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Intensive Meditation Draws Visitors To Northern New Mexico

By Olivia Harlow The Santa Fe New Mexican

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Olivia Harlow reports, "In a fast-paced society saturated with computer screens and social media, silent meditation is becoming increasingly popular."

The Santa Fe New Mexican

Stars still shined over Cerro Gordo Road early one recent Saturday morning as participants of Upaya Zen Center's intensive meditation retreat shuffled into the zendo to begin a 15-hour day of quiet reflection.

Inside the meditation room, candlelight flickered over the faces of about 50 people dressed in dark gray or black, seated barefoot with legs crossed. They faced the altar of Manjushri, a symbol of wisdom.

In their second week of the retreat, the participants knew the guidelines: Wear dark clothes, breathe quietly and try not to sniffle, bow in gassho -- prayer position -- upon entering and exiting the zendo, and always turn clockwise.

By the time a bell chimed to indicate the session's start, the scent of incense had filled the room and a ray of sunlight shone through a set of floor-length windows.

In a fast-paced society saturated with computer screens and social media, silent meditation is becoming increasingly popular. Participants and organizers at Upaya Zen Center, a Japanese Buddhist sanctuary for the teaching and practice of mindfulness meditation, say anyone can benefit from the simple act of unplugging and sitting still.

"People come to take a backward step from conventional life," said Matthew Palevski, the Santa Fe center's president and resident director, and more commonly known by his dharma name, Kozan. "There's a real joy, I think, to just rest in the present moment," he said.

During the center's three annual monthlong retreats, about 30 participants practice zazen -- meditation traditionally performed in the cross-legged position -- about 10 times a day. On Saturdays, up to 35 locals will drop in on full-day silent sessions, which also include dharma talks, or discussions on Buddhism, along with walking meditations and reflective free time.

After the retreat group's second "sit" on the recent Saturday, a gong was struck twice, announcing the start of a brief liturgy. The group performed three sets of prayer positions in unison: a 45-degree bow with hands held in prayer; another bow while kneeling, with forehead touching the floor, palms lifted behind the head.

There are a lot of motions to remember -- proper bowing posture, how to hold a prayer book, where to look during meditation (yes, eyes are open) and how to walk respectfully around the center.

It can seem overwhelming, Kozan said, but the guidelines are "not meant to create discomfort or shame;" instead, they are meant to ensure the sessions have structure and "a sense of togetherness."

Staff member Noah Rossetter, also known as Kigaku, agreed, adding the idea is to act as "one body." When people are able to fully tap into a present moment together, Kigaku said, their "awareness is vivid and present and panoramic."

Sky Bluestar, a local entrepreneur who went to Upaya for a single day of silent practice during the retreat's second week, said he achieved a "new plateau in meditation" by the day's end. "I've felt the calling," he said.

He'd been busy over the past couple of months, he said, and hadn't had a chance to devote much time to meditation. "I felt that diving in for a whole day would be good."

Bluestar, who does not identify as Buddhist, said he enjoys dabbling in all types of meditation, some affiliated with religion and some not.

Regardless of a person's faith, he said, the goal is the same: "The whole point of the meditation is to reach that point of connection within yourself that you know everything is connected ... to bring peace and more consciousness into the world."

Kozan said many who gather at Upaya are "looking for refuge and relief" from a sense of being overwhelmed.

"In silence, we're able to let go of the things we're holding on tightly to and the things we're pushing away," he said. "We allow the difficulties in our own mind and heart to become less cumbersome." Those participating in the retreat traveled from all over the state and nation, Kozan said, and as far as Australia. He credited Upaya's location for much of its appeal.

"People have been drawn to Santa Fe for spiritual practice for decades because there's something that the land here evokes, that the sky evokes, that is unique," he said,

This was evident during a free period, as participants spread across the center's property to watch birds fly and snow fall from the trees -- the quiet moments when healing begins.

"It can be miraculous," Bluestar said of experiencing silence. "The greatest journey in life is the journey within."

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