Dr. MacLean started practicing mindfulness meditation nearly a decade ago as a neuroscience undergraduate at Dartmouth. When she continued her studies at
UC Davis, she began working on the Shamatha Project, the largest and most
extensive study of mindfulness meditation's effects on the brain. It was there that she went on her first retreat (a week-long period of intensive daily
meditation) in order to more closely understand the experience her participants would go through. Soon after, she began practicing regularly at home.
Still, Dr. MacLean found one fear exceptionally difficult to get past.
She was afraid of death. She had panic attacks and premonitions on planes. If you were late or sick, she would assume the worst.
But, through her meditation, Dr. Maclean eventually began to understand the source of the problem. She realized that her deep-rooted anxiety had stemmed
from something she had begun to feel during her practice: that her long-standing sense of self was only an illusion. "It felt like reality had been pulled
out from under me," she says. But like Gary and Deb, she exposed herself to the fear until it gave way to a sense of "clarity, lightness, compassion, and
In time, Dr. MacLean's fear was put to the test. Her younger sister was admitted to the hospital with a metastatic form of cancer, and she was dying.
There are few things more horrifying in the scope of human life than the death sentence of a loved one, but Dr. MacLean believes that mindfulness
meditation allowed her to build up a kind of mental armor that left her with a staggering level of equanimity. She had trained herself to "let go of this
sense that you are at the center of the universe and that the world is something set up for you."
So as she sat at the bedside of her dying sister over the next few weeks, Dr. MacLean felt prepared. "I was able to be with her in space that for me felt
very empty, and very clear, yet completely full of love," she says. "I didn't have much of my own baggage or my own expectations, so for the most part it
kind of felt like this very natural, easy thing."
She recognizes that "it's hard not to sound new agey or paranormal" when talking about deconstructing the self, but she credits letting go of her fixed
sense of identity and "artificial sense of the world" as the thing that got her through:
"I don't think I could have dealt with my sister dying if I had not gone through a kind of dying process myself."
This didn't mean she was immune from grieving, which she experienced "really quickly and intensely" without judgment or boundaries, but that she was able
to understand her bereavement as an event that was happening to her in the present moment, which she could embrace fully, and then let go.
"We have a couple of tools that have been at our disposal for thousands of years," Dr. MacLean told me as we ended our interview. "One of them is
meditation. And we will always have it. So if we can learn to harness that power, what happens around us doesn't matter. It's the one tool we have that is
The practice may have great potential, but its advocates are quick to note that it will only do for people as much as they decide to put into it. As Gary, Deb, or Dr. MacLean will tell you, beating despair is no easy feat. Like fitness of any sort, seeing benefit from meditation takes time, discipline, and dedication.