If you resolved to develop a regular meditation practice in 2022, you can get there – one breath at a time, for just five minutes a day. It’s an approach that led Tanaz Javan, BA’11, MSc’15, to become a devoted practitioner.
She’s also a guided meditation instructor for Living Well @ Western, helping employees focus on their emotional and spiritual well-being. The next series of “Meditation with Tanaz” starts Monday, Jan. 24, at noon on Zoom.
“I’ve always been interested in contemplative practices,” Javan said. Raised in Iran, in the homeland of Persian poet Rumi, she “grew up looking at the universe through a more spiritual lens.”
Javan started her meditation practice while completing her master’s thesis in neuroscience at Western, under the supervision of psychiatry and psychology professor Paul Frewen.
“We were studying the differences between meditation and neurofeedback therapy,” Javan said. “I started collecting data and telling my participants to meditate, but I wasn’t doing it myself. That didn’t seem right, so I started by meditating for just five minutes using (the app) Insight Timer.”
Soon, she was deepening her practice and attending meditation and silence retreats at a Buddhist monastery near Perth, Ont. “Through regular meetings, discussions and sitting with the monks, I started to learn how to guide meditation sessions,” Javan said. “It also gave me an opportunity to return and talk about my teaching to make sure I was on the right path.”
As a psychology instructor at Fanshawe College, Javan hosts a Zoom café, where she connects with students on coursework, and guides them through meditations to manage their stress and anxiety. Her practice also shapes her work as a life coach, researcher and skilled painter. Her artwork appears on the cover of Healing the Traumatized Self, a book Frewen wrote with Dr. Ruth Lanius, the Harris-Woodman Chair in Mind-Body Medicine in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
Javan is currently a PhD candidate in the Health Information Science program working under the supervision of Nadine Wathen and as part of the Gender, Trauma and Violence Incubator. Her research focused on implementing trauma and violence-informed care in health and social services.
The next series of Javan’s drop-in meditation sessions will run throughout the term and into the summer months. Western News sat down with her to learn more about her practice and the benefits of meditation.
WN: What would you tell someone interested in meditation but unsure where to start?
Javan: Guided meditation is a safe way to begin. It’s like training wheels. You can let go of them eventually, or just come back to them when you need it.
It’s also helpful to focus on your breath. “Just one breath a day,” as my teacher Ajhan Summedho would say. When you find your mind wandering, that’s normal. The moment you become aware of your mind wandering that’s the moment that mindfulness happens. Just observe the thought, let it go and bring your attention back to your breathing.
Practice those techniques with Tanaz in this 10-minute Living Well @ Western wellness break video:
WN: What are some of the common misconceptions about meditation?
Javan: There’s a misunderstanding that meditation means sitting on a cushion in this blissful state. That idea prevents people from trying it or being disappointed if it feels hard at first. It won’t stay like that forever. Sometimes you feel really calm in your body, but in the beginning, it is like going to the gym. There’s pain, there’s frustration, and it’s the last thing you want to do. But if you sit and process that frustration, and just let go, eventually, after 20 minutes, you feel much better.
People often think becoming a good practitioner means you become passive, letting go of every difficulty. But it’s about mindfulness in your daily interaction with the world around you.
WN: What are the benefits of meditation and how can mindfulness improve your life?
Javan: It allows you to relax and sleep better. You become less reactive; you develop compassion.
When you’re more mindful and attuned to the people around you, you become more empathic and receptive when they are talking. Instead of thinking about the next thing you want to say, you’re listening and engaging. You become more aware of what is happening in your surroundings, in your community, in your family. All this helps you to become more interested in how you can improve the lives of those around you. It becomes less about ‘me and my story,’ and more about asking, ‘How can I contribute and be helpful?’
WN: Some postsecondary students are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety as COVID-19 continues to cause uncertainty and changes to how they learn and live. How can meditation help?
Javan: It can be difficult for people to experience positive emotions during the pandemic. And it’s not because there is anything wrong with us. We evolved this way, focusing on the negative aspects of life to survive. If our ancestors were positive all the time and looking at the sunny skies, they would have been eaten by a lion. The problem is we’ve become better and better at focusing on the negative, because the world around us has become overwhelmingly stressful, and daily stressors are not as explicit to us as seeing a lion running toward you.
Stress and anxiety are usually associated with something that is going to happen in the future. Depression is ruminating about the past. When we are stuck in these loops of negative thought, it is very difficult for us to disassociate. Meditation is all about coming back to the present moment and letting go of the negative thoughts or the loop that we get stuck in.
WN: How has mindfulness and meditation helped you as a student and a researcher?
Javan: I’ve recently made it my intention to fully experience, with my whole body, activities that bring me joy. It could be walking in the sunshine and really feeling the sun; or drinking a cup of tea, looking outside. Or just talking to someone. It’s about bringing intention to feel joy in the activity you are engaging in.
When we develop “meditation muscles,” we can make that intention to be mindful in the moment, giving ourselves permission to feel the positive impact joy has on our body and our well-being.
In my research, looking at trauma and violence informed (TVI) principles, it is about shifting from ‘What is wrong with this person?’ to asking, ‘What has happened to this person?’ Mindfulness can help you to make that shift, allowing you to be less judgmental, less reactive, and more open to learning what happened to people.
In our TVI training with service providers, we draw their attention to principles of mindfulness to be more attentive and compassionate toward themselves and become more self-reflective in their interactions with other people. So often we judge others and when they open their heart and tell us their story, it is a very different interaction. That applies within the context of health and social services, but I think it could be a universal principle used by everyone and mindfulness could certainly help with making that shift.
For updates on other activities planned for the winter term, and to access other 10-minute wellness break videos, visit Living Well @ Western. Learning Development and Success offers graduate students, undergraduate students, professional students and post docs Mindful Moments practices Mondays at 12:30 p.m. on Zoom.