Melinda McClure was moved to meditate even before cancer corrupted her physical, mental and emotional health.
Consulting books and tapes and seeking quiet spaces in her Phoenix home, the high-school teacher tried to relax her body and calm her mind.
"I always tried to shut out the sounds," says McClure, 64.
But ceasing to move didn't stop the wheels in her head from turning. McClure inevitably abandoned her efforts to meditate over the course of a couple decades, convinced that — up against an insurmountable mental barrier — she wasn't "getting anything out of it.
"Things just start flitting in and out of your head," McClure says.
Diagnosed in spring this year with breast cancer, McClure turned to holistic therapies such as yoga along with the conventional medical treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. Rather than join a support group to "sit and talk" about the disease, McClure increased the time she spent every week at Medford's Rasa Center for Yoga and Wellness, which also provides classes in tai chi and, most recently, meditation.
This time, McClure felt any resistance to relaxation fall by the wayside, as instructor Natalie Stawsky likened random thoughts to soap bubbles. They float past but, lacking substance, quickly dissolve.
"She helped us understand that that's OK," McClure says.
Teachers at Ashland Zen Center maintain a similar stance.
"The encouragement is let whatever thoughts come, come — and let them go," says Stacy Waymire.
Existing primarily as a venue for meditation, or "zazen," the center on Tolman Creek Road holds free meditation sessions several times weekly and a "beginners' night" monthly. October saw more than a dozen newcomers to the center, founded in 1993. Senior students Waymire and his wife, Ramana, introduced the center's visitors to its meditation room, postures and protocols for meditating, signals and sounds that moderate the practice and the philosophy behind meditation's importance to Zen Buddhism.
"Zen is based on meditation," says the center's teacher Patty Krahl. "It is a fluid, moving, whole body-mind experience."
Before Krahl, 58, was interested in Buddhism, she was simply searching for personal direction, as well as for something "missing" from her career as chief financial officer for a wholesale California greenhouse. Her employers urged Krahl to take a break. The retreat they suggested near Carmel, Calif., turned out to be Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the oldest Japanese Buddhist Zen monastery in the country.
"I was looking for a meditation practice as something to give me some still space in my life," Krahl says.
Finding the peace she craved, Krahl stayed a year at the monastery, where she met Harold Little. The two married, left California for the Rogue Valley and, with no plans to work as Buddhist priests, started holding meditation sessions in their Talent home. Meditating in a group supports the individual's efforts, say Krahl and Little, 72.
"You don't live in a vacuum, and you can't meditate in a vacuum," Krahl says. "As soon as you start meditating, things start coming up," she says, adding that they call the practice "cooking in the pot."
The couple soon was faced with finding a larger space for their group, which after occupying several rented spaces around town found a permanent home on Tolman Creek Road in 2005. The nonprofit Zen Center is supported entirely by donations.
With a core membership of about 20, the Zen Center primarily attracts people compelled to change their physical, mental or spiritual health. Curiosity about Buddhism is usually a secondary factor.
"For many people now, they come because of the pace of their life — they're stressed out," Krahl says. "There's usually some suffering going on. They're looking to find a way back to some place of well-being."
But meditation, the couple says, isn't for everyone, nor is it a "quick fix." The practice is an ongoing process that involves some discomfort, perhaps initially physical, but more significantly mental.
"Your mind is what's going to get uncomfortable," Krahl says. "It's not about blissing out.
"This is like brushing your teeth."
While some students of meditation may experience an immediate "shift," the couple says, more commonly, students spend countless hours meditating before they feel a sense of the enlightenment Buddhists aim to achieve. Renewed concentration, energy and serenity can come much more easily.
"A doctor would say your breath slows, your blood pressure drops," Krahl says. "We can see it when people feel better."
It's been 20 years since the mainstream medical community started recognizing the benefits of meditation for the chronically ill. Most regular practitioners will find themselves able to summon a sedate physiologic state, whether struggling against pain or surrounded by chaos.
"From a Buddhist point of view, suffering is a big issue in people's lives," Little says.
Central to Buddhist teachings, meditation also plays a role in other religious traditions, including Hinduism and Christianity. You don't have to ascribe to any faith to meditate, experts say. But finding the path to meditation through spirituality can ease the transition.
"I carry my own spirituality into it," says Kemra Martin, 46, of Medford, who attends Rasa's meditation class. She urges people to try the class without passing judgments about what meditation might entail or represent.
Rasa owner Marianne Corallo, 40, started meditating regularly only within the past year but, reflecting on her Catholic upbringing, counts a lifetime of prayer toward her interest in a discipline to which so many assign Eastern attributes.
"When I meditate, I draw upon all of that now," Corallo says. "There are so many approaches to meditation."