March 15 2017 02:25 PM

Jan Bidwell makes a case for meditation in activism

In the late 1960s, a group of my friends, students at Michigan State University, became enamored by transcendental meditation after attending a free group session. At the time, my other friends and I thought it seemed somewhat cultish, with its twoa-day sessions requiring a specific posture and the repetition of a “secret phrase” or mantra. All this was promised to clear the mind and sharpen focus.

For us nonmeditators, our focus was wrangling the secret phrase out of our friends. Their transcendental meditation phase finally gave way to spring break, finals, the draft and anti-war rallies, and the ongoing weekly fee associated with fine-tuning the meditation protocols certainly didn’t help.

There just wasn’t the time or money to meditate.

Since then, meditation in all its forms has boomed, with millions of practitioners in the U.S. turning to daily meditation to clear the mind.

East Lansing resident Jan Bidwell is one of those practitioners. Bidwell, who grew up in Brighton when it was still rural, graduated from MSU in 1973. She moved to New Jersey for several decades before returning to East Lansing last year.

Bidwell has been practicing and teaching meditation for more than 30 years, and she believes it is especially relevant for the turbulent times faced by today’s social and political activists. Bidwell traces her own activism to growing up in what she calls a “compassionate family.” At MSU, she got involved in the anti-war movement and the nascent women’s movement, even living for a while in MSU’s People’s Park, a tent city of activists and protesters that sprung up on campus.

“I studied racism and began to understand what was happening in Vietnam,” she said. “I became aware of the women’s movement and how I was treated as a woman. I still have my first copy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’”

Bidwell, who was raised as a “strict Catholic,” considers the recitation of the rosary as her first experience with meditation. She recalls a nun telling her that “when you’re saying the rosary, if you don’t mean every word, Mary can’t hear you.”

After college she moved to New Jersey, earned her master of social work degree from New York University, got married and worked in a variety of social programs. She also ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for the New Jersey legislature as a Democrat.

“I didn’t win, but running allowed me to talk with elected officials,” she said. “I saw a war on women happening.”

That war is one she sees continuing today.

“We have to stay awake,” Bidwell said. “In the current administration, it’s the children who will be hurt. We don’t talk about kid’s issues.”

To help her career, Bidwell turned to meditation. Her practices, which eschew any religious association, are more commonly called “mindfulness.” The meditation, she said, helped her get through the tremendous stress associated with social work.

“If you burn out, you become ineffective,” she said.

In one particularly tough case, Bidwell had to go to a safe house after her life was threatened.

“Some 68 percent of social workers have been in violent situations,” Bidwell said. “It shuts down their health.”

While she turned to meditation for self care, Bidwell also found benefits in her work.

“It became a springboard — the more in the moment you can be, the more you feel what (clients) are going through,” she said.

Bidwell, who is teaching mindfulness while studying to get her social work license in Michigan, has recently published a book on meditation for activists. “Sitting Still: Meditation as the Secret Weapon of Activism” is semi-autobiographical, detailing how meditation kept Bidwell moving forward during difficult situations.

After moving to East Lansing, Bidwell said she became very involved in the presidential campaign with the hope of being able to say “Madame President”.

“Now we have to understand that we are in for a time of great instability,” she said. “We don’t know where the boundaries are, and the only thing we can know about is our own inner stability.”

Bidwell sees this time as an opportunity to be part of a movement, comparing it to movements like the Freedom Riders of 1961. While in New Jersey, Bidwell became friends with the late Byron Baer, a New Jersey state senator and a Freedom Rider.

“I think of them all the time, how 351 riders changed everything,” she said.

She hopes that her book will help activists get through the tumultuous time ahead.

“It will be exciting for young people to go up against a seemingly impossible foe,” she said.

“They will need to be in the moment, and that mindfulness will help them get there.”

Activist Meditation With author Jan Bidwell

7 p.m. Tuesday, March 28
Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood Towne Center location)
2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing
(517) 316-7495,