The first rays of summer, birds chirping and me, on the verge of my first foray into meditation.
Four women, two men and two (adorable) dogs are under a tree overlooking the Waikato River in Hamilton city, just off the main street.
We introduce ourselves and, complete strangers no more, we’re instructed to lie down on our yoga mats.
Silence spreads across the group as we prepare to settle our Western minds.
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Eyes closed with arms at our sides, mindfulness and meditation teacher Nick Joy guides us. We’re to focus on the air we breathe, the sounds we hear and bodily sensations.
It’s an opportunity to intentionally and non-judgmentally experience the present moment.
Twenty minutes goes by before we sit up and share how each of us felt.
Some were grateful or surprised. Others were emotional.
This scene had been going on since mid-November when Joy – at the behest of the city business association – started holding free guided 30-minute meditation sessions at Victoria on the River at lunchtime.
His goal – to allow people to “come back to the things that really matter”.
He knows that stepping out of our busy lives to stop for a moment isn’t easy, but emphasises that stressful times are when “we really need to stop and come back to our centre”.
“Energetically we’re all so busy and this can have a toll on our life … as humans, we need to work on our balance.
“If you’re driving a car and your fuel gauge was getting low and you said, no, I’m too busy to stop for gas’… if you don’t stop you’re going to burn out.”
According to Joy, all we need is 20 minutes a day to sit and meditate.
But he says mindfulness can be integrated into everyday activities such as doing dishes or going for a walk.
“It can be done anywhere, the easiest form of a walking meditation is to tune into your senses – feel and touch.
“The idea is to notice without judgement.”
Joy’s journey into mindful meditation started six years ago after a family member suffered severe depression.
“There wasn’t much we could do support-wise, but I believed we were all connected, so I thought, what if I just sent him love?
“I lay in bed for hours in a meditative trance. It was so calming, peaceful, loving and made me feel so much better, so I thought I might as well keep meditating.”
His surname helps, too.
In 2018, Nick and his partner, Danica, were married and chose a new last name that would represent their purpose in life.
Neuroscience shows that meditation calms the nervous system, he says.
“Our primal fight or flight response dissipates and our natural state of joy is restored.”
He encourages anyone sceptical about the process to “do your research”.
Hamilton Central Business Association general manager Vanessa Williams said the association put forward a proposal to council in 2017 to fund events such as this within the city. It was successful and received a total of $100,000 over the next three years as part of the Long Term Plan.
Registered Clinical Psychologist Jeannette Shennan said there is a large body of research that has demonstrated the efficacy of meditation and mindfulness in stress management.
Benefits have been shown for the wide spectrum of physical health conditions, she said, in which stress is a factor.
“This includes cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal disease, chronic pain … It is also helpful in coping with challenging treatments, like for cancer.
“Mindfulness is not a magic wand or quick fix … an intervention or programme needs to be sufficiently comprehensive to be effective, involving regular ongoing practice.”
So short offerings, she said, such as one-day events give people a view of it without really going there. Some may then think mindfulness “didn’t work” for them.
Mindfulness Aotearoa offers an excellent programme to schools in New Zealand, called Pause Breathe Smile, she said.
“After convincing pilots at selected schools, including Hamilton’s Nawton School, support from Southern Cross has made this available free to all primary and intermediate schools.”