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Weekly meditation practice draws hundreds of followers

by Erin Donaghue, Staff Writer, Gazette.Net, Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tara Brach calls her Wednesday night meditation sessions an exercise in ‘‘being present.” It seems like a simple concept, but the idea is a goal that many meditation practitioners consistently work toward.

Each week, hundreds of practitioners shuffle quietly into the River Road Unitarian Universalist church and take their places on chairs or on raised platforms. Leading the session at the head of the group is Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. Brach gently reminds the group to let go of the day’s events and future plans and to try to focus on what they are experiencing at that moment.

‘‘Meditation is about learning how to be very awake,” said Brach, 54, a Great Falls resident. ‘‘We spend a lot of time in a dream, lost in our thoughts. Meditation helps wake us up from the trance.”

The group has been in existence for about 15 years and has grown from a weekly gathering of 20-30 to a group of 200-300 — the largest meditation community in the Washington area. The group coordinates several other meditation events including retreats and smaller gatherings among practitioners.

People from high-powered attorneys to massage therapists to teachers are attracted to the practice because they are looking for a way to remember what’s important, Brach said.

‘‘It’s so easy to talk on the phone and e-mail on the BlackBerry and put dishes away at the same time,” said essayist Barbara Graham, 60, of Washington, who attends Brach’s classes. ‘‘It’s an antidote to this high-speed, techno world where our awareness is so fragmented... there’s a quality of burnout and overload that happens with all this stuff thrown at us.”

Insight meditation — also known as Vipassana or mindfulness meditation — is one of many popular styles of meditation. Zen meditation, Tibetan meditation and transcendental mediation are also popular. Centers in the area include the Ka Shin Zendo in Chevy Chase, which teaches Zen meditation classes, and the Bodhi Path Center in Potomac, which holds meditation classes based on Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan meditation can incorporate chanting, visualization and mantras, according to practitioner Lucinda Peach, a philosophy and religion professor at American University. Certain forms of Zen, which originated in Japan, are more formal and disciplined, Peach said.

The Ka Shin Zendo and Bodhi Path centers hold silent, unguided meditation sessions. ‘‘It’s just different ways to eat the cake,” said Liv LiaBraaten, a practitioner at the Bodhi Path center who also attends Brach’s classes.

Peach credits the popularity of Brach’s classes to her conversational teaching approach, which combines guided meditation with talks, quotes and anecdotes about spirituality.

‘‘People are drawn to IMCW because they find the practice and the teaching relevant to their daily life,” Peach said.

One common misconception about meditation, Brach said, is that the practice is about getting rid of thoughts. Rather, it’s about accepting thoughts but trying not to be overtaken by them, she said.

For Grace Spring, an artist who lives in Chevy Chase, the lesson carries over into her everyday life. ‘‘When things come up that are upsetting to me, I just remember to take a deep breath,” Spring said. ‘‘... I recognize the anger, but I don’t have to be caught up with it.”

Neither is meditation about one religion, Brach said. Though Vipassana meditation is based on Buddhist texts, people of many different religions or of no religion practice it.

Many people are attracted to the group after going through a difficult emotional time, said La Sarmiento, 43, a Washington resident and massage therapist.

‘‘About 10 years ago, I was going through a really bad breakup,” Sarmiento said. ‘‘A friend told me about the Insight meditation community and I started going to Wednesday night classes pretty regularly—almost every week.”

Sarmiento said the sessions helped her gain a broader perspective on her situation. Now, she coordinates smaller mediation groups for people of color and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people within the group.

The sense of belonging to a spiritual community is often what keeps people coming back to the group, practitioners say. ‘‘When you walk into the room and there are 300 people there, I think that really tells you something,” Graham said. ‘‘I think people are really just looking for a way to be at peace.”

source: http://www.gazette.net/stories/040208/potonew204009_32370.shtml

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