Calm down

By Nancy Brands Ward, Sacramento News & review, Oct 14, 2010

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

Sacramento, CA (USA) -- 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.