We first met Dan through mutual friend and collaborator Lara Naughton. This week we sat down with him to learn more about how he got started and the benefits of his practice.
Where are you from?
I lived in New Orleans until I was three, but mostly grew up in Mandeville.
How did you get into mindfulness?
It happened after I returned to New Orleans in 2009 from a long trip. I had been writing for a newspaper in Ghana and traveling in Southeast Asia, publishing the occasional essay. After a while, I started to question the point of my drifting. Traveling, for me, had morphed from exploration into a pathological avoidance of stillness. I became very depressed. At one point, I spent a week in a hotel room in Cambodia watching soccer and drinking Fanta.
I came home and was still lost. My father had always been interested in Buddhism. I found a book called Mindfulness in Plain English and used it to kickstart my meditation practice. I would sit in my closet and try to connect with my breath. It was extremely difficult, but occasionally I would feel a little peace. That was enough to spark my interest.
What happened after that?
I had a buddy named Cliff who led a meditation group at a place on Oretha Castle Haley, I can’t remember the name. Usually it was just the two of us. He would hit this giant gong, and I would lie on the floor, listening to the sounds come and go. Anyway, he told me about a 10-day retreat. He made it sound quite arduous, saying something like, “A Navy Seal said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.”
For some reason, the intensity appealed to me. I registered for the retreat, which was in the Vipassana style of S.N. Goenka.
How did it go?
It was grueling. The first four days I thought I had made a terrible mistake, but eventually my resistance melted. I developed the capacity to sit for long periods of time without reacting to the agitation of my mind and body. This capacity to handle distress with some level of equanimity continued when I came back. Suddenly, my life was significantly more enjoyable.
How did you end up teaching mindfulness-based-stress-
After that retreat, I sat six or seven more over a few years. Intensive meditation practice is powerful and my life was transforming at an accelerated speed. It was challenging at the time (2014 or so) to find the support I needed in New Orleans for my practice. For that reason, I went to Northern California to do more deep practice and find guidance.
Out there, I connected with a teacher named Bob Stahl, who was teaching MBSR. What I saw in those classes was people who would never come into a Buddhist meditation center getting incredible benefit from secular mindfulness. Folks were there because they had chronic pain, cancer, anxiety, all sorts of conditions. At the end of the course, they would report they were dealing with their illnesses better, but additionally they would relay big shifts in their lives. I remember this one guy saying, “I am sleeping for the first time in years...and this other thing is happening....my wife says I’m a lot nicer.”
I found the MBSR curriculum to be an extraordinary way to systematically teach meditation. It was something I wished was available at the beginning of my practice. There was nobody teaching it in New Orleans, so I trained in the curriculum and brought it here.
Dan Lawton teaches meditation through his business, NOLA Mindfulness, and also at the New Orleans Insight Meditation Group.