Watching an interview with John Nordell

 How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010

How to Meditate Away Anxiety, Against Personal Stress

HTM: How and when were you first introduced to meditation and what form of meditation?

John:I was first introduced to meditation when I took some Hatha Yoga classes in 1989. It was basic learning about following the breath in and out, lying on my back relaxing at the end of class. I was also introduced to the concept that aspects of self-care can become ironic: rushing to get to yoga class to relax after work and getting stressed out in the process.

HTM: What type of meditation do you practice presently? Is it still about following the breath?

John: I often stop by the Connecticut River on my way to work and look out over lake-like section created by a dam. My session starts when I read a brief passage relating to leading a spiritual life. Sometimes I just focus on the breath going in and out, aware of either my belly moving or air entering and leaving my nostrils. Sometimes I add some phrases to accompany the in and out breaths.

Here is favorite set from Thich Nhat Hanh-"Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. Breathing out, I feel solid. Breathing in, I see myself as still water. Breathing out, I reflect all this is. Breathing in, I see myself as space. Breathing out, I feel free."

I had done these for a few days, when I realized that from where I parked, I could see flowers. I could see a mountain. Sometimes the water was still- a very powerful connection to nature. And, as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds, space (the stars) are always up there, even when the sun it out. Beyond formal morning sessions, I try to turn washing the dishes or morning grooming or house cleaning into a present moment meditative experience.

HTM:Are you watching the breath or counting while you breathe? Also, you mentioned an awareness or mindfulness present while washing the dishes, and other day-to-day events. I'd like to hear about your experiences while meditating (in terms of feelings) and also to what degree your meditation carries over into your perspective (and/or capacity to deal with) more difficult times/moments.

John:I mostly watch the flow of my breath in and out. I have tried different counting methods and ideas, but I feel that I start forcing the breath. That approach feels unnatural. My goal is that by consciously following the breath during structured meditation times, this habit will follow me throughout the day. Sometimes when I meditate, my feelings don't change much. Other times I feel joy, peace, connected- sometime sadness or anger.

Seven years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. As I was wheeled into the operating room so a surgeon could biopsy the tumor in my chest I consciously breathed, again lines from Thich Nhat Han- "Breathing in I calm my body, Breathing out I smile." I think I went under with a smile on my face. During chemotherapy, I listened to guided visualization healing tape. I also listened to and practiced with some Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness meditation tapes. These practices were a key element of my healing.

HTM:Do you see a relationship between meditation and healing? If so, can you share your personal understanding of this relationship, including how you believe meditation heals?

John:I do see a relationship between meditation and healing. Calmness and relaxation are good for the body, mind and spirit. Calmness and relaxation can be immediate benefits of meditation, but over the long run, a meditation practice can modulate anxiety, self-doubt and frustration-healthy thoughts, healthy body. There is something vital about getting more oxygen into the blood through conscious breathing.

HTM:It sounds as if your meditation practice largely centers around your breath. I would like to hear more about your experiences with this practice. You mentioned that counting doesn't work for you, as you start forcing it, and yet simply watching it doesn't cause you to do this, is that right? And is this what you mean by conscious breathing-- witnessing the breath?

John:My meditation practice does largely center around my breath. As I have mentioned, I sometimes combine the in and out breaths with sayings or phrases. Yes, I have found counting to be unnatural, that I force my breaths. So I watch the breath, sometimes even thinking "Going in, in, in... turning around... going out, out, out..." Sometimes I am aware of my whole body expanding and contracting with each breath.

Or I simply note the motions of my stomach, or the subtle sensations of air entering and leaving my nostrils. Yes, this is what I mean by conscious breathing, this witnessing. I am also working on this awareness of breathing not just in my morning meditation sessions, but also when, say, preparing a meal, working on my computer, taking pictures, driving around...

HTM:I have read where the "turning around" moments are particularly profound and there is a stillness associated with this transition-- and a freedom from thought. Also, I wonder if you ever feel as if it is not you breathing, but that life is breathing you. Does any of this ring a bell or sound familiar?

John:Yes the "turning around" moments can be very powerful. Sometimes the pause is long and peaceful. Sometimes it feels like I stop breathing for a little while, not forced, just deep calm. "Suspending" the breath, instead of "holding" the breath, as a Kundalini Yoga instructor once told me. Not sure if I feel like life is breathing me, but sometimes during meditation I feel like I am merging with life, that I am broken down to just bits and pieces that mingle and merge with my surroundings.

HTM:I have noticed for myself that surrendering to the natural rhythms of the breath is similar to letting go of fear. It is as if thinking (mind) holds the breath or causes it to be short and choppy. I can feel the fear stirring up energy and the impulse to start trying to figure it all out with through a thinking process, and yet to focus on the breath or any organic process allows me to drop the impulse to "problem solve". Do you find yourself integrating your breathing and meditation techniques into areas where fear is stirred up?

John: I teach at a photography school. I start one of my classes, a creativity workshop, by stating that fear is the flip side of creativity. I quote Fritz Perls: "Fear is excitement without the breath." So yes, I believe getting into the body, into the breath is an antidote to fear. I am on vacation (at home) right now and with less stress, and more being relaxed and in the moment, I realize my need to figure things has diminished and my self-acceptance has grown.

HTM:What do you believe causes us to take stress on to the extent that we are less present? Also, what do you believe is the best method for letting go of fear and moving towards excitement or relaxation?

John:Why take on stress? I think some of it is hard wired from the caveman fight or flight days- something about needing excitement, some reason to use our strengths- physical, mental, spiritual. But I think this need for excitement can become habitual. Breath work and meditation thus become the antidote to mindless and usually needless worry.

HTM:I can see how breath work and meditation can make a real difference. Thank you so much. I appreciate everything that you have shared.

John:Thanks so much for this interview. It has brought me clarity and commitment. John Nordell grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, surrounded by artists, musicians and journalists. After twenty plus years as an internationally traveled and published photojournalist he now teaches photography. John's work can be found at, where as an artist, educator, and photojournalist he blogs about the creative process.