A wonderful blow-by-blow account of a shy newbie’s first visit to a Shambhala Meditation Center via builditfromscratch (whoever that is):
Because I had read that New Year’s Day is associated with a trip to the temple in Buddhism, I had planned on finding a special service in my area for New Year’s Day. I did not find a dedicated New Year’s service, but attended a regularly scheduled Thursday evening service at a Shambhala Center located about a 30-minute walk from my home.
The temperature had plunged below freezing that evening in Washington, DC, but still about 25 people showed up to practice Shambhala meditation and participate in a short discussion about Buddhism.
Located on the second floor of a building overlooking a glass-roofed entrance to a DC Metro station, the Center sits in a row of storefronts and restaurants on a very busy street. A visitor accesses the Center up a metal side staircase, and by knocking on a locked door protected with a passcode-style alarm system. A grey-haired bespectacled man in a blue sport coat, tie, and grey slacks opened the door for me, and I stepped into a lobby furnished with upholstered chairs and straight-back chairs and a black bench-like sofa. The man asked me if I was new, and then told me where I could place my coat (in a closet that he called a cupboard) and that visitors should participate in a short training session before joining the entire group for meditation.
I placed my coat and backpack and shoes in the cupboard (failing to notice the dedicated shoe cubbies) and joined two other newcomers in the training room, located directly off the lobby. The small room held a table with glass bowls and candles and was decorated with tapestries and flags. Eight low cushions sat on mats, arranged in two rows, facing one more cushion/mat combo sitting at the front.
Susan, the leader, joined the three of us, and began to explain three basic principles of Shambhala meditation: the posture, the gaze and breathing, and the labeling of thinking. She explained that we should sit with straight backs on the cushion, cross-legged with our feet on the mat. Our hands should sit flat on our thighs, not too far forward on our knees, and not folded into shapes. We should train our gaze on the floor four to six feet ahead of us: any shorter distance might tend toward drowsiness, any further might open our peripheral vision to greater distractions. Whenever we find ourselves entertaining a thought or idea or emotion (“a thought with energy behind it”) in our brains, Susan told us, we should label that occurrence as “thinking,” and put it out of our minds, returning our awareness to our breath. She explained that Shambhala meditation should provide “abiding” peace, which was a word I heard several times at the Center.
We practiced for several minutes. With my four-to-six-foot gaze falling at the edge of Susan’s mat, I tried hard not to notice her sitting cross-legged at the top of my field of vision. Susan wore her thick grey hair pulled back above her ears, which were studded with tiny turquoise earrings. She wore a purple turtleneck and padded vest with jeans, thick socks, and a pendant. Her face was pale, wrinkled, and (it must be said) appeared to radiate kindness.
When we finished our practicing, Susan led the three-newcomers back through the lobby and down a hall to the “main shrine.” Before opening one of the two double doors, Susan explained that there should be space for us, but if not, she would retrieve new cushions. Entering, the two other newcomers found spaces near the door, while Susan pointed toward a front-corner cushion for me by a window out onto the very busy street.
From my perch to the front and the side, I had no opportunity to observe my fellow participants, which kept me much more focused on my gaze, and less visually distracted. Noises and lights outside the window, coughs and fidgets throughout the room, and the racing thoughts in my own head turned out to be my primary distractions, though my eyes occasionally also tried to trace the altar at the front of the room to record its components (flags, a gold folding-fan on a stand, two photographs of Asian men).
A meditation leader sat at the other end of the altar from me, facing the participants, with a clock on one side of her and a bowl with mallet on the other side. At the end of 45 minutes, she struck the bowl with the mallet to signal the end of our meditation, and released us to go drink tea in the lobby.
Often, the worship services I have attended will offer a social hour with light refreshments following the worship. The United Church offered a kaffeeklatch with the visiting Rita Horstmann, as did the Unitarian Church for the visiting Princeton professor who preached from a children’s book. The synagogue I visited during Sukkot offered kiddush in the sukkah after the service. Time and again I have thought that I need to attend these informal gatherings, and time and again I have succombed to the temptation to flee, rather than overcome my shyness and make conversation in a room full of strangers. The Dumb Feast of the Dead at Samhain was a blessing. I wasrequired to remain silent as we ate our meal.
The Shambhala Center short-circuited my normal flight-response by placing the social period between the meditation and discussion. The Center also comforted me in my decision to stay by limiting the chatting over tea to 15 minutes, rather than something open-ended.
So, I visited the restroom while the tea…