Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY
Jacksonville resident Roger Cochran viewed meditation as his fast pass to Nirvana when he became a Buddhist about 15 years ago.
"I thought that was a surefire way to reach an enlightened state of mind," said Cochran, 64. "I thought [meditation] was the slickest thing around."
But the ensuing years and a harrowing encounter with cancer have since convinced Cochran that - in this lifetime, anyway - meditation is more about seeking refuge from daily stress than achieving ultimate transcendence.
"It is a point in my day in which I can . . . cease making judgments about myself and other people, and it's a very comforting place to be."
Cochran and other Buddhists aren't the only ones who see meditation that way. Most of the world's religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have meditation traditions. And the practice has spread beyond those faiths into the wider culture, as doctors and psychologists increasingly prescribe meditation to patients to help with everything from stress and depression to heart disease and cancer.
Buddhist lamas, yoga teachers, Christian theologians, psychologists and others attribute the growing popularity of meditation, in one form or another, to the exposure to Eastern and ancient contemplative practices, the Internet and a pervasive need to counter social and economic stress.
"We're a Type A, stressed-out culture and life is getting too fast and people are feeling out of control of their own lives," said the Rev. Terry Muck, a dean at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. "People are looking for a way to relax and calm down."
A 2001 Gallup poll said 45 percent of members of all faith groups engage in some form of spiritual discipline on a daily basis, whether silent, focused prayer, meditation or inspirational tapes or CDs.
Even iTunes offers at least 60 meditation albums and podcasts, and more than a dozen meditation applications.
Interest is strong on the First Coast, said Shri Hamilton-Hubbard, owner of Bliss Yoga in San Marco.
Yoga itself is a form of meditation, requiring coordinated concentration on the breath and postures.
"I've seen a huge change in the last 10 years," Hamilton-Hubbard said. Students are increasingly seeking the spiritual benefits of yoga. "They don't just want to lose weight and get in shape, they want personal growth and they're looking into meditation."
When she came to Jacksonville about 15 years ago, she recalled, there very few yoga studios.
Today, there at least 10 businesses, not counting classes offered at private gyms and other settings.
Michael Turnquist founded a Tibetan Buddhist center in Jacksonville in 1986 after finding just one meditation group when he moved here two years before that. Today, there are at least a half-dozen Buddhist meditation outlets serving Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants, as well as Zen and Tibetan practitioners, Turnquist said.
But meditation is even going secular, said Thomas Plante, professor of psychology and director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University in California.
Medical science has turned increasingly to alternative healing forms in the past decade. Plante said he's amazed at how many workshops are being offered at professional conferences, including a recent gathering of the American Psychological Association.
This includes Mindfulness Meditation, a meditative form devoid of theology or spirituality, a therapy he recommends to his own clients.
In its most basic form, meditation means clearing the mind of distractions, noise and wayward thoughts, said Lama Tsultrim Khandro, spiritual leader of Karma Thegsum Choling Jacksonville, the Tibetan Buddhist center established by Turnquist. …