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June 5, 2009

Religion as Therapy

buddist prayer flags

Photo Credit: Image Source Photography/Veer

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The Budding Buddhist
By Whitney Joiner

The first time I walked into a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center on a Tuesday evening seven years ago, I was wary. I wasn't interested in religion or God — I've been an atheist my entire life — and I definitely wasn't interested in Hollywood-inspired enlightenment-seekers or 2500-year-old Indian stories that had nothing to do with my frenetic day-to-day life. What I was interested in was climbing out of the depressive hole I'd fallen into. I'd always battled anxiety, but a morass of troubles the previous year (the dot-com boom went bust; the company I worked for shuttered; the city I lived in was attacked by terrorists) had left me feeling insecure about the ground beneath me.

So I started reading about meditation. My roommate — a modern-art and space-rock fan who eschewed anything that vaguely resembled crystals or granola — had recommended the Shambhala Center, promising that it wasn't a close-knit Buddhist cult eager to foist elaborate rituals upon newcomers. And from the outside, the center was unassuming, located on the sixth floor of a plain building in Manhattan. But on the inside, the lack of subtlety made me uneasy. I sat barefoot on a floor cushion and looked around: photos of austere, unsmiling gurus; mysterious shrines; silk tapestries depicting dragons, lions, Tibetan deities; lots of red, orange, and yellow. What was all of this?

Those of us new to meditation were told to sit up straight, eyes directed to the floor, attention focused on the breath. (Of course you'll be thinking, the instructor said. The point is simply to be more aware of your thoughts.) Even though my mind raced too fast to focus on my breath at all, when I left the center, I was surprised: I'd just sat still for 30 minutes, without doing anything, while New York rushed home on the street below.

I came back the next Tuesday, and the next. My post-meditation calm and the sense of camaraderie—with other 20- and 30-somethings struggling with similar neuroses — inspired me to stick around for the Buddhist talks led by other longtime Shambhala students. They talked about dealing with life without freaking out, about not obsessing over your thoughts and feelings, about giving yourself — and those around you — a break. It made sense. And no one asked me to believe in anything; there was no God to impress or fear. No one cared whether I felt the teachings "worked" or not. If they're true for you, you take them.

I took them. After months of Tuesday nights, I signed up for a series of weekend programs. Could I meditate for six hours a day? Barely. It felt like slogging through mental boot camp, since there's nothing as boring as listening to your own internal chatter. But learning how to sit still and breathe, no matter what craziness my mind was spewing out, changed something in me, equipped me with a way to handle life with just a little more grace. I didn't magically stop feeling anxious or angry or depressed, but it was easier to catch myself when my mind started to spiral downward. I'd also found a community: We meditated together, talked dharma, threw dance parties, challenged and supported each other through job disappointments and breakups. And those complex shrines, which at first had seemed so alienating, became comforting markers of a spiritual ground that was starting to feel like home.

Then, two summers ago, I took the vows to formally become a Buddhist. On one hand, it was no big deal. Nothing magical happens, and some people study the dharma for life without making it official. But for me — with my profound discomfort in joining any spiritual group — I knew I was taking a leap, as if I were announcing to myself, "OK, I'm ready. Ready to walk this path."

NEXT PAGE: Finding Allah in All the Right Places

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