An Ancient Practice for Anxious Times

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As a young doctor associated with U.Va. in the 70s, Robert Hodge came across a new idea for helping his patients. “We saw so many people with high blood pressure in our practice,” he said. “And every drug we had to offer them had side effects, some of them bad.” Dr. Hodge had come to U.Va. from Harvard as part of an outreach effort sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to bolster the number of primary care doctors.

He was several years into his practice when he read The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson, who had been a professor at Harvard when Hodge was a student. Widely read and favorably reviewed, the book proposed that meditation had profound effects on consistent practitioners, including lowering their blood pressure.

The Relaxation Response was kind of a lay introduction to an established spiritual practice (Dr. Benson went on to also research and write about the power of prayer). “I thought I’d give it a go,” Hodge said. Although his interest was initially for his patients, the book sent him on what became a lifelong journey. After many years away from the area and many increasingly more responsible positions in medical practice and administration, Hodge retired, returned, and now facilitates meditation weekly in his former home in White Hall.

“I guess you could say I’ve been on and off the wagon with meditation,” Hodge said. As time went on, meditation and related Buddhist thought became more prominent in his life and, when he moved to Missouri in 1997, he served on the board of Show Me Dharma, an insight meditation center in Columbia. “Dharma,” he explained, simply means “teaching,” and is meant to illuminate the Buddhist path to enlightenment, peace and acceptance. Over his years in Missouri, he came to have roles of both teacher and administrator, and taught Buddhist thought as well as guided meditation.

Although many of the benefits of meditation are intangible, Hodge said he can articulate some of them. It’s had a profound effect on his life, he’s sure of that.

“Those of us who work in patient care tend to think we’ve heard it all,” he said. “I know my meditation practice helped me be completely receptive to what my patients were telling me; to really listen and let them tell their own story in their own time.”

He found other elements of Buddhist thought helpful for him and everyone going through changes. Realizing that everything changes, all the time, is a comfort, once you accept it, he said. Not only does it relieve us of the wasted suffering caused by our resistance to change; it also helps us realize that our suffering in the moment is impermanent. The practice of mindfulness is bolstered by regular meditation where attention is focused on the moment rather than past grievances or future worries.

Early in the month, Hodge had group members anonymously write down their thoughts on the White Hall practice. Many used the words “calm” or “peace” to describe the benefits in their lives: One said simply, “Life sparkles!”

Medical research has continued to examine the benefits of meditation. Earlier this year, the Journal of the American Heart Association examined a number of papers, and summarized the studies confirming the longterm effects of meditation on the brain. Although the statement called for further randomized studies, it also noted that since the practice was risk-free, there was no reason to wait for those studies to recommend meditation as prevention and therapy for cardiac disease.

In his years away from the area, Hodge and his wife, Sandy, kept their home in White Hall and were later able to buy an adjoining property better suited to their retirement. The former home now serves as the meeting place for White Hall Meditation as well as a short-term rental.

Here’s how the Wednesday evening meditations work: People arrive a little before 7 p.m., remove their shoes and take a seat in the comfortable central room. There are ample chairs, and people are also invited to bring a mat for seating on the floor. Everyone, including beginners, is welcome. Hodge introduces a few thoughts and techniques to get started with meditation, and people settle into the practice. After 30 minutes, the muted sound of a gong gently brings everyone back. There’s a well-stocked kitchen where people help themselves to tea, then the dharma talk as part of a progressive study of Buddhist thought.

On a Wednesday in late October, one regular attendee read a poem, and Hodge showed a short excerpt from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to illustrate the idea of cause and effect (karma). “All suffering has a cause,” he explained, “but not only one cause.” In the short clip, the film’s narrator reviewed the sequence of multiple characters, missed connections, delays, forgotten items and missteps that led to a dancer and a taxicab being on the same street in Paris at the same time, with disastrous results for the dancer.

Then Hodge read from the day’s copy of the Wall Street Journal with a prominent article, Seven Ways to Reduce Stress in Anxious Times. “Interesting,” he said, “that the first five ways are steps we do every week, here in our practice.”

Sessions are held every Wednesday, except when there’s a retreat scheduled, and end at 8:30. For other questions, email Hodge at hodger@gmail.com.

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