Meditation group learns peace, eases stress

It’s early Saturday morning, and a group of eight people are sitting around in a circle with their eyes closed at the Carver Ranches Library. Leading the group on an inner journey is African-American meditation instructor Ed Stevenson.

“Think about the positive traits that define you,” he says, in a soft voice. “Everything that happens to you depends on how you see yourself.”

Among those sitting side by side are an executive, a chef and a writer. Some are return visitors, while others have never taken a meditation class before. For the next 45 minutes, the group follows Stevenson on breathing and relaxation exercises and grapples with philosophical questions such as, “Who am I?” “What is it that I need to improve to have a better relationship with myself and others?” “What values not encouraged by this culture must I work to develop?”

“I come because sometimes it is too painful to acknowledge what is really going on, deal with it,” said Gladys Francois, 60, a native of Haiti and regular attendee. “Meditation keeps your mind peaceful; you learn how to be calmer, forgiving, and forget about what others may think of you.”

Stevenson’s Raja yoga meditation group has been meeting since January at the 10,000-square-foot library in West Park. The free sessions, said former Miami-Dade College teacher Roz Reich, who helps run the group, are meant for deep spiritual contemplation, and to help unwind and connect with reality.

“It has been said that this is the age of rage, we see the levels of anger rising. Peace of mind is something so precious, and many of us find that in these troubled times we have lost it.”

Elizabeth Lindley, the library’s manager for the past five years, says that as the unemployment rate has risen and people have sought refuge from the harsh economy, spirituality-related materials have become increasingly popular — not only among those whose lives permit extended time-off, but also recent college graduates and professionals.

“These meditation sessions offer tools that are helpful to ease the stress, pain, and fear that come with these difficult economic times,” she said. “Participants learn how to get rid of negativism, develop good qualities — they learn that this too shall pass.”

For Laura Larriviere, each meeting offers a brief respite from a chaotic life, a glimpse of self-awareness, and a chance to connect with others “also open to improvement.” Once overwhelmed with depression and the rigors of motherhood, she said she found a haven in the meditation groups.

“Since the first time, I have an instant feeling of coming home, being where I wanted to be, in peace with myself and others.”

The positive effects of meditation in her life were many: by learning to slow down and acknowledge her thoughts, Larriviere says she learned to keep sadness from snowballing and stopped taking medication. A more respectful stance towards her body followed — she got rid of cravings, adopted a healthier diet and, over the course of a year, lost some of the weight she had been struggling with.

The 33-year-old said Stevenson’s teaching is particularly appealing as “he speaks up front, is not scared to tell you something you don’t want to hear, which encourages discussion and a deeper personal journey.”

Stevenson, 54, has been teaching Raja yoga meditation in South Florida for 20 years, and juggles the teacher role with his job as a chef at the French kosher restaurant Weber Café in Aventura. A regular student at the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in Mt. Abu, India, he says that practicing meditation and teaching meditation are different packages, and both provide vital input into his life.

“Teaching is sharing. Guiding others to watch what they are thinking, stay present, catch emotions and address them helps me think deeply about my knowledge,” he says; adding that meditation is particularly useful as it helps one move away from automated thoughts, and encourages creativity. “Any hard time one has is because of negativity – fighting or resisting is wrong, learning to deal with things is the right attitude.”

His classes, loosely structured, are filled with dialogue and anecdotes. Participants are encouraged to partake in discussion, but can also choose to keep their thoughts to themselves.

“Whether you come to just listen or to actually improve yourself, there’s always some sort of experience that is beneficial to come for,” Larriviere said.

This is a sentiment that Etta Stevens, who took on meditation 7 years ago when hard times struck her family, said she understands. Committing to a more spiritual life brought her awareness on how to contribute in meaningful ways, even when the economy does not cooperate. She became more aware of her values, more accepting of others, and reaches out by writing about her experiences in a local newsletter.

“When we change, the world changes,” she says, with a smile on her face. “We must make the change.”

[Juliana Accioly, South Florida Times]
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