Calm down

Can Sacramento meditation practices help us learn to quiet the noise and cultivate appreciation for our world?

Photo By Mike Iredale

On one of the most exquisite days of Sacramento’s summer, three dozen people elected to spend the day indoors, sitting straight-backed in a darkened room, paying careful attention to the inner workings of their minds and the wisdom of an unassuming Zen master.

What could motivate these ordinary people to sit silently for many hours, settling into a formless meditation called shikantaza, paying no mind to thoughts as they arise, simply bringing the attention back home over and over again each time it wandered?

The promise of enlightenment, perhaps?

Lin Jensen, who led the retreat sponsored by the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group that’s met weekly to study all Buddhist traditions for the past 20 years, believes there’s an overemphasis on enlightenment in popular discourse on Buddhism and meditation.

“Soto Zen says you’re already enlightened, you just haven’t noticed it,” said Jensen, senior Buddhist chaplain to High Desert State Prison in Susanville and founder of the Chico Zen Sangha, noting that he found being asked to hold still when he first began meditation a revolutionary idea.

The stillness of meditation is all about the noticing.

Most religions incorporate some form of meditation into their traditions, and in recent years the contemplative practice has been swelling in popularity, with millions of Americans now reporting that they meditate.

That upswing can be evidenced beyond a doubt in the Sacramento region.

Why do they meditate? They do it for stress relief, to control pain and to achieve emotional balance. They practice it to become familiar with a new way of perceiving themselves and the world. And they endure it to cultivate loving kindness or compassion.

Enlightenment? Maybe. Maybe not.

Meditation has been around since at least the time of the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago, and there are many methods espoused for finding peace and liberation through the practice. Dozens are represented in the Sacramento region, and SN&R visited a handful to give you the scoop on where they are and what to expect when you visit.

Nearly all are run completely by volunteers and operate through donations. Some recognize the existence of an external deity, though most speak only of the divinity within. All welcome newcomers and don’t require that you become a Buddhist, a yogi or even a Christian to engage in meditation. What SN&R found is that at their cores, they’re all aiming for the same result through contemplative practice: the equanimity to engage life with generosity and kindness.

Engage the world

Theravada Buddhism: Sacramento Insight Meditation

Twice a month on Thursday evenings, several dozen Sacramentans gather in the Friends meeting house (Quakers) near Sacramento State to work at cultivating their minds through a practice called vipassana, or insight meditation, which is the simple and direct practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness.

Some sit on cushions, but most sit in chairs aligned inside the arc of the circular meeting hall. They come together as members of the Sacramento Insight Meditation group to practice the four foundations of mindfulness: contemplation of the body, feelings, mind and dharma (the teachings of Buddhism, or simply “the way things are”).

Like many meditative techniques, vipassana begins by paying attention to the breath to help calm and focus the mind. But what distinguishes insight meditation from many other practices is that in it nothing is pushed away, said Diane Wilde, a teaching mentor at SIM. “We engage with whatever comes to the forefront during meditation—a really strong feeling … the sounds of birds chirping—we investigate it.”

From this mindful awareness comes a deep understanding about the reality of the world and ultimately freedom from the often painful results of reacting in a conditioned, or not mindful, way.

“Are we aware of what we’re putting out in the world for ourselves and for others?” Wilde said in explaining the goal of mindfulness meditation. “It’s not a retreat from the world—it’s engaging the world with compassion and understanding.

“God, yes, it’s hard!” she said. “However, for the people who stick with it—what a difference. I work with men at Folsom prison who are no longer suffering.

“It’s possible,” Wilde said. “But the question is, do you want to make [a] commitment or not? It means less TV, less Internet, more mindfulness.”

Amy Wheeler works on calmness at the Davis Shambhala Meditation Center.

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Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg are among the most well-known American teachers in this tradition. Kornfield teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin, and many local teachers have studied with him and teach there themselves. SIM’s supervising senior teacher, John Travis, is a member of Spirit Rock’s Senior Teachers Council and is the founding teacher of Mountain Stream Meditation Center in Auburn.

A reputation for discipline

Soto Zen Buddhism: Valley Streams Zen Sangha

On a recent Monday night, 25 Zen students sat in a makeshift zendo in East Sacramento, contemplating a belief posted by the Dalai Lama on Facebook that a surefire cure for anxiety is to focus attention away from one’s self and toward others.

“Yes,” said Myo Denis Lahey, guiding teacher of the Valley Streams Zen Sangha, before posing the question: “But if there is no inherent existence, how then can compassion for fellow beings arise?”

Discussion meandered around the question for a half-hour, with both the flashes of clarity and cloudy ambiguity Zen is famous for when exploring the burning questions of existence that the tradition holds cannot be answered by dualist Cartesian reasoning. The discussion led by Lahey, teacher in residence at San Francisco’s Hartford Street Zen Center in the lineage established in the 1960s by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, capped off the evening that began with 30 minutes of meditation.

Earlier that evening, sangha members had turned The Yoga Solution’s largest studio into a meditation hall. Students dress modestly in black or dull colors and sit on cushions or chairs facing the wall in silence.

While meditation—called zazen in this tradition—is about training the mind, it’s not as some mistakenly believe about eliminating all thought or transcending ordinary experience. Jim Hare, who has served as ino, or head of the meditation hall, since 2002, describes the practice this way: “We wouldn’t stand by a stream and say that with the power of our concentration, we make the stream flow. Similarly, we don’t say about zazen that with the power of our concentration we awaken to true mind. True mind is fully awake. Meditation is the noticing of this never-beginning, never-ending wakefulness of mind.”

Expect incense, bells, bowing, chanting and walking meditation at Valley Streams Zen Sangha. Beginning meditation instruction, which is offered before the practice period on Monday evenings and through a Tuesday-night course beginning in October, focuses on teaching newcomers the forms of practice.

Zen’s reputation for strict discipline can be off-putting, and some may react to what they see as the conformity of the sitting postures, mudras for holding hands, severity of dress and seeming isolation involved in facing a blank wall. Hare notes that practicing with others supports individual resolve, and he likens the discipline of Zen to his experience of learning to play the violin.

“Anyone who’s ever played the violin knows you can’t just put your fingers down anywhere and make music,” Hare explained. “Through many people’s study of the violin, there’s developed a narrow way to play it. The more I became adept at the technique, the better I played.”

Riding the breath

Tibetan Buddhism: Davis Shambhala Meditation Center

Buddhism explodes into color in the Tibetan tradition. In a second-floor suite of a strip-mall-type building on D Street, practitioners enter the Davis Shambhala Meditation Center’s meditation hall through a shiny red door. There’s more color inside, with rectangular red and gold meditation blocks positioned atop neat rows of red mats facing an altar adorned with bright-colored tapestries, flowers, candles, bowls and gold-colored statues.

In a separate room on a Monday evening, senior student Richard Darsie instructed a handful of beginners in the basics of shamatha meditation, which is also known as peaceful, or calm, abiding. Again, the basic instruction is to focus awareness on the breath, either by feeling the sense of breath in the chest, the abdomen or the base of the nostrils, following the breath until the awareness is “riding the breath” as it moves in and out of the body.

As thoughts inevitably arise, they’re acknowledged, labeled “thinking,” and they fade from awareness. Each time a flash of awareness occurs that awareness has wandered from the breath, the instruction is to bring the focus back gently to the motion of breath. With practice, the frequency and duration of these wanderings diminishes.

Darsie was drawn to this tradition primarily because of its focus on working with emotions through meditation. Working intelligently with emotions can help us make less trouble for ourselves in our everyday lives, he explained.

“Our minds are addicted to complexity and drama,” Darsie said. “The repetition of meditation wears away our habitual ways of thinking, and helps us cultivate gentleness toward ourselves and appreciation for our world.”

Meditation is an opportunity to rest the mind by paying attention to what’s before it. Like other traditions, Shambhala aims to move mindfulness into all aspects of daily life. Darsie explained: “There’s no activity in your life that would not benefit from paying more attention to it.”

Darsie also spoke of the difficulty of meditation and cautioned newcomers against thinking it’s some sort of quick fix to the ordinary suffering of life that everyone experiences.

“You have to turn toward the parts of yourself you don’t like. It’s like sitting in a bath of manure,” he said. “But you surround yourself with space and nonjudgmental kindness as you come face to face with all your stuff.”

Shambhala was founded in 1973 by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, artist, author and poet. His son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, leads the tradition today. The Northern California Shambhala senior dharma teacher is Pema Chödrön, a best-selling author and well-known teacher who has opened some previously advanced meditative practices like tonglen to followers in the West.

Students rest on rectangular meditation blocks and ride their breath at Davis Shambhala Meditation Center.

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Walk this way

Walking meditation: the labyrinth, Episcopal Church of St. Martin

Most Buddhist and other religious traditions incorporate some form of walking meditation into their practices. But moving meditation is not what most people typically associate with Christian faiths—that is, unless they’ve tapped into the recent resurgence of interest in walking the labyrinth.

The region’s most stunning labyrinth can be found at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis. It’s modeled after the world-famous labyrinth built at the Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220. Like that one, it’s about 42 feet in diameter and leads the walker one-quarter mile along a single path over 11 different circuits.

A labyrinth isn’t a maze. There are no tricks to it, no decisions to be made and no dead ends. Some say that walking one is like holding up a mirror to reveal your life. You’re never sure where the path will lead you, but ultimately you find yourself at the center of the circle. Then you set out to return to where you began.

St. Martin members laid down the labyrinth created by famed designer Robert Ferre in just 10 days, completing it in November 2009. The church installed it to enhance parishioners’ spiritual experience, as well for outreach to the community.

Walking it takes about 15 minutes, more or less, depending on your own pace and labyrinth etiquette, which demands that walkers follow the path and try to stay out the way of other walkers along the path.

“But if no one’s walking the labyrinth, there’s no problem walking across it,” said Janet Lane, senior warden and president of the church’s board. “It’s kind of sacred space, but for a recent celebration we set up a bubble machine in the center and let the kids play.”

The benefits of walking include meditation, relaxation, balance, enjoyment and contemplation or prayer, Lane said, adding that “the energy of people walking produces good vibes.”

Lane, who shepherded the labyrinth into existence, has seen students sitting in its center studying, a group of turbaned Sikhs walking it and people from the medical center across the street finding their centers along its meandering concrete and resin path.

“We’re just really glad it’s being used,” Lane said.

The revival of interest has spawned other labyrinths across the region, including a monthly walk at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Midtown Sacramento, one at the Methodist church in Davis, a couple cut into the grass at the Davis Cemetery and others.

The space between the eyebrows

Raja yoga: Self-Realization Fellowship

The Self-Realization Fellowship was founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, who is often credited with introducing Westerners to meditation and yoga. Many arrive at the SRF’s doors after reading his 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi.

That’s how Michael Mair, who coordinates the Self-Realization Fellowship group in Carmichael, came to practice the raja yoga—or meditation practices—advanced by Yogananda. Devoted practice of the highest level of meditation, called kriya yoga, is said to lead to “realization of God and liberation of the soul from all forms of bondage.” In his autobiography, Yogananda explained that “Elijah, Jesus, Kabir and other prophets were past masters in the use of Kriya or a similar technique, by which they caused their bodies to dematerialize at will.”

Adherents don’t get to practice the advanced techniques of kriya yoga until they’ve spent at least a year in study and preparatory exercises and have decided to enter into “the sacred guru-disciple relationship.” And no one can learn the techniques from anyone other than the original source. The reason for that, Mair said, is to prevent the kind of errors of transmission that result from passing along messages as happens in the children’s game of Chinese Whispers, or as we Americans more commonly call it, Telephone. Yogananda died in 1952, but the tradition continues on from headquarters in Los Angeles.

The local Self-Realization Fellowship center, situated in a quiet residential neighborhood, feels more like a church than any yoga studio you’ve ever visited. Rows of pews fill the main hall. In place of a cross on the altar hang the pictures of Yogananda, various Indian saints and Jesus Christ, who’s counted as a guru in the tradition’s lineage.

On a Wednesday night, a series of “energization exercises” practiced in the courtyard preceded meditation. Designed to draw “cosmic energy into the body through the medulla oblongata by the power of will,” the exercises felt more like basic calisthenics as the leader suggested they might at first glance. The resulting relaxation provided a foundation for a two-hour session of prayer, chants to the accompaniment of a squeeze-box harmonium and meditation to come.

“Heavenly father, divine mother … help me convert from limited human consciousness to cosmic consciousness,” the half-dozen members of the group prayed to begin the session.

The basic meditation instruction given is to focus attention on the spiritual eye, or the space between the eyebrows. Meditators sat in straight-backed chairs in a darkened room separate from the main church facing a mini-altar showing the same guru’s images. A peculiar-looking wooden instrument—a board 3 inches wide and about 3 feet long—attached in the center to an adjustable length of pole sat on the floor next to each person’s chair. Some time into the first meditation period, each person positioned the pole on the chair between their legs, rested their arms on the flat of the board and raised their hands to their heads with splayed fingers straddling their temples.

Written lessons that promise to explain the mystery are available from SRF headquarters for a small fee to cover duplication and shipping.

Diane Bamforth negotiates the labyrinth at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis.

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Concentrate, observe, detach

Sivananda yoga: Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm

Fifteen miles west of Grass Valley, the hot, dry countryside on one early fall day opened into a green oasis, where hammocks were strung between majestic shade trees, lounge chairs sat beside a seductive pond, and visitors strolled talking softly in couples or trios past an outdoor yoga platform, meditation temples, cottages, tents and corrals housing pet lamas and goats.

Some came just for the day, others were staying longer for retreats and workshops of varying lengths, and still others live at the yoga farm, which is one of the two Sivananda monastic communities in the United States. The tradition boasts that it’s a synthesis by Swami Sivananda of all the myriad traditional yoga paths. It was brought from India to the West by Swami Vishnu-devananda. Devotees dress modestly in yellow shirts—symbolic of learning—and white pants—symbolic of teaching. Peaceful relaxation is the unmistakable vibe at the 80-acre ashram, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in April.

Meditation is practiced in the tradition, but it’s the end of the five points of Sivananda yoga rather than the beginning: proper exercise (asanas), proper breathing (pranayama), proper relaxation (savasana), proper diet (vegetarian) and meditation (dhyana).

Silent and guided meditation to condition the mind to be “here and now” is performed each morning and evening. The daily routine also includes two hours of yoga asanas, a half-hour of chanting and two vegetarian meals.

Everything is geared to minimize distraction, said Swami Sitaramananda, who has directed the ashram for the past 15 years. Of all the traditions of yoga, this one has a reputation for completely transforming one’s life. “We lead a balanced life to bring about a balanced mind.”

Yoga exercises, or asanas, circulate energy in preparation for meditation. Specialized breathing techniques and mantras chanted in Sanskrit moderate the emotions, calming and focusing the mind. The idea is that when body and energy are under control, meditation comes naturally. Sitaramananda called meditation a “spiritual science of controlling the mind” that yogis use to inquire into their own true nature and into the nature of reality.

The meditation methods involve concentration, observing and detaching from thoughts and aims, and a complete transcendence of the mind and merging with the absolute reality. Sitaramananda said, “The goal is self-realization.”

Find your own path

Nearly everyone SN&R talked to mentioned having found the “right path,” and they expect to follow it throughout their lifetimes. Having found vipassana 10 years ago after trying Zen, Hindu and martial arts, Sacramento Insight Meditation’s Wilde concluded: “This is the way I want to live my life.”

Most have experimented with other forms of meditation practices. Many, including the guide at the yoga farm’s open house, Mair from the Self-Realization Fellowship and Darsie, now with the Davis Shambhala Meditation Center, started out practicing Zen.

“A lot of people try it—it fits for only a minority,” said the Valley Streams Zen Sangha’s Hare, quoting a saying common among Christian ministers: “‘They comes, and they goes. But mostly they goes.’

“Only a handful finds the practice moves them so that they’re willing to endure the difficulties, especially when they don’t see immediate breathtaking results,” Hare said.

“It’s very much about your own personal experience,” Mair said. “Choose what resonates with you and then follow up.”

Whether individuals meditate in a completely secular and nonideological way—with methods such as those thrust into the mainstream by teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the best seller Wherever You Go, There You Are—or choose to follow one of the timeless contemplative paths, diligent practice promises liberation from suffering and peace of heart and mind.

What if you don’t find it? Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, had some advice about that during a visit to Sacramento several years ago: “If meditation has not transformed your life, then you better ask yourself what you’ve been doing.”


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Meditate local

Davis Shambhala Meditation Center
Meditation instruction at 9 a.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Thursdays
133 D Street, Suite H in Davis

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin
Labyrinth open during daylight hours
640 Hawthorne Lane in Davis

Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group
Meets Sundays at 7 p.m.
Social hall, Congregation B’nai Israel
3600 Riverside Boulevard

Sacramento Insight Meditation
Second and fourth Thursdays at 7 p.m.
Sacramento Friends meeting house • 890 57th Street

Self-Realization Fellowship
Meets Sundays at 10 a.m. and Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
4513 North Avenue in Carmichael

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm
Next open house: November 21
14651 Ballantree Lane in Grass Valley

Valley Streams Zen Sangha
Meets Mondays at 7 p.m.
The Yoga Solution • 887 57th Street, Suite B