HATLEY • Chad Houston of Hatley describes himself as a “laid-back dude.” That’s about right.
His graying hair and goatee, warm voice, and gentle mien suggest a person at peace with himself and his world.
Houston said his mellow outlook is thanks in part to a practice he began three years ago: mindfulness meditation.
“Meditation helps me live in the present,” he said. “It helps you realize how your thoughts are affecting your emotions, your body, your relationships, and how you project yourself to the world.”
A roaring fire crackles in the wood stove in Houston’s light-filled “zen den,” where he often comes to meditate. It’s just down a wooded hill from the home he shares with his wife and two teenage sons. In the garage, a yellow ‘72 Volkswagen minibus bears the stickers of Houston’s favorite bands.
The 48-year-old Monroe County native just finished leading a four-week-long workshop in mindfulness meditation through Amory’s annual Lifelong Learning Series. He said teaching the full-capacity class gave him an opportunity to share what he has learned.
“I don’t claim to be a mindfulness guru,” he said. “I wanted to teach the class because I’ve seen the benefit and I just wanted to testify. I just wanted to share the love.”
Like many, Houston said he struggles with seasonal depression. He said mindfulness meditation has given him a tool to offset the effects of this annual ennui.
“Last year was the first time in a long time that I made the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s without getting in a serious funk,” he said. “Mindfulness meditation has helped me see how my brain works so I can stop the cycle of out-of-control emotions. Having even a small measure of control over that is huge.”
In its simplest form, mindfulness is about learning to be more present in the present, according to Houston.
“Mindfulness is all about learning to pay careful attention to the present moment,” he said. “The present moment is all we have. It’s all we’ll ever have.”
Using an analogy from a popular movie, Houston said mindfulness is about developing a higher level of consciousness in daily life.
“Most of us walk around in a semi-conscious state, like in ‘The Matrix,’” he said. “Our minds go a million miles a minute but we never stop to focus on the present moment. If you’re happy in the ‘matrix’ that’s fine, but the longer you meditate, the more you learn there’s more to human consciousness.”
While mindfulness meditation has roots in Buddhism, Houston said the practice has benefits for people of any religion, or no religion.
“The type of mindfulness I practice is pretty secular and straightforward,” he said. “It’s not like some forms of meditation where the goal is enlightenment. This is more about just learning to be present and learning to manage emotions like depression and anxiety. You don’t need to call on a particular deity.”
In his recent workshop, Houston said he encouraged participants to begin by paying attention to their own breath.
“Focusing on your breath is a way to ground yourself,” he said. “You don’t need a mantra; your breath is always there with you. You start by just paying close attention to the sensations of breathing. You’ll be surprised how hard it is.”
For those who are new to the practice, mindfulness meditation can be unsettling, Houston said.
“Your brain is running out of control,” he said. “That’s the first insight of mindfulness. We like to think we’re in charge of our brains and what we think, but it only takes one minute to realize we’re not. It can be unnerving.”
Learning to slow down and be present takes patience and discipline, Houston said.
“It’s a workout for your brain,” he said. “The key is practice. You won’t get anywhere doing it once or twice a month. You need to do it every day. Surely there’s 10 or 15 minutes in your day when you can stop telling yourself your story and bring your attention back to the present.”
While he said enlightenment is not the immediate goal of his form of meditation, insights await for those willing to slow down, breathe, and listen.
“You can try all you want to stop the world and keep bad things from happening,” he said. “But once you start meditating you see that changing how you react to the world is just as good as changing the world itself. That’s a powerful insight that I only found when I started meditating.”