An eye of calm in the city

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2004

In bustling downtown Juneau lies an oasis of peace.

Right above the Heritage Cafe is the Shambhala Meditation Center. Every weekday during lunch hour, people can go to the center for 40 minutes of meditation. A timekeeper sits next to a Buddhist shrine and strikes a gong to mark the beginning of the session. Recently, as rain swept the roof and the wind roared outside, four people sat cross-legged and focused on breathing in and out.

"The Shambhala tradition takes breath as the object of meditation. It's handy," said Diane Mayer, a volunteer meditation instructor, after the session. "The breath helps synchronize mind and body."

Whether they are Buddhists or not, many Juneau residents find solace in meditation. The Shambhala Meditation Center has about 140 active members. Others meditate on their own.

Melissa Howell, who meditates every day at home, said the practice helps her relax.

"If I don't meditate, I get angry more easily," said Howell, 38. "Meditation is about understanding how your mind works, about contacting your basic goodness so you can develop an open heart and compassion for others."

The Shambhala center offers meditation sessions in the morning, at noon and in the evening. Some people meditate at home by themselves or in small groups.

Eastern meditation teachers visited the United States in the 1930s, and the practice became popular in the 1960s, when the Beatles traveled to India to learn meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Chgyam Trungpa, a Tibetan who came to the United States in 1970, further popularized meditation by introducing many Americans to Tibetan Buddhism.

"Through the practice of sitting still and following your breath as it goes out and dissolves, you are connecting with your heart," Trungpa wrote in his book "Shambhala: The Secret Path of the Warrior." "By simply letting yourself be, as you are, you develop genuine sympathy towards yourself."

Some people think meditation is just sitting on one spot and not moving for a period of time. People who have meditated said it actually is hard work.

"It took me two years to find my most comfortable position. And it takes a lot of experimentation to find the right cushion," Howell said. "In the Shambhala tradition, you meditate with your eyes open. My thoughts initially raced a lot with my eyes open. But the more you meditate, the more you are able to focus."

Yvonne Rand, a meditation teacher from San Francisco Zen Center, said meditation is an oral tradition.

"You learn by sitting next to your teacher and observing those little details," said Rand, who will hold a meditation retreat in Juneau from Nov. 11 to Nov. 14.

Sitting with Glen Ray shows the benefits of meditating with an experienced person.

Ray, 61, calls himself a Zen student. He built a meditation room above his garage in the Mendenhall Valley. He meditates every morning. But he meditates with his wife and some of their friends every Sunday morning.

"Chin down. Eyes slightly crossed. Elbows below your shoulders. Feel the sensation of your skin touching the cushion," Ray suggested to a woman who meditated for the first time. "If you find your mind drifts away, bring it back and focus on the neutral sensation of grounding your body, experience the sense of relaxation and allow the breath to come in."

Meditation instructor Mayer said sometimes her mind still drifts away even after years of practice.

"In the moments of coming back, you get a glimpse of freshness," Mayer said. "With those moments of freshness, you constantly create open space in your heart. It's all practice."

• Canadian meditation instructor Christie Cashman will lecture about the practice at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18, at Egan Lecture Hall, University of Alaska Southeast. She will lead a retreat Nov. 20 and 21 on "Fearless Buddha, Gentle Warrior."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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