meditation retreats

Where can a Buddhist escape herself?

Guardian: What is the point of an idyllic retreat if we lose all we have learned back in the noisy distractions of the city?

It’s not surprising that Norman Fischer – Zen master though he is – got up some people’s noses. His recent piece in the New York Times described his retreat on Puget Sound in such lyrical terms – blue herons, swallows, spectacular sunsets etc – as to evoke the Buddhist hindrance (“sin” is out) of envy. But more than that – as a number of bloggers immediately pointed out – it led to questioning the point of idyllic retreats in general. If William Blake could find heaven in a grain of sand, then shouldn’t we look for it in a thrown-away tube ticket and a MacDonald hamburger? Is it really necessary to retreat to settings of unimaginable tranquillity in order to attain tranquillity? And even if you got it, how long would it last?

There is the story of the monk who went off to his cave and meditated for seven years and concentrated on purifying the mind. When he emerged into the light of common day at the end of that time, he was thoughtlessly shoved aside by a small child. And instantly lost his temper. Farewell, merit.

Those small irritations of life do not feature on retreats. And nor do emails, mobiles, crowded tubes, traffic jams, getting meters read, tackling the taxman, dealing with sick child and cross spouse. Of course, the belief that you can actually “get away from it all” turns out to be illusory, and you inevitably discover you have brought “it all” with you in your luggage. But the speed of ones reaction slows down, not to mention the affect of having one’s bodily needs looked after.

The temptation is to see a retreat as a break: a sort of spiritual time-off and a counter to the stress of the everyday. And indeed, ones busyness does generally calm down and ones defences do drop. If only, you think, life were always so tension-free, how easy it would be to be nice/wise/compassionate. It is remarkable how quickly a tribal feeling can develop and the retreat end come to be marked by a feverish exchange of addresses and emails as you leave the group that you feel saw the real you. Return home and you encounter ordinary people with their own ambitions, projections, egos and demands.

But if retreat-mode can’t be carried there, what is it worth? That’s the logic behind the street retreats that were pioneered by Bernie Glassman. A charismatic American Zen teacher with enormous chutzpah and resolve, he set them going in New York and created a model that has since been followed in several European cities. Glassman led his students out onto the streets of the Bronx where they slept rough for a number of nights, ate in soup kitchens and begged. The very first one in London several years ago attracted sizeable press mockery because it was assumed it was devised to help people understand homelessness. In three days? scoffed the press, and all the homeless organisations expressed outrage. That would of course have been foolish, not to say blindingly patronising. Its true point however was to strip away people’s support mechanisms – even watches had to be discarded at the start – and to expose reliance on habit, conditioning, status and security. How well that works is a matter for personal experience, but it is certainly a counter to blue herons and fine sunsets.

When the Korean master Seung Sahn wanted to set up a centre in New York, he instructed students to look for a place on the busiest highway they could find. Another time, in the mid West, he dragged them into a casino in the middle of the night where Las Vegas’ hard-core gamblers were still obsessively at it. “But isn’t this against all the tenets of Zen?” asked the shocked students as he urged them to gamble. “if you do not understand their kind of hell,’ he replied, “how can you save them?”

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Norman Fisher: for the time being

New York Times

By Norman Fischer: I recently returned from a week-long Zen meditation retreat on the Puget Sound. I am a Zen Buddhist priest, so a meditation retreat isn’t exotic to me: it’s what I do. But this one was particularly delightful. Sixty-five of us in silence together for a week, as great blue herons winged slowly overhead, swallows darted low to the ground before us as we walked quietly on the open grassy space between the meditation hall and the dining room. Rabbits nibbled on tall grasses in the thicket by the lake. The sky that far north is glorious this time of year, full of big bright clouds that can be spectacular at sunset — which doesn’t happen until around 10 p.m., the sky ablaze over the tops of the many islands thereabouts.

So yes, it was peaceful, it was quiet, it was beautiful, and nice to be away from all telephones and computers, all tasks and ordinary demands, all talking, all purposeful activity. The retreat participants are busy people like everyone else, and they appreciated the silence, the natural surroundings, and the chance to do nothing but experience their lives in the simplest possible way.

As most people know, a Zen meditation retreat is not a vacation. Despite the silence and the beauty, despite the respite from the busyness, the experience can be grueling. The meditation practice is intense and relentless, the feeling in the hall rigorous and disciplined. We start pretty early in the morning and meditate all day long, into the late evening. It can be uncomfortable physically and emotionally. And some people find it hard not to talk at all for a week. So, what’s in it for them?

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If you live long enough you will discover the great secret we all hate to admit: life is inherently tough. Difficult things happen. You lose your job or your money or your spouse. You get old, you get sick, you die You slog through your days beleaguered and reactive even when there are no noticeable disasters — a normal day has its many large and small annoyances, and the world, if you care to notice, and it is difficult not to, is burning.

Life is a challenge and in the welter of it all it is easy to forget who you are. Decades go by. Finally something happens. Or maybe nothing does. But one day you notice that you are suddenly lost, miles away from home, with no sense of direction. And you don’t know what to do.

The people at the retreat were not in crisis — at least no more than anyone else. I know most of them pretty well. They are people who have made the practice of Zen meditation a regular part of their daily routine, and come here not to forget about their troubles and pressures, but for the opposite reason: to meet them head on, to digest and clarify them. Why would they want to do this? Because it turns out that facing pain — not denial, not running in the opposite direction — is a practical necessity.

During the week of the retreat I generally give a daily talk. This week I talked about time, using as my text the 13th century Zen Master Dogen’s famous essay “The Time Being,” a treatise on the religious dimension of time.

Dogen’s view is uncannily close to Heidegger’s: being is always and only being in time; time is nothing other than being. This turns out to be less a philosophical than an experiential fact: to really live is to accept that you live “for the time being,” and to fully enter that moment of time. Living is that, not building up an identity or a set of accomplishments or relationships, though of course we do that too. But primarily, fundamentally, to live is to embrace each moment as if it were the first, last, and all moments of time. Whether you like this moment or not is not the point: in fact liking it or not liking it, being willing or unwilling to accept it, depending on whether or not you like it, is to sit on the fence of your life, waiting to decide whether or not to live, and so never actually living. I find it impressive how thoroughly normal it is be so tentative about the time of our lives, or so asleep within it, that we miss it entirely. Most of us don’t know what it actually feels like to be alive. We know about our problems, our desires, our goals and accomplishments, but we don’t know much about our lives. It generally takes a huge event, the equivalent or a birth or a death, to wake up our sense of living this moment we are given – this moment that is just for the time being, because it passes even as it arrives. Meditation is feeling the feeling of being alive for the time being. Life is more poignant than we know.

Dogen writes, “For the time being the highest peak, for the time being the deepest ocean; for the time being a crazy mind, for the time being a Buddha body; for the time being a Zen Master, for the time being an ordinary person; for the time being earth and sky… Since there is nothing but this moment, ‘for the time being’ is all the time there is.”

For seven days that week I spoke about this in as many ways as I could think of, silly and sometimes not silly, and for seven days 65 silent people listened and took Dogen’s words to heart.

We want enjoyment, we want to avoid pain and discomfort. But it is impossible that things will always work out, impossible to avoid pain and discomfort. So to be happy, with a happiness that doesn’t blow away with every wind, we need to be able to make use of what happens to us — all of it — whether we find ourselves at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea.


Norman Fischer is a senior Zen Buddhist priest and poet. He is the author, most recently, of “Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls,” and the new poetry collection “Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons.”

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Original faces: Reflections on purification

Dante turns toward the heavenly light

Saccanama has heard Vajrasattva’s bell calling him to realize his own innate purity, and is on a return journey to reconnect with his own stainless nature.

At the beginning of the Purgatorio, the second great canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil emerge from the darkness of the Inferno to see “the tender tint of orient sapphire.” It is dawn, and Venus, “the lovely planet kindling love in man,” lights up the eastern sky. To the West lie the four stars of the four cardinal virtues. As they proceed towards the mountain they are to climb on their pilgrimage, the two men stop:

When we had reached a place where the cool shade
allowed the dew to linger on the slope,
resisting a while longer the sun’s rays,

my master placed both of his widespread hands
gently upon the tender grass, and I,
who understood what his intention was,

offered my tear-stained face to him, and he
made my face clean, restoring its true color.
once buried beneath the dirt of Hell.
(translated by Mark Musa)

When they reach the shore, Virgil plucks a reed with which to gird his pilgrim and another springs up immediately in its place.

For anyone who has read the Inferno, or indeed suffered their own “torments of hell,” these images are a relief. They evoke the experience of emerging from great suffering. Dawn, the bathing of Dante’s grime-stained face in the early-morning dew, and the re-growth of the pilgrim’s reed set the tone for the next section of Dante’s great journey. For me they are also a western counterpart to the meditation on Vajrasattva, which like Dante’s epic, enacts a journey of purification.

My connection with Vajrasattva goes back to a time when I was staying at Guhyaloka, a mountain retreat center in Spain where I was preparing for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order (now the Triratna Buddhist Order). Part of the retreat focused on confession of breaches of the Buddhist ethical precepts. We spent our evenings reciting the chapter on confession in the Sutra of Golden Light and burning our confessions in front of the shrine, usually among fragrant cuttings of juniper bush. Such confession is a means of purification by which we can free ourselves of the influence of greed, hatred and unawareness, which obscure our true nature.

May the Buddhas watch over me
With minds attentive.
May they forgive my faults
With minds given over to compassion.
On account of the evil done by me previously,
Even in hundreds of eons,
I have a troubled mind,
Oppressed with wretchedness, trouble and fear.
With an unhappy mind,
I continually fear evil acts.
Wherever I go
There is no enjoyment for
me anywhere.

I confess all the evil previously done by me.
And I confess all my present evil.
For the future,
I undertake to retrain
From all acts evilly done.
(‘Sutra of Golden Light’, trans. RE Emmerick)

We also chanted the 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva, and this took the experience of purification on to a deeper level. I had been ill before I arrived in the mountains but, following this period of purification, my health deteriorated further and my mind was assailed by unresolved issues from my past. Yet, through these difficulties, Vajrasattva seemed to preside over the valley, looking down on me with compassion, somehow guaranteeing a return to peace and purity if I could place my trust in him.

In the image of Vajrasattva, Buddhism teaches that an original, undefiled purity resides within our minds.

Vajrasattva is said to have a bond with all beings that connects us all to a state of beginningless, original purity. Indeed, Vajrasattva — the pure-white, 16-year-old prince, sitting on a pure-white lotus made of light — is an image of our own purity. In the image of Vajrasattva, Buddhism teaches that an original, undefiled purity resides within our minds.

Something in us remains untouched by our unethical actions because it has not entered the world of time and space, with its inevitable compromises and limitations. This undefiled essential nature is symbolized by the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt of reality, which resolves all opposites — in particular the opposition of the unenlightened and the Enlightened mind.

Deep within us is something as clear as diamond and as powerful as thunder. The vajra is also the essence of Vajrasattva, whose name means ‘the diamond-being’, and in his right hand, close to his heart, the young prince holds a golden vajra. Our own nature, like the vajra, is also non-dual.

To contemplate Vajrasattva, then, is to seek to realize this undefiled nature and return to a pure, immaculate state. But we must first hear the call of that state and so the prince holds a silver vajra-bell in his left hand that rings to awaken us from our slumber.

I have heard that bell several times in my life. I heard it at Guhyaloka in the shrine room with the burning juniper and the sound of the Vajrasattva mantra running through my mind. Before that, not long after I had fallen ill, I had dreamed I was bitten by a poisonous snake and was lying in bed in a pure white healing room. Sunshine streamed through the windows and a man and woman were looking after me. Although my life had been in danger, there was an atmosphere of safety and rejuvenation in the dream, which mirrored the coming months of my life as I recovered from my illness. Vajrasattva was there in the whiteness of the room.

Something in us remains untouched by our unethical actions because it has not entered the world of time and space…

I also heard the bell in an increasing awareness of my own lack of wholeness. There seemed no depth or meaning to my life and I felt alienated from all that was good. I was struck by the perennial Buddhist story of making a return journey. In the White Lotus Sutra a young prince who had been banished from his homeland slowly comes to realize that he is lost and, with help from his father, returns to his country and his royal heritage. In many ways, this is the underlying myth of Vajrasattva — the sense of making a return journey to discover the pure nature that lies deep within us.

This myth is enacted in the mantra of Vajrasattva. Indeed, the mantra tells the story of the return journey in concise form, starting with the bond that already exists between Vajrasattva and oneself. It praises him as the defender of mankind and the guarantor of our true nature, who stands beside us with a deep love for who we really are. As we realize Vajrasattva’s presence, we draw closer to him, purifying ourselves; and we begin to realize that we have never truly been defiled. A great shout of joy erupts from within. We are free. Fear and evil are banished and Buddhahood is ours.

Om! Bond of the Adamantine Being.
Protector of my essential nature.
May your unshakable wisdom be my surety,
Your diamond nature ever stand at the seat of my being.
Be strong for me in times of conflict and self-doubt.
Let me realize the joy of effort directed with a pure motive.
Let me realize the bliss of your unstained nature, which is no nature.
Let me realize great love which flows throughout the universe
Let auspiciousness attend all I do.
Let your perfect nature arise spontaneously within me.
Let there be no thought of separation or impurity.
Let the chain of past thoughts be broken forever.
Let my mind realize at once its perfect beginningless purity.
The laughter of the unchained mind echoes forever.
Everything is blessed with Buddha-mind.
Liberate me. O you diamond-centered and jewel-adorned.
Encompass me, O you who are beyond all space and time.
Believe in my sincere efforts
Destroy all doubt.
Dispel all ignorance and darkness with your diamond-centered light.
O Great Hero of the universal bond, let all fear be destroyed

(The 100-syllable Vajrasattva mantra, a free rendition by Dharmachari Ananda)

The return journey is also the pattern of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three great canticles of the Comedy represent the three main stages of that journey. Firstly, as Dante awakens to find himself lost in a dark wood, there is the awareness of fragmentation and alienation and all the dreadful consequences of such a state. Secondly, emerging from Hell on to the slopes of Mount Purgatory, there is the journey to the Garden of Earthly Delights, in the course of which the pilgrim is progressively purified. Finally, in an ascent through the heavens, there is the fruit of purification, a deepening unification with one’s true nature in ever greater visionary experience and bliss. We can be alienated from our purest nature and act with increasing unskillfulness, or we can move towards it, purifying our minds of defilement. We can ultimately become united with it.

Vajrasattva is said to have a bond with all beings that connects us all to a state of beginningless, original purity.

The call to purity has also come to me through faces. I saw one such face at the heart of Roman Catholicism, even though its teaching of original sin is the antithesis of the Buddhist teaching of original purity. Amid all the grandeur and triumphalism of St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, there is a statue by Michelangelo: the Pieta. A life-size Madonna holds the body of the dead Christ in her arms, her face conveying a sense of utmost love and beauty. Looking at that face and knowing my own attempts to visualize the face of Vajrasattva, I felt that Michelangelo had possessed a vision of purity far beyond my own. I turned away as tears welled up in my eyes.

An old Zen koan asks: ‘What is your original face?’ There is no right answer to this question – that is the point of a koan. But one way of answering it might be to look through the love and beauty in the face of Michelangelo’s Virgin to Vajrasattva’s face. We might also look to Virgil, standing on the shores of Mount Purgatory, washing the tears and grime of the woe-filled world from Dante’s face, and restoring its true color with the early morning dew.

Contact with Vajrasattva can have this effect, too: restoring our beauty, making us pure and helping us to know our own true nature. With this vision and knowledge, our return journey will have finally been fulfilled.

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Buddha has cure for Colly (The Mirror, UK)

Bill Daniels, The Mirror: Stan Collymore has found a new weapon in his battle against depression, aggression and bad behaviour… Buddhism.

The ex-England striker, who recently appeared in Five’s The Farm, spent two days at a retreat.

Stan rose at 5am, then took part in chanting, meditation and discussion for up to 12 hours.

He found the techniques so useful he is considering using them every day.

Abbott Ajan Mahalaow said: “Once someone knows themselves inside, they are better equipped to deal with anything.”

Stan, 33, said of his stay in Birmingham: “I won’t be hurrying back for hours of meditation, but I will start in five-minute chunks and see how I go.”

His troubled past includes publicly hitting ex-Ulrika Jonsson and “dogging” where he watched and took part in sex with strangers.

Original article no longer available.

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Meditation: Going home first time (Korea Times)

Zeff Kraus, Korea Times: Everyone knows the fantasy: meditating on an idyllic Eastern mountain peak with birds singing in rhythm to the soft “ttak, ttak” of a temple’s wooden gong. Such images attracted me to Asia 10 years ago, seeking an inner sense of purpose that my upbringing in Canada had not provided. But my first visit to an actual mountain temple outside of Seoul resulted in a monk offering me inner peace ­— for $2,000 in tuition. From this I learned that a mountain peak can be simply a piece of the city mounted high. Luckily, I met a doctor of traditional Eastern medicine who offered to teach me meditation.

I think that my expectations of meditation matched those of most Westerners, since we all learned what to expect from movies and television shows. I knew that I would not really have to shave my head and wear a saffron robe, but I expected that my teacher would have me meditating in a hushed temple with woven mats and ancient statues. In later years, when I started instructing others in meditation, several of my Western students mentioned their fear that they would find meditation boring, a result that would have meant  in their minds that they lacked some unique inner vision. I shared this concern and also feared that I would fail the esoteric art of meditation for petty reasons, such as failing to keep my mind from wandering or being unable to sit in one position for long periods of time.

The reality of my first meditation session was much like the reality of many stereotyped experiences. Half of my expectations were completely confounded, and the expectations that were met surprised me. Instead of a serene temple at dawn, my first meditation experience occurred in my teacher’s apartment after a fine dinner of kalbi and crab. During dinner, my teacher’s sister-in-law expressed her astonishment that I truly wanted to learn meditation. She was a modern Korean and viewed meditation as an outmoded and eccentric pastime. Her astonishment astonished me, for I had always presumed that all Asians revered meditation, and I suppose I even thought that monks were only the highest form of meditators and that all other Asians had at least some cultural experience of the art.

After coffee, my teacher announced: “Let’s meditate!”

His apartment study had a computer station along one wall, his library against a second wall and a meditation shrine against the third. His humble shrine, covered in white paper, had a simple silver water bowl, two white candles and an incense brazier. He and I sat on two cushions side by side and he began the instructions.

“Straighten your back. Breathe with your lower abdomen, like a baby does. Babies have the most perfect, natural breathing rhythm, right from the stomach. Your legs do not have to be in any limb-twisting lotus position, just cross them comfortably.” He gave me more practical advice on how to relax my muscles, where to place my hands and how to hold my head. The instruction that surprised me most was, “Close your eyes, but not all the way.” All the depictions of meditation I had seen had shown people with their eyes closed. But Dr. Shin Min-shik explained, “If you close your eyes, your mind will wander too easily. Instead, leave your eyelids open a crack to keep you grounded in reality.”

I told him that I thought the point of meditation was to transcend reality.

“If you close your eyes,” he explained, “your mind will drift off into your vast pool of memories and start compulsively thinking about everything. That’s analytical meditation, an entirely different form,” he said with a smile. “Besides, if you close your eyes, you’ll fall asleep.”

We meditated in silence at first, listening to our own breathing. After a few minutes, Dr. Shin led me in chanting a fundamental mantra focused on healing he had taught me earlier in his clinic office. At 23 syllables, the Taeul mantra seemed long and complicated to me, but short to him. For a Westerner, a short mantra would be “ohm,’’ but historically, Eastern mantras have stretched as long as ten thousand syllables, comprising the contents of entire tomes of learning.

After a time in which my mind focused on questions such as “Am I doing this properly” and “Am I chanting the mantra right,” I noticed my left hand become cold as though an ice pack were hovering near it and my right hand tingled as though near a heat source. Then, my feet and legs became numb, and this numbness progressed up my legs, chest and arms, until all that remained was the sound of the mantra, my breathing and my mind. A euphoria swelled within me, something that my mind did not recognize, yet could examine with eager curiosity. Eventually, my consciousness felt like a balloon tethered to a speeding car, just tenuously attached to reality.

The clapping of my teacher’s hands, signaling the end of meditation, startled me. I would later learn that sometimes during meditation, when your joints are aching or your body is sick, minutes can seem like hours. But in that first meditation session, what felt like a handful of minutes spent chanting turned out to have been 40 minutes.

Afterward, my emotional elevation evolved into a mindset of peace and expansive awareness. In trying to describe this elevation to friends, I explained that it did not feel like the giddiness of alcohol or sex, but rather like the euphoria one feels upon beginning a journey home. In my subsequent years of meditation, I came to recognize this giddiness as a happy stage that meditators eventually learn to move beyond as they seek the state in which the mind stops speaking and starts listening. Through and beyond this state lies the potential to see the universe as it exists in truth.

The writer works as an editor at the Jeung San Do spiritual organization’s headquarters in Taejon.

Original article no longer available…

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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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Retreat from my retreat (National Public Radio

A year ago this week, Ted Rose abandoned his New York City urban life and headed for the American West. He lives year-round at the Shambhala Mountain Center in the Colorado Rockies. In part three of a week-long series, he talks about how he sometimes needs a retreat from his retreat.

Announcer: This week we’ve been hearing from commentator Ted Rose. A year ago he traded life in New York for life at a Buddhist Retreat Center in the Colorado Rockies. There he planned on spending a lot of time in meditation and contemplation. He never expected to have to make an escape.

Ted Rose: People come up here to Shambhala Mountain Center, they’re usually looking for a break from the regular world. Up here there’s no Walmart, no cellphone service, and no television — just aspen trees, tall wheatgrass, and lots of talk about meditation. This, as the catalogue says, is a place to be renewed and refreshed. This is a special place.

Sharing my breakfast table with a blissed-out urbanite, over our bowls of granola and yogurt, I sometimes am asked that inevitable question: So, what’s it like to live here all the time? I mention the contemplative camaraderie, and the access to teachers, but I rarely discuss my furtive visits to Motel 6.

When I lived in New York City, however socially I spent my days and nights, I could always wake up and enjoy breakfast in the sanctuary of my apartment. I assumed I’d get more of these moments when I moved to a Buddhist retreat in the middle of the Colorado Rockies. In fact, as a staff member at a public Center, I’d signed on to be a permanent host.

And up here, I don’t really have a functioning sanctuary. My home is a beat-up old trailer, and it lacks a kitchen and running water. My neighbors, the mice and the bears, keep me from storing much food there. Any time I want to do something social, like eat or take a shower, I’m on duty. My once sacred breakfast time is now open to anyone who sidles up to my table in the commons dining hall

I’ve learned to be much more gregarious, but sometimes I need some space. And earning just a few hundred dollars a month, I don’t have a lot of money to buy it. That’s how Motel 6 has become my retreat for my retreat.

Attached to the off-ramp of the local Interstate, displaying the cost of a single room occupancy in red lights for all motorists to see, Motel 6 is deliciously banal.

I normally speak to only one person when I visit Motel 6 — the check-in clerk behind the plexiglass screen. The only thing I bring into my room is food — normally three slices of pizza: two for dinner and one for breakfast. My Motel 6 room is equipped with the mundane efficiencies that my picturesque home manages to lack: a sink, a shower, and most important, a cable television.

I’ve been meditating for 3 years, but I’ve been watching TV for decades, and following my breath rarely provides the feeling of simple relaxation, of ease and contentment, that I get quite reliably by spending the night alone on a cheap motel bed.

When it’s time to leave Motel 6 I’m usually ready to go. I leave the plastic key on the dresser and say goodbye to no one and then get in my car and head back up to the mountains, ready to return to my special place.

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Pursuits Of Spirit Contrast With Search For Pleasure (CT Now, Connecticut)

LISA KINGSTONE, CT Now: In 1967, Swami Vishnu was walking along the beach here when an Englishwoman named Natalie Bosworth beckoned to him from her house and invited him in for tea. She then told him of her drug-addicted daughter and asked if he could help.

Swami Vishnu moved in with the Bosworth family, and through meditation helped their daughter overcome her addiction.

When asked by her parents what they could do for him, the practical man asked for beachfront land to build an ashram. The rest is history. More than 30 years later, the ashram still stands on Paradise Island; although the retreat stretches for 5 acres, it is dwarfed by the huge pink luxury hotel and casino, the Atlantis, just a short walk down the beach.

The contrast of the ashram to the Atlantis and the other high-rise hotels here, a three-minute boat ride across the bay from Nassau, is almost comical, but gives it a kind of resonance as a spiritual retreat.

When the huge yachts from the Atlantis drive by the small pink-and-blue dock to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, you can all but hear the megaphone yell. “That place is for foolish people: no gambling, no alcohol, no women, no fun!”

The luxury Atlantis hotel has a 34-acre waterscape (“with a waterslide off a 6-story Mayan temple!” its website boasts), 11 swimming pools, a 7-acre lagoon, enormous casino, golf course, 23 restaurants and two huge towers with high-speed elevators. The Atlantis wants to expand and purchase the land on which the ashram is built, but the Sivananda organization bought the property last year, after signing a 99-year lease, and has no intention to sell.

The luxury of the Atlantis is similar to that of other hotels that have in common the beautiful Bahamian beaches and the constant sound of speedboats and booze cruises with endless rum punch that sail by, with people doing the macarena or singing along to another version of “who let the dogs out.”

The all–you-can-eat buffets and plush, carpeted elevators are in high contrast to the ashram, with its small fountains, simple wood yoga platforms, and bathroom shacks with a sign reading, “Don’t wash your feet in the sink.” There are two lacto-vegetarian meals a day, and you wash your own dishes. One woman remarked that it reminded her of summer camp when she was a child.

“Ashram” is a Hindu term for a spiritual retreat, often in a secluded place, where seekers engage in spiritual practice and study the philosophy of yoga.

The taxi driver who takes me to the dock at Nassau refers to the ashram as “Yoga camp.” People come with duffel bags and backpacks and, in contrast to the $240 rooms at the Atlantis, the same beaches are available for a $50 tent fee (there are also small cabins and semi-private rooms) or $30-a-day pass. Guests need very little and don’t bring valuables because there are no safe deposit boxes. In fact, there are little in the way of material pleasures because the focus is to go inward.

The ashram often attracts people who have become burnt out by urban life and think they can find themselves or simply de-stress. The difference in going to a resort is that someone else de-stresses you — in the form of massage or cocktails. But on a spiritual retreat, the responsibility is on you to seek your own transformation. Many yogis from other places come to deepen their practice.

On the day I arrive, I come through teeming downtown Nassau to Mermaid Dock. Enormous pleasure boats are tied up there, but I step into the small commuter boat to taxi me across the bay. The day is windy and seawater splashes in. The meandering path from the landing passes a mural of the many-armed goddess Kali and bougainvillea plants. Little paths wander off, with hand-painted signs pointing to the boutique or bathrooms or reception.

“Reception” is the size of a beach hot-dog stand. A woman greets me with a lilting Irish accent. “Don’t mind the bird on my neck,” she says. (Apparently, the dove had been injured earlier that day and she is caring for it.) Everyone helping run the ashram is from somewhere else — Canada, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, New York City. Shankara, who has lived at the ashram for 10 years, leads us around, talking about how simplicity of atmosphere is common in spiritual places.

“When I went to north India to the most holy place, there was pig and monkey [droppings] everywhere.” He looks around at the huts where the paint is peeling a little. “The sea air makes it hard to maintain. Some people from New York come here and say ‘aargh’ when the see the simple accommodations. But when you do yoga, you enter another world. They complain at first, but after three days they say, ‘I never felt so good in my life.’

“If they are really upset at first, I just show them the beach and everything’s fine,” he says, smiling.

Some people come for the day, but most come for at least three. Most of the people running the ashram are spiritual seekers who live there in exchange for work.

Although on the tour I find myself sharing the same judgmental thoughts as the New Yorkers he referred to, by the end of my day the place seems transformed. I attend the asana class on the Bay platform, on the leeward side of the island. Asana is the physical aspect of yoga, made up of poses sometimes linked to prepare the body for meditation. (Yoga in the West has become synonymous with asana practice.)

Sometimes an asana class includes meditation and pranayama, or yogic breathing. As I lie in savasana (corpse pose), the waves slap soothingly against the wood beneath me.

I have the first 10 o’clock meal on the simple benches that sit on the island’s windy, ocean side. The food is colorful and tasty, and could be breakfast or lunch: porridge with a selection of toppings, beans, rice, fresh spinach greens, zucchini salad and an assortment of homemade bread with homemade peanut butter and jams. I chew my food slowly and notice the different flavors. Some people socialize while they eat, but others sit meditatively, looking at the palm trees or rough waves, or write in journals.

After my meal, I walk to the exquisite beach. The sand is white and powdery underfoot. There are palm trees, and the water is that particular blue that allows you to see the shells and rocks. The sun is warm, and the wind keeps away the bugs.

As the sun gets hotter, I leave the beach to go the boutique, where I buy lemon sorbet and sit in an old wooden chair in the shade of a sea grape tree, tasting each melting spoonful. I read for an hour and then book a reflexology appointment with a practitioner who goes simply by Ed. He is over 80, and his hands have had more than 30 years’ experience. I couldn’t believe that my feet hold the key to my entire body, but I believe it when I walk out.

I start to notice other details about the ashram, such as trees growing out of the platform of the meditation temple and through the roof of one of the shacks. Shankara tells me later that one of the conditions of the lease was that no trees could be cut down. There are no bugs, and blooming everywhere are tiny fluorescent-colored flowers that remind me of the fish one sees when snorkeling nearby. Nearby, coconut and tamarind grow.

The dirt is soft, and the smell of the ocean is tantalizing. Sand, rocks and shallow roots make the ground uneven and wild. When I pass people on the twisty paths, they are walking slowly, like me, and smile, but we find no need for chitchat. A man walks by with a companion, and I hear him say, “I haven’t slept that well in months.”

I bond immediately with all of the people I meet. A mother and daughter on their yearly trip together, an architect who lost her husband to cancer and is here recovering, a young New Yorker who works in management and whose friend told her to come here. “When I heard there were no newspapers, I panicked,” she admits.

The ashram requires that you attend the morning meditation at 6 and an asana class. “If you go to all activities, you feel very blessed,” says Shankara, although he knows many will resist it. He refers to one 75-year-old Texas millionaire who came and never took off his cowboy hat. When they urged him to start coming to morning mediation, he said, “I’ll send my secretary.”

At the ashram, your day can include asana, meditation, chanting, lectures by spiritual leaders, helping clean and maintain the ashram, reflection, reading and swimming in the ocean.

It’s that simple, which is exactly the point.

Gopal, a slim young man from Israel who is the current director, says, “We complicate our lives with stress and material things.” He looks around at the picnic benches and dirt paths. ” I think even this is too complicated,” he says with a smile.

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Meditating teens: This is your brain on vacation (Dallas News, Texas)

ROBIN GALIANO RUSSELL, The Dallas Morning News: Teens discover special benefits from meditation

If you’re a teenager, you might be chilling out this summer with a good video game, a favorite CD or the latest movie.

But some area teens have learned how to chill through meditation, focusing on breathing and relaxing the muscles to free the mind of distractions.

And unlike other forms of relaxation, the benefits of meditation last throughout the day. Daily meditation helps reduce stress, improve focus and develop positive attitudes, says Gen Kelsang Sangye, a Buddhist monk from England who is the resident teacher at the Vajradakini Buddhist Center for Meditation in Irving.

“Meditation helps us control our mind. Rather than react, you can respond in a peaceful way with gratitude,” he says.

This year, the center offered its first Buddhist summer school for teens, aiming to teach them the fine art of doing nothing. A half-dozen Dallas-area teens enrolled. They learned how to meditate for five or 10 minutes at a time through guided instruction.

Sitting with backs straight, heads tilted slightly forward, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed and hands in laps, they focused on breathing deeply and releasing muscle tension in various body parts, from their foreheads to their toes.

“When our mind becomes still, we become happy,” Gen Sangye says later. “There is so much noise and energy going on, but you realize there is a choice. As an individual, I can choose myself. As a teen, you can be so influenced by those around us that it seems we don’t have a choice. Children have so much energy, but they can focus. It’s giving them the opportunity to do that.”

WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE HAD TO SAY ABOUT MEDITATION SUMMER CAMP

Brooke Husereau, 15, of Garland
Why she came: “I came to drawing class here a few weeks ago and wanted to learn more. I can find myself here.”

How she does it: “You focus on one thing and really get into it. You learn to take all your thoughts, put them in a bag and leave them outside.”

How meditation makes her feel: “Sometimes I feel stressed before I meditate. After, I’m very relaxed. I like to do it early in the morning when you can hear all the birds. You find yourself. You’re just happy and peaceful.”

Dhiren Parbhoo, 13, of Dallas
Why he came: “My mother signed me up. My dad does meditation. It’s really hard to lose your concentration when it’s guided.”

Why he likes meditation: “It’s calming the mind. It relieves stress and calms you down. It’s kind of a reliever.”

Robin Galiano Russell Allison Braley, 9, of Frisco
Why she likes to meditate: “My mom and dad decided to become Buddhist together. I talk about it a lot with my dad. Meditation helps us get a grasp on our religion and learn what happens to us, to our bodies.”

How she meditates: “You want to have a guided meditation at first. It’s pretty hard. It takes a few times to focus. The best place is outside on a calm, peaceful day. It’s just so calm, like the ocean when no one else is around.”

Alisha Wakefield, 14, of Dallas
Why she came: “The guided meditation keeps you on track. He’ll bring you back. This will get it flowing for me. I’ll do it before bed. Or before and after doing homework. It helps you focus on whatever you want to do.”

How she feels during meditation: “Before, I’m just normal, awake, I guess. After, you’re still kind of in a haze. You have to slowly get out of it. You don’t want to get back to the world. I want to just keep doing what I’m doing. It’s just soothing and relaxing. Like, after a day of doing everything, it’s like taking a bubble bath.”

Nathan Holloway, 15, of Mesquite
Why he came: “I was invited by a friend. I’ve been meditating for four years. I borrowed a yoga book to try it, and it brought me to a state of peace. At first, I used it as an escape. It made me more outgoing, more comfortable with myself and with others.”

How he meditates: “I play peaceful nature music in my room, and I use oil or incense and candles. I use a yoga mat. Actually, a lot of friends call me a hippie. I focus on what happened during the day. I’ve actually meditated up to 45 minutes at a time.”

How it makes him feel: “Before, I’m exhausted from the day and whatnot. During, I’m very relaxed and in a state of peace. It’s quite relaxing. After, you feel very refreshed.”

Why guys need meditation: “It’s hormones. You’re trying to show up. You have to be big and bad to fit in. To be cool, you have to fight. I just turn around and walk off.”

Suhasini Yeeda, 15, of Mesquite
Why she meditates: “When you have a lot of stress, it helps you find peace. It improves your concentration. If you repeat something, it becomes more real.”

How she meditates: “I meditate in my room in the morning. It energizes me. It both refreshes me and it energizes me. I use a meditation handbook. Physically, you feel like you’re not even there, like floating on water.”

How meditation helps teens: “It helps you release attachment. With girls, it’s attachment to guys and to makeup. With guys, it’s anger.”

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

Gen Kelsang Sangye uses guided instruction to talk the students through the basic steps of meditation. Students are seated with backs straight, eyes closed and hands in laps as they listen:

“Focus on your own body and nothing else. From the crown of your head, down to the forehead. If you have a headache, let that go. Moving down to the face, checking out the area around your eyes, down to the jaw, relax those facial muscles. At the back of the neck, let the tension dissolve into an empty space. Just relax your shoulders. Try to lower your shoulders. Relax the chest area and the stomach. Move around to your back. Focus on your spine. Imagine you’re climbing down your spine. Now the legs, thighs, knees, calf muscles. Spread your toes and any tension dissolves.

“Now your body’s comfortable. Focus on your brain, on your breathing. Feel the breath to the tip of your nostrils,” he says, reminding them there’s a close relationship between the breath and the mind.

“If your mind has moved away from the breath, move it back once more to the sensations of the nostrils,” Gen Sangye tells them.

Gen Sangye then is silent to allow students to meditate. Advanced students might focus on Buddhist virtues such as compassion, patience and wisdom. Beginners concentrate on allowing their minds to rest as they focus only on their breathing.

After five minutes, he gently taps a bell and tells students to slowly open their eyes.

“It’s like being in Texas on a very hot day and finding cool water,” he says. “At the beginning, it’s difficult because our minds are like little fish dancing in the water. After time, our concentration gets better.”

For information on meditation programs at the Vajradakini Buddhist Center for Meditation, visit www.meditationintexas.org or call 972-871-2611.

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Prayer for a solution (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Hawaii)

Mary Adamski, Honolulu Star-Bulletin: A Honolulu church believes it’s found the perfect site for a meditation center, a wooded mountaintop retreat with an ocean view.

But there’s no peace and quiet to be found in the reception from the neighbors.

More than 70 Pacific Heights residents turned out at the Tuesday Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board meeting to protest the planned $8 million center at the top of the hillside neighborhood. It was their fourth round before the board with concerns that it will bring traffic, noise and parking problems and introduce visitor lodging in a residential area. They intend to continue their fight at City Hall where an application for a conditional use permit was filed with the Department of Planning and Permitting.

At the center of the storm is the Institute for Research in Human Happiness, a group unknown to the neighbors before it bought the 3.2-acre site, former home of Hawaiian author John Dominis Holt and his wife, Frances Damon Holt, both deceased.

It’s a new experience for the church, which has 12 meditation centers in Japan. But it’s not the first church to meet a hostile reception, even though residential zoning allows for places of worship.

The Rev. Sean Matsumoto said the congregation is “confused and sad” about neighborhood response.

“We want to be good neighbors. We’re very quiet, no loud chanting, no gongs.”

About 30 people at a time would attend three-day directed meditation seminars at the center, he said. Attendees would spend two nights in housing described as a monastery. The meditation is a basic facet of the faith and only members would attend the center, he said.

One of the new religions that have arisen in Japan in recent years, the IRH literature describes its teachings as “based on the spirit of Buddhism.” Studying the writings of founder and leader Ryuho Okawa and self-reflective meditation are the core spiritual practices.

DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Rev. Sean Matsumoto, director of the Hawaii branch of the Institute for Research in Human Happiness, said his congregation is “confused and sad” about the response to the church’s plans.

Okawa, 47, turned away from his financial business career to found Kofuku-no-Kagaku — “science of happiness” — in 1986. It was brought in 1994 to the United States, where there are centers in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and in 1995 to Hawaii .

Okawa’s books are sold in major American bookstores. One was the basis of a 2003 animated movie, “Golden Laws,” that played in Hawaii theaters.

Kofuku-no-Kagaku has “an appeal similar to New Age religions, with a cosmology about a new, better world and the focus on the individual,” said University of Hawaii religion professor George Tanabe. “It’s not family-based as traditional Buddhism is. It’s about how an individual person can gain a wisdom, a higher level of consciousness. … That kind of appeal is fairly popular in Japan.”

“We focus on everyday practice and self-reflection,” said Matsumoto, director of the Hawaii branch, which has 300 members.

Okawa’s writing “is based on Buddha’s teaching and translated into contemporary life,” he said. Members are expected to practice four principles:

» Love that gives.

» Study wisdom.

» Self-reflection.

» Progress in spiritual life.

“Members are encouraged to study other teachings, such as the good ideas from Christianity,” Matsumoto said.

The Rev. Akira Fujii, a director from Japan, said: “With wisdom, you move to be open to new ideas. The idea of progress and change is to be open and flexible, to listen and learn from everyone.”

They spoke in an interview at the church’s meeting rooms at 1259 S. Beretania St., where an altar containing a gold dharma wheel, a symbol of Buddhist teaching, and a large hanging video screen are the focal points.

They didn’t have the opportunity to share their spiritual ideas at the neighborhood board meeting four hours later. The crowd didn’t come to listen anyway.

“This use is inappropriate,” said Pacific Heights resident Michael Lilly, former state attorney general. “We do not need another commercial operation on this road.”

Gayle Chestnut said: “This is a lodging facility first and a meditation center second. Lodging isn’t a legal use.”

Chestnut told the Nuuanu board there are a total of 240 signatures on a petition against the meditation center.

“There are as many reasons for opposing it as there are residents,” Chestnut said later.

Nearly everyone in the crowd signed up to speak, but board Chairman Joe Magaldi called for one spokesman from each side, saying the board has heard all the arguments at three earlier meetings. He and other board members were heckled by the noisy crowd, especially when the six votes for a resolution backing the neighbors was two short of a sufficient majority to pass it.

An artist sketched this rendition of what the proposed Institute for Research in Human Happiness meditation center would look like.

The other five board members present abstained from voting, citing the fear of lawsuit, a threat that has dogged neighborhood boards since Manoa board members were sued for their stand in a landlord-tenant dispute. The city paid $20,000 in settlement, and two members also had to pay.

Matsumoto said the church intends to honor the history of the old home, built in 1927, which was once occupied by Princess Kahunu, the widow of Prince Kuhio.

The church paid previous owner Bishop Museum $3.6 million for property. The home and adjoining buildings, unoccupied for more than three years, are so deteriorated and moldy that church members and consultants wear masks when they enter, he said.

Matsumoto said: “We know we have provided mitigation to meet neighbors’ concerns. The design of the new building is similar to the old profile.” Parking for 30 vehicles will be below the road and out of sight.

“We had a traffic survey that showed impact would be minimal.”

Magaldi said the board will forward the petitions and neighborhood concerns to Eric Crispin, director of the Department of Planning and Permitting. The law does not require a public hearing before he makes a decision on a conditional use permit.

Chestnut said: “In my opinion, this is not a conditional use permit, this is a variance from permitted use. If they were going to meet on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’d say OK. But I’m opposed to transient lodging in a residential area. That’s a commercial use.”

Matsumoto said the center would be only for members and only for religious training.

“We are absolutely different from a hotel or a bed and breakfast,” he said. “Someone said we would be strangers coming in. “We are members of the community. We only want a chance to practice our religion.”

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