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At New Haven Shambhala Center, meditation leads to clarity

New Haven Register, October 12, 2008

New Haven, CT (USA) -- Upstairs in an old gun factory on Willow Street, Mike Mardis sits with his legs crossed and his eyes closed, silently soaking in the reality of each moment.

Around him are a dozen other people on colorful pillows, similarly engaged. They are male and female, young and old, dressed in sweaters, jeans, tunics, or, in Mardis' case, a T-shirt.

They sit and then they sit some more.

"It makes me a better person," Mardis, a 38-year-old firefighter from Milford, says later. "I have a stressful job, and I deal with the public a lot. Meditation makes it easier to see other people's perspectives."

Here, then, is the essence of the New Haven Shambhala Center, where dozens of people come every week to take classes, attend public talks and meditate. It's a calm harbor of soulful rejuvenation set in a brown brick office park.

Founded in the late 1970s, the local center follows the teachings of the late Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. There are more than 170 Shambhala centers around the world operating under the umbrella organization, Shambhala International.

"Our tradition considers meditation to be something you take into your everyday life," says Deb Drexler, director of the center. "We practice a mindfulness technique that helps us slow down our perceptions and take away all the mental jabbering we engage in 99 percent of the time, so we can see what's really in front of us."

FINDING THE CENTER

New Haven's Shambhala Center began modestly, with members meeting in each other's living rooms. It eventually found digs above a Whalley Avenue storefront, and later at the Erector Square complex in Fair Haven. Since 2005, the center has been on the third floor of a building at the Marlin Center on Willow Street.

The center has about 35 members who meditate here regularly, volunteer their time to run the place and pay monthly dues that vary depending on their financial circumstances.

It's a diverse membership, Drexler says.

"We have a carpenter, a construction manager, people willing to come in and scrape and paint and the whole nine yards," she explains. "We have a doctor, social workers, sales people. Really quite a range. And artists! We have artists."

Drexler, who is 53 and lives in Hamden, works with adults who have disabilities. A member of the center since the late 1990s, she says the teachings of Rinpoche center on a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. It is a tradition that promotes wakeful intelligence -- a heightened awareness of one's own thoughts as they occur. Students seek to understand the pain and joy of their lives with clarity and honesty, using a variety of meditation techniques.

"Experiencing things as they are is a rare gift," she notes. "I can't describe it other than to say, you should try it. It's rare that we experience things without our hopes, fears and prejudices coming into it."

A common misconception about Buddhist meditation, she adds, is that "we're here to bliss out, or that we expect to lift off our cushions and float right out the door. That's not it. It's work. It's seeing thoughts that are there, understand them as they're happening, and not getting embroiled in them."

PILLOW TALK

On Monday evenings, the center is open for public meditation. Members and visitors step into a spacious front room with chairs and sofas, where they take off their shoes and chat amiably for a few minutes.

At 7:30 p.m., membership coordinator Sally Larrick lightly rings a bell and, on a recent evening, a dozen folks enter the center's shrine.

Here, the walls are painted a bright white and there are rows of red and orange cushions on the carpeted floor. At the front of the shrine is a large, framed depiction of the Primordial Rigden, a representation of the enlightened nature of human beings, flanked by framed portraits of Rinpoche and his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Larrick sits in front, facing the rest of the students.

They sit for half an hour, their backs straight and their chins tucked in toward the body. Some students close their eyes, while others do not.

Because it's the first Monday of the month, a lesson follows the meditation. Ravenna Michalsen of New Haven steps to the front of the shrine, and she and the students bow to each other.

She begins by asking, "Why on earth do we meditate?"

Mardis answers first, saying, "Obviously, to de-stress."

Other responses follow:

"To gain control over one's thoughts."

"To help me be calm in other situations."

"To be aware."

Michalsen guides the group in a discussion of basic elements of meditation. She talks about quieting the mind, creating a space for contemplation and bringing one's mind and body into sync. She also notes the self-directed aspect of many thoughts.

"What are we thinking about most often?" she asks. "Me, me, me. We're the first person we think of in the morning and the last person we think of at night." There is discussion about being familiar with your thoughts, remembering to stay in the present moment and training yourself to focus amid distractions. They close the session with a recitation of the "Dedication of Merit," which is printed on sheets of paper that are passed around the room. "The practice of meditation, while it has its ups and downs, has only brought me more lightness of being," Michalsen says.

SPIRITUALLY SHOPPING

Members say the Shambhala style is not to shy away from pain, however.

Mary Herron, a 46-year-old teacher from Hamden, says meditation gives her a better understanding of hardships in her own life. "You have to carve out space and time for it," Herron says of meditation. "It's definitely helped me."

Firefighter Mardis, who has visited the center only a couple of times, says he's been interested in Buddhism and medita tion since his Army days when he spent time in Thailand.

"One thing it helps me do is know where emotions come from and identify them as they're coming up," Mardis says as the students share tea and refreshments. "You can recognize it when you're irritated with something and understand why it affects you."

He adds that people are sometimes sur prised when he tells them Buddhism isn' necessarily a religion. "It can be, but it doesn't have to be," he says.

Jon Owen, a 21-year-old student in Vermont whose mother lives in New Haven, is here for the first time. He says he found the center on the Internet.

"I've been studying and trying to practice Buddhism for five years or so," Owen explains. He meditates once a day, usually for 20 minutes.

Others here have been with the center for much longer.

"Our inspiration is to accommodate people who are interested in study," said Nealy Zimmermann, 62, of New Haven. "Part of it is nurturing new students."

Zimmerman joined the center in the late 1980s, after exploring several Buddhist traditions. "You could say I'd been spiritually shopping," she says.

As the mingling of newcomers and experienced practitioners continues, Drexler remarks on the immediacy of Shambhala. "You come here and it's all orange, red, purple and blue," she says. "That vibrancy is right here and now. Our way is to interact with what's going on."



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