In the Durham Shambhala Center, a dozen men and women sit in silence, with arms and legs balanced and in comfortable positions.
A member of the center hits a brass bowl, and an hour-long meditation exercise begins. The object of the exercise is to “touch” each thought that comes to one’s mind but not to dwell on it, to focus on breathing and just let go.
Every week, members of the center gather to meditate together inside a white house adorned with Buddhist flags in the front near the Old West Durham neighborhood. They also drink tea, socialize, read passages from Buddhist books and share the recent events of their lives – some joyful, some traumatic and sorrowful.
The atmosphere was calm and peaceful on a recent Thursday, and long-time members were ready with smiles for first-timers.
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Laura Silvestri, a pianist, began coming to the center seven years ago. She was raised Catholic, and had been a Unitarian Universalist before finally, during her mid-40s, realizing she needed new spiritual tools.
“Meditation is about not shutting down to fear. It’s about staying open to the connectivity of life. It has given me tools to deal with adversity,” Silvestri said.
Tom Edds, a software engineer, said meditation has led him to being more mindful with food.
“It creates more spaces in my mind as I make choices. Some patterns I have that are automatic don’t have the same grip on me,” he said.
As older generations are aging into mid-life crises and struggling with the loss of family members, and young people are trying to find paths through a prolonged recession, the center is drawing new members with an interest in Buddhism. Many are looking for ways to take the stress out of their lives.
At the Durham center, Silvestri said participation gathered momentum about a year and a half ago. There are currently about 60 members, and the center is talking with investors to raise money for an 800-square-foot addition.
Shambhala was founded in the 1970s in the U.S. by Chögyam Trungpa, a key teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who had fled Tibet when the Chinese Communist Party took over in 1959. There are now 170 Shambhala centers and groups around the world, according to the Shambhala website.
Shambhala Buddhism, which believes that all people are good, warm and intelligent, teaches meditation as the primary tool for shedding the egotism and fear that come with secular life in order to access this core self.
In Durham, free instruction is provided to first-timers at Thursday open house nights.
Phillip Hartzog, a long-time instructor at the center, gave first-timers a quick lesson.
You begin by sitting on a cushion and sitting with your back straight, in a balanced position. You keep your eyes open to stay engaged with the world, but don’t focus on anything in particular. As you meditate, breathing in and breathing out, you become familiar with your thought processes.
No matter how traumatic or how wonderful the thought, don’t follow it.
“Our goal is to be present, not to live in our heads,” Hartzog said.
“It’s the practice of learning to not let your thoughts take you away,” he said. “For many of us, our thoughts are like that first bus you see when you get out of the airport. It’s like we don’t care where the bus is going, we just get on. It doesn’t have to be like that.”