You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate at The Westchester Buddhist Center
Like exercise, there are many forms of meditation and many places to try them out in the Lower Hudson Valley.
We found four places that practice various forms of meditation—Mindfulness, Mindfulness Awareness, Transcendental, and a Meditation Combo—and while they all have their own missions and techniques, they all offer guided sessions and promise great physical and emotional rewards.
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to take part in the meditation at The Westchester Buddhist Center. Everyone is welcome to come and join lecture series, meditation classes, or open meditation at the center, which is located in the beautiful river-front Eileen Fisher building in Irvington.
The center offers Mindfulness Awareness Meditation classes and sessions, which is actually different from mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness awareness meditation incorporates mindfulness but adds awareness, which leads to insight,” says Derek Kolleeny, co-founder, teacher, and board of director with his wife Jane Kolleeny and John Baker.
“In Buddhism, we say there are two types of meditation in the world. One type is stabilizing the mind, purifying the mind; the other is developing insight and wisdom. We do a practice that is focused on both of those.”
The goal of this meditation is to develop insight, wisdom, and compassion. Come to a guided meditation session here and you’ll notice a few things are different right off the bat: You’ll come in and sit on a chair or a cushion, but unlike in some meditation, you’ll sit with your eyes open. “We sit with our eyes open so we don’t cut off from the world. We are not cutting off from our lives. We are not escaping the world,” says Kolleeny.
Posture is extremely important here: You need to have a straight upright back and torso. “The posture nurtures our inherent wakefulness,” says Kolleeny. Your breath is your focal point, your thoughts are your obstacle. But the goal is not to stop thinking. It’s to detach from your thoughts so they don’t control you. It’s also to look for patterns in how you feel and how you act and to see those patterns clearly.
“The common misconception is that we are supposed to be thought-free,” says Kolleeny. “Meditation is not about that. The mind thinks. We are not going to stop the mind from thinking. The key is to develop to a different approach to our thoughts. We gradually shift from being in the content of our thoughts to gradually watching our thoughts.”
When you do this, you develop insight into your mind, your experience, and your world. “The mind is chaotic and when we’re pulled into the energy of our thoughts, we’re not able to see what’s going on. When we detach from them, we’re able to gain perspective, focus, and a spacious awareness that is inherently appreciative,” says Kolleeny.
It’s important, of course, to remain non-judgmental throughout the process. Whatever comes up isn’t good or bad; it’s just what you happen to be experiencing right now. “We don’t judge our emotions, our experience, our success or failure at the practice in any way. We just openly experience whatever comes up,” says Kolleeny.
Katonah resident Andrea Fink has been going to The Buddhist Meditation Center for years. “I make it there two out of four Sundays a month,” she says. But her meditation practice isn’t just reserved for the center. At home in her shrine room, she meditates every day before work. “I try to make it the first thing I do after I have my coffee in the morning, before I check my email, because if I do it reversed, I might not get to my meditation.”
She lights candles on the shrine, bows, and sits on a set of cushions in front of her shrine. She chants for 10 minutes and then sits silently for the remainder of the time
Various things happen to her mind.
“It depends on the day and the moment,” she says. “Sometimes the meditation feels like Niagara Falls, sometimes a slow-moving brook.” The goal is to sit with her thoughts. “It’s not to rid myself of these thoughts. If I’m feeling sadness or fear, the goal is to sit with it and not run from it in fear of having these feelings.”
For Fink and others like her, the benefits are therapeutic. “I think personally it has helped with me with being a reactive person. I’m more likely to take a breath and take a minute before I respond. It helped me appreciate what’s right in front of me, rather than what’s 20 feet ahead of me,” she says. Fink is also a believer in the physical benefits: relieving stress, lowering blood pressure. “It does a lot with your physical health and your emotional well-being. It certainly has enhanced my recognition of compassion and my generosity. It takes the whole focus away from yourself,” she says.
Kolleeny agrees that mindfulness awareness meditation can change you. “Meditation has made me more aware of who I am and is helping me become who I can be. It helped me with anger. I’m not saying I’ve eliminated it or repressed it—that’s not what this practice is about—but I’ve transformed how I relate to my anger. It doesn’t have the power over me that it once had.”
The center has a two-hour open meditation session every other Sunday, where you’ll find a sitting and a “walking meditation.” During the walking version, you’ll walk at a slow pace in an upright posture in a circle around the room. The purpose is the same—shifting from being in your thoughts to watching them—but instead of the breath, the focus is on the feet touching the floor. The practice helps work meditation into everyday life. Says Kolleeny, “It’s very difficult to sit for an extended period of time, but it’s important to meditate for an extended period of time.”
Details: The center offers a Lecture Series and open meditation (25 minutes before the lecture series) and open meditation (2 hours) on alternating Sundays. There is no fee, but there is a suggested donation of $10. There is also an introduction to mediation class, with a suggested donation of $20. On Jan. 29, the center will hold a winter retreat in Garrison. 2 Bridge St., Irvington; westchesterbuddhistcenter.org
Written by Mary Lynn Mitcham Strom, For The Journal News 3:47 p.m. EST December 30, 2015