Building pathways to inner peace
When Surja Tjahaja first saw a book that would change his life, he almost ignored it.
In 1999, Tjahaja was in the midst of a deep depression. On his birthday, he went for contemplative walk.
"I was wondering what life was about," he said. "It felt like it had no value to me."
He walked by a bookstore and noticed a title in the window. It was called "The Art of Happiness," written by the Dalai Lama.
"I thought, 'I would like to know this,'" he said, so he stepped inside the store and picked up the book. Initially, what he saw upon closer examination made him feel skeptical.
"(The author) was bald and wore owlish glasses," he recalled, noting that he was concerned that the writer was the leader of a cult.
But Tjahaja purchased the book anyway. Now, across the Portland region, he teaches classes on mindfulness meditation inspired by what he read all those years ago. He's also a member of Oregon Health and Science University's BRAINet and is interested in the relationship between science and meditation.
From 7-8:30 p.m. Friday, April 28, Tjahaja will teach a class at the Estacada Public Library, 825 N.W. Wade St. The class will focus mindfulness for caregivers. He encourages anyone interested to stop by.
"You don't have to be in the caregiving service," he said. "Caregiving is a part of life. We care for ourselves and others all the time."
Tjahaja describes mindfulness as a "life attitude" that emphasizes focusing on one's thoughts and emotions during any given moment in a non-judgemental way. Often, the goal is to simply watch one's thoughts rather than assigning a positive or negative value to them.
"(The focus is on) developing certain abilities to manage thoughts and emotions, and to cultivate and develop a capacity to overcome personal challenges in life," he said. "Life experiences are unpredictable, but (with mindfulness,) we can face them with with inner strength and stability."
One popular form of mindfulness meditation that Tjahaja will teach in Estacada, called one-pointedness concentration practice, has participants pay attention to their breathing. Tjahaja noted that, particularly for those new to meditation, the mind will likely stray from this focus and emphasized that such distractions are OK.
"When the mind wanders, it won't go to things we're uninterested in," he said. "Those unconscious attractions are sometimes negative, worrying or judging. Learn to let go of those thoughts and bring the mind back to (the breath). It's a specific way of watching your thoughts."
Just like when one repeatedly goes to the gym to care for the physical body, he added, the exercises will become easier with time.
Tjahaja also noted that wants to bring meditation "to a practical level" for those who might be skeptical, as he initially was. Mindfulness and brain science are closely related; Tjahaja referred to mindfulness and neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, as "two sides of the same coin."
"Neuroplasticity is a biological way of explaining what's going on during mindfulness meditation exercises," he said.
Similar to the way one builds strength while working out, repeatedly engaging in meditation allows a person to more easily ignore excessively negative or intrusive thoughts.
"The brain is malleable," Tjahaja said. "By cultivating that strength in the brain, you can develop a positive attitude and sustain that ability in the midst of difficult life experiences. You can develop the ability to be happy and reduce harmful neuronal connections."
He added that this outlook affects many different aspects of a person's life.
"All phenomenon in life (can be seen as) half-full or help-empty," he said.
Tjahaja believes that caregiving is a useful opportunity to forge valuable neuronal pathways.
"Caregiving develops tolerance, compassion, patience, respect and kindness," he said. "These are all key factors in successful relationships. We have good relationships by practicing these qualities, (and in turn) those qualities develop in the brain. The key to neuroplasticity is repetition."
Additionally, Tjahaja noted, caregiving presents many opportunities create positive thoughts.
"You can be dealing with difficult patients, and you want to help them but they don't listen," he said. "It can be stressful. But you can think, it's not the person, it's the illness. It's changing the context and quality of your thoughts, which is useful in many other aspects of life. Caregiving is a good path to develop these abilities."
With mindfulness, Tjahaja emphasized, it's possible to retain inner peace even during tumultuous situations, and the effect goes beyond one's self.
"It's not just for you. It will affect others," he said. "(Mindfulness allows us to) build healthier and happier families and communities."
Caring for the Caregiver
Tjahaja's class is the second part of a series hosted by the Estacada Public Library called "Caring for the Caregiver." The first part of this series, scheduled for 7-8:30 p.m. Friday, April 21, will feature social worker Trish Settje and a discussion of the emotional and physical demands involved with care, as well as the resources that are available to help.