Chill out, for health’s sake

(First published in the February 27, 2020 issue of City Pages)

There’s good reason so many people are turning to meditation and mindfulness

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Holly Briquelet Miller is a believer in the power of meditation.

     “I started meditating about 10 years ago after my dad died and I was having trouble sleeping,” she says. “I was blown away by what an impact just a few minutes a day made on my life—not just improved sleep but less headaches and more energy and better stress management.”

     She started to learn more and realized that mindfulness would have made a big difference in her life if she had known about it earlier. That led her to decide to become a certified teacher in the hopes of offering classes for teens — and eventually people of all ages in the community—because, she says, “the scientific evidence is compelling about the positive impact that mindfulness can make on teen mental health.”

     On Sunday, she held her first Mindfulness Meditation Class For Teens. Eleven girls sat on pillows in a circle around Briquelet Miller in a quiet room at the First Universalist Unitarian Church in Wausau. During a brief introduction before the session began, most attendees told her they had not meditated before; at least one was familiar with the practice from something offered at her school.

     Briquelet Miller just finished her first of a two year on-line Mindfulness Meditation Teacher certification program. The class is the first part of her practicum.

     It may seem like a trendy buzz word, but meditation has been around for thousands of years. The oldest documented evidence of the practice of meditation are wall arts in the Indian subcontinent from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, showing people seated in meditative postures with half-closed eyes.

     Research using modern technology in the past two decades has proven that meditation can literally rewire our brains. And the leading research on this has been happening at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by professor Richard Davidson.

     Our brains are constantly changing, constantly being shaped by the forces around us, says Davidson, founder and director of the UW Center for Healthy Minds, during his 2019 TEDx talk. One of the forces he touches on is distractibility. “The average American adult spends 47% of her or his waking life not paying attention to what we are doing,” he says. “And, when they were not paying attention to what they were doing, they were significantly less happy.”

     The way to mental wellness, he says, is through four pillars of a healthy mind: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. “The wiring in our brains is not fixed, it’s adaptable… our brains can change in a remarkably rapid period of time.”

     At its core, meditation is a practice of resting our distracted minds. And it can happen in a variety of forms. Closing one’s eyes while in the lotus position might be the classic pose, but mindfulness meditation—focusing on the here and now— can even be playful. During one part of Sunday’s teen class, Briquelet Miller used pieces of candy to help train the participants in the concept of focusing on the senses.

It’s no wonder then, that apps, online programs, as well as in-person guided classes and workshops are found everywhere.

     Another reason: People are coming to understand that peace of mind, and mental well-being, have a big impact on our physical health, too.

     “Research, both at our lab elsewhere, suggests that meditation can influence the brain as well as the body for the better, ranging from the  ability to regulate emotions to affecting the immune system and possibly other aspects of biology such as aging,” says Marianne Spoon, representative for the Center for Healthy Minds. “There’s a growing body of evidence to support that we should approach caring for our minds with mental ‘exercise’ the same way they might care for their bodies with physical exercise.”

     Several local teachers and counselors are making meditation and mindfulness more widely available in the Wausau area.

     Briquelet Miller, who is mother to teens herself, believes meditation is especially helpful to those of that age. Adolescence is “such a wild ride for brain growth and change, and with all of the stress that teens experience on a daily basis, the fact that a simple mindfulness practice—truly even just some simple, conscious breathing— has been proven to help decrease anxiety and increase performance in everything from sports to art to academics, makes this something I’m really passionate about sharing.”


From left, Ashley Rowe, Morgan Forbes, and Zoe Briquelet Miller settle into the inaugural Mindfulness Meditation Class for Teens, held Sunday evenings at the First Universalist Unitarian Church in Wausau.

Her class for teens is held Sunday evenings through March 15, 6:30-7:30 pm at the First Universalist Unitarian Church at 504 Grant St. in Wausau. It’s free and open to any teens grades 9-12. They can come to one class or all of them. Briquelet Miller plans on having an ongoing drop-in class in the future and will post updates on her newly create Facebook page: Wausau Mindfulness Meditation Community. Each week she’ll explore different practices such as standing, walking, eating, breathing and loving kindness meditations. “It will be informal and there’s no need to bring anything…as one of my favorite meditation teachers, Sharon Salzburg says, ‘If you are breathing you can meditate.’”

     Monica Preisig is a licensed professional counselor at Compass Counseling in Wausau and also teaches yoga, where she incorporates meditation. In her work as a counselor, Preisig recommends meditation to many of her clients. “Especially to people who have anxiety or who have trouble falling asleep,” she says.

     While the experience is different for everybody, in the instant, when thoughts are racing, Preisig believes it’s good to focus on feelings within or on something that can take you out of what you’re worried about.

     “In my practice we go through how anxiety works in your body and how you’re feeling and then go into a very simple thing to find your happy place and how to be grounded in that place.”

     Preisig agrees that for many people, modern stress and chaos demand they find a way, like meditation, to slow down and look inward. “We’ve gotten to this point of having to do so many things or feeling as if we aren’t doing enough,” she says. “When we stop, we don’t know what to do. We don’t understand how to handle the stillness. With meditation we are giving ourselves permission to be still.”

     For those starting out, she recommends meditating daily but with a very short amount of time that is actually doable. “If you can do 30 seconds bump it up to 45 seconds, and then try a minute.”

     Celine Kline, owner of Croi Croga Studio in Wausau, offers a stand-alone meditation class at her studio, and also incorporates mindfulness and meditation into many of her other classes. Starting in May she will hold an empowerment retreat, which will include meditation and journaling or an art project.

     During her weekly Wednesday morning meditation classes, Kline has clients sit in chairs with a soft bolster under their feet and blankets for warmth. “Meditation should be an ease,” says Kline. Still, “The comment I hear most is, ‘Oh, my gosh if I sat with myself and my thoughts, I would never want to know what’s up there.’”

     Kline has a wonderfully illustrative way to describe meditation: She likens it to having a cluttered house, and the light feeling you get when the cleaning’s done, the mess is picked up and everything is in its place. “Think about the mind like that and why wouldn’t you want to declutter it.”

     During a 30-minute guided meditation Kline will start the class off with breathing and mindfulness techniques to get into the present moment. “Guided meditation can explore emotions, for example, it can focus on softening anger or chakras or just being present.”

     Some people in her class will follow along with her while others will get lost in the experience. The last 25 minutes of class are reserved for a discussion about the mediation of the day and clients can choose to relay what they felt or didn’t feel. “By sharing with others in the room, it demystifies what really is going on,” she says. “It’s a chance for each person to discuss their process of meditation. And helps aid in understanding it.”

There are many different forms and types of meditation. Jay Coldwell, a co-owner at 5 Koshas Yoga & Wellness in Wausau, teaches one called Mantra & iRest Yoga Nidra, which starts March 2. “Many of these things go back thousands of years,” says Coldwell.

     He reiterates that we are more distracted than we have ever been in history. “There is always somebody looking for your attention on Facebook or Twitter and your mind gets trained to pay attention to that distraction and we aren’t built to deal with that,” he says. “I think one reason people are looking at meditation more is because this doesn’t feel right, we need to be able to calm that down.”

     Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation that focuses attention in a specific sequence that mimics the organization of the brain’s physical structure and how it organizes sensory feedback. “We are looking for things that might be harmful for us and it dials that way down and other areas that are more insightful come to the forefront,” he says. “It can help you transform things that have caused suffering or pain for you… most mediation methods will do that in one way or another.”

     Mary Hilliker teaches a yoga teacher training at 5 Koshas and acknowledges that many people don’t think they have the ability to meditate. “I think it depends on how the meditation is taught,” she says. “We do a lot of preparing the body with the asana or postures, preparing the nervous system with the breathing techniques and that really tees up the ability to sit and be quiet to move into deeper levels of stillness.”

     Hilliker says deep meditation does take practice and doesn’t just come to a person necessarily in one session: “The experience will be different from day to day but practice trains the mind to be more still.”

     Silence and prayer often are considered a form of meditation and is used in many of the programs at St. Anthony’s Spirituality Center in Marathon City.

     Dr. Lori Randall, the director of St. Anthony’s, came to the center as a resident volunteer 21 years ago at the age of 24 and says the center has had a profound impact on her life. “It opened my eyes to what it means to serve others in the world; you have to be at peace with yourself first,” she says.

     The goal of St. Anthony’s programming is to encourage people to disconnect from stressors of daily life, and to find courage and strength, says Randall. While St. Anthony’s was built as a Catholic seminary, you don’t need to be Catholic to participate in its programs. “The goal of these times is to maintain silence and look at letting go. How do you let go? Silence is a key component,” Randall says. Silence, she says, lets a person go within themselves to listen to their heart and their bodies. In today’s world, “it’s hard to find the silence.”

The gratitude angle to mindfulness

The concept of gratitude perhaps has an even bigger buzz right now within the mindfulness and meditation genre. One reason: People who practice reflections of gratitude say it works wonders to improve compassion, confidence and well-being. As one person explains, when you devote a few minutes a day to feeling grateful for things big and small, there’s simply no space in your head for negative thoughts.

     For Holly Briquelet Miller, gratitude is one of the foundations for her mindfulness practice. She begins every day with a simple five-minute guided meditation from an app before even getting out of bed. “Starting the day with gratitude helps me center and be thankful that I opened my eyes on this new day,” says Briquelet Miller. “If I rush right into the to-do list of my day, it’s all too easy to forget what a gift simply waking up and being alive is.”

     Gratitude has a powerful and positive impact on our physical and mental health, she explains. “It can be as simple as writing down three things each day that you’re thankful for,” she says. Or, enlist a gratitude buddy to text every day about something for which you are both grateful.

     “I weave gratitude into most of my meditations,” she says. For example, during Sunday’s first mindful meditation class for teens, she guided participants on a body scan and explored the sensations in their feet. “I encouraged everyone to send a little gratitude for all that this part of our body, with such a small surface area, does for us everyday— holding us up and moving us where we want to go, just a little extra awareness of what our body does for us can help us treat ourselves with a bit more kindness, which in turn ripples out into the rest of our day.”

     Gratitude as a focus in meditation, also called santosha in the yoga tradition, builds contentment, says yoga instructor Mary Hilliker. “Contentment builds our resilience for life’s inevitable difficulties and challenges.” She agrees that gratitude impacts health, especially cardiovascular and immune system health as well as mental health. “I find that meditating on gratitude is important but even more powerful is taking that meditation off the cushion and expressing it through words or written forms.”

     Need a way to start? Consider this suggestion from the Dalai Lama: “Every day, think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry, or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”