indicates meditation reduces depression and anxiety among practitioners, so it may be key in helping students maintain better mental health. Meditation then seems to be a very viable option for students that may never have an opportunity to meet with counselors too overwhelmed with a high workload.

Mao Ye has practiced for four years, and says it has helped during stressful work periods. “I did so much overtime at work, but I was never nervous or overwhelmed. I was able to handle everything from moment to moment, as it happened to me. It was definitely because of my practice.”

Chang says “Meditation has many benefits. You can easily find academic studies on this topic. It helps with stress relief, pain reduction, insomnia, anxiety, and many other problems. However, for myself, the biggest benefit is the stress relief. This really helps me cope with a busy life and stressful work environment.”

Studies conducted reinforce these sentiments. According to a 2011 study led by a team at the Massachusetts General Hospital, an eight-week program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction resulted in increased concentration of grey matter in brain regions associated with learning, memory and regulation of emotions. This suggests the practice helped make individuals learn and work more efficiently.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Sara Lazar to the Harvard Gazette. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements.”

The University of Toronto has conducted hundreds of studies into the scientific benefits of meditation themselves. This includes academic journals, research, and magazine articles on the topic. As well, they offer several courses and programs dedicated to understanding meditation including a certificate in Mindfulness Meditation, and a Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health program.

One study from the university had 17 fourth-year students from a Buddhist psychology course meditate for at least 20 minutes a day for eight weeks, keeping a daily diary of their experience. Although given initial instructions, they were expected to practice alone, which resulted in uneven success rates. Psychologist and professor in U of T’s department of psychiatry Tony Toneatto said to UofT Magazine “students reacted to the challenge of meditating in very different ways, and that means people may need individualized guidance or instruction,”

Which suggests having group sittings such as these benefit individuals, especially those new to the practice. The group sittings usually end with a sharing session, where all practitioners are encouraged to discuss their individual practice and learn from others in the shared space, ideally helping guide them in their own journey. Brown says “when I am facilitating the discussions after meditation, I have this feeling that others’ wisdom is already there in the room, and that it is easily surfaced after even a minute of stillness and clarity.”

Facilitators themselves have to go through rigorous training to be able to fulfill their role, suggesting it’s not enough to just invite a group to sit together, but to have formal sittings like these may be vital in the success of maintaining a practice. Brown says from his own training that “the process involved learning how to carry out main tasks of the group meditation, such as using bell and wooden fish signals. We were given guidance and instruction on what kinds of situations to expect from those practicing meditation as well as anticipated questions that practitioners may have.”

Not only did they have to learn to become facilitators within structured learning environments, but they were offered such positions after going through their own personal journeys in meditation. Kuras says they were expected to go on longer retreats and understand the formalities of Buddhist practice, and a dedication and willingness to help others. Afterward, Kuras says “they would be encouraged to take the practical exam based on Master Sheng Yen’s introduction to meditation materials. There is also a written exam to test understanding of basic Buddhist principles.”

Brown has said his own meditative practice has made him more humble to discover personal weaknesses that he could work on. He says “in longer retreats, for example, I am aware of pain in my body which comes from previous karmic obstacles, as well as how I currently react to the pain, and how it distracts me from the practice.  I am gradually learning more and more that what I experience is always the result of my reactions and attitudes, and not to see challenges as obstacles but as opportunities to develop non-dualistic attitudes.”

Kuras’ own journey led him around the world, studying Zen Buddhism from Japan, and eventually to Chan Buddhism in China. He says “through the series of favorable conditions and overcoming a number of obstacles I found myself in Gaomin Temple, one of the most renowned Chan temples in present times. This place has for me almost magical, transforming powers. The power comes from profound Chan wisdom and continuous, sustained effort and dedication of all the monastics and lay practitioners I have had the privilege to practice with.”

Ultimately, many practitioners believe that although meditation has practical benefits, it also contributes to a healthier outlook on life. Fernandes says “the changes that I’ve experienced through meditation and mindfulness practices have completely changed every aspect of my life. I feel like I’ve finally found some sort of peace, something that once seemed unattainable in my lifetime. I’m also becoming very optimistic about my future too; I feel like my true journey is only just beginning and have so much to look forward to.”

Ye says “it has helped grow my relationship with my dad. Before, we used to have difficult arguments with each other. But now with the practice, I think I learned to control my reactions and that has allowed me to have better interactions with him. Without the arguments, we can talk to each other better and can have more mature conversations. So I think it has helped me mature my relationship with my father.”

Chang adds “On my second seven-day retreat, I realized I was a coward facing difficulties in life. I found excuses for myself to run away from life’s problems, and rarely faces problems head on. Before that sitting, I never see myself in that way. But I didn’t feel bad about myself. Part of the meditation practice is to accept who you really are. It is the first step of changing. I believe anyone who practices meditation with the right mindset and method will be on a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-growth.”

Both facilitators agree. Brown says “everyone, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, has the wisdom and compassion of enlightenment within them, and whatever I share about my own experience is only intended to spark or bring out the depth of people’s bodhichitta, or compassionate aspiration.” Kuras added “meditation is the path to our deepest spiritual discovery. It is an entry door of coming back to our real home. It is also the way to fully embrace the world.”

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