Los Angeles

At 105, a Zen master blends East with a bit of L.A.

The Zen master would not stop talking.

Several times he began to draw his teachings to a close, explaining to his students that he was tired and in poor health. Then he would burst down another path.

He discussed the difficulties of raising children. He lingered on the subject of death. Eventually, he raised a small fist in the air.

“Everybody is together at one point,” he said. “We cry together, we love together. There is no moment in which we are not together.”

He is 105 years old and not even 5 feet tall, with paper-white skin and a blocky, bald head. Enveloped in …

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Mindfulness, being in the moment, is now of the moment

Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times: Every Thursday at lunchtime at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, several dozen people turn off their cellphones and take seats in the bright pink chairs of the Billy Wilder Theater.

They come to spend half an hour with Diana Winston, a former Buddhist nun and one of the nation’s best-known teachers of mindfulness meditation. The lights go down, and Winston takes a seat in an office chair and speaks quietly into a microphone.

Occasionally she is accompanied by a guest playing about 20 Tibetan bells, the haunting, wave-like sounds enhancing her voice, which is so soothing it’s as if …

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Transcending a different type of PTSD — helping children of the night

Dr. Norman Rosenthal: Lately there has been a storm of publicity – and deservedly so – about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The public has become better educated about this potentially disabling disorder and its symptoms, such as hypervigilance, an exaggerated tendency to startle, flashbacks, nightmares and emotional numbness, to name just a few.
Mental health professionals have emphasized the need to diagnose and treat PTSD wherever it arises. In this piece, I would like to draw attention to yet another group suffering from PTSD – child victims of prostitution who, against all odds, are trying…

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Meditation helps homeless children

Beverly White and Julie Brayton: Thousands of adults and children live on Southern California streets, and so did Kelsey.

She was cast out by her abusive Midwestern family.

“I been kicked out of my house since I was nine, on and off. This last time, my father was sexually abusing me,” said Kelsey, who is 17 years old.

Living on the streets in Los Angeles was so horrifying and dangerous, Kelsey sought shelter at Children Of The Night, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and introduced to Transcendental Meditation.

“When you take like twenty minutes sit down and do TM, and calm yourself and be peaceful…

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Meditating one’s stress away

A handful of people gathered Sunday morning at the Japanese Tea House in Brand Park to meditate in a class that applies Buddhist teachings for overcoming stress and anger.

The group’s teacher, Caroline Green, with the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles, advised the class in the beginning to improve their back posture.

“Straight, but not tense,” she suggested. “Place your feet flat on the floor, your right-hand palm on your left, your tongue gently touching the back of your teeth.”

All this for the goal of achieving a “relaxed and alert” state of being, in which the class could deeply breathe in and out. As the first breathing meditation advanced, Green requested that the class ignore stray thoughts and outside sounds, then asked them to picture any stresses “as dark smoke that dissipates in the atmosphere.”

Green, who started meditating in 1998, admitted she is shy and said it’s the reason she declined to teach when she was first asked to do so in 1999.

“But these teachings have helped me so much,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I want to share that with other people? I find that the stuff that used to drive me nuts, now, they just roll of my back. It’s not a problem.”

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Val Bridgeford, 57, joined the class two years ago when she was grieving the death of her mother.

“I saw the flier in the library,” she said. “I thought, for years I’ve wanted to learn to meditate. I tried it on my own and I just couldn’t do it. I thought, maybe this will help me.”

After attending a few classes, she suggested it to her brother, Gerald Bridgeford, 51, who also joined. After working for the same company for 25 years, he lost his job when it went out of business. He decided to go back to school, placing himself in a setting he hadn’t been in for 35 years.

“It helped me incorporate all that I’ve learned here,” Gerald Bridgeford said. “Everybody from class, when they heard I was in meditation, thought I was in a cult. I had to explain, ‘No, these are tools for everyday use to handle problems.’”

In the two years he’s been attending the class, he said his health has also improved.

Green launched into a teaching on anger when the first meditation finished, telling the class how it can destroy a situation and how to be aware of when anger arises. Green also defined anger as placing inappropriate attention on an object, living or inanimate, exaggerating that feeling, then developing a wish or intention to harm.

She emphasized focusing on the faults of anger and acknowledging that anger can often be viewed as something people need, such as in the case of bringing about social uprisings when people see an unfairness and want to be heard.

She suggested applying patience in the face of difficulties.

“[Anger] will take us over if we just go with it,” she said. “When we do those actions, we can’t take them back.”

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Self-Realization Fellowship elects Sri Mrinalini Mata as new leader (LA Times)

The organization, which follows Hindu and Christian teachings, selects Sri Mrinalini Mata, 79, to succeed longtime leader Sri Daya Mata, who died in 2010. Mrinalini Mata has been vice president of the group since 1966.

The Self-Realization Fellowship, a Los Angeles-based organization that follows a spiritual path rooted in both Hinduism and Christianity, has elected a new leader, the fourth since it was established in 1920.

The fellowship announced Tuesday that Sri Mrinalini Mata, who became a Self-Realization nun at the age of 15, was elected president last week by its eight-member board of directors. She succeeds Sri Daya Mata, the group’s longtime leader, who died in November.

The selection of Mrinalini Mata, 79, means that the fellowship will continue to be led by a woman, and by a direct disciple of its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi who is credited with helping to popularize yoga and meditation in the West. Mrinalini Mata has been vice president of the organization since 1966.

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“It shows that they’re very traditional — that they’re holding on to a tradition,” said Lola Williamson, a professor of religion at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and the author of “Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion,” which examines the Self-Realization Fellowship and two other movements.

The fellowship is perhaps best known in Los Angeles for the tranquility of its temple gardens at sites that include Hollywood and Pacific Palisades. They are among more than 600 temples, meditation centers and retreat sites operated by the organization around the world.

Born Merna Brown in Wichita, Kan., Mrinalini Mata moved to Southern California as a child. In 1945, when she was a teenager, her mother took her to see Yogananda. The girl, who was clutching a Bible, according to Williamson, was initially reluctant to meet the religious leader but found herself electrified by his presence and almost immediately dedicated her life to his cause.

“I think that the transformation of feeling, the love from master, and the special relationship with master, I think that took place that instant that I walked into the temple the first time,” she was later quoted as saying of Yogananda.

Mrinalini Mata was allowed to enter the fellowship’s ashram as a nun, a practice generally discouraged for someone so young, said the movement’s spokeswoman, Lauren Landress. Mrinalini Mata later was chosen by Yogananda to oversee his publications after his death. He died in 1952.

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Zen meditation, a cure for unhappiness in South LA

As you read this article your mind is likely to wander off onto other thoughts; trouble at work, your evening plans, a mounting to-do list… and you might be all the more unhappy in life as a result of such distracted thinking.

According to a recent study in the November issue of Science Magazine, whether and where people’s minds wander is a better predictor of happiness than what they are doing. The study included more than 2,200 people around the world who agreed to use an iphone app called trackyourhappiness.

A team of Harvard psychologists contacted the participants at random intervals to ask how them how they were feeling, what they were doing and what they were thinking. The team received a quarter-million responses. When the replies were analyzed, researchers found that no matter what people were doing, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else.

Kelly “Doman” Stevens, an American monk who lives and practices at the Hazy Moon Zen Center of South Central Los Angeles, said that this study simply corroborates what Buddhists across the globe have known all along. In fact, the ancient East Asian religion is even one step ahead of the Harvard researchers and their iphones. Monks found Zen Meditation to be a cure for said “monkey mind” (a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled”) centuries ago. And now one group of monks is spreading their knowledge to those in need of a little clarity in the South Central Los Angeles community.

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Giving Tradition a Chance (Los Angeles Times)

Teresa Watanabe, LA Times: Shin Buddhists celebrate Little Tokyo temple, but ponder faith’s future

In an elaborate ritual reminiscent of ancient Japan, a procession of children in golden crowns and painted faces, traditional court musicians and silk-robed Buddhist priests recently wended its way through Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.

The occasion was the 100-year anniversary of the oldest Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, representing the most popular Buddhist tradition in Japan and among Japanese Americans known as Shin, or Pure Land.

But amid the congratulatory speeches at the Higashi Honganji Temple’s commemoration a few weeks ago, an underlying question lingered:

Can this 780-year-old Japanese Buddhist tradition survive assimilation in America?

As it enters its next century in the United States, Shin Buddhism is encountering myriad challenges not uncommon among various immigrant churches here. With notable exceptions in Orange County and elsewhere, the tradition is failing to retain large numbers of American-born youth. The small number of immigrants from Japan has hamstrung efforts to recruit new Japanese members. And outreach to non-Japanese has been limited by a shortage of American ministers and a culture made more insular by anti-Japanese discrimination in the past.

As a result, the larger of Shin Buddhism’s two branches has lost nearly two-thirds of its registered members in the United States over the last 30 years, from 50,000 families in 1960 to about 17,000 today, according to the Buddhist Churches of America in San Francisco. Higashi Honganji, in the smaller branch, faces similar declines.

The trends have kicked off lively debate over the future of a faith little-known outside Japanese American communities, even though it has more followers than the more familiar Zen and Tibetan schools. Shin Buddhist leaders have also tried to launch a renaissance, reaching beyond their ethnic enclaves with websites, Buddhism classes and the like.

Religious scholars, such as Don Miller of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, say that a transformation of immigrant churches is often inevitable as passing generations become more Americanized. As examples, sociologists point to the decline of once robust Italian Catholic parishes and the Pan-Asian American congregations once dominated by Korean immigrants.

At Higashi Honganji, a graceful building with a traditional tile roof and a glittering sanctuary of golden statues on 3rd Street and Central Avenue, the three-day centennial celebration put equal emphasis on past and future. Both a traditional service of elaborate chanting and another with contemporary music were offered to the 500 attendants. “We feel we have as good a form of Buddhism for the contemporary world as any,” said head minister Noriaki Ito. “But in order for us to survive another 100 years, we’re going to have to at least loosen our ties to Japan and focus on the universal aspects of Buddhism.”

The congregation was founded in 1904 by the Rev. Junjyo Izumida to serve working-class Japanese immigrants. During World War II, Izumida was interned at Manzanar with other Japanese Americans and the temple, its members believe, was safeguarded by non-Japanese friends.

At its peak in the early 1960s, the temple, then located in Boyle Heights, boasted 450 families. That was enough people, Ito said, to supply 20 sports teams, Boy Scout troops and a bustling Sunday school of 100 children. But then Japanese Americans started moving to the suburbs, integrating into the mainstream with high rates of intercultural and interfaith marriage. Competing institutions arrived in Little Tokyo.

Today, the Boy Scouts are gone. So are the sports teams. The adult Buddhist group disbanded in 1999. Although the official church membership has declined to 400 families, Ito said only about 100 of them regularly attend Sunday services.

“It all just kind of faded into the sunset,” Ito said of the activities at the current temple, which was built in 1976.

The forces that pulled so many families away from the church are evident in the life of Higashi Honganji member Yuriko Harada. Harada, 73, experienced the Shin Buddhism of Japan during her childhood, when her family returned to the countryside near Hiroshima after their World War II internment in the U.S.

Every morning, Harada recalled, her mother and grandmother would chant sutras before their household altar. Every meal, they would instruct her to be thankful for the sacrifices made by all living things to provide their food. Once, she recalled, her grandfather stood with her in their rice field, showing her a new grain. “It’s important never to waste even one grain of rice, because so much effort and time from so many people were needed to produce it,” she said he told her.

Harada said her grandmother often took her to clean the family gravesite and would tell her about each ancestor memorialized on the tombstone. Rice cakes and flowers were offered to them at the home altar.

That, to her, was Buddhism: a heart of gratitude, respect for all living things, remembrance of ancestors. But after Harada returned to America, those traditions weakened amid raising four children and helping her immigrant husband run a market in East Los Angeles.

She still retains an altar in her home, but her children do not. She is active in her temple, but not all of her family is. Her son, Craig, is a temple board member and sends his 3-year-old son, Ryan, to its preschool, but said most of his old temple friends no longer attend. One daughter, Gay Harada-Quan, married a man outside her faith and ethnic group and said her husband and children have no interest in Buddhism. Another daughter, Vickie Kanamori, determinedly sent her two children to temple school but candidly said “it was always a battle” with her son.

One survey of Japanese Americans in Northern California and Washington state taken between 1998 and 2000 showed that affiliation with Buddhism steadily declines with younger generations. Among respondents 60 years and older, 37.4% were Buddhist, 35.7% were Christian, 7% were other religions and 20% chose no faith. Among those between 18 and 29, however, only 10.7% were Buddhist, while 21.5% were Christian, 32.1% chose other paths and 35.7% listed no faith, according to the survey by professors at the University of Washington and elsewhere.

USC religion professor Jane Naomi Iwamura cites other reasons behind the attrition: proselytizing by evangelical Christians, a growing trend among Americans to shun any religious affiliation and, among many young Buddhists, a weak understanding of their faith.

Shin Buddhism was founded by Shinran Shonin as a path for the masses, compared to the monastic traditions of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. While those schools focus on lengthy meditation and other rigorous self-disciplines to attain enlightenment, Shin Buddhism preaches salvation not through self-efforts but faith in the power of immeasurable light and life, wisdom and compassion, represented by the Amida Buddha.

The Shin tradition’s message of faith has drawn comparisons to Christianity — one reason, Buddhist scholars say, it has been less appealing to American converts seeking a path distinctly different from their own Christian or Jewish upbringing.

But now Shin Buddhists have begun actively working to raise their profile. A seminal development was the 1998 publication of the first introduction to Shin Buddhism by a major publisher: “River of Fire, River of Water,” by Taitetsu Unno, the nation’s foremost authority on the tradition. The book helped fuel new study groups and sanghas of mostly converts in such places as New Mexico and Connecticut, according to Jeff Wilson, a contributing editor to Tricycle, a leading Buddhist journal.

Among congregational efforts, the West Covina Buddhist Temple has started a successful website, www.livingdharma.org, seeking to relate the faith to American culture. It includes interviews with celebrity Buddhists such as actress Sharon Stone and essays on the Buddhist message in such films as “American Beauty.”

At Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo, Mexican American minister William Briones is taking the Buddhist message to blacks and Latinos in East Los Angeles through talks at high schools and other locales. His temple, part of Shin Buddhism’s larger branch, will celebrate its centennial next year.

One of the region’s most dynamic congregations is the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, which has grown to 1,000 members from 650 in 1986 under the leadership of the Rev. Marvin Harada. Boosted by a 5% hike in Orange County’s Japanese American population in the 1990s, the temple also reaches out to the wider community with such classes as “Buddhism in Western Literature,” and a new publishing arm. Harada said those of non-Japanese descent now account for up to 10% of temple membership.

Harada’s temple is also one of the few to offer meditation services. Official Shin doctrine frowns on meditation as an attempt to gain enlightenment, but Harada said he offers it as a way to relax and open the mind to Buddhist teachings.

The Rev. Koshin Ogui, the newly elected reformist bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, is likely to encourage such measures despite resistance from Japan. He said he began promoting meditation several years ago in Cleveland, where six of every 10 callers wanted to learn the practice.

“I used to answer that we don’t practice meditation, until I realized that if I lose six of every 10 people … I would bankrupt my store,” he said with a laugh.

Ogui, 64, is also pushing a lay-training program to produce more homegrown ministers equipped with an American cultural IQ. Among his organization’s 65 temples, at least 12 have no minister or share one. The bishop supports efforts to project a Shin Buddhist voice into the public arena. Since last year, his organization has passed resolutions opposing the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war and prohibitions against gay marriage.

Ogui’s goal is no less than to transform Shin Buddhism into a major American faith. But ask for a bottom line on his chances to succeed, and the Buddhist master will not answer.

“Seeking conclusions is a modern sickness,” Ogui said. “Rather, find meaning in the process of becoming.”

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Quiet the mind, heal the body

Hilary E. MacGregor, LA Times: Inside a church community room, beginning meditators close their eyes, straighten their spines in their folding metal chairs and try to rein in, for just 10 minutes, the thoughts that race like wild horses through their minds.

A woman in the back row yawns. The woman next to her fidgets. Another student sneaks a peek.

“My mind still wanders,” Jeremy Morelock, 33, says of the Buddhist meditation class he has attended for three months in search of stress relief and spiritual growth. “I have these imaginary conversations with people, and then I think, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa … concentrate!’ “

Regular meditation practice is supposed to quiet the mind and allow the body to tap into its own innate healing mechanisms. Yogis and monks have preached the powers of meditation for thousands of years, and the counterculture generation of the ’60s embraced transcendental meditation — a still-thriving form of internal mantra-chanting — as a method to alter consciousness.

But many people today are taking up meditation for reasons that have little or nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment and a lot to do with improving their health. Scientists are using MRI and other advanced technologies to study the physiological changes that occur in meditating Buddhist monks. These researchers are starting to demonstrate, with the type of laboratory science that can influence even skeptical physicians, what those who engage in this ancient practice have believed for many centuries: Meditation works.

A growing body of research has shown that meditation has clear benefits. Now, doctors and other health-care professionals are recommending meditation as a way to treat a variety of ills, from depression to high blood pressure and hyperactivity. In some cases, meditation — or as it’s sometimes called, “relaxation techniques” — is prescribed when other treatments, such as prescription drugs, haven’t worked, or as a complement to drug therapy. Recent research has shown that meditation can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system.

Meditation is free, accessible and portable. It has no negative side effects — a fact that makes doctors feel comfortable recommending it. Meditation requires only that you be able to sit quietly for 10 minutes or more, while focusing on your breath or a word or phrase. Anyone can do it. And while millions of Americans already are meditating in some fashion, many more would likely benefit.

“I believe that meditation is the most important thing a person can do for their health,” said Dr. David Simon, medical director and chief executive of the Chopra Center at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., the wellness clinic founded by New Age author and physician, Dr. Deepak Chopra. “The most powerful pharmacy on Earth is not Savon or Rite Aid, but the human body,” Simon said.

With so much evidence, why aren’t more people doing it?

As with many lifestyle changes, most notably diet and exercise, getting started and sticking with meditation can be difficult. Meditation takes time and discipline. Desperately seeking health or sanity, many stressed-out people yearn for some quiet time amid the chaotic frenzy of their daily lives. Finding 10 uninterrupted minutes and a quiet place to sit down and shut your eyes can be a stumbling block. It’s problematic to zone out in a cubicle at work, or at a restaurant during lunch. And home life can be hectic in these wired and wireless times.

No one knows for sure how many of those who begin meditating continue the practice. Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who has taught meditation for a decade in Los Angeles, said the dropout rate is fairly high: Only about half the students who begin a typical 13-class series will complete it, she estimates, and perhaps two out of 10 students who begin meditating will still be doing so after a couple of years.

Students abandon the practice for a variety of reasons, Lekma said. Some don’t like it or can’t get the hang of it, and others lack the discipline to practice it regularly, usually daily. Some students are attracted to meditation out of a desire to learn something about Buddhist philosophy, but eventually lose interest.

How a person comes to meditation may also have an impact on his or her willingness to stick with it. For example, an increasing number of physicians are recommending meditation as a form of therapy to patients with heart disease, high blood pressure and even infertility. Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard University professor and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., said that in his clinical experience, about 60% to 70% of those who begin a meditation-type practice primarily for medical reasons (sometimes at the recommendation of their doctor) adopt the teachings.

Proponents of the practice — from Buddhists to cardiologists — are trying to help more people work meditation into their daily lives. So what are the most effective approaches for starting meditation and ensuring you’ll stick with it?

The first step is to make the commitment, experts said. Learn about why it works physiologically and how it might benefit your health.

Published more than 25 years ago, Benson’s pioneering book, “The Relaxation Response,” showed how 10 minutes of meditative technique a day could increase concentration and counteract the harmful effects of stress, such as high blood pressure and strokes.

Considered by many to be the father of meditation in this country, Benson uses the phrase “relaxation response” to refer broadly to various meditation-type techniques — including prayer, qi gong, yoga and tai chi — that quiet the brain. The practices also counter the “fight-or-flight” response, which is triggered in stressful situations, and the accompanying secretion of norepinephrine, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that, along with epinephrine, increases metabolism, blood pressure, mental activity and heart rate.

Newcomers need to stick with meditation long enough to make it a habit. Taking a meditation class or attending a meditation retreat can be a shortcut to feeling the positive effects of meditation faster and establishing a routine, experts said.

“Most people find it very difficult to begin a meditation practice on their own,” said Lekma, 37, resident teacher at the Echo Park Buddhist temple. “When you meditate with others, you get some kind of group dynamic going. When you get some people who are experienced, you kind of feed off it.”

Experts caution, however, that meditation won’t produce the immediate “hit,” such as reduced stress or increased energy, that a workout in the gym or other brisk exercise will do. Meditation takes time to learn, and even people who have been doing it for years still have times when their minds wander.

“The first few times you feel like an idiot doing it,” said Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, medical director of the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease and Lifestyle Advantage in Sausalito, Calif., who has meditated for 20 years and recommends meditation, along with diet and exercise changes, to patients with heart disease. “You are feeling anxious, your head is spinning, you are thinking you could be doing X, Y and Z, until you get the hang of it. That takes nearly six weeks of daily practice.”

Experts also stress the importance of new students choosing a meditation technique that conforms to their own belief system. This should make it easier to stick to the discipline over the long run. For a Catholic, it could be saying Hail Marys. For a Jew, it could be davening. For others, it could mean simply repeating a mantra-type phrase like “peace, love.” Finally, it is important to be patient and start slowly. Lekma, the Buddhist nun, suggests starting with tiny steps, such as a single weekly session with others, followed by a small personal commitment that you could stick to — for example, five to 10 minutes a day.

“People come in with a lot of enthusiasm, but have unrealistic expectations,” Lekma said. “Instead of taking very small steps they say, ‘I want to run a marathon.’ First you have to run half a block.”

A study recently conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles showed how quickly those small steps can make a difference. The study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and presented at the American Heart Assn. scientific sessions in Orlando, Fla., in November, found that patients with coronary heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation for the first time showed a significant improvement in their blood pressure and insulin resistance (pre-diabetes).

The 16-week study, conducted by Dr. Bairey Merz, of Cedars-Sinai, with Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, is the first to demonstrate this blood pressure effect in heart patients. Meditation was able to produce a benefit roughly equivalent to the use of one type of blood pressure medication, the researchers found.

Mario Farnier, 53, a biomedical researcher, was recovering from a 1999 heart attack when he was admitted to the hospital last August with chest pains and underwent an angioplasty procedure. He enrolled in the meditation study and, by the study’s end, had improved enough that his doctors were able to cut one of his medications by half.

“I must say, I felt good at the time of the study,” Farnier said. He continued meditating with others until the group study ended, but has found it more difficult to continue a regular practice on his own. He still meditates occasionally, shutting his office door for quiet, but finds it harder to make time to meditate than for the regular running workouts he has done for decades. “The more you think you need it, the less time you have to do it,” he said. “If the pressure is there I can’t do it. I say I’ll do it later, but by the end of the day I never do it.”

Most beginners say they continue to need help to carry on the practice. At a crowded Wednesday night meditation class at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Los Angeles, Dave Hernandez, a self-employed artist, sat cross-legged on a burgundy cushion and worked to tame his restless mind. “I tried meditating on my own,” he said. “But it’s just like a rocket ship taking off when you are meditating with other people. It’s really high. That high place is just harder to get to when you are on your own.”

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