Americans are stressed out.
According to a new survey from the American Psychological Association, average stress levels in the U.S. rose from 4.9 in 2014 to 5.1 in 2015 on a 10-point stress scale. Meanwhile, adults who experience "extreme stress" jumped from 18 to 24 percent during the same time period.
All this stress wreaks havoc on the body. The long list of health problems associated with stress includes head and body aches, anxiety and depression, and an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and Type 2 diabetes.
What can be done about all this stress? According to Bob Vinci, a good first step is to do nothing. Literally. “We’ve lost our sense of self,” Vinci says. “We’re in the cloud, so to speak, and we need to be grounded to deal with day to day activities. And this brings us back to reality.”
The “this” Vinci refers to is the ancient practice of meditation; which, simply put, is quiet contemplation.
For the past 30-plus years, Vinci has hosted meditation sessions in Middletown, his home city. “Meditation by the Waterfall at Starr Mills” is held three days a week at 91 Beverly Heights. There is no fee to attend.
“This is really a tool to figure things out,” says Vinci, who also goes by the nom de plume The Meditation Man. “We’re less likely to look for stimulation on the outside when we become aware of the beauty that’s inside.”
Vinci, born in 1941, comes from a well-known Middletown family. His father founded the J.J. Vinci Oil Company, and the younger Vinci worked in the family business for more than 40 years.
Meditation is Vinci’s passion, however, and he has studied the process most of his life. On his website, he explains, “The breath, the lung’s vibration, produces a sound which is a vehicle which the mind uses to cross over from the daily world to another sphere of peace and tranquility within ourselves. It’s that simple. The ‘tools of salvation’ were given to us as a birthright; the sounds of our breath.”
Plants, candles and Buddha statues adorn the Starr Mills meditation room, chairs are scattered throughout the comfortable space, and just outside a waterfall flows.
The Starr Mills meditations are not guided, meaning Vinci doesn’t lead the group through the sessions. Attendees simply sit in silence and concentrate on their breathing. After an hour or so, a small gong gently alerts meditators that the session is complete.
“Our whole intention here is to get beyond thought, to get beyond the conscious mind. So we have a process that doesn’t require the use of the mind,” Vinci says. “If I was describing to you a situation, you’d be thinking about it. And that works for some people. It’s just not what we do. It’s not my preference.”
Vinci’s meditation group is not connected to any one religion or philosophy. “I don’t have a guru myself, and I don’t have any one teaching that I follow,” says Vinci. “Meditators are fiercely independent, and it’s wonderful.”
To that point, Bob Stefurak is not the image most would have of a meditation participant. The former truck driver is 77 years old, and a practicing Catholic. He’s also a common sight at Starr Mills.
Speaking of the benefits of meditation, Stefurak says, “It makes you think and brings back things that you really, really need to feel inside. It makes you feel more comfortable, makes you feel more at ease.”
Stefurak’s wife died several years ago, and soon after, the heart-broken widower found his way to Starr Mills. “You sit down and listen to your own inner self,” the Middletown resident says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Dave Fournier is another familiar face at Starr Mills. He has attended the meditation sessions for a year. “Really, the first time I was here I was hooked,” says Fournier, of North Haven.
“I’m not a religious guy in any way, shape or form, but I am a spiritual guy, and this is the kind of stuff that I really love. Coming here, this session has really improved my life.
“I get a peacefulness that I’ve never really had before. I was always riddled with anxiety, and anger, and all sorts of things. Now I just feel peace.”
Rose Levy is a newcomer to Starr Mills. The Clinton resident attended her second session in March. “I came with no expectations, and I just liked it. It’s a nice energy,” Levy says. “And when I went back to work the Monday after I first attended, I can’t explain it, but I was better able to focus, and much more peaceful.”
Vinci’s meditation sessions have a core group of 10 to 12 attendees, but can draw in excess of 30 people. Blue jeans and sneakers – not flowing robes – are the typical dress at Starr Mills.
“Mostly we’re dealing with adults here, and they’re no-nonsense folks,” Vinci says. “We just look at (meditation) as a mechanical process with effects that are known. It calms us while also lowering our blood pressure. We are able to sit back, look at things and figure out what’s going on so that we can actually make the right decision.”
“I love to teach, and I love to see people’s lives change,” Vinci says. “And they do, tremendously.” According to Vinci, meditating alongside others is helpful: “The group setting intensifies the process. Everyone adds to the energy.”
Fournier agrees with that sentiment. “I tend to be kind of a loner, but I feel it’s important to do this as a group,” he says. “One of the things I like about doing this as a group is that it enforces the idea that we’re all connected.”
Levy likened group meditation, such as what is done at Star Mills, to our ancestors sitting around a fire. “We are too consumed by media, TV, everything,” she says. “We didn’t do this hundreds of years ago. There was nothing to do but sit together and stare at the fire. We were more satisfied then, perhaps.”
To learn more about Bob Vinci and “Meditation by the Waterfall at Starr Mills,” visit themeditationman.org.