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To Establish a Meditation Practice, Find Community and Be Curious
Meditation is not something you get better at or perfect. It’s a lifelong commitment to curiosity and persistence, says JoAnn Cooke, Buddhist chaplain at Hendricks Chapel.
Cooke ’81 leads meditation sessions for the campus community during the week, along with other practitioners, typically in Hendricks Chapel, but more recently virtually due to the pandemic. She guides people in finding stillness and noticing their thoughts to benefit mind and body.
Cooke’s interest in meditation began while she was a sophomore and started taking classes in Eastern thought and Buddhism. She graduated with degrees in English and psychology and became a teacher in middle school English language arts.
Now retired, Cooke has been a student of Buddhism under Shinge Roshi of the Zen Center of Syracuse for 20 years, and was appointed by Shinge Roshi to be the Buddhist chaplain at the University.
“It’s been wonderful to come full circle—coming back to the University,” Cooke says.
Cooke is also launching a new meditation training program for all members of the campus community to better understand meditation practices and to offer a way to enter into it. The program, beginning this spring, will offer several tiers and allow participants to receive a certificate upon completion of the different levels.
Something very important to her is for people to know: the sessions and meditation is not just for Buddhists; it’s for everyone looking to begin a practice of meditation.
Q: What are the elements of establishing a meditation practice?
A: A really important part of establishing a meditation practice is having a community of people to meditate with. Many people start with an app, and it’s a fine place to get your toe wet, but if you are really going to do meditation, you need to have community—for inspiration, for peer pressure. And you need somebody to talk to about it when it doesn’t go well because chances are you will quit.
The second thing is commitment. Part of commitment is having a routine and being part of a community is going to give you that routine.
A third element is curiosity. Don’t go into meditation thinking ‘if I do this thing, I’ll come out on the other side a better person.’ The way to go into it is thinking ‘I don’t know what is going to happen, but let’s see what might happen.’ It’s the beginning of opening your heart.
Q: Even without setting specific goals or expecting certain results, what might we achieve for our personal well-being through meditation?
A: It’s about developing relationships—relationships with your body, with your mind and with the world as it is. You start off having a relationship with your body, taking time to sit with your body and listen to it and notice it—notice where you hold tension, notice how you are breathing, notice whatever you feel.
Get to know your mind. This is a huge thing. Our anxiety and worry originate in our mind.
If you sit and take long deep breaths, you notice your mind slows down because your breath is signaling your mind that everything is OK.
When we’re threatened, we breathe fast and shallowly. Your brain wants to take care of you and have you on your toes, but you don’t have to go there. You don’t have to believe all these things that your brain is putting out there, about what might happen in the future—the worst-case scenarios. Meditation helps you notice what your mind is doing and brings you back to the moment, where everything is fine.
Once you notice what your worries are, you can start to realize where they are coming from. If there is something you need to do, you don’t need to have any fear about it, you just do it.
Constant dissatisfaction is really the cause of all these fears—nothing is good enough, you are not good enough. We all have these feelings. If you vow to sit still and sit through those thoughts, you can realize all those things causing dissatisfaction and you can just let go of it. This allows us to have relationship with rest of world as it is and be open hearted to it. What you achieve is happiness.
When we talk about the body, you’ll be healthier because you are relaxed; you make better choices; addictions tend to fall away; and your blood pressure lowers. It develops your attention, because when you are focused on this moment you can pay attention to the present.
Being in the moment and allowing other things to drop away, you can pay attention to people, you develop empathy, you feel connected to others.
Q: How do we get to a place in our minds where we can get better at meditating and putting aside worries and anxiety?
A: Becoming better at meditation is a faulty idea; you can’t go into meditation trying to be good at it. After 20 years, there are times when I can’t meditate. It’s a commitment to keep going and keep trying and noticing and going into it with a curiosity and not expecting to get good at it.
People think that meditation means having no thoughts. You need these thoughts to come to you so you can notice them and come back to your breath.
The other misconception is that you go to La La land, and that it’s an escape. It’s actually the opposite. It’s sitting in the moment as it is. You might be uncomfortable sitting still, but you don’t move. You stick with it—as it is—and experience the discomfort. It’s sitting with your emotions about what is going on in your life. It’s noticing, paying attention. So much of our daily lives is on autopilot and recognizing that is hard.
Q: What is your favorite practice of meditation?
A: Zen meditation is my main practice. It has changed my life and required me to have this commitment and work with a teacher, Shinge Roshe. Having that relationship with her and with sangha—a community of people who practice meditation—I feel supported in my life. Zen meditation is challenging, and it’s a little rigorous.
Anyone interested in learning about the meditation sessions can contact Cooke at email@example.com. A weekly meditation schedule and Zoom link are available by signing up for the meditation newsletter through Cooke.