Picture California in 1968.
It was arguably the most significant year of change in modern American history, with the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements, Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated and Apollo 8 taking the first humans to orbit the moon.
The wave of change that swept 1960s America caught 15-year-old Andrew Safer, too.
Safer, who now lives in St. John’s, was at that time living in Malibu, Calif., with his mother, an abstract artist who was well-connected in the arts community.
“She heard about a Zen monastery that was only a few hours’ drive away, and so we all — my sister and myself, and my father was driving, and my mom — got in the car and drove up for a weekend. This is in the very early days of Zen really coming to the West.”
It may have been 50 years ago, but Safer recalls it vividly and describes it as one of the high points of his life — it was when he met Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.
“He was standing outside, so I went up and shook his hand. I looked at him — at his face and his eyes — and I had a feeling that I never had before, which was a feeling of what he calls in his book ‘big mind.’ “‘Big mind’ is a big space as opposed to looking at a particular little thing. You can look up and just have a sense of a big space. I had that sense and he made a huge impression on me.”
Safer went home and began practising the mindfulness instructions he received from Suzuki’s monks that weekend.
“I was doing it pretty regularly as best I could, and continued in that tradition for five years until I met my main meditation teacher. His name is Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, a mindfulness-awareness meditation master — the technique that I teach. I met him in San Francisco in 1973, and under his direction received quite a bit of training.”
From there, Safer was hooked.
He has been practising mindfulness for 50 years and has instructed thousands of people in mindfulness-awareness meditation.
Since 2013, he has regularly presented an eight- and 10-week small group program called Navigating Anxiety and Stress through Mindfulness.
A couple of years ago, Safer was thinking about how he could teach more people, and his wife, author Catherine Hogan Safer, suggested he write a book.
“She has the good ideas and sometimes I actually follow through on them,” he laughs.
Safer officially launched his book, “Anxiety, Stress & Mindfulness: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Wellness” Tuesday evening at The Lantern in St. John’s.
It includes detailed mindfulness-awareness practice instructions and also discusses mindfulness in the context of modern issues, such as the impact of social media and digital distractions.
It has already received praise from local experts, such as psychiatrist Cynthia Slade and Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian Mental Health CEO Dan Goodyear.
Safer explains the main tenet of the book — mindfulness.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about the past, or the future, and daydreaming and being scattered,” says Safer. “Mindfulness practice helps us sort of be ‘on the dot’ — be actually right here where things are happening, where we are. And when we wander off into the weeds — which happens a lot because our mind just does that — there’s a better chance that we will be able to wake up in the midst of that wandering and bring ourselves back.”
Safer says the impact it has had on him personally is profound.
“I used to be quite impulsive, so when you’re impulsive it means you do things and end up regretting it, and it’s definitely helped with that.
“I used to get much more wrapped up in my own thoughts, worries and concerns and make a big deal out of everything, and there’s a lot less of that.
“What tends to happen for people who stick with the practice is that we develop more of a connection to the real world, which is the world we can see, taste, touch, hear and smell. That world — the physical, real world around us — you develop more of a connection with that, and less of a connection to the one that we’re making up all the time.”
“Anxiety, Stress & Mindfulness: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Wellness” is available at Chapters and online through Amazon.