It’s a Thursday night in the Iowa City Public Library and in the long interior hallway kids are jabbering happily with armloads of books and DVDs. From outside comes the insistent bleat of a car horn. Meanwhile, inside Meeting Room B, about a dozen people are gathered in a circle, most on chairs, a few on cushions: eyes closed, silent and still except for the soft inhale and exhale of breathing.
From an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t look like much is going on. But in fact a kind of miracle is taking place: People of all ages, from many walks of life, are taking time out of busy schedules to pause and practice being more at ease with whatever thoughts and distractions (including car horns) arise.
I started the Iowa City Sangha (sangha means community) a year ago after being inspired by a silent weekend retreat based on the teachings of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Disillusioned by the endless distractions, consumption and superficial engagement of social media that mark much of modern life, I was looking for sanity, authenticity and deeper human connection. It turns out lots of others are looking for that, too.
So about every week or two we take part in sitting and walking meditations, read and discuss books by Thich Nhat Hanh and support one another’s practice on and off the cushion. Those of us who practice regularly find we’re more calm, more emotionally resilient and more present to life with its “10,000 joys and sorrows” (as one Buddhist expression goes).
The Iowa City Sangha is not alone. Milarepa Buddhist Center of Iowa also opened in 2016, joining Iowa City Zen Center and a Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City Sangha that have been around for years. And that’s in addition to a number of secular groups like a Mindful@Iowa University of Iowa student group, local Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs and Meetups throughout the eastern Iowa area devoted to regular mindfulness practice.
The Milarepa Center, which opened in September, follows the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It offers opportunities throughout the week for meditation, teachings, film and book discussions and classes on Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, the center periodically sponsors the visit of a Tibetan lama to offer a long weekend of teachings that is open to everyone.
The Milarepa Center was founded by Ellen Marie Lauricella and her wife, Naomi Bloom, who moved to Iowa City in 2012 with lots of Sangha-building experience already under their belts. In 2002, while living in Dayton, Ohio, they established the Gar Drolma Buddhist Center.
“Many people are seeking a deeper experience of life than they have known previously,” said Lauricella. “They yearn for profound teachings about being human in the world and for potentially life-transforming spiritual practices. At the Milarepa Center, we want to share what Tibetan Buddhism can offer anyone, from beginner to adept.”
The Iowa City Zen Center, founded in 1976, offers daily zazen, or sitting meditation, as well as classes and special events. The Rev. Dainei Page Appelbaum is the head priest and guiding teacher of the Zen Center, which follows the Japanese Soto Zen tradition.
“There seems to be this hunger for peace, for more tranquility and for more love and compassion in the world, and with it there’s a hunger for mindfulness instruction and a place to practice,” Appelbaum said. “It’s a great honor to have this opportunity to share the Dharma with everyone from university students and senior citizens, to public and private schools. I see our job here as planting seeds, trusting that they’ll bloom in their own time.”
Although our groups follow different streams of Buddhism, we have a great deal in common, attend one another’s events, and meet monthly to share ideas and support one another.
We also co-sponsor events for anyone interested in learning more about Buddhist practice. A One Dharma Vegetarian Potluck (Dharma means teachings) is scheduled for 5 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Milarepa Center.
Whatever tradition someone follows, everyone can benefit from a mindfulness practice. A regular practice — especially as part of a community — helps cultivate insight, wisdom and the capacity to meet life’s challenges with openness and curiosity rather than reactivity.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, there is no path to peace; peace is the path.
Breathe it out
Buddhism teaches that community (sangha) is an important aspect of a person’s practice, but you can meditate right now, wherever you are.
If you have a timer, and this is your first time meditating, set it for five minutes.
Sit on a chair, pillow or cushion, with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
Place your hands in a comfortable position, palms up or down on your knees, or resting within one another in your lap—palms up and thumbs gently touching.
Eyes may be open a little or closed.
Use your normal in-breath and out-breath as an anchor for your mind, focused at the nostrils, the diaphragm or the belly—whatever feels natural.
Be present with, and aware of, whatever is now; do not work on controlling your mind, but just let it be.
When thoughts arise (and they will), try not to get lost in the stories; just label them (good or bad) as “thinking” and imagine them floating off the projector screen of your mind.
When you become distracted, smile to yourself, and return to your breath, perhaps saying softly: “breathing in, I know I’m breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”
The goal of meditation isn’t to “bliss out” or become immune to “monkey mind;” in fact, many people find their minds initially rev up during a period of deep looking. But stick with the practice for a few weeks and you should notice a greater ability to “sit with” situations a little longer without reacting out of habit.
Stephen Pradarelli is a writer, hiker, vegetarian and father of two who do not share their dad’s love of incense but are grateful meditation has made him a whole lot easier to be around. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 213.
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Note: Other Buddhist groups in the Iowa City area interested in connecting with the three Sanghas featured in the story are invited to contact Pradarelli at email@example.com.