C lear your mind. Concentrate on the simple act of breathing. If a thought pops in, push it away. Another thought? Push that away, too.
It’s actually kind of hard. In a world where we can and often do chat with friends in person and via both text and Facebook simultaneously, among countless other ways to multitask, quieting our minds for even a few moments (or for up to—gulp—an hour) is way out of the norm.
But the practice can have an immediate and positive impact on your day-to-day life, says the very cheerful Deb Drexler, Director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of New Haven, who often punctuates her descriptions of age-old Buddhist traditions with amusing asides and an infectious laugh. She says meditation is as easy as “being present” for the task at hand—washing the dishes, for example, or taking a moment to smell the shampoo when washing your hair.
Of course, if you want to go for the full experience, the Shambhala Meditation Center is a good place to do it. Located on the spacious third floor of a small business center on Willow Street, with high ceilings and oversized orange double-doors (former occupants were architects), the space is decorated with photographs of notable Buddhist teachers, printed quotations (“contemplate the great kindness of everyone”) and a large flag with a golden circle, which, I’m told, represents the “Great Eastern Sun.” Meditation rooms feature surprisingly fiery red cushions for sitting in the traditional posture, and altars with candles and flowers.
There’s also plenty that’ll be familiar to those who’ve never practiced meditation in their lives, like a big table showcasing a variety of teas, and often snacks, too. “We’re big on food here,” says Drexler. “Food makes it more civilized.” That balanced attitude helps make the Center a welcoming community even for total beginners.
Indeed, the volunteer-run space offers a few good options if you’re interested in trying out meditation in a more communal way, and they’re free at that. There are regular open sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays starting at 7:30 p.m. The Wednesday sessions feature talks, as well; recent topics include “Enjoying Nowness,” “Warriors of the Heart” and “Discipline From Within.” On most Sunday mornings there are three-hour sessions from 9:30 to 12:30, though there’s no pressure to stay the whole time.
Somehow, sitting still for so long isn’t easy. The principle behind the Center, on the other hand, is fairly simple. Shambhala Buddhism revolves around a basic tenet, says Drexler: “The fundamental idea is that we all have basic goodness. We are born with compassion.” Meditation is a way of using “mindful awareness” to connect with that feeling.
The key, when meditating, is to “stay in the room,” she told me. “When you have an outside thought, you don’t have to squash it, but you also don’t have to dance with it. Multitasking is considered a good thing in our society; here, we think it’s ridiculous, because you don’t do justice to anything.”
Drexler and other certified teachers provide meditation education to those who’ve never meditated before, just before their first session. It helps first-timers get a feel for the proper positioning: seated on a cushion, back straight and shoulders back, with legs crossed beneath you, hands placed gently on your thighs with eyes open, but cast downward.
That’s not to say they don’t change it up once in awhile. Meditation sessions also feature “walking meditation,” which is—just as it sounds—meditation while walking around the room. Some sessions include chanting, too (no memorization required: participants use a book to follow along with the leader).
But there’s never too much to do at any one time. Which is exactly the point.
Shambhala Meditation Center of New Haven
85 Willow Street, Building B, Third Floor (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.