Eyes closed, legs folded and blanket draped over her shoulders, Jean Sloan exuded calm.
As Sloan led the Peoria Insight Meditation Group through a recent session, peacefully breathing and contemplating her own life, she seemed detached from turmoil.
Before turning to meditation about seven years ago, however, the Edwards woman was filled with worry.
Sloan spent days caring for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Helen Parowski, until Parowski died in September at age 98. After answering the same questions over and over during the day, Sloan would sometimes awake at 2 a.m. and be unable to fall back to sleep.
“Going way back, I always had an admiration for people who were very calm and steady,” Sloan said. “I felt I was experiencing a lot of people living life with anxiety. When I would see people who were very calm and were taking their lives in a very steady way, I always admired that.”
After finding that calm through meditation, Sloan helped organize the Peoria group about five years ago. Since March, the group has met on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at Universalist Unitarian Church of Peoria.
The small group arrives by 7 p.m. and begins a 40-minute sitting at 7:15. Sloan’s voice quietly leads the group through the early stages of meditation before the room falls almost completely silent.
In the insight form of meditation, the goal is mindfulness – quieting all outside thoughts and distractions to concentrate on the present.
Practitioners either sit on the ground with legs folded under or upright in the church’s pews. Initially, they are told to focus only on their breathing in order to shut down their mind.
“The first thing everyone has to experience is simply sitting quietly, closing the eyes and trying to stay with the feeling of breathing – actually feeling the air moving in and out, feeling your chest rising and falling,” Sloan said. “You find out that thoughts keep popping into your mind – the next assignment, the car needs to go for a checkup, I need to shop, something is happening this weekend. … Initially, you just keep trying to return to feeling your breath.
“In a period of five minutes, you might do this 100 times. That’s when you begin to realize that you haven’t found the off button to your mind.”
For those who are experienced in meditation, the off button is more beginning point than final destination.
“People think meditation is some kind of emptying of yourself,” said Paul Resnick, who joined the group in 2005 and helps organize its meetings. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Resnick, an East Peoria resident who teaches English at Illinois Central College, jumped into meditation in 2004 after reading several books on the topic. He immediately went on an eight-day silent retreat in Barre, Mass.
By learning how to step back and observe his own mind at work, Resnick gained a better understanding of how his mind is programmed. He believes that perspective, aided by 30 minutes of meditation every day before work, has improved his personal relationships.
“You might have a painful memory that is coming back to you and dragging you down,” Resnick said. “You can observe that without being in it. By observing it, you gain some sort of insight into your reaction, as opposed to being in that story. It’s the difference between being in the story and observing the story.
“When you’re in the story, you don’t notice how you’ve been conditioned. When you’re observing the story, you notice how you’ve been conditioned or how you’ve conditioned yourself. That’s a huge difference.”
Cynthia Hsieh, a Taiwan native now living in Peoria, attends retreats taught by a Thailand-based instructor. Hsieh, who was familiar with many of the Buddhism-based ideas of insight meditation while growing up, didn’t actually attempt meditation until a family tragedy 15 years ago.
“You have to start somewhere,” Hsieh said after recently dropping in on the Peoria group. “If you don’t address oneself, you won’t get better. I was first introduced to my teacher when my mom took her own life. It was a time when I needed healing.
“There was healing in the beginning, but for something like that it affected me even more deeply than I wanted to think about. You need to be able to function. I think it was 10 years before I could talk about it without just losing it.”
Tammy Mitchell recently joined the group for the first time. The Heading OM Yoga Studio co-owner incorporates meditation into her yoga classes, but Mitchell wanted to connect with a new group to experience different perspectives.
Mitchell enjoyed hearing the group’s members share experiences – such as change of body temperature, or unexpected thoughts interrupting meditation – during conversation after the practice.
“I just have a very active mind,” Mitchell said. “I love to analyze and judge and criticize, and that’s part of who I am. That’s how I learn, but if I can just transform that then I’m awakening in a different way. I’m becoming present and living in the now in a different way, where I don’t feel the need to judge or feel fear or anxiety.”
For Sloan, a key goal of mindfulness is to limit the number of thoughts focusing on past and future events in order to fully contemplate the here and now.
“If you succeed in these areas and improve in these areas, there’s less stress, better relationships, and you do learn to enjoy what you’re doing more because you’re living it,” Sloan said. “The only part of your life you can actually experience and live in is the moment you’re in now. If you are missing that because your focus is either on the past or the future, you’re basically missing your life.”