Quieting Your Crazy Little Head
I had only two real experiences with mediation. I had a college roommate who, upon returning from a semester abroad in Ghana, suddenly became a Buddhist and spent the early mornings in the room next to mine ohming in a low monotone voice like a vacuum cleaner every morning. Then there was the quiet hippie dude I dated who kept a shrine of pebbles in his bedroom. Neither experience encouraged me to try sitting still for myself. It seemed like some odd Berkeley thing to do, along with buying Birkenstocks and wearing tie-dye socks.
But after spending my 20s as a riled-up punk, I really needed to mellow out in my 30s. I started driving myself crazy by overthinking things, or I’d get caught up in really petty shit. A couple of years ago, I realized that I needed to pause and consider my decisions instead of just reacting to them, and I thought about adding some Zen to my world. Living in San Francisco has taught me that every scene has its own subcultures, meditation included. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and I don’t have to hum like a Dirt Devil.
I’ve dabbled in a couple of different sitting groups, and my inner punk enjoys not having to follow any one philosophy blindly; I’m able to float between communities, depending on my mood.
If you’re looking to expand your understanding of the quiet mind, these are the places I recommend checking out.
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for San Francisco Zen Center, as this was the first place where I officially learned to meditate.
They offer casual Saturday morning sessions at 8:30 a.m. that are free and open to the public, in which you can learn the basics about how mindfulness works and understand what’s expected when you use their zendo (meditation room) in terms of sitting and bowing.
Once you get the hang of it, you can visit the zendo, which is open to the public from Monday to Friday at 5:40 p.m. for 40-minute sits. If you work or live nearby, there’s no better transition between work and leisure time.
For those wanting to go deeper, SFZC offers dharma talks (discussions about mindfulness) as well as multiple workshops, retreats, and study groups, and their bookstore has a great array of reading material.
If you need a little punchiness with your mindfulness, Dharma Punx is the place to look. I love the group’s dharma podcasts out of Brooklyn, which are entertaining (and often smartass) bits of wisdom on the ways we can avoid driving ourselves crazy. This organization has chapters around the country, and the San Francisco chapter meets on Friday nights from 7:30 to 9 p.m. near USF. The gatherings are very approachable. Get there early enough to grab a seat before the crowd arrives, and when instructed, meditate however you like in your chair for about 30 to 40 minutes. When that’s done, one of the rotating Dharma Punx leaders gives a talk, after which folks can ask their burning questions.
St. John's Episcopal Church is a gorgeous building tucked into a side street in the Mission. Howard Cohn has led weekly mindfulness sessions here for 25 years, and his gentle, positive approach has made him something of a leading figure in this town. Mission Dharma meets every Tuesday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the church, which is huge. It can fill up closer to 7:30, but you have your choice of chairs on the floor or cushions on the stage closer to Howard. After the meditation session is over, you can choose to stay for Howard’s dharma talk, which also involves a Q&A session at the end. Side note: I’ve run into more friends here than at any other group in the city, it's hugely popular.
The man who founded these Vipassana Centers around the world, S. N. Goenka, is well known in mindfulness circles for running the boot camp of silent retreats. Most people I know who’ve been to one of his centers have had serious fantasies of escaping midway through their retreat, myself included. I’ve even met some who broke their vow to stay through to the end and took off in the middle of the night. That being said, my life has never felt so changed as when I spent 10 days at NCVC’s Kelseyville campus on Cobb Mountain. The classes here are rigorous. You’re awake every day at 4 a.m., and you’re basically meditating for one to two hours per session, with short walking and meal breaks in between until 8 p.m. at night, when Goenka’s videotaped dharma talks are played on big screens. During his teachings, he really focuses on the word “misery” and all the ways we make ourselves miserable, which can of course make you feel kinda miserable. But I really subscribe to the bigger idea he passionately teaches – that the best way you can be adaptable to change, instead of bracing yourself against it, is to feel how it moves through your body when you sit quietly for extended amounts of time. At the risk of sounding like a full-on hippie, that’s a pretty powerful realization. I love that Goenka’s Vipassana Centers are free (you donate whatever you feel you can afford, and there’s no hard sell) and completely volunteer run, which to me is the essence of a practice meant to create calm inside of you so you can spread calm to people around you. There is a catch, though, which is that as a new student, you can sign up for only the full, 10-day shebang. (After you’ve been through that, you can choose three- or 10-day retreats). If you’re even slightly considering a 10-day retreat, I would highly recommend doing it here. You’ll return as a different person than the one who signed up.
Spirit Rock was the first place I tried out for an extended silent retreat. I have to admit, the name conjured images of wealthy Marin types, and I didn’t want to go to some bougie retreat. But I learned that Spirit Rock, which is located in the West Marin town of Woodacre, attracts highly respected teachers who do excellent weekend (and more extended) mindfulness classes, should you want to wade into the world of silent getaways without giving up too many vacation hours.
The weekend I spent there was a mixture of sitting and walking meditation, and in between the instructors gave sage advice about dealing with the things that plague our brains when we’re not talking. I got a lot out of it, the setting was gorgeous, and the food was super-tasty.
This place ain’t cheap, though (the sliding scale for the class I took started at $185), and they do a hard sell at the end about giving over more money when the class is over in the long Buddhist tradition of dana, or donating back (to be fair, these donations are the only way the teachers get paid). If price is an issue, Spirit Rock offers various levels of scholarships to try to ensure that their attendees are diverse.
The San Francisco Zen Center has two campuses outside San Francisco, both of which are as geographically inspiring as they are mentally motivating. Green Gulch operates a Buddhist practice center and a farm just a short trail away from Muir Beach. On Sundays, they offer free meditation instruction to the public at 8:15 a.m. followed by a sit, a dharma talk, and, for a small donation, a delicious vegan lunch. Green Gulch also offers various daylong sitting retreats.
If you’re going for a Zen Center getaway, though, I highly recommend making the longer trek to Tassajara in Carmel. As I described it in an earlier blog post, this is a Zen monastery that’s open to the public in the spring through the fall. Being there is an incredible, very Northern California experience, with natural hot-spring pools (clothing optional) in a bathhouse, a nearby swimming hole in a river (clothing optional), and a naturally heated swimming pool (bring the suit). Tassajara also offers the widest variety of options for those wanting to get deeper into the Zen way of doing things.
There are classes merging mindfulness with everything from work to relationships to art to cooking (the food here is flat-out amazing and included with your stay; it’s like eating the gourmet vegetarian fare at Greens Restaurant every night). There are casual meditation instructions in the zendo and daily sessions in which you can meditate with everyone else. You can also choose from dorm-style sleeping arrangements to lodge-style rooms and cabins. The cheapest option ($68 per day) is the guest practice program, which requires you to commit to a minimum of three days of spending half the day with the Zen students doing work and half the day exploring Tassajara at your leisure. Or you can do a study week for $68 a week and work with a teacher to deepen your practice.
and everyone has their favorite places to engage in it. Feel
add anything I've missed here in the comments section below.
Images courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center and Spirit Rock