Frenzy Without, Peace Within
12, 2002 / LA Times
Buddhist nun Kelsang Lekma
(Photo by Betrice de Gea)
When Lynn Noto, a 36-year-old from Los Angeles now completing
her doctoral studies in psychotherapy, was traveling around
India in 1997, she was seeking not enlightenment, mind you,
but 10 minutes of clarity in her life. That, and a cup of hot
chocolate, which she found at a restaurant in Dharamsala.
serendipity intervened--she ran into actor Richard Gere, a well-known
practitioner of Buddhist meditation, who told her about a philosophy
and meditation course he had just completed with the Dalai Lama.
curiosity piqued, Noto signed on for an introductory course
on meditation, then spent seven days sitting in silence at an
institute run by Buddhist monks in Bodhgaya. "It was a
beautiful introduction to Buddhism and meditation," says
Noto, who has been meditating ever since; she says the practice
helps her in dealing with her clients.
from a flowery flight of fancy, her first experience with meditation
was grounded in reality. Construction noise rang through the
monastery. Even a full-blown crisis exploded. "We broke
silence when a band of robbers attacked the place with handmade
guns," Noto recalls. For most of us, it's not bandits and
guns, but hurtling at what seems to be 100 mph through a city
of freeways and smog in an era when time and security are scarce
commodities and stress is a relentless stalker. All of which
helps explain why the practice of meditation has gone mainstream
in Los Angeles. Ordinary Angelenos are discovering in this ancient
restorative practice a mechanism for coping.
longer an escapist refuge or the esoteric pastime of poets,
meditation has emerged as a tool to deal with the inexorable
reality of L.A. gridlock: traffic, professional and personal.
And the trend is national: According to a 2000 finding by the
Journal of the American Medical Assn., 10 million American adults
those who seek personal improvement, who want a way to soothe
a broken heart or merely hope to explore their own minds, the
city offers a smorgasbord of meditative choices. Angelenos can
sit in quiet contemplation in Buddhism meditation centers, connect
mind and body in yoga or tai chi studios, embark on meditative
quests in the wilderness, stroll labyrinths designed onto floors
or walkways or attend contemplative prayer sessions held in
meditation, practitioners testify, it matters little where you
begin, or how--as long as you begin somewhere.
Wendy Egyoku Nakao began meditating in 1975, it was not because
she was looking for anything but because someone dared her to
sit still for a week. "They bet me $50. They said I couldn't
do it. I couldn't resist the challenge, and so I said, OK. I
just stuck to it the whole week, and I haven't stopped meditating
since," she says. Today, the petite 54-year-old is a Zen
priest and the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Her infectious
laugh erupts at the slightest provocation. "And what was
activated in me was a deepening of this question of what is
the nature of life."
those unlikely to enlist under the banner of organized religion,
meditation has provided a way of working with the sense of danger
in the world.
live in very harsh and frightening times," says Johanna
Demetrakas, a filmmaker who is also the director of Shambhala
Center Los Angeles; it teaches a Tibetan Buddhist meditation
practice called shamatha, aimed at creating a more enlightened
society. "Most of us come here because we want to live
in a saner and more compassionate world. We feel the pressure
of losing our humanity, in gross and subtle ways."
Gold Bothwell is a mediator and former attorney who has practiced
meditation since 1973. She is also an instructor at the Shambhala
Center. "People want a sense of community," she says.
"They want a sense of guidance from a philosophical perspective
that can actually address the level of aggression in the society
in a meaningful way."
the mood of the entire nation turned contemplative last fall
in the days after Sept. 11, the demand for titles like "Where
Is God When It Hurts?," "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook
for Living" and "Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames,"
which recommend meditation as a problem-solving tool, has run
like "Meditation for Dummies" are now on the New York
Times' bestseller list for self-help guides. At the Bodhi Tree
Bookstore, L.A.'s 32-year-old center for spiritual literature,
"How to Meditate," by Lawrence Leshan, sold hundreds
of copies this last year, says store co-owner Phil Thompson.
Thirty years ago, this abode started by three aerospace engineers
on a sleepy stretch of Melrose Avenue was just about the only
place where you could find these books. Now most of them are
available at chain bookstores.
discipline of yoga in general has surged in popularity in recent
years, making meditation an option for a lot of people who would
have not considered it otherwise. Many students who initially
learn yoga to treat achy limbs or develop agile, wiry bodies,
see the discipline deepen into a meditative practice.
popular yoga studio in Los Angeles is Golden Bridge Yoga, where
owner and principal instructor Gurmukh guides students through
a patented blend of meditation and Kundalini yoga.
form of yoga with a pronounced devotional bent called Kriya
yoga is the meditative practice favored by members of the Self-Realization
Fellowship, a religious organization with a network of temples
around the city and the country.
many celebrities swear by its benefits has perhaps enhanced
the appeal of meditation, as have several medical studies over
the years, which have established a correlation between the
practice and lower levels of stress, cholesterol and decreased
has also become an important adjunct to traditional forms of
psychotherapy. It is increasingly used, says Dr. Lobsang Rapgay,
assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, not only
to alleviate stress and anxiety but also to address severe psychiatric
conditions, including personality disorders.
a onetime Tibetan monk who spent several years in a monastery
immersed in the study of Buddhism, runs the Behavioral Medicine
Clinic at UCLA, using what he calls "mindfulness"
in tandem with conventional behavioral therapy to treat patients
for headaches, insomnia, depression and chronic pain, among
chiropractor, my yoga teacher and my therapist all say the only
motivation for any of their clients is pain," says Fred
Miller, 57, a yoga and meditation instructor at the Center for
Yoga in Hancock Park. The students who turn up at Miller's Sunday
morning classes, in which a sequence of yoga poses is offered
as a moving meditation, "are not currently associated with
an established religion," the instructor says.
are many people in churches on Sunday and Saturday morning,
more than there are in yoga classes or in the gym," Miller
says. "But there are an awful lot of people who are separated
from the religion of their youth. And those people are looking
for their own spirituality, and you can translate that into
peace of mind and comfort of living."
she was 24, Kelsang Lekma was toiling in marketing and television
and not at all happy. "I was irritable, rude, frustrated:
all these horrible traits that I could see developing in me
were dependent on, it seemed, stress and pressure," says
the 36-year-old Buddhist nun, now the director and principal
teacher at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Silver Lake.
traditional spiritual practice, a more obvious choice for many,
was not an option for the British-born Lekma. "I went to
a Catholic convent when I was growing up and left there thinking,
'No religion ever again,' " she says with a big laugh.
she first joined a co-worker at a Buddhist meditation class,
it all made a lot of sense to her: It was logical, it was practical.
"I wasn't looking for it, but I knew that I needed it,"
say that mediating equips them with the means to recognize their
emotions and diminish their grip, and that's what Lekma found.
At the meditation center she runs, practitioners focus on a
series of meditations that originated in Tibet and are specifically
designed to turn adversity in life into a positive experience.
beautiful thing about meditation is that it really helps you
understand why you get upset, why you get unhappy," she
says. "We often think, 'I shouldn't be angry,' but we don't
have any method of not being angry."
premise of meditation is careful observation of thoughts, feelings
and behaviors outside a judgmental framework. The goal is often
to bring the activity of your mind in perfect sync with your
body, "being in the zone" in lay parlance.
is meditation. It is paying attention to what you're doing,
whether it's living your life or sitting quietly and praying
in a church or out in the woods someplace. It's connecting with
whatever it is you're focused on," says Miller. "A
friend of mine is a gymnast, and he says his gymnastic practice
is a spiritual experience for him, because he is totally involved
the umbrella of formal meditation practices, there are myriad
techniques, rooted in just as many traditions. There are the
moving meditations of yoga, as well as the sitting meditations
of Tibetan and Zen tradition, which involve resting on a cushion
for hours and observing and labeling your thoughts. Techniques
also include focusing single-pointedly on your breathing; chanting;
repeating a mantra; and visualizing a particular image or concept
and training your mind on it. Prayer, regardless of one's religious
denomination, can be a form of meditation too.
matter what technique--or non-technique--is at work, the foundation
of meditation is stilling the mind. That in and of itself sounds
good to those accustomed to mentally juggling a million tasks
beyond that, dedicated practitioners say that meditation gives
them techniques to remain calm in the face of adversity. It
helps them become less reactive, less likely to succumb to flailing
emotions. It gives them a teeny bit of space away from everyday
duties and concerns, in a sort of sealed-off container where
they can be just who they are. It enables them to be in the
meditation, many people find they blossom and change--they become
more patient, more open. The benefits needn't be spiritual,
although many practitioners say that those who practice meditation
long enough inevitably acquire a sense of interconnectedness
with other people and with their surroundings.
most vivid recognition for practitioners of Buddhist meditation,
according to meditation instructor Pamela Gold Bothwell, is
to realize "how much clinging to hope and fear color your
daily experience. And that it's possible to experience a bigger
world than the world we are churning out from moment to moment
on the basis of what we hope will happen or what we're afraid
Noto, "integrating meditation into my life has made me
ever so slightly more connected to people, and there is a certain
intimacy that can be gained by that connection."
who began work with clients last year, found that meditation
taught her the discipline of being able to just sit, listen
and be present. "No theories of Freud have helped me as
much as meditation has in terms of dealing with my clients,"
Linda Cruz, a 42-year-old meditation practitioner and partner
at a downtown law firm, says meditation has helped her leave
her work at the office. "There are so many things you can't
control in law--a ruling you don't like from a judge, for example.
Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of that ruling,
through meditation, I'm starting to be able to think, when something
bad happens, 'OK. This is an opportunity.' "
benefits are tangible. But how about being in the moment? What
is that going to do for you?
Rapgay says meditation helps with the tendency to be driven
by what you have to do and what you should do: "It offers
an option to define yourself in other ways than doing: by learning
to be where you are at, whatever you are doing, whether you
are writing, whether you are having a thought."
that is why meditation ultimately enables one to more judiciously
manage energy and regulate emotions. Consider the task of studying
for an exam, Rapgay suggests. A lot of energy is consumed if
you think, I have to read this book, I have to read it fast.
After I finish this book, then I have to mow through the next
one. "That's not living quite fully in the present experience.
And if you're never in the present experience," Rapgay
says, "you really never get a sense of yourself."
to some popular beliefs, relaxation is only superficially what
meditation is all about. Blissing out is not the name of the
game, dedicated practitioners testify. Yes, meditation slows
one down. Yes, the mind isn't rambling as much, and that is
relaxing. Sometimes it can be a joyful, fulfilling feeling.
But other times it's just banal, because a person can spend
time, for example, straining to focus on breathing and at the
same time be thinking, "I'm not supposed to be thinking
but focusing on my breath."
sometimes meditation turns into the most serious endeavor one
has ever tackled, making it a crucible of sorts. The essence
of Zen meditation, explains Nakao of the Zen Center, "is
always to realize the nature of life and death."
don't know if most people consciously come here for that initially.
But for those who stick it out"--and by her rich laughter,
one can only imagine that practicing Zen is no walk in the park--"sooner
or later they settle into an investigation of this great matter
of life and death."
you are interested in examining larger philosophical issues,
or simply seeking another strategy for coping with the stress
in your life, meditation may help. So close your eyes, take
a deep breath and consider spending some quiet time in the company
of your own mind.
Diaconescu is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. She
last wrote for Calendar Weekend on where East meets West on