Photo Illustration: Connor McCourtney
All that can be heard amid the inhales and exhales is the quiet traffic on the street outside. And the occasional stomach grumble. A few people are positioned atop cushions in neat rows on the floor, others sit upright on one of the metal folding chairs lining three sides of the room. A bell rings, and each pair of eyelids droops shut.
“The task is to diligently focus on the breathing and refocus on the breathing,” Charlie Day tells the group gathered in the partitioned room at the Friends Meeting House in Des Moines.
“Breathing in, breathing out,” Day says encouragingly before he, too, descends into silence.
The Des Moines Meditation and Mindfulness Group, founded by Day, meets every Tuesday at the Friends Meeting House on Grand Avenue. Anyone, practiced Buddhist or curious amateur, is welcome in the sitting meditation from 7:30 until 8:10 p.m., the 20-minute dharma talk that follows, the half hour concluding sitting meditation or any combination.
“Especially with the lifestyles we live, I think just to slow down and stop is beneficial,” said Todd Brown, a non-traditional student at Drake University. “Meditation is very beneficial no matter what religion you practice…The root meditation that Charlie teaches, just watching the breath, is used in every religion that I’m aware of.”
Research supports Day’s claims. A 2004 study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences measured brain activity of eight long-term Buddhist practitioners during and outside of meditation. The electrical activity in their brains rose significantly during meditation, and their measured activity while not meditating also differed from non-practitioners in a way that suggested elevated consciousness. The researchers concluded that the brain’s resting state, along with attention and affective processes within the brain, could be altered by long-term meditative practices.
Brown, who is a year away from finishing his undergraduate degree from Drale, was raised Catholic. But around three years ago, he began exploring Buddhism and the practice of meditation more deeply.
“I changed my lifestyle,” he said. That entailed quitting drinking and, after 17 years away, going back to school to finish the degree in religion he had started at DePaul University in Chicago.
“I’ve always been searching for something,” Brown said. And when he was introduced to meditation at a treatment facility, he said, it resonated with him.
“You can see what the Buddha was teaching about how we cause our own suffering. You can really see through these attachments and storylines that you produce in your head, in your mind, that really have no basis except in thought,” he said. “It becomes very freeing in a way.”
More people are seeking the sort of peace and spirituality Brown discovered. Meditation’s popularity in the community seems to be increasing, said Day, who co-teaches on Tuesdays with Paul Lambakis.
“It seems like there’s been a spur in the growth in the past year, there’s a lot more interest,” he said. When Day, 73, started the group in 1994 upon his return from working in Thailand, it had only five or six members. Now the weekly sessions have 35 to 45 participants.
He attributes the expansion to a growing familiarity with meditation practices to more media coverage and word-of-mouth promotion.
A retired psychologist, Day has spent over 45 years studying meditation and mystical traditions in the U.S., India and Thailand. He was also one of Brown’s first teachers, and extends an invitation for conversation with anyone who is interested in learning more about meditation practices. In his classes and lectures, he likens many of the practices and ideas of Buddhism to the relaxation techniques employed by psychotherapists.
He said there are a lot of reasons for its appeal but for many people, Buddhism just makes sense. “Buddhism teaches in a way that’s really logical and rational and more easy to practice in everyday life.”
Drake sophomore Erika Owen began meditating around a year ago, and she says the Buddhist emphasis on balance is what most appeals to her.
“It sounds cliché, but being one with yourself and what’s around you is really interesting,” she said. “It just helps every day to clear my head and figure out what needs to get done.”
Owen usually meditates for short amounts of time at least twice daily, including practicing walking meditation. This method is exactly what it sounds like, she said -— meditating while walking.
“You don’t look any different; you’re just walking around,” she explained. This can work well for busy students, she said, and still provides a worthwhile reflection.
Whether sitting or walking, area practitioners of meditation seem to agree on the mental health and emotional well-being it brings to their lives.
“It calms the mind, so it helps one live more comfortably, peaceably and harmoniously,” Day said. “There’s lots of scientific evidence now that the practice of meditation does lead to higher grades, for example, improved relationships within families, improved relationships at work, improved health -— both physical and psychological.”
Those transformations can lead to different worldviews, habits and lifestyles.
“It completely changed my life,” Brown said. Along with being able to further develop his personal spirituality, Brown also described some more tangible manifestations he’s noticed since he began meditating.
“You have the physical things, of course,” he said. “Less anxious, I’ve got some anxiety problems that meditation helps me with. Also, the focus. It really helps on the schoolwork.”
Sophomore Sarah Laughlin hasn’t noticed those kind of results after the meditation sessions she does with the crew team during the offseason.
“I really don’t like it,” she said. “I would rather just go home and shower.”
She said she finds it hard to focus, especially when she and her teammates gather after Saturday winter practices. “It’s a lot more difficult than you would think.”
At the Meeting House, the bell rings again to close the first sitting meditation. Eyes flutter open and adjust to the light as Day and Lambakis open the next 20 minutes for a question and answer session.
One student, a young woman, talks about struggling to keep her mind from straying to negative thoughts during meditation. “What do I do?” she asks. “I mean, is it just about thinking of something else?”
Lambakis nods sympathetically. “Well,” he says. “You see, it’s all about the breath…”