A small circle of strangers sat cross-legged on red cushions, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. The smell of incense lingered in the silent, peaceful air.
“Take a minute to notice where your emotional state is,” said Rebekka Martorano, teacher of the class. “It’s great to start out just noticing your body and noticing it sitting on your cushion.”
This spiritual group of people is not a gathering of monks in an ancient Buddhist temple. They are ordinary Davisites learning the practice of meditation at the Davis Shambhala Meditation Center.
“There’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of feeling of having to go go go, a lot of mental energy thinking about things, and so I think to take some time to have some space just to sit still is a real benefit to students,” said Martorano, also director of the center. “It’s a real shift just to be present and not follow the usual methods of distracting ourselves.”
The center, a Davis fixture for about 30 years, teaches the art of Tibetan Buddhist meditation in the Shambhala lineage. The goal of meditation is to learn to be present and aware of what is happening in your body and environment – ultimately leading to an enlightened state of mind.
“Most of us are used to being caught up in our mind and thinking about planning, strategizing or what happened in the past. When we start meditation it’s shocking to notice actually how little of time we’re actually right here, present with what’s happening,” Martorano said. “We’re not used to doing that and it’s not necessarily encouraged by the fast pace of our lives.”
This past Monday, the center began a weekly Intro to Meditation class. From 7 to 8 p.m., anyone interested in practicing the basic tenants of Shambhala Buddhist meditation can learn from instructors, free of charge.
The class begins by lighting incense and ringing a small gong. Students sit on cushions laid the floor in a comfortable, relaxed position.
Then comes the tricky part – to sit quietly and focus on one’s own body and breathing, instead of the thoughts that come into mind.
“The way that we’re taught to work with our thoughts in practice is to notice the thoughts, but try and not pay attention to what the thought actually is; just notice the thinking,” said Richard Darsie, a Shambhala guide. “If we get involved in the content of our thoughts that just makes the thoughts proliferate more. So we just notice the thinking and let go. A big part of the practice is letting go.”
With practice, meditators can become more successful at reaching a peaceful and thought-free state. The name “Shambhala” can be translated to “peaceful abiding,” or abiding with whatever emotions come up, said Martorano.
“The practice has the potential of bringing us to the point of being able to abide peacefully with those non-peaceful manifestations,” Darsie said.
Students who enjoy the introductory class can attend the Shambhala Training weekend classes for more advanced instruction. A minimum donation of $10 is required. Beginners can also attend the free morning chants at 9 a.m. on Sundays and 6 a.m. on Thursdays.
Meditation offers students a chance to learn new methods for coping with daily pressures and anxieties.
“Students, like all of us, are stressed. A typical response is to go have a beer, or distract yourself, and that may work, but maybe someone is also looking for some other ways to work with that to find a sense of relaxation and space,” Martorano said.
Amanda Hodson, a volunteer at the center, said that meditation has helped her to relax and give her full attention to whatever task she’s working on.
“I definitely notice I’m more able to focus. Like when I’m doing something I’m actually doing it instead of thinking about 10 other things while I’m doing it,” said Hodson, a graduate student in entomology. “I can kind of relax and I think that the meditation helps with that. We train in coming back to our breath and so that becomes the habit instead of trying to distract myself.”
Becoming proficient in meditation helps people learn to accept the changes in their lives and embrace their own existence.
“What we’re doing with this practice is quite radical,” Martorano said. “We’re saying the solution isn’t to try to figure out how to control all of these factors, but to actually be much more open.”
For more information about the Davis Shambhala Meditation Center, visit davis.shambhala.org/index.php.
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.