Jim Baker, The Lawrence Journal World, Kansas: Joe Mentesana got into meditation by happenstance.
“I just came across an old self-help psychology book of my dad’s from the ’60s. It had a little snippet that said not to meditate for more than 20 minutes a day, because it would be an infringement on your relationship to the universe,” said Mentesana, a December graduate of Kansas University with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies.
“It’s very funny, but that got me started. After that, I just kept on reading.”
Six years after coming across that odd passage, Mentesana is still meditating — for at least 20 minutes per day, usually before he goes to bed.
“I would say that I practice Vipassana (Insight Meditation). I’ve tried a lot of different techniques, following my breath or saying mantras. There are lots of ways to help you concentrate. I just sit there and try to be aware of whatever comes up,” he said.
Mentesana is among many Lawrence residents who try to achieve inner peace, relaxation and a clearer mind by practicing meditation. It’s popular, and seems to be catching on more all the time.
For example, the Kansas Zen Center, 1423 N.Y., regularly offers Zen Buddhist meditation opportunities for beginners and those who are more advanced. The center also sponsors frequent retreats.
William Hale, a Lawrence psychiatrist, is in his seventh year leading an intensive, eight-week stress management program based on mindfulness meditation. He teaches the course three times a year, and typically has more than enough participants.
And Marian O’Dwyer, owner of the Phoenix Gallery, 919 Mass., recently began presenting an eight-week, introductory course called “Introduction to the Nature of Mind,” based upon Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques.
O’Dwyer, a practicing Tibetan Buddhist since 1972, has already offered the course once, and, due to many requests, plans to repeat it again in March.
Still other Lawrence residents of many faith backgrounds practice meditation on their own, or get together in groups to study and practice a wide variety of techniques used to focus the mind.
Judith Roitman, guiding teacher at the Kansas Zen Center, has practiced meditation since 1976.
“You just have to do it, and over time these changes take place. If you practice meditation every day, especially if you have a community, some kind of teaching to keep you off your own personal stuff and something to help keep your direction, it just happens naturally. You don’t have to try — it will just come to you,” she said.
Seeking inner self
People have been practicing meditation for thousands of years, across cultural and religious backgrounds.
In modern times, some people meditate to get closer to God, while others simply want to enjoy the health benefits of feeling calmer and less distracted by their own passing fears and desires.
Meditation seeks to accomplish this by training people to step back and observe their own minds at work. With practice, people can learn to simply let their thoughts slip by, like clouds in the sky or leaves in a stream.
Eventually, those who meditate learn that they are not their thoughts or their egos. And, by focusing, they become more attuned to the present moment, rather than worrying about the past or future.
Some are able to attain a sense of spacious awareness, or, as Buddhists would call it, sunyata (translated as “emptiness”).
“You stick with this practice, and then what you see is that these feelings that control your life, they come and they go, and they don’t have to control you,” Roitman said.
O’Dwyer has studied two to three times each year for the past nine years with Songyal Rinpoche, an influential teacher who has helped bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West. He lives in the South of France and travels the world widely.
Quoting French mathematician Blaise Pascal, Rinpoche has frequently told her, “All the ills of modern man come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
She has followed his advice, setting aside time each day to meditate. Her practice has allowed her to cultivate awareness, mindfulness and relaxation.
“Meditation is a really fantastic tool. The main purpose is to get in touch with our own essential self, our original good nature. By letting go of all our busyness and preoccupations, we are able to become focused and mindful, so that we are able to find our true inner self in this crazy hectic world,” she said.
Listening for God
Meditation can help people cope not only with mental stress, but also to better deal with physical problems.
In his psychiatric practice, Hale’s emphasis is working with people who have health issues such as high blood pressure, migraine headaches and chronic pain of all kinds. Through self-regulation training, Hale helps patients improve their physical conditions.
It’s really the same process that he teaches in his stress management program based on mindfulness meditation. Participants learn about Vipassana, gentle yoga and body awareness techniques.
“In general, everyone who applies themselves in this course takes away an understanding of how to respond to stressors rather than automatically reacting,” he said.
“We tend to think of pain and suffering as the same thing, whereas pain is the physical sensations and suffering is all the reacting that we do to the physical sensations. We may or may not be able to eliminate pain in our lives, but we can learn to react and suffer less.”
The Rev. Joe Alford, an Episcopal priest and chaplain of Canterbury House, 1116 La., spends 10 to 15 minutes each morning reading a passage from Scripture, and then meditating on its meaning.
“If I have time, I really sit with in silence. You try not to think about it, almost. That’s where the contemplation comes in. You sit and listen — to God, to the spirit. Sometimes nothing happens,” said Alford, who has practiced meditation since 1986.
He recommended meditation, which has a long history in Christianity, to anyone.
“On a very secular level, you’ll just feel better. On a spiritual level, you’re opening yourself to God. You don’t speak to God; you wait for God to speak to you,” Alford said.
Meditation resources available
There are many resources in Lawrence where you can learn more about a variety of meditation styles.
The Kansas Zen Center, 1423 N.Y., regularly offers meditation opportunities for beginners and more advanced students alike, plus frequent retreats.
To learn more, visit the center’s Web site, www.kansaszencenter.org, or call 331-2274. Judith Roitman is the center’s Zen Buddhist guiding teacher.
Marian O’Dwyer, a longtime practicing Tibetan Buddhist, will begin presenting an eight-week class, “Introduction to the Nature of Mind,” March 3.
Participants will meet for one-and-a-half-hour sessions on Wednesdays. Cost is $40, including all course materials.
For more information, contact O’Dwyer at 843-0080 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
William Hale, a Lawrence psychiatrist, offers a stress management program based on mindfulness meditation, meeting once a week for eight weeks.
He offers the intensive course three times per year. The next session is from Jan. 21 to March 10. Participants will meet from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays.
The course costs $450 and can accommodate 25 people.