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Mindfulness - How to find calm in a hectic city


Sr Stan

Sr Stan

Sr Stan

It had been an eventful early-morning cycle from my home in Rathmines to the Sanctuary's front door in Stoneybatter. Tousling with bleary-eyed pedestrians, commuters and cyclists who appeared to be in some Hunger Games-style race with each other left me agitated. Deadlines and meetings are looming, plenty of life admin lies ahead for the day, and a to-do list - laundry, buying baby presents, groceries - races like a ticker tape across my mind.

I arrived into the Sanctuary meditation centre - founded by Sr Stanislaus Kennedy in 1998 - sweaty, breathless and pretty much ready to pick a fight with my own shadow. But there's something about stepping across the Sanctuary's threshold that is instantly calming.

Staff members are serene to the point of Zen. A drop-in meditation class is about to start, and its attendees - well-heeled 30- and 40-something women mainly, save but for one young man - are making pleasant chit-chat over tea and biscuits. Sun spills into the centre's lush garden; a literal oasis in the middle of hectic, buzzy Dublin.

In one room, the distinctive smell of church incense lingers. A number of Christian artefacts scatter the room, but Kathleen Clarke, the Sanctuary's programmes/development assistant, is at pains to impress on me that, far from being a Catholic place of worship, the centre is mainly secular and represents all religions.

"We run some courses delivered by priests and nuns in the Christian tradition, others are in the Buddhist tradition," she explains. "Some of our meditation courses have been developed in hospital and clinical settings and are for anyone, and have no connection to any religion or faith."

A member of the Religious Sisters of Charity since 1958, Sr Stan famously founded the homeless charity Focus Ireland in 1985 and the Immigrant Council of Ireland in 2001. After incorporating prayer and reflection into her daily life, Stan found herself needing a place for quiet moments as her stature as an activist and social innovator grew.

"I knew there was a need for a place in city so that people who lead stressful lives could find peace and stillness and balance," explains Sr Stan. "After looking around, I found this site and we started building it in 1998. I do believe in [mindfulness and meditation] myself. I need to find an inner peace and calm, and enter that place of stillness that is in all of us. I had prayer and regular retreats in my life and I realise other people weren't lucky enough to have that."

For the uninitiated, mindfulness, linked originally to Buddhist practice, is the practice of becoming more aware moment to moment. Through practise, people learn to become aware of their breathing, walking, driving, running, and more significantly, their range of emotions throughout the day.

"It's about opening your awareness to whatever is going on and turning towards it a little and gently thinking, 'I am stressed, how does that feel?'," explains Clarke. "It's not about analysing it, wondering where it came from or how to fix it. It's simply about saying, 'this is how it is for me right now'."

Which, of course, begs the question: what exactly are the benefits in that?

"Mindfulness essentially teaches people to get more enjoyment out of the good times and to handle the bad times a little better," asserts Clarke.

Suffice to say that mindfulness and meditation are having something of 'a moment' right now. Sr Stan may have blazed a trail almost 20 years ago, but the practice is becoming more voguish and widespread in the West now. Up there with kale juices and gluten-free food, meditation is the new health fad that everyone's talking about right now.

"Generally, people who may have stress learn the tools to deal with that," explains Clarke. "Some people come as part of their own professional development - people like teachers, healthcare professionals, social workers and so on. But as the idea of mindfulness becomes more accepted in medicine and psychology, we find we have more healthcare professionals attending the centre than ever."

Certainly, the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are plentiful: relaxation is a noted side effect, as is a boosted immune system, lowered blood pressure, better sleep and quicker recovery from stressful times. For those experiencing anxiety and depression, mindfulness is often cited by healthcare professionals as a coping tool.

Among the workshops on offer at the Sanctuary are: Deeply into Gratitude, Christian Meditation, The Sky Within, and Walking with the Mystics. A course on Meditation and Bereavement is currently in development. They all sound fairly esoteric and hippyish, but Laura, a 30-something musician living in the locality, insists that the practice of meditation is much simpler than that.

"You can see in the place yourself, it's just calming to be there," she explains. "It's much handier than a gym workout for me, better for my head, gentler on the system, and you come away feeling much more ready to face things."

Still, many newcomers find that quietening down a busy mind and doing essentially nothing is actually harder than it looks. "Mindfulness doesn't happen in a vacuum," explains Sr Stan. "It sounds simple but it's very difficult in some ways. You find you get a message, and it might be about your breath or your body, asking you to help the mind to concentrate. The little thoughts start to go by and you can stop engaging with those thoughts. It doesn't stop us being anxious or angry, but it does help you not to be engulfed by it."

It's easy to see why the Sanctuary, and for that matter, mindfulness and meditation, would have an important place in modern-day life. Most people have fallen into a quicksand of speed and technology, filled with phones and laptops and Twitter and appointments. In today's breakneck society, switching off takes considerable effort (in fact, mindfulness and self-observation is pretty tiring in the beginning).

"Well, if you pick up a violin, you can't play it straight away," reasons Clarke. "Like everything, from learning to walk to putting on your trousers, it takes practise in the very beginning."

For all the Sanctuary's restorative powers, its staff hope to offer attendees the tools to take away into their daily lives. The wildly popular Headspace app, founded by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, also enables people to incorporate meditation and mindfulness into their daily lives.

"We know that of our current user database, 55pc are female and 45pc are male," he explains. "Our youngest user is four-years-old and our oldest is 92, although we've seen quite a bump in young urban professionals, which are the people we mainly designed the app for.

"The easiest way to think of Headspace is as gym membership for the mind," he adds. "It's about taking good care of your mind and living a more enjoyable life."

Even though the app is undeniably handy for users, Puddicombe also insists that practise makes perfect.

"A lot of people think they will experience calm straight away, but it's a skill like any other," he says. "It takes a few days before people feel comfortable and confident. But I've not met anyone who wouldn't want a calmer and clearer mind, so meditation and mindfulness benefits people at most stages in their lives. In my experience, there are very few people who wouldn't benefit from it."

He's not wrong: a brief visit to the Sanctuary has reset my clock. My introduction to mindfulness and meditation may have been fleeting, but it's enough to quieten the inner gremlins. And for that, my mind, not to mention my shadow, is relieved.

For more information on the Sanctuary, see www. sanctuary.ie. A new book by Sr Stan, entitled 'To Live from the Heart: Mindful Paths to the Sacred' is in bookshops now