Frenzy Without, Peace Within

September 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.

There, 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.

Her 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.

Far 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.

No 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 meditate regularly.

For 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 Catholic churches.

With meditation, practitioners testify, it matters little where you begin, or how--as long as you begin somewhere.

When 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."

For 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.

"We 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."

Pamela 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."

Since 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 high.

Books 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.

The 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.

One 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.

A 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.

That 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 blood pressure.

Meditation 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.

Rapgay, 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 other afflictions.

"My 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.

"There 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."

When 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.

A 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.

When 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," she says.

Practitioners 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.

"The 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."

The 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.

"Meditation 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 with it."

Under 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.

No 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 every day.

But 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 moment.

With 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.

The 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 will happen."

For 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."

Noto, 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," she says.

Rosa 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.' "

Such benefits are tangible. But how about being in the moment? What is that going to do for you?

UCLA's 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."

And 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."

Contrary 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."

And 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."

"I 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."

Whether 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.

Sorina Diaconescu is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. She last wrote for Calendar Weekend on where East meets West on Sawtelle Boulevard.