Story by Matt Wing
A personal loss inspired Chad McGehee ’03 to broaden his horizons and led to his discovery of meditation. Now he helps others use meditation to reach personal well-being and performance goals.
Chad McGehee ’03 never intended to be that guy.
He knew the stereotypes about meditation. He sensed the skepticism. He could feel eyes rolling before he even said it.
Heck, sometimes even he wanted to roll his eyes.
“There’s an old joke: how do you know if someone is a meditator?” McGehee asks, rhetorically. “Just wait five minutes and they will tell you!”
McGehee never intended for meditation to be such a big part of his life. It just happened. He tried it and found that it worked. He offered tips to others he thought could benefit. That’s all. A career in meditation was never a consideration.
But that’s just what happened.
A school teacher for eight years, McGehee began integrating meditation and mindfulness sessions into work with students and teachers. Then came an opportunity with The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a research group with the mission of promoting well-being and relieving suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind. The group sought to accomplish its mission through research and implementation methods. Meditation was one such method.
“It was an unbelievable opportunity,” McGehee said. “And it’s been a dream job.”
McGehee is now a Learning and Program Development Manager (he prefers the simpler title of “meditation teacher”) for Healthy Minds Innovations, the nonprofit arm of The Center for Healthy Minds. His group takes the work done by the Center’s research team and applies it to help people reach personal well-being and performance goals.
McGehee’s particular expertise is working with individuals performing in high-stress environments. Using the practices he initially learned to help himself, McGehee now delivers mindfulness and meditation techniques to hundreds of individuals each year. He works closely with law enforcement officials, corporate executives, and a growing number of UW-Madison student-athletes, as the athletics community has begun to see the benefits of meditation.
“I never intended to be a meditation teacher,” McGehee said of his career. “I just wanted to be Chad and let this practice support me in being a happy and healthy person.”
McGehee didn’t seek out meditation. It kind of found him … albeit in a roundabout way.
The unexpected death of his father, during his junior year of high school, left a 17-year-old McGehee — “not a kid, but not yet an adult,” he explains — to process some difficult emotions.
“I think one of the things that comes from suffering — and I understand this now from a lot of people — is it illuminates some of the deeper questions of what it means to be alive and live a good life,” McGehee said. “So those were some of the questions I was trying to answer when I came to Illinois Wesleyan.”
McGehee sought to broaden his horizons at IWU. A self-described “small town kid” with admittedly limited experiences, McGehee enrolled in classes in unfamiliar subjects. He was inspired by President Minor Myers jr. and “the joy he had for learning, simply for learning’s sake.” He was fascinated by a physics professor’s interest in poetry. He was encouraged by a psychology professor to write. He was moved by an assistant football coach who one day sensed that one of the team’s student managers was “just a little off” and took the time to make sure McGehee was OK.
McGehee’s IWU experience was equal parts education, self-discovery and personal growth. He left campus with a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic studies, but much more, including a lifelong quest for knowledge and meaning.
He was first introduced to Eastern contemplative traditions while a student at IWU, though it wasn’t until a couple years after his graduation that he sought out a local meditation group.
That decision changed his life. “I was hooked,” McGehee admits.
“It was meditation that really gave me not only the skills but a framework to understand my own mind, how my mind operates, and how the mind can be a source of suffering or not,” he continued. “At that point, my suffering was different. Years had passed since I lost my dad, and it was beyond dealing with his death.
“It was just being a human and dealing with all the layers of being a human.”
Meditation provided McGehee a powerful tool. Whether it was a long day at work or a testy exchange or simply the feeling of being overwhelmed, meditation was a way for McGehee to recover and move on from stressful situations as well as a way to connect more meaningfully with all the good in his life.
He sensed similar stress and frustration in others. Actually, he sensed it in nearly everyone he interacted with. He especially sensed it while teaching, from both students and fellow teachers.
Despite apprehension to discuss his background in meditation — he wasn’t ready to publicly endorse the power of the practice — McGehee shared techniques with a few trusted colleagues. He later did the same with students he thought might benefit. Eventually, he incorporated meditation principles into his teaching of students and the professional development he delivered to teachers.
“It was after those initial experiences that were benefiting kids and colleagues that I started to get even more motivated,” McGehee said. “I wanted to learn more so that others could continue to benefit from these practices.”
McGehee immersed himself deeper into the meditation community. Instead of one session a week, he did two. Then three. Then almost every day. He constantly sought to learn more by reading about and researching meditation methods. He asked questions. He tried new techniques.
When his sister-in-law, an academic adviser at Kent State University, told him the women’s field hockey team she worked with might benefit from what he was doing, McGehee led sessions over Skype. Later, when his school district hosted a screening of a documentary produced by The Center for Healthy Minds, McGehee was asked to begin the event with a brief meditation practice.
McGehee and a Center for Healthy Minds representative struck up a conversation after the screening. “We were just nerding out about mindfulness and education,” McGehee recalls. “But then she said they had two positions they were going to be posting, and that I would be a great candidate.”
McGehee could hardly contain himself. “I honestly had to use all my skills of self-regulation to not jump up and down and lose my mind at that moment,” he remembers, laughing. An interview was scheduled. The job was offered.
“It was an unparalleled opportunity to dive into my passion, which is just so rare,” McGehee said. “I knew I had to take it.”
The job has allowed McGehee to fully dedicate himself to meditation, and the work has continually evolved. His role with The Center for Healthy Minds was initially to study the impact of mindfulness and meditation training in education and law enforcement. When Healthy Minds Innovations was later established to take the Center’s research out into the world, his focus shifted to delivering that training, primarily to groups of individuals operating in high-stress environments.
“Meditation gives us the opportunity to train our minds and develop qualities that we’re interested in,” McGehee explained. “Those qualities can be anything: concentration, focus, resilience, connecting to others in a healthy way. There are so many things we can train the mind for, and most of us don’t realize we have this ability.”
The training McGehee provides varies by the groups and their goals. He conducts an eight-week mindfulness-based training program for law enforcement officials, combining didactic content with formal meditation practice. For corporate groups, he offers immersion training, often delivered within the space of a half-day workshop (a Healthy Minds Innovations mobile app provides individuals with support beyond the sessions McGehee leads). He has also been tapped to produce a series of videos geared toward children and airing on PBS affiliates in Wisconsin, earning him a measure of local celebrity.
But the client demanding most of McGehee’s time these days is the UW-Madison athletic department.
McGehee’s connection with the department started with a simple request from former All-American linebacker Chris Borland, who famously retired from the National Football League after just one season, in which he earned All-Rookie Team honors, citing head trauma concerns. Borland had returned to Madison wanting to do something to benefit former players.
A pilot program to teach meditation to 17 former NFL players was launched, though McGehee knew there would be skepticism.
“We had these hard-nosed, rugged individuals, and none of us knew if they’d do it or if they’d just think it was some hippy-dippy, out-there stuff,” McGehee said. “But by the way we delivered it, we found they were receptive and really benefited from the training.
“Some of the guys were connected with UW athletics — some of them were on staff — and they said, ‘Hey, we think this could help our student-athletes.’”
McGehee’s involvement with UW athletics started with limited interactions with the men’s basketball team. It has grown exponentially since. McGehee has become as familiar to some UW student-athletes as their own coaches. He often travels with teams to away contests; he accompanied the football team this year to the Rose Bowl and joined the women’s volleyball team when it competed in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. McGehee’s success with the basketball, football and volleyball teams has led to more work, specifically with the golf, tennis, softball and wrestling teams. He’s also provided training to athletics administration and support staff.
McGehee’s work has been recognized far beyond the UW campus. He was profiled in the Wisconsin State Journal as part of the newspaper’s “Know Your Madisonian” series. He was featured in an ESPN College GameDay segment highlighting his work with record-setting running back Jonathan Taylor, a likely early selection in the 2020 NFL draft.
UW All-American volleyball player Dana Rettke, a strong contender to represent Team USA at the 2020 Summer Olympics, advocated for mindfulness and meditation training during the national broadcast of an NCAA Tournament match. During the Badgers’ Final Four match against Baylor, she reflected on her mindfulness training, saying, “I have a growth mindset in a match. If I make mistakes, I grow from it and move on.”
And moving on is one of the many things McGehee can help with. Negative events are inevitable in athletics — a missed serve, a fumble, a turnover — but being able to quickly recover from those negative events can provide student-athletes with an advantage.
“If we can train our minds to let go of those thoughts and get back in the present moment, then we’re not lost in thoughts of the past or the future,” McGehee said. “We’ll have recovered more quickly from that negative event and respond to what’s actually happening in front of us.”
McGehee’s role with UW athletics continues to grow, and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon. He likens the growing acceptance of mindfulness and meditation training to the boom in strength and conditioning that has taken place over the past half century.
“The implementation of it is very much still in development,” McGehee said. “Right now there are a few people doing it. There’s a little science pointing to the benefits of it. But I think we’ll look back in 10 or 20 years, and training the mind in this way will be just as commonplace as training the body.
“I look forward to being in the middle of that.”
He also looks forward to working with new groups and future generations, and providing them with the meditation skills that have had such a positive impact on him, personally.
“I find it deeply rewarding and satisfying,” he said. “I think it’s giving folks skills that can support them in living happier, healthier, more connected, more purposeful lives, and I’m deeply fortunate to be able to do this.”
Why is it all so important to McGehee? He’s not quite the “wait-five-minutes-and-he’ll-tell-you” guy from the old joke … but he will tell you if you want to know.
“Meditation has helped me in every fathomable way. It continues to help me as a husband, as a father, as a member of the community,” McGehee said. “At this point, my life is so deeply intertwined with meditation, it’s impossible to imagine life without it.”
Editor's note: McGehee accepted the role of director of meditation training at UW-Madison in March 2020.