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January 27th, 2010 Betsy Rothstein | Featured Stories
 

Blissed Out

New year, new focus. One woman’s not-so-successful quest to get Zen.

     
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IMAGE: Mia Nolting

Need to relax? Opportunities for meditation in anti-materialistic, largely anti-religious Portland are boundless. I learned this when I set out to find the perfect class in an effort to help mellow out my frazzled, Type A disposition.

The reasons people try out meditation fall largely into two camps: Busy people burning the candle at both ends who want to achieve a more peaceful frame of mind, and spiritual seekers who want to get in better touch with God. (Buddhism involves a steady meditation practice, so many of the city’s meditation classes are spiritual in nature.) Now I just had to figure out which class would help me mellow out without weirding me out.

DIAMOND WAY BUDDHIST CENTER

1225 SW 16th Ave., 281-3631, diamondway.org. Public meditation sessions 7 pm Mondays and Wednesdays. $5 donation.

Relaxation quotient: Not very relaxing. The chanting in odd voices cinched that.

Spiritual fulfillment: Not very spiritual, unless you believe in a guy name Lama Ole.

Well, that was weird: Everyone’s obsession with Ole.

Diamond Way in Southwest Portland (there are 612 worldwide) initially wowed me. The space is Zen gorgeous with Asian furniture, red walls and dim lighting. Shoes off. We sat on red cushions.

No one was in charge and everyone was in charge. Oddly enough, the most powerful presence in the group of 10 was a man who wasn’t even there—their guru, Lama Ole Nydahl (Lama Ole for short). A framed picture of him sat on the mantle. He’s fetching and looks a bit like Sting, with buzzed snow-white hair and crystalline blue eyes.

We watched Ole via video talking up reincarnation and past lives. One member said newcomers needn’t believe in reincarnation—not yet, anyway.

Members were sweet and kind but cultish. According to the Diamond Way folk, Ole’s among the first Western students of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa (loosely translated: reincarnated Tibetan spiritual leader dude). He apparently learned a “unique” practice called “conscious dying”—thankfully we didn’t try this my first evening. Ole visited Portland in November and spoke at Portland Community College. It was a big deal.

Ole is enlightened, say his Portland students. And enlightened isn’t a word they use lightly.

Our group leader, Gretchen, says she’s known Ole for 13 years and once traveled with him to Siberia. She said Ole “always says his mind is in the same place as his butt.” (I’m assuming this is Zen-speak for “he’s centered.”) On the train to Siberia, she watched in awe as he answered students’ questions until 4 am and didn’t even cop an attitude when they followed him to the train bathroom. She said Ole never gets upset. Ever.

Gretchen? Not so much.

She spoke of her ailing husband who was immobile after surgery. She got so caught up, she told us, that she forgot to bathe for three days. At one point she brought him the wrong ice cream and he snapped; she didn’t snap back.

This is the big tenet of the Diamond Way practice—meditate to the point of not reacting.

The 20-minute meditation was relaxing…well, until it wasn’t. Gretchen instructed us: “Free your minds of reaction from thoughts and feelings.” We sat in silence. But this loveliness was followed by a period of disturbing chanting. In a round, members began chanting the mantra “karmapa chenno.” Members deepened their voices, singing as fast as they possibly could until the word became unrecognizable (think of the demon kid in The Shining saying “redrum” over and over).

Having arrived feeling peaceful, I left all stirred up.

YOGA PEARL

925 NW Davis St., 525-9642, yogapearl.com. Yin yoga 7:45 pm Mondays, 6 pm Tuesday-Thursdays, 4:30 pm Fridays, 7:15 pm Sundays. $15 drop-in. Relaxation quotient: Extremely relaxing. I came out of there feeling like a new person. I even looked different.

Spiritual fulfillment: It was like having a spiritual facial. Well, that was weird: The teacher using the word “toilet” in guided meditation. Yoga Pearl is a laid back, hippie-ish, secular place in the swank part of town. Meditation here is as normal as meditation gets. We’re sitting in a pineapple-yellow room on black blankets and yoga mats. The yellow is delightful—at once calming and energizing.

By far my favorite new discovery is yin yoga, an hour-and-a-half class that can be followed by an hour and 15 minutes of meditation. Yin, taught here daily by very cool-headed teachers, is a heavenly escape; a meditative yoga practice in which poses are held for five to eight minutes. The instructor speaks throughout. The mind calms while the central nervous system relaxes.

The teacher begins to guide us. Like Gretchen at Diamond Way, he brings up ice cream: “I go into an ice cream shop,” he says softly, as we listen intently—eyes shut, sitting cross-legged. “I like vanilla ice cream. But if I just get vanilla ice cream and look past the others, I’m missing out.”

“I can still choose vanilla ice cream,” he continues in a breathy voice that irritates me. “But just know the others are there.” (Thoughts rumble around in my head: Is he for real with this ice cream bit? I do like vanilla ice cream, and if I want it I’ll get it, so shut up. Ooh, why so angry? I know this can’t be all that Zen of me to think like this.)

The teacher hits on a cornucopia of topics, such as self-hatred and why we won’t let ourselves relax. He recites quotations, like this one: “Sipping tea, I save the world.” I love this for some bizarre reason.

“How I do anything is how I do everything,” he says. “If I grit my teeth here, maybe I grit my teeth in traffic or while I clean the toilet.” I begin to relax, even upon hearing the word “toilet.” Astonishingly, I begin to listen, sort of.

We are told to breathe through our belly, chest or upper lip (nostrils). I choose the chest, belly and nostrils. I chose all because the teacher said we could only choose one per class and I am rebelling. I secretly fear something monumentally disastrous will happen since I’m practicing all three simultaneously.

By the end of class, I feel a calm, floating sensation. “I liked his energy,” one attendee remarked of the teacher. In the end, I’ll admit it—so did I.


IMAGE: Mia Nolting

DHARMA RAIN ZEN CENTER

2539 SE Madison St., 239-4846, dharma-rain.org. Evening service and zazen 7 pm Wednesdays, followed by weekly Zen classes. Free, but “donations (and cookies) are gratefully accepted.”

Relaxation quotient: Through-the-roof relaxing with bells and beautiful voices. Spiritual fulfillment: I’m getting serious karma and dharma points from being here. Well, that was weird: Please, monks, invest in toenail clippers. I show up for zazen (meditation) in the zendo (place where one “sits”) at Dharma Rain, a Soto Zen temple for “lay practice...dedicated to helping people cultivate and realize Zen Buddhism in normal, everyday American lives.”

A monkish woman in a long, black robe eyes me and rushes over to inquire why I’m here and to debrief me. I’m in for 30 minutes of sitting meditation followed by a brief walking meditation, and a second 30 minutes’ worth of sitting, bows and chanting. Got it. The upstairs room looks like a ski chalet with beautiful stained-glass windows in hues of periwinkle, lime green, chocolate and purple. Monks in black robes and bare feet line up in the two rows before mine, kneeling on square black cushions. Incense scents the room.

It’s so peaceful in here. Just lovely, really. More bells ring and everyone (about 35 people) settles in for the first 30-minute sit.

Everything, everyone, is perfectly still. No noise but the wind and rain and someone across the room with the sniffles.

Time passes—feeling neither too long nor too short. More bells. Up we go, walking really, really slowly in a circle. It’s hard not to notice things. For instance, the woman with the purple blanket wrapped around her shoulders who is in dire need of a pedicure. Her big toenails are long and curled over, like sharp hooks that could injure one of those poor monks if they got too close.

More bells. Time for a second 30-minute sit. I’m already as relaxed as can be, and happily kneel onto my cushion.

Next up: bows, chanting, singing and more bows. The singing is melodious—everyone here can carry a tune. A monk woman in black sings and pounds on drums. She sounds angelic.

To my surprise, Ms. Toenails also has a mean set of pipes and bops her head to the beat, getting into the groove of the chants.

We walk out of the zendo single file. I make my way out into the rain, feeling relaxed, at peace and maybe a little joyous.


UPDATE: Betsy recently returned to type-A form: She moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a blog covering political media.
 
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