ethnic minorities

In the classroom, a new focus on quieting the mind

Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times: The lesson began with the striking of a Tibetan singing bowl to induce mindful awareness.

With the sound of their new school bell, the fifth graders at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School here closed their eyes and focused on their breathing, as they tried to imagine “loving kindness” on the playground.

“I was losing at baseball and I was about to throw a bat,” Alex Menton, 11, reported to his classmates the next day. “The mindfulness really helped.”

As summer looms, students at dozens of schools across the country are trying hard to be in the present moment. This is what is known as mindfulness training, in which stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation are wedged between reading and spelling tests.

Mindfulness, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of squirming children. But a small but growing number of schools in places like Oakland and Lancaster, Pa., are slowly embracing the concept — as they did yoga five years ago — and institutions, like the psychology department at Stanford University and the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, are trying to measure the effects…

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the “mindful” coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

The techniques, among them focused breathing and concentrating on a single object, are loosely adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the molecular biologist who pioneered the secular use of mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 to help medical patients cope with chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Susan Kaiser Greenland, the founder of the InnerKids Foundation, which trains schoolchildren and teachers in the Los Angeles area, calls mindfulness “the new ABC’s — learning and leading a balanced life.”

At Stanford, the psychology department is assessing the feasibility of teaching mindfulness to families. “Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention,” said Philippe R. Goldin, a researcher. “But we never teach them how.”

The experiment at Piedmont, whose student body is roughly 65 percent black, 18 percent Latino and includes a large number of immigrants, is financed by Park Day School, a nearby private school (prompting one teacher to grumble that it was “Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing ‘enlightenment’ to inner city schools”).

But Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue, said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school.

“If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

It seemed alternately loved and ignored, as students in Ms. Graham’s fifth-grade class tried to pay attention to their breath, a calming technique that lasted 20 seconds. Then their coach asked them to “cultivate compassion” by reflecting on their emotions before lashing out at someone on the playground.

Tyran Williams defined mindfulness as “not hitting someone in the mouth.”

“He doesn’t know what to do with his energy,” his mother, Towana Thomas, said at a session for parents. “But one day after school he told me, ‘I’m taking a moment.’ If it works in a child’s mind — with so much going on — there must be something to it.”

Asked their reactions to the sounds of the singing bowl, Yvette Solito, a third grader, wrote that it made her feel “calm, like something on Oprah.” Her classmate Corey Jackson wrote that “it feels like when a bird cracks open its shell.”

Dr. Amy Saltzman, a physician in Palo Alto, Calif., who started the Association for Mindfulness in Education three years ago, thinks of mindfulness education as “talk yoga.” Practitioners tend to use sticky-mat buzzwords like “being present” and “cultivating compassion,” while avoiding anything spiritual.

Dr. Saltzman, co-director of the mindfulness study at Stanford, said the initial findings showed increased control of attention and “less negative internal chatter — what one girl described as ‘the gossip inside my head: I’m stupid, I’m fat or I’m going to fail math,’ ” Dr. Saltzman said.

A recent study of teenagers by Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, Calif., found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviors like anorexia and bulimia.

Dr. Susan L. Smalley, a professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A. and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center there, which is studying the effects on schoolchildren, said one 4-year-old noticed her mother succumbing to road rage while stuck in traffic. “She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, you have to sing the breathing song,’ ” Dr. Smalley said.

Although some students take naturally to mindfulness, it is “not a magic bullet,” said Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. center. She said the research thus far was “inconclusive” about how effective mindfulness was for children who suffered from trauma-related disorders, for example. It is “a slow process,” Ms. Winston added. “Just because kids sit and listen to the bell doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be more kind.”

Glenn Heuser, who teaches a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at Piedmont, said one student started crying about a dead grandparent and another over melted lip balm. “It tapped into a very emotional space for them,” Mr. Heuser said. “They struggled with, ‘Is it O.K. to go there?’ ”

Although mindful education may seem like a New Yorker caricature of West Coast life, the school district with possibly the best experience has been Lancaster, Pa., where mindfulness is taught in 25 classes a week at eight schools. The district has a substantial poverty rate, with 75 percent of students qualifying for free lunch.

Midge Kinder, a yoga teacher, and her husband, Rick, started the program six years ago at George Ross Elementary, where their daughter Wynne taught.

Camille Hopkins, the principal, said initially she was skeptical. Growing up in South Philadelphia, “I was never told to take an elevator breath”— a way of breathing in stages, taught in yoga — “or hear the signals of chimes to cool down,” Ms. Hopkins said.

But the stresses today are greater, she conceded, particularly on students who lived with the threat of violence. “A lot of things we watched on TV are part of their everyday life,” she said. “It’s ‘Did you know so-and-so got shot over the weekend.’ ”

In after-school detention, children are asked to “check in with their feelings,” Ms. Hopkins said. “How are you really changing behavior if they’re just sitting there?”

Yolanda Steel, a second-grade teacher at Piedmont, said she was hopeful that the training would help an attention-deficit generation better manage a barrage of stimuli, including PlayStations and text messages. “American children are overstimulated,” Ms. Steel said. “Some have difficulty even closing their eyes.”

But she noted that some students tapped pencils and drummed on desks instead of closing their eyes and listening to the bell. “The premise is nice,” Ms. Steel concluded. “But mindfulness can’t do it all.”

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Spirit Rock reaches out with emphasis on diversity (San Francisco Chronicle)

Dawn Yun, San Francisco Chronicle: Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, founded 30 years ago by a small group of friends, offers more than 48 retreats and some 340 classes attended by more than 35,000 people annually in a bucolic setting of redwoods, mountains and wildlife.

But a recent Monday night meditation class reveals that those who teach there, as well as those who attend, are primarily of the same demographic: mostly white, middle- to upper-middle class and middle-aged.

The board of directors of Spirit Rock, which includes some of the members of the original Spirit Rock gathering, is trying to change that by forming a diversity council, hiring a diversity coordinator and by offering a wider variety of classes and retreats.

Diversity outreach is one of the center’s main goals, said Evan Kavanagh, 43, of San Francisco, executive director of Spirit Rock.

“I think you’ll see changes in the faces of the teachers in the next five years,” he said. “It’s important in any venue to have the people who are coming to learn something to see themselves represented among the people who are purported to be the experts. Otherwise, people feel excluded. I happen to be a gay man. I understand that concept. Our intention has always been to be more diverse.”

Spring Washam, 30, of Oakland and a diversity board member, said the board’s role is to offer advice and counsel.

“There’s not a lot of diversity on the board of directors or with the staff,” she said. “They’re mostly older, white people in their 50s and 60s. And they just didn’t have that connection. They just knew their own peers. They didn’t have the information to outreach to cultural groups. But they had the heart to do it and the willingness to do it, and they needed some direction.”

One of the goals of Spirit Rock is to offer more diverse retreats and classes at the center that will appeal to people of color, various sexual orientations and different professions…

Among the presentations this year: “People of Color Daylong: How Suffering Can Be Our Greatest Joy,” “Vipassana Day for Lesbian Women” and “Spirit Rock Residential Retreat for Lawyers.”

In addition, the center plans to offer its Buddhist and meditation teachings to all communities. This, in part, will be accomplished through its Community Dharma Leaders Program. Upon completion, students can then teach daylong retreats and meditation classes in their respective communities. About 110 students have graduated since the program began in 1997.

Washam, a graduate of Spirit Rock’s Dharma Leaders Program, recently co- taught the class on suffering for people of color. She said there were 27 people in the class, all African American and most from the East Bay.

“I think African Americans are embracing Buddhism and meditation because it really speaks to a lot of people,” she said.

Washam and others hope within the next six months to open the East Bay Dharma Center in Oakland and are looking for a site.

The center would be independent of Spirit Rock, said Charlie Johnson of Vacaville. Johnson, 58, is on the board of directors of the East Bay Dharma Center, sits on Spirit Rock’s diversity council and is a graduate of its leadership program.

“There are no formal affiliations between the East Bay Dharma Center and Spirit Rock,” Johnson said. “We have our own board of directors and our own financing. Everything is separate. That said, we tend to work closely with Spirit Rock in terms of coordinating programs so we will be able to meet the community’s needs.

“We plan to serve a real diverse population that you find in the East Bay. Part of the vision statement for the organization is to make the dharma available to a wide variety of people, different racial groups, different sexual orientations and different economic backgrounds.”

Spirit Rock’s 2 1/2-year Dharma Leaders Program is unique in that people cannot apply: They are chosen by Spirit Rock teachers who feel the students have leadership abilities and maintain a deep meditation practice, said James Baraz, 57, of Berkeley, who runs the program and is a founding teacher at the center.

“People are sponsored and nominated by one of about 35 senior teachers around the world who say, ‘I will be a mentor for this person,’ ” he said. “These practices are very beneficial to get in touch with one’s own wisdom and heart. In the last few years, there’s been a real sense of seeing the importance of going wide and reaching many people who might not go to a silent Buddhism mediation retreat, like prisoners and those in inner cities.”

Larry Yang, 49, of San Francisco is a graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program. He teaches at the center and also co-facilitates a Buddhist Peace Fellowship meditation group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. The group has 150 people on its mailing list, although about 30 people usually attend, Yang said.

“The accessibility issues around diverse communities have only recently been addressed,” he said. “To people who don’t necessarily have access to mainstream meditation centers, Spirit Rock is really doing a lot of leading work in reaching out to different communities to at least create the option for people. It’s not proselytizing. It’s offering an option for people if they’re so inclined.”

On the Peninsula, the Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City is run by Gil Fronsdale, 50, of Redwood City, who is a Spirit Rock founding teacher.

“Insight is completely independent of Spirit Rock, though in some ways it’s in the family,” Fronsdale said. “In some ways, we grew up and left home. We feel very close to each other. But Spirit Rock is far away from a lot of communities in terms of distance and culture. If there are teachers and other sitting centers spread out in the Bay Area, people who are interested can find them more easily.”

While there has been much change at Spirit Rock, there is still much that remains the same. For example, many of the founders still teach there.

Jack Kornfield, 59, of Woodacre, instructs a popular Monday night class as well as many multi-day retreats.

“I feel we’re still carrying the original vision quite well,” he said. “We’ve changed. We offer more programs, rich family programs for teens and young adults. We have quite an active diversity program, considering we’re in Marin County.”

Sylvia Boorstein, 68, a Sonoma County resident, is a Spirit Rock founder, and like Kornfield and many other founders of Spirit Rock, is Jewish and a psychologist. She said she is aware of the perception that Buddhism tends to attract Jews and said it was a sign of her times.

“There were a disproportionate number of Jews in the Peace Corps,” she said. “Many of my friends who ended up Buddhist teachers were in the Peace Corps and went to Asia. It was a phenomenon of the ’60s and the ’70s. Many Buddhist teachers of my generation were Jews. It won’t be the same in the next generation: It will be more diverse, with people of different religions and ethnicities teaching.”

And, perhaps, younger ones, too. Spirit Rock is also making an effort to expose its teachings to different generations.

Oakland resident Wes Niskar, 61, a Spirit Rock founder and teacher, believes that just as people of his generation sought spirituality when they were young, so, too, are members of today’s younger generation.

“The Boomers were pioneers in this,” he said. “There are younger people today who are starting to enter and get interested in classes and retreats. It seemed like a single-generation thing, but it’s starting to be revived in the younger people.”

Julian Hoover, 19, of Mill Valley, visited Spirit Rock for the second time for a Monday-night meditation class. He brought along his father, Paul, 58, who had never attended, as well as his sister, Koren, 28, who had.

“I find it relaxing,” he said. “It’s peaceful. I’ll come back.”


Spirit Rock Meditation Center, 5000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Woodacre, (415) 488-0164,

Meditation group meetings and centers

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center 5:30-6:30 p.m. Mondays, 1800 Market St. (at Octavia); (415) 865-5555;

The East Bay Dharma Center, Oakland; (707) 373-6044;

The Insight Meditation Center, 1205 Hopkins Ave., Redwood City; (650) 599- 3456;

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Esalen’s Identity Crisis (Los Angeles Times)

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times Magazine: For Decades, the Scenic Institute in Big Sur Was the Pioneer in the Self-Help Movement. But as Middle Age Approaches, It’s Being Forced to Turn the Mirror on Itself.

In an emerald expanse of California’s majestic Central Coast, a series of intense human explorations are underway. In a large white yurt, several yogis are breathing, bending and meditating to deepen awareness of their Divine Inner Self. Next door, artists are painting doves, dolphins and goddesses as they create mandalas, an ancient symbol of the psyche, in search of self-understanding. Down the road, another group is propped against pillows, shoes kicked off as they analyze one another’s dreams and unlock long-buried memories.

At one time, these scenes at the fabled Esalen Institute would have been considered avant-garde. Esalen once stood as the nation’s leading laboratory of the human potential movement, the freewheeling center of social outlaws who experimented with LSD, Eastern meditation and in-your-face encounter groups to explore and expand themselves.

Today, as Esalen enters its fifth decade, it has settled into a comfortable middle-aged mainstream. Google turns up 7.7 million results for “human potential,” including yoga retreats, art therapy classes and other self-help offerings commonplace around the country. The hippies and seekers who once made the place a youth paradise have aged, with just 14.5% of its 10,000 annual visitors younger than 35. What’s more, Latinos, Asians and blacks, who compose the majority of Californians, are comparatively scarce at the institute. Along the way, longtime observers say, Esalen’s creative spark has dimmed. Among other things, critics say, it has failed to explore in-depth many of the trends on the horizon today that are rooted in science and technology.

“When Esalen started, it was definitely the flagship of the human potential movement,” says Marion Goldman, a University of Oregon professor of sociology and religious studies who is writing a book on the institute. “It will continue to be one of the major pilgrimage centers in the U.S . . . but it no longer dominates the market.”

Put simply: Is Esalen passé?

The seed that eventually grew into esalen was planted in 1950, when Stanford University student Michael Murphy accidentally stumbled into what would become a life-changing lecture on Hinduism by religion scholar Frederic Spiegelberg. His passion for Eastern religions stoked, Murphy went to India in 1956, after graduating from Stanford and serving in the U.S. Army, to spend 16 months at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian yogi and philosopher. He returned to the Bay Area, where he worked odd jobs and meditated as much as eight hours a day. In 1960, he met Richard Price, a fellow seeker and Stanford graduate who would become Esalen’s other founder.

Two years later, in October of 1962, Murphy and Price formally opened the doors to a philosophical and literal paradise. In its youthful heyday, Esalen was renowned for its alternative education, attracting some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century: Historian Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich and two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling all came to speak. Brilliant gurus presented provocative workshops in psychotherapy and spirituality. Esalen leaders took aim at social and political taboos, holding marathon encounters in race relations during the civil-rights struggle.

The place was edgy and hip, the talk of the town even in the New Yorker and other East Coast media. It attracted Hollywood stars and Sacramento politicians. It provided the stage for concerts by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, Simon & Garfunkel. It became grist for books and films, including such parodies as “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” It was emulated by a profusion of spiritual growth centers around the nation.

When it opened, Esalen offered only a dozen or so programs a season, but they tended to be intellectually dense explorations of the latest ideas in subjects such as evolutionary theory and psychotherapy. Seminars on major religious traditions featured study of the Upanishads, Tantra and Christian contemplative life decades before religious pluralism became commonplace.

A string of ground-breaking teachers soon brought international attention to Esalen. Timothy Leary preached a gospel of enlightenment through psychedelic drugs and physicist Fritz Capra explored the mysticism of science. Frederick Perls helped launch Gestalt therapy and Will Schutz made confrontational encounter groups famous. Abraham Maslow developed a hopeful view of human psychology by studying high-performers rather than the neurotics favored by Freudian analysts. Ida Rolf made “rolfing” a household word in self-help circles with her deep-tissue bodywork.

Opening the American mind to Eastern mysticism, onetime Episcopal priest Alan Watts blended East and West in a synthesis of Zen Buddhism and Western psychology. Murphy promoted the mind-body movement in sports, while institute president George Leonard published radical visions of educational reform.

But that was then. the buzz has died down. mention you’re writing about Esalen and the two most common reactions are: Is Esalen still around? Or, isn’t that the place where hippies do drugs and get naked?

On its website, Esalen lists 47 noteworthy accomplishments in psychology, education, bodywork and holistic medicine. But 75% of them took place in the 1960s and ’70s. Its U.S.-Soviet initiatives, which included Boris Yeltsin’s first visit to the United States, took place primarily in the 1980s.

Still, many of the initiatives have stood the test of time. “We’re all different because of Esalen,” says Kevin Starr, former California state librarian and historian. He particularly credits the institute for popularizing Eastern teachings and making them part of a California sensibility that would eventually influence the nation: a respect for mind-body connections, holistic health, explorations of interior spiritual and psychological landscapes.

Other ideas, however, have fizzled. Murphy says Esalen leaders no longer endorse the sometimes vicious encounter groups or experimentation with illegal drugs, he adds.

William Coulson, a retired Northern California psychotherapist, says that Maslow himself came to regret his own influential teachings on “self-actualization” that promoted the freedom to pursue your own destiny and potential. Central to Esalen’s philosophy, such ideas were important four decades ago to help unshackle oppressed spirits – women shoehorned into domesticity, blacks denied equal opportunities, men afraid of intimacy. But Coulson, who studied Maslow’s ideas with famed psychologist Carl Rogers at the La Jolla-based Western Behaviorial Sciences Institute, says they are “potential civilization killers” for their excessive individualism at the cost of community.

Esalen leaders also acknowledge the shortcomings of navel-gazing and say they are switching gears. “It’s not enough to look at ourselves; we have to see how we are connected with others,'” says Andy Nusbaum, Esalen’s tall and lanky executive director. “We’re moving from ‘me’ to ‘we.’ ”

But now, like other baby boomers, Esalen is aiming to recapture its faded glory. As it enters its fifth decade, it is embarking on a 10-year face-lift – improvements prompted by a disastrous storm four years ago. With a stunning new bathhouse, plans to refurbish much of the rest of the 163-acre property, a first-time capital campaign to raise $25 million and six new program initiatives, Esalen’s leaders hope to rebound with a roar.

“We’re on the edge of what could amount to a second birth for Esalen,” Murphy says.

At first glance, all seems perfect in paradise. enter the property, tucked on a ribbon of jagged coastline between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains 45 miles south of Monterey, and you are immediately swept up in its ethereal, almost mystical beauty. California cypress and Monterey pines, twisted by powerful winds, dot the landscape. The senses come alive with the smell of mint here and sulfur there, the sounds of gurgling mountain streams and chirping birds, the sensation of cool ocean breezes against your cheek. Hinting of hidden realities, fog rolls in and out to reveal a mysterious play of shadow and light across the land. Five acres of lush organic gardens splash the grounds with the bright colors of violet lobelia, red poppies, magenta snapdragons, yellow sunflowers and rows and rows of green vegetables.

The land, long sacralized by Spanish missionaries and the indigenous Esselen Indians for whom the center is named, features testaments to myriad spiritual traditions. The grounds include a stone Buddha, a garden goddess, a Native American sweat lodge, a circular meditation hut, a Judeo-Christian Tree of Life, a picture of the Virgin Mary and a Taoist inscription on a large stone next to a burbling creek:

Tao follows the way of the watercourse
As the heart/mind through meditation
Returns to the sea

The rhythms of life here harken to simpler days. Workers tend and harvest more than 100 varieties of vegetables and edible flowers, which are used to prepare more than 600 meals a day, on average. The leftovers are composted, helping to nurture a new cycle of growth.

The distracting beeps, rings and clatter of modern society are largely absent. There is no cellphone reception, no high-speed computer lines, few TVs. The nights are black and the stars brilliantly clear, owing to the near absence of street lamps in the vicinity. With few lures of electronic isolation, people congregate in the lodge for lively conversation. With few means to multi-task, the mind can rest.

In 1998, however, Mother Nature savagely intruded on Esalen’s idyllic existence. A fierce El Niño storm destroyed the outdoor mineral baths, depriving the institute of its most famous physical attraction. Mudslides closed Highway 1, the main route to Esalen, for three months, causing a serious decline in revenues.

The crisis prompted a moment of truth for Esalen’s backers. Could they raise the millions of dollars needed to rebuild? Could they muster the engineering talent to overcome the formidable challenges of securing new baths on the side of 50-foot-tall cliffs? Could they craft a solid business plan and implement it in a place accustomed to freewheeling management? Should they even try?

“There was a question as to whether Esalen could survive at all,” recalls Nusbaum.

But Leonard, the institute’s president and an aikido master, stepped in with advice gleaned from three decades of martial-arts practice: “Take the hit as a gift.”

The believers in unlimited human potential have begun to do just that. For starters, they have revived the glorious baths. The rebuilt bathhouse, designed by award-winning architect Micky Muennig, has drawn rave reviews. The airy and elegant concrete structure features arched doorways, a mosaic fountain, sandstone floors and the hushed ambience of an outdoor temple. On a clear day, bathers can see otters, seals, birds and migratory whales with their young.

The baths are central to Esalen’s legend and lore. It was the hot springs that lured Michael Murphy’s grandfather, Henry, to first purchase the property in 1910. A Salinas doctor who delivered novelist John Steinbeck, Henry Murphy envisioned a therapeutic spa and resort; eventually the family turned it into a modest tourist establishment called Slate’s Hot Springs. By the time the younger Murphy took over in 1962, the baths were haunts for bohemian writers such as Henry Miller and gay men from San Francisco. Big moments include Yeltsin’s 1989 visit to Esalen to relax and rethink U.S.-Soviet relations in what came to be known as “hot tub diplomacy.”

Beyond the bathhouse, Esalen plans to reposition some of its buildings for increased solar energy use and ultimately dreams of getting off the electrical grid. Plans are also in the works to upgrade its aging buildings, add more private rooms and build a new 200-person conference room and meditation center.

To pay for the improvements, Esalen has launched a capital campaign for the first time in its history. Elements include benefit events by celebrities, such as actor John Cleese, and appeals to 20,000 former workshop participants to become “Friends of Esalen” donors. The nonprofit institute, governed by a nine-member elected board of trustees, has no endowment. Its budget – $10.2 million this year – has relied almost entirely on workshop fees. But the storm forced a reappraisal.

“When El Niño hit, we realized we had to do something to reestablish our plant and make ourselves more sustainable for the future,” Nusbaum says. “We can’t do it by ourselves. No way.”

How to actively solicit support, however, is a question Esalen is grappling with for the first time, never having overtly marketed itself. But a plan is in the works that will allow the institute to reach specific audiences, starting with the launch of an e-mail campaign to previous visitors, with dreams of an expansion.

“I think there is a sense of urgency to get the knowledge about Esalen out to a more mainstream audience – people who aren’t necessarily into alternative medicine or yoga, like someone in Topeka,” Nusbaum says.

He added that the new development plan will not increase room capacity, reassuring those who initially worried that Esalen leaders would turn it into a high-priced tourist resort. (Weekend rates covering a three-day workshop, lodging, three meals a day and unlimited use of the mineral baths range from $545 per person for shared rooms to $260 for sleeping bag space in meeting rooms.)

Esalen’s spectacular setting, which the capital improvements will only enhance, offers the most compelling argument for why the institute is likely to remain a singularly special retreat center. Esalen fans say magic is made here, thanks to an alchemic confluence of so many natural “power” elements: the ocean, the mineral hot springs, freshwater creek and rising mountains. The result, they say, is an experience that cannot be found at the local gym or urban self-help center.

In today’s troubled world, says psychologist Ken Dychtwald, Esalen’s healing environment has assumed a new urgency.

“We need Esalen now more than in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Dychtwald, who heads the institute’s alumni network. “With the world becoming increasingly distressed, and conflicts building at every level, there is a need for a peaceful, beautiful, magical environment where people can talk and share and interact with the great thinkers of our times.”

Esalen, however, faces other questions, ones that are voiced by people such as Asher Padeh. The Miami Beach psychiatrist has been coming annually to Esalen with his wife, Ilonka, for the last 25 years. He adores the center’s rugged beauty, sacred energy, organic meals, welcoming staff and opportunities to grow through workshops that include dream analysis and Chi Gong training. But he says the place has lost its genius gurus and bold, questing quality.

“There’s no place like Esalen,” Padeh says, with an affectionate sigh. “But it was more avant-garde in the early days. Personal freedom was paramount. Today it seems more mainstream. People do not dare come up with contra-establishment ideas. I believe freedom is the only environment where new ideas can come up.”

In contrast to the programs of the early years, esalen’s offerings today are more varied and less startling. They have multiplied to 500 workshops a year spanning religious studies, dance, health, psychology, relationships, bodywork and yoga. Seekers can learn to “Garden for the Soul,” “Get the Love You Want” or explore their inner selves through golf while studying principles of psychosynthesis as they play the Monterey Peninsula’s world-class golf courses. The largest offerings, however, are creative art classes. They include workshops such as “Vision Painting: Evoking the Light,” “Basic Acting: Setting the Spirit Free” and “Floral Arts as Spiritual Practice.”

Such workshops, popular though they may be, fail to offer the kind of intellectual breakthroughs that once characterized Esalen, according to Pierre Grimes, a Huntington Beach philosophy professor who leads dream analysis workshops here.

“People are seeking different spiritual directions but are avoiding the mind,” he says.

Grimes is urging Esalen leaders to recapture the cutting edge by exploring the most interesting innovations in science, for instance, he says, cellular biologist Bruce Lipton’s research into the innate intelligence of cells. He also says Esalen should present more speakers who flout conventional wisdom – political activist and MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, say, or archeologists whose discoveries are challenging biblical claims.

Walter Truett Anderson, a futurist and author of a 1983 book about Esalen, says the institute’s proximity to Silicon Valley could position it to play a larger role in exploring the latest technological research. “To my knowledge, Esalen is not seriously out front in talking about genetics, biotechnology or the various convergences of technology to improve human performance,” he says.

The debate over direction is not new. From the earliest days, Esalen was a breeding ground of powerful egos and intellects who competed for control. The most notorious rivalry was between Perls, who wanted Esalen to champion the self-introspection of his Gestalt therapy, and Schutz, who pushed group dynamics through encounters, according to David Price, Esalen’s information services manager and son of the co-founder. (Richard Price was killed by a falling boulder during a hike in 1985.)

But Esalen’s hallmark has been a steadfast refusal to allow any one guru to “capture the flag,” Price says an attitude he says eventually drove followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh from Esalen to Oregon to start their commune there. To ensure that spirit remains after the founders pass on, Esalen recently changed its bylaws to strengthen the checks and balances on the board of trustees.

“Esalen has always tried to present as many different ideas as possible,” Price says. “It avoids things cultish or guru-oriented.”

Nancy Lunney-Wheeler, Esalen’s program director, says she is considering ideas such as Grimes’ to bring in more intellectually rigorous topics but wonders aloud how they would sell. In January, for instance, Esalen offered a workshop on novelist Aldous Huxley’s life and work that drew fewer than 10 people, a third of what the more popular classes attract. The biggest draws, Lunney-Wheeler says, are yoga, arts, meditation and classes on relationships.

“Esalen needs to keep ahead of the curve, but at the same time keep popular,” she says. “What’s cutting edge is not necessarily what’s popular.”

Esalen’s edgiest programs are not found in the public courses. They are offered by the institute’s little-known Center for Theory & Research, which organizes projects and conferences on what it calls “frontier inquiry.” Among other things, the center held “citizen diplomat” conferences with Soviets during the Cold War, explored more sustainable methods of capitalism with leading CEOs; launched early programs in alternative and holistic heath; and taught meditation and mindfulness to AIDS patients and inner-city youth. The center has compiled an archive of 10,000 cases studies of supernormal human functioning, such as acts of telepathy and extraordinary strength, and a bibliography of scientific research on meditation.

And now the center, as part of Esalen’s overall rejuvenation, is set to unveil six new research initiatives. They include programs on Western esoteric studies, supernormal human capacities and whether consciousness survives bodily death. Other initiatives will seek to improve the effectiveness of environmental groups and gauge methods to improve human performance, including raising IQ, known as Integral Transformative Practice.

In addition, just as Murphy and others reached out to Soviet thinkers during the Cold War, they are now exploring similar “citizen-diplomat” initiatives with Islamic mystics.

“We’re in outlaw country, the road less traveled,” Murphy says.

Murphy, 73, believes that Esalen is overly identified with the 1960s and unfairly lampooned as the vanguard of California’s touchy-feely New Agers. Too often, he says, the institute’s solid intellectual achievements are ignored.

Whatever changes have transformed Esalen over time, Murphy says, the mission to help people fulfill their potential remains evergreen.

Bill Schier, 43, is a case in point. The New York native says he was a hard-driving prosecutor in Northern Virginia when his world suddenly fell apart a few years ago. A 14-year marriage ended in divorce. Shortly afterward, his uncle and best friend died.

“What am I doing with my life?” he asked himself.

At his therapist’s recommendation, he visited Esalen in October 2000. During a workshop, “Experiencing Esalen,” he sat in a circle and studied his feet, as instructed during a sensory awareness session. He says he found the whole thing ridiculous and blurted that out to the group.

Then, Schier says, a startling thing happened. People offered support and companionship. Total strangers who cared? Clearly, he thought, this was not New York.

After a weekend of art, deep conversations, steaming baths and nourishing organic food, Schier says he felt transformed. In 2001, he quit his job and enrolled in the institute’s extended student program. Working jobs in the kitchen and at the entry gate, Schier says he’s resolving lifelong problems stemming from a troubled childhood.

“I’m a lot less stoic than I used to be,” Schier says. “I’m less afraid of my emotions. I’m more able to express my disappointments and joys, and deal with the disappointments of others.”

Such testimonies suggest that Esalen maintains its value as a self-help mecca. Nusbaum, the institute’s executive director, says, “Everyone who comes here leaves different than when they arrived.”

Now all they have to do is get more people to come.

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It’s Not Just Quiet Time (Palm Beach Post, Florida)

wildmind meditation newsCarolyn Susman: In a stressed-out world, many find the road to peace comes by way of meditation and relaxation.

An old woman sits on a couch, bent over her rosary beads, fingering and fondling them, and repeating her prayers.

Another spends time saying a Hebrew prayer over and over: The Lord is God. The Lord is One.

Is either of these women meditating?

Neither might think so, but thousands of years of reflection by spiritual masters and mental health experts say otherwise.

“Every major religion has some form of meditation connected with it,” Daniel Goleman, author of Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, explained last year on CNN. “There’s the centering prayer in Catholicism. There are Jewish meditations. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism.

“Transcendental meditation has its roots in India. Those forms have been taken out of the religious context and put into a format that anybody, no matter what your religious belief, can benefit from.”

Continuing experiments show the benefit of meditation, and so-called “focused breathing,” for physical and spiritual health – arguably the most famous being Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1975 book, The Relaxation Response.

“We have… shown how the Relaxation Response may be used as a new approach to aid in the treatment and perhaps prevention of diseases such as hypertension,” Benson maintained, a ground-breaking approach at the time.

Just a few years before, in 1968, Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison and their wives had gone to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, elevating this elegant form of breathing and concentration to popular acceptance.

Continuing experiments show the benefit of meditation, and so-called “focused breathing,” for physical and spiritual health – arguably the most famous being Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1975 book, “The Relaxation Response.”

“We have shown how the Relaxation Response may be used as a new approach to aid in the treatment and perhaps prevention of diseases such as hypertension,” Benson maintained, a ground-breaking approach at the time,
Just a few years before, in 1968, Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison and their wives had gone to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, elevating this elegant form of breathing and concentration to popular acceptance.

In our stressed-out world, the advice “Take a deep breath” has renewed meaning.

One of the most recent studies to attest to the value of meditation –simply defined as deep breathing combined with focused attention to relax the body – is published in the April issue of the “American Journal of Hypertension.”

Conducted by Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, a physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia, the study showed that African-American teenagers, at risk for having high blood pressure, lowered their day-time blood pressures over four months by practicing 15 minutes of transcendental meditation twice daily.

“Allowing your mind to go to that state of inner quietness and be there for a time has an effect on the physiology by reducing stress hormone levels like cortisol and reducing activation of the fight-or-flight response,” Barnes said when the study was released.

Nothing is new here, except that Barnes’ study is fueling the idea that meditation should become a part of classroom learning and an option for children at risk for or suffering with conditions ranging from high blood pressure, to anxiety and depression, to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Balancing emotions

As a society, we are always looking for methods of dealing with emotional and physical illness that can reduce or eliminate drugs.

One of those on that search was Dr. Kamara Elaine Altman of Jupiter, a holistic health counselor and yoga therapist. Thirteen years ago, she went from a public relations career to teaching stress reduction techniques (she has studied with Benson and another renowned stress-reduction clinician, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn).

Altman says she overcame a debilitating fatigue and irritability when she incorporated yoga and relaxation techniques into her life. “When people are under stress, they are irritable, emotionally vulnerable. I would get angry quickly, raise my voice, and I had very little patience. So I think it gave me the tools, time and commitment to relax myself and calm myself and center myself. I was able to balance my emotions better.”

She defines meditation as “the process of liberating your mind from distracting thoughts. The physical aspect of sitting down, slowing down, slows your heart rate and respiration rate. You are occupying your mind so distracting thoughts don’t come in.”

Meditators say the process actually reprograms your brain, accelerating physical healing.

Altman credits meditation and focused breathing with helping her concentrate on what she considers important, her inner peace. “If I find my mind wandering off, I take a centering breath to let go of distractions, not be reactive (to surroundings) and to bring myself into the present moment.”

She can practice focused breathing – relaxing breaths without the intensity of meditation – anywhere, doing a grocery list, at the dentist’s office or sitting in a car.

Especially when she’s caught in traffic, she finds the technique helpful.

“I put my hands on my belly and relax. It reminds me there is nothing I can do. I’m not so reactive.”

In her personal relationship, she finds it helpful, too, with the man she is dating.

“He could do something that in the past would have been irritating.” she says. “I can listen now and let it be.

And I’ll do my breathing and think, ‘Is this a good time to discuss this?'” Perspective and inner peace were also the goals sought by therapist Miriam R. Davis of West Palm Beach when she sought out meditation to ease her mind more than 30 years ago.

Davis, a single mother at the time, describes her state as one of “constant mind chatter that allowed me no peace.”
She went to England to study with The Beatles’ guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and practiced the technique twice a day, 20 minutes at a time.

“I began to clear my mind. It’s not positive thinking: it’s not a way to change your thinking by thinking more. It involves watching your thoughts without being drawn into them,” she explains.

“By dwelling inwardly for extend ed periods,” she says of her meditating, “I came to realize the poverty of always looking outside myself for happiness, understanding and wisdom.”

Today she uses meditation and relaxation techniques with clients who are anxious, depressed or have high blood pressure or chronic pain.

Tools for managing stress

I was introduced to a form of meditation when a perceptive rheumatologist years ago handed me a book about the Catholic technique of centering prayer — very similar to meditation — when I visited him with complaints of strange muscle cramping that others couldn’t diagnose.

This doesn’t shock Davis. “Meditation and relaxation are powerful tools for managing stress,” she says, “and stress can lead to extreme body tension that can affect your health.

So much so that Benson, the “Relaxation Response” author and a Harvard Medical School associate professor, has just released a book that discusses how depression, anger and hostility can adversely affect your heart.

One of the goals of “Mind Your Heart, A Mind/Body Approach to Stress Management, Exercise and Nutrition for Heart Health” (Free Press, $12) is to maintain calm and “allow blood to flow more easily throughout the body.”

Stress can damage the heart, Benson points out. But with meditation, yoga and focused breathing, it is possible to prevent and reduce heart damage, and even avoid and manage other illnesses.

Local meditator: Dr. Jean Malecki

When you have to deal with anthrax and terrorism, having an inner sanctuary is essential.

Dr. Jean Malecki, Palm Beach County Health Department director, has nurtured that private place since she was studying pre-med in college, “I majored in pre-med and minored in religion and philosophy. I’ve been studying it for a long time. I spend a lot of my free time pursuing it,” she said.

“Some people call it prayer. Others call it meditation. It’s a time of quiet, silence in your surrounding. It’s time set aside from the normal day when you think, contemplate. I usually do it in the early morning hours, and it brings me a lot of energy and satisfaction. I couldn’t do what I do every day if I didn’t have that connection.”

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The Science of Meditation (Psychology Today)

Cary Barbor, Psychology Today: Meditation may help squash anxiety. The practice brings about dramatic effects in as little as a 10-minute session.

In the highlands of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, people look at life differently. Upon entering the local Buddhist monastery, there is a spectacular sculpture the size of a large oak. The intricate carving of clouds and patterns are painted in powerful colors. But as soon as winter gives way, this magnificent work will melt to nothing. The sculpture, in fact, is made of butter, and it is one of the highland people’s symbols of the transient nature of life.

And life here is not easy. Villagers bicycle to work before dawn and return home long after sunset. Many live with nothing more than dirt floors and rickety outhouses. Upon entering these modest mud-brick homes, you’ll find no tables or chairs—just a long platform bed, which sleeps a family of eight. However, when the people invite you in for tea, their smiles are wide and welcoming. How do they possess such inner calm in conditions we would call less than ideal?…

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Meditation earns high marks (Yoga Journal)

Andrea Menzie, Yoga Journal: “It gives you a boost in the morning,” says eighth grader Kenia Bradley about the meditation practice she has learned at school. “When you don’t meditate, you get tired during your classes.”

There’s no proof that sitting practice improves kids’ grades. But a recent University of Michigan pilot study suggests that students who practice Transcendental Meditation (TM) at school may be happier and have higher self-esteem than their counterparts who don’t meditate.

The study, the first to involve African American children and TM, examined 83 sixth graders at two charter schools in the Detroit area. At the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, the children were each given an individual mantra and taught how to meditate…

using it. (In TM, the mantras used are not words but sounds without specific meaning.) They practiced twice during the school day: 10 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. Students at the control-group school didn’t meditate at all.

TM was chosen because it was considered one of the easier practices for youngsters to understand, according to meditation instructor Jane Pitt, who taught the Nataki Talibah students. Unlike many other meditation practices, she says, TM is not a concentration process or an exercise in contemplation or focus, but simply a gentle method of quieting the mind.

Four months after the sixth graders learned TM, researchers scored them and the nonmeditating students on several scales, including loneliness, emotional competence, self-esteem, positive affectivity, anxiety, and aggression. The meditators scored higher in the areas of emotional competence, self-esteem, and positive affectivity, though there was no significant difference between the groups in the other areas.

The Nataki Talibah pupils were actually taught to meditate as part of the school curriculum before the research began. Then Rita Benn, lead researcher and director of education at the Integrative Medicine Program at UM’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research Center, evaluated them. While the study doesn’t provide conclusive evidence of TM’s effects on every one of its practitioners, Benn says it does suggest that TM is good for emotional development in early adolescent African American children.

Benn isn’t planning to assess meditation’s influence on overall academic achievement. But she would like to investigate other forms of meditation and yoga to see if they are helpful to children. Meanwhile, Pitt confirms the all-important anecdotal info that after learning to meditate, “many of the students felt their studies were better.”

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Meditation Lowers Blood Pressure in Teens (Health Day)

Black teens at risk of becoming hypertensive adults lowered their pressures with just two 15-minute meditation sessions a day, a Georgia physiologist reports.

The results held even four months after the four-month study ended, said Vernon A. Barnes, a physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and lead author of the study, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Hypertension.

“We set up school sessions that were supervised,” he said. Then the teens were instructed to meditate for another 15 minutes at home.

“More than 70 percent said they were compliant,” Barnes said, reporting that they did indeed complete the two meditation sessions.

His study focused on 156 inner-city black teens in Augusta, Ga., who all had blood pressure in the “high-normal” range. Half were in the group practicing transcendental meditation; the other half got information at school about how to lower blood pressure, such as following a low-salt diet and getting more physical activity.

Those who did meditation achieved lower pressures, Barnes said. “The drop in blood pressure was 3.5 in systolic [the top number that indicates the pressure inside blood vessels that the heart is pumping against] and 3.4 in diastolic [the bottom number that indicates pressure while the heart is at rest].”

The group that got only information had no significant change in pressure from the beginning of the study to the end, he said.

On average, he said, the TM students’ blood pressures were about 129 systolic at the start and dropped to about 125 at four months and at the four-month follow-up. The diastolic pressures started out at about 75 [a normal level], he said, and were down to a little more than 71 at the study end and to 72.9 at the four-month follow up. A pressure of below 120 over 80 is termed optimal.

The improvements were maintained at the follow-up after the formal stop of the study, Barnes added. Similar studies have found the same long-lasting benefits in adults, he added.

TM is a simple mental procedure, performed while you are sitting comfortably with eyes closed. Advocates say it puts practitioners in a “unique state of restful alertness” that helps dissolve stress and fatigue as it boosts creativeness, orderliness and other good characteristics.

Exactly how it might lower blood pressure isn’t known for sure, Barnes said. It may decrease sympathetic nervous system tone and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, among other actions, and that could lead to blood pressure reduction.

High blood pressure affects one in four adults in the United States and is a major risk factor of heart attack and stroke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure has its origins in childhood, Barnes said, and blacks are at an increased risk for getting it.

“Based on our study, we would say that transcendental meditation should be considered as an option” to reduce the number of at-risk teens who go on to develop hypertension, Barnes said. Practiced over the long term, he said, it might ward off high blood pressure in adulthood.

Anecdotally, the students reported other benefits they attributed to their meditation habit, he said, including improved academic and athletic performance.

“This is a seminal study,” said Robert Roth, director of communications and a veteran meditation instructor at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. “Dr. Barnes’ study is solid and convincing.”

The cost of implementing meditation programs in schools, he said, “is next to nothing.” His university approaches outside sources for funding. One example of a successful program, he said, is in a Detroit-area middle school, “where 160 children and teachers have meditated every day for seven years.”

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