COLUMN: Making room for meditation

Star reporter Will Johnson investigates out how to cope when your mind is a dumpster fire.

Nelson Star reporter Will Johnson took an introductory meditation class from the Shambhala Meditation Centre’s Dale Cedar.

Her legs were itchy and then suddenly they didn’t work.

Juniper Coletti had traveled back to her parents’ house in Nelson following some health troubles. She was in her early twenties, exercising routinely and performing burlesque. The idea of being confined to a wheelchair for six months was unthinkable. But then it happened.

At first she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but now doctors think her situation might be more complicated than that. She was going dark places in her mind, losing hope, and she found herself returning to a meditation practice she’d mostly abandoned after toying with it during her teen years.

“It was absolutely terrifying. I was in extreme denial for months. Right up until I rediscovered meditation I was convinced I would be magically better in two weeks. I figured I’d be working in Victoria at my dream job and I’d be fine, this was just a cold. But I was sleeping for 18 hours a day.”

Juniper had gone from “the sort of person who spontaneously hitchhikes to Tofino to someone unable to leave my own house”.

“A huge motivator behind meditation is suffering, and Buddhism talks a lot about that. And so I think I just realized that if I didn’t commit to having a fulfilling life I would just give up, because it was so difficult.”

The first step was making peace with her thoughts.

Your thoughts are just thoughts

I took a mental health day a few weeks ago because I missed a night of sleep hyper-fixating on some personal upheaval. It wasn’t the first time in the last year my brain had led me dark places, and I was strategizing how to wrangle my misbehaving mind.

A good friend of mine, Jessi Badger, demanded that I try meditation to clear my head. She sent me a SoundCloud link to a free ten-minute guided meditation that featured a breathy, hyper-earnest woman and the soothing swish of ocean waves. I laid on the carpet of my bedroom and tried not to fall asleep.

The next day I was scrolling through Facebook, and Juniper had posted an open invitation to accompany her to the Shambhala Meditation Centre. The institution had been on my back-burner for years, and I figured this would be a way to get two birds stoned at once: perhaps I could address my personal blackness while simultaneously covering one of my journalistic bases.

Ultimately Juniper took me to a Monday night class led by Dale Cedar, a dude who is approximately my age. It wasn’t my first time trying meditation I did plenty of it while I was in theatre school a decade ago but it had definitely been a while since I’d focused so closely on my breath.

“Your thoughts are just thoughts,” Dale told us. “Recognize them as thoughts and then just let them go.”

More fulfilled and less confused

After the class I asked Dale to share the story of how he discovered meditation and what sort of influence its had in his life. I was surprised to find that many of his personal struggles mirrored my own. But he’s developed coping skills that have helped him successfully navigate the exact sort of personal conflicts I’d been dealing with.

“When intense situations come up in my life, which they do, I don’t freak out like I used to. I also don’t numb myself out,” he told me.

“I realized you don’t need to shut down in times of conflict. You can maintain a connection and communicate your side without getting lost in the anger. I would say I feel calmer, more fulfilled and less confused now.”

And that’s got a lot to do with being mindful, and in the present.

“If I’m always doing something with the idea that in the future I can relax and enjoy my life, then I’m always just trying to get that next thing done so I can relax, but it never comes. With meditation it’s like relax now, you don’t have to do anything else, just relax.”

So now he’s teaching meditation, and sharing the teachings of Buddhist scholar Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a poet and artist that radically secularized the tradition.

“These are traditions that are influenced by Buddhism, but not Buddhist. You don’t have to shave your head or put on robes.”

It’s thanks to Rinpoche that people like me, who have a basic mistrust of religious institutions, can engage with the tradition and benefit from it without having to sign up for any particular doctrine or dogma.

“That is Shambhala,” he said.

Finding a way to heal yourself

When Juniper was still healthy, she often procrastinated on her meditation practice and left it at the bottom of her to-do list. Since getting sick she’s made it a big priority.

“I went to a workshop on deep meditation, and it inspired me to reach out to the community and see who’s out there. That’s when I found Shambhala Meditation Centre and developed a regular practice.”

She saw an almost immediate difference.

“I find it’s like a calming, dampening, when usually I’m thinking fast and I’ve got anxiety. Even when I feel like I didn’t do a good job and my mind went all kind of crazy places during class, I still walk out feeling relaxed and better.”

It’s like working out, but for your mind. And according to the meditation centre’s Russ Rodgers, that’s the gift he wants to give Nelson residents like Juniper.

“When we started in the 70s, it was a time when people were searching. They were trying all kinds of different things, going back to the land and dropping LSD, and that led to people looking into things like Buddhism,” he said.

Rodgers was depressed and overworked, and decided he needed to do something to address it. He eventually met Rinpoche, who he considers a mentor and guru.

“I was looking for a way to approach life that kept the magic.”

Now that he’s spent decades involved with the centre, he wants to share with the Nelson community the knowledge Rinpoche gave him.

“We do this because we feel the world needs it.”

Renting out your headspace

I’m ultra-thankful to Juniper for accompanying me through this little journey, and anyone interested in circling her particular wagon should know that she has a GoFundMe page that details her medical struggles.

I encourage anyone who has the means to throw some weight behind helping her heal.

Learning about meditation was only a single prong in my quest to put out my mental dumpster fire CrossFit is key, social infrastructure too, and I always have to keep reminding myself to prepare proper food for myself —but a big part of why I’m feeling a little less panicked is I’ve learned that I can control which thoughts I rent out brainspace to, and which ones I’m going to evict.

And I’m remembering to breathe.


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