An Altered State: My Experience with Mindfulness at the Meditation Retreat
You may not know it, but a spiritual awakening is waiting for you in Madison Union.
At this point in your life, you’ve probably learned how to stay fit, eat healthy, make deadlines, stay within a budget, and much more. You know how to take care of yourself, at least on the outside. But what about the inside?
MAD4U offers meditation and yoga every day of the school week. Additionally, they offer an end-of-semester meditation retreat that offers a more intense experience to help students reset for finals. Mindful practice, meditation, and yes, yoga, are all excellent strategies to reduce stress, induce better sleep, and increase cognitive clarity. This semester MAD4U offered its very first midterm retreat designed to allow students to release the mounting tension and anxiety of midterm exams.
The retreat featured a special guest as facilitator: Connie Magee, a meditation and yoga instructor who specializes in sound healing. Sound healing, or “vibrational medicine,” uses resonant instruments—like Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, Magee’s instruments of choice—to help the listener achieve deep meditative relief.
When participants arrived in Madison Union 256, they found mats, blankets, and bolsters spread out in a semicircle around a lush array of rugs littered with a curious collection of objects: Tibetan singing bowls, a large gong, a carved lion head, stones, crystals, empty brass candlesticks, feathers, a long driftwood staff, and many fresh flowers. Magee (or Connie, as she asked us to call her) was joined by Shari Scofield, the director of MAD4U, in welcoming our intimate group of six to the experience.
Magee shared her background—from teaching investment accounting for a Wall Street bank to guiding groups up Mount Kilimanjaro—reminding us “if you’re ever wondering what your future holds, just know that it can hold many, many things.”
Scofield remarked on how many opportunities have opened up, especially for women, in the years since she was a college student, and encouraged us to “be as fully, wholly, motivated by your own inner light as possible. […] Really exploring who you are, what you want, what you love, and learning how to manifest those possibilities and opportunities is the greatest adventure of all. And also, often, the most potent thing you have to offer others.”
With that remarkable introduction, we were invited to join them in building an altar. Forget all preconceived notions of elevated tables draped in white linens—this altar-building exercise simply allowed the participants to help set the space. We chose stones and flowers, rearranging items and setting tableaus however we saw fit. As Scofield put it, “when we build an altar we’re symbolically saying that we’re creating the space to have an extraordinary experience. An altered state of consciousness is a potential, or just an enhanced sense of security in yourself. […] It doesn’t symbolize necessarily belief, or lack of belief either, it’s just an opportunity to participate in creating a little bit of a space that’s different.”
After the preliminaries were all taken care of, all of the participants claimed a mat and settled in for a mind-altering experience. We began with simple yoga and meditative practice, regulating our breathing and attempting to clear our minds. Magee’s smooth, steady voice talked us through the process. Once we were all relaxed, minds open, we took up comfortable meditation postures to begin the sound healing.
I didn’t know quite what to expect from the nine Tibetan singing bowls sitting in front of us, ranging in size from so large it could hold a person to so small it could be held in a hand, and the anticipatory air was palpable beneath the calm. Magee began to play the bowls in long, extended chords, encouraging us to chant or hum if we felt compelled to do so. If you’d asked any of us beforehand, I can almost guarantee we all would have been too embarrassed to make a sound. It is a testament to the completely non-judgmental state we established together that several voices—including my own—could be heard humming along with the bowls.
When we surfaced from this first introduction to sound healing, many of us found ourselves blinking at each other in surprise. I’m hardly an ideal candidate for meditation—my ADHD means that intrusive thoughts are a constant companion—but I found it shockingly easy to sink into a contemplative state while focusing on the sound of the bowls. As we prepared to make the transition to the second part of the retreat—an extended sound healing session where participants would be lying down—Magee made us an incredible offer. With a relatively small group, we were able to take turns standing in the largest singing bowl, experiencing the vibrations physically.
It was a remarkable process to watch. Each person began the process unsteady on her feet, jolting every time Magee struck the bowl, body rigid, but as it went on, they would relax, tension flowing from their frame as they found their footing. By the time they stepped out of the bowl, it was like looking at a different person. It was disconcerting at first, standing with my eyes closed, feeling the vibrations from the bowl. The feeling changed as I focused on the way the sound felt as it traveled through my limbs. The best part was when Magee added in a smaller bowl, which she held up to direct the sound at certain areas on the body. I can hardly describe the feeling when she held it in front of my face—it was like being inside the speaker playing the iconic sound effect for Dolby Surround Sound in movie theaters. I felt like part of the sound.
We all assumed comfortable reclining positions as we prepared for the extended sound healing session, elevating our knees and heads and covering ourselves with blankets to prevent chills. I’m a fairly high-strung person, and found myself with the strangest sensation of calm excitement as I made myself comfortable. We spent the next hour experiencing unending waves of ringing sound from the bowls, letting it wash over us as we lay still, breathing deeply. It was, without exaggeration, utterly transcendent. At some point, I drifted into a half-sleep, only semi-conscious of the sound around me. She brought us out of the trance-like state slowly, decreasing the sound and frequency of her playing until all was silent.
Thanking us gently for our participation, Magee invited us to sit up when we felt ready. No one felt inclined to speak, so we sat in silence for a few moments, enjoying the companionship. We disbanded without fanfare, chatting quietly and thanking our facilitators as we snagged scones and packed up our things.
It was a fitting end to an experience that suspended all of the worries of college. For a few hours, we were able to throw off the stress of upcoming exams and the perpetual concern over social interactions that so many students feel. I certainly cast off some of that worry for good, going on my way feeling lighter than I arrived.
Hoping to reduce some of your own stress? Check out Madison Meditates, which offers an hour of meditative practice every day of the school week in Madison Union!