MAINE IS SITTING STILL

written by SANDY GARSON

“Don’t just do something!
Sit there!”

That's how the pioneering Insight teacher Sylvia Boorstein used to introduce meditation to beginners. “Being peace,” is the way the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explained it. Tibetan lamas sometimes called it Mind Training, and Massachusetts MD and Zen practitioner Jon Kabat Zinn, seeking stress reduction for chronically ill patients, introduced it as Mindfulness. Now there are apps, lots of them, for that.

Whether described in secular or spiritual wording, the basic idea is the same: you sit in silence and tune out the world to tune in to your own inner channel, your mind. You discover it’s streaming 24/7, replays of your past, scenarios for your future—all this imagination distracting you from what’s actually happening right in front of you. The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, means to familiarize, to see yourself in HD up close and personal. The result of studying yourself and seeing how your mind works is transformational: you develop self-control and vivid attention. You don’t get carried away. You “get real” and don’t make interactions worse. You actually improve them. There is nothing specifically “religious” about this mental fitness training. The point is simply to become a kinder, gentler, more aware and calmer, skillful human being.

A century separates the 19th century Massachusetts Transcendentalists seeking enlightenment and the ‘60s spiritual seekers, who went to Asia and brought back meditation along with tea, tofu and vegetarianism as steps to it. They found meditation promised calm in the midst of chaos, focus in a world of flibbertigibbets, authenticity in the age of fake news and false claims. Meditation made world headlines when the Beatles briefly left the limelight to go to India, to a Hindu ashram to meditate with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation. Today his organization has 20 million adherents, some famous like Jerry Seinfeld. Some are in Maine, practicing in places like Isle au Haut and Farmington. They are not alone. People around here are sitting in silence all over the place.

Maine has been particularly conducive because the ideal spot for meditation is far from the madding crowd. Its remote location promises quiet. Its small, scattered, rural population offers space. Its geography is grandeur, its scenery awe inspiring. This potent combo is so uplifting, since the first Mainer came back from Japan in the late ‘60s and established the Morgan Bay Zendo on the Blue Hill peninsula in Surrey, meditation centers have increased exponentially. Rebecca Wing and Terry Fralich run The Retreat and Mindfulness Center of Maine in Saco, now in its 22nd year. Sixteen years ago, Tashi Armstrong turned his family’s motel cabins into the Dzogchen Meditation Center in West Bath. In Island Falls—near the end of I 95, between Patten and Houlton—Donna Amrita Davidge more recently converted her great grandfather’s National Historic Registry house, that once hosted Theodore Roosevelt, into a yoga/wellness retreat center, Sewall House, that offers nature healing meditation retreats touted by Traveling Magazine.

Northern Light Zen Center was established in Topsham in 2002. Its resident abbot is Terry Cronin, who as a student at Yale Divinity School in 1980 started practicing Zen and Christian contemplation. After 18 years of training, in 2014 he was ordained a master Zen teacher. He provides authentic guidance for retreats, daily meditation, Zen teachings and training workshops as well as pandemic-era sessions on ZOOM. He also serves the Brunswick/Topsham area as a hospice chaplain.

In 2017, Portland Dharma House opened on the East End for resident meditators seeking to explore meditation, dharma and socially engaged practice. Residents and sangha members come from various Buddhist traditions seeking to develop wisdom and compassion in service of personal and collective transformation. Liz Farmer, the founder, has a Master’s degree in education from Harvard and is a Buddhist chaplain committed to including social justice with meditation practice. In addition to weekday morning meditation at 7:30 am—in person for residents and on ZOOM for community members—there are events like the December 2021 Letter Writing to Support Tribal Sovereignty. After a half-hour silent meditation, participants discussed LD 1626, then instructions were shared on how to contact Governor Mills and their state representatives and finally letter writing on behalf of Wabanaki sovereignty.

Tashi Gatsel Ling, a Tibetan style meditation center in Gray, began in the 1990s in a small artist studio in Freeport, when a monk in his mid-forties, Khen Rinpoche, was visiting the state. Twice each year, he came back to Maine for a month and gave teachings, often twice a week with weekend intensives. Almost no one who initially attended was following Buddhism. Those who run the center admit that back then people came for a variety of reasons: curiosity, seeking peace, stress reduction, healing, or were just gravitating toward his open-hearted warm smile. Demand soon outgrew the spaces available, so the Thompsons, a devotee couple, turned part of their property in Gray into an environmentally green, educational and non-sectarian spiritual center. Its resident nun, an American now named Tenzin Dasel, recently returned from two years in the remote Himalayas. Every Monday night at 6:30—on ZOOM these pandemic days—­ she leads what she calls Maine Moment: an hour of warm hearts, peace of mind, gentle breath, silent stillness, meaningful speech and some much needed laughter. There is also an ongoing twice monthly retreat called Letting Go, which is guided discussion on how to die well.

Jane Burdick, one of its five volunteer leaders, says everybody at any level of meditation experience is always welcome to join The Natural Meditation Practice Group, in the greater Portland area, currently just convening on ZOOM. “That’s actually been lovely,” Burdick told me. “Meditation works well on ZOOM because we can offer it to anybody anywhere. We’ve had people tune in from New Zealand, from Massachusetts, from New Hampshire.” She estimates between 8 and 20 people tune in every week at 4:45 pm. Natural Dharma, she says, focuses on using meditation skills to open the heart and enhance both compassion and wisdom. Sessions run 75 minutes, starting with a 30-minute guided meditation in which the leader gives prompts and cues. Sometimes the guide is actually Lama Willa or Lama Liz. Or it’s Burdick, Patty Hille Dodd, Al D’Andrea, Anne-Marie Polansky or Arline Saturdayborn—the long term volunteer leaders. When it’s over, participants talk about how meditation is or isn’t helping in their everyday life. “We really get to know each other,” Burdick told me, “which makes us more helpful to each other.”

People still sit in silence and drink tea at the 50-year-old Morgan Bay Zendo in Surrey. Its current resident teacher, Nancy Hathaway, lived 5½ years in a U.S. Zen monastery and one year in Asia in a Tibetan one. Her essay, “I’m Breathing, Are You?” was published three times in best Buddhist writing collections. These days in addition to the basic Zendo sessions, she teaches mindfulness all over the state. “I am really interested in caregivers,” she told me, “parents, teachers, grandparents. I like to work in early childhood settings, like pre-K with the caregivers. I try to help them be present with the discomfort, unpleasantness and the deep emotions that trying to help children can provoke. I try to show them how to not lose it.” Now a grandmother herself, she has run a special program for new moms. “I use mindfulness training to help them be skillfully responsive to the emotional needs of their children, how to have empathy for their many moods. Mothers want to be present with their children. They want to be nurturing, not nuisance. I try to show them how to be present with the deep emotional pain children can feel, how to skillfully reach their children.” She also teaches the faculty at Colby and in the UMaine system, sometimes what she calls “Mindfulness based compassionate communication,” by which she means non-violent or harassing verbal responses to a situation. “Teachers want to help their students, but they can get stressed out trying, so I teach them how to be present with their own emotions before they take on someone else’s. That way when someone calls them a jerk, they can see where they’re coming from.” She has a month-long faculty program to help teachers integrate mindfulness into work, family, health and relationships.

Five years ago, the Buddhist nun Khenmo Drolma (Khenmo is Tibetan for a PhD in meditation studies) brought her Vajra Dakini Nunnery from Vermont back to Maine where she’d lived before leaving her life as a college art teacher (UMO, MECA) in 1995 to get ordained in India. “I was always drawn to how open-minded Maine is,” she told me. “The population here is more diverse than Vermont and, also, half the nunnery board members were Mainers.” Khenmo settled in Falmouth but has been running increasingly popular, unique meditation programs all over the southern half of the state. She started with random pop-up silent meditation at different times of day in the gazebo at Fort Allen Park overlooking Fort Gorges and Portland Harbor. She organized Back Cove meditation walks to raise food money for Portland’s hungry. She’s run weekend retreats at a York County monastery and New Year’s Eve meditation on ZOOM. She has collaborated with the police chaplain and been a featured speaker at local colleges.

Covid dangers led her to conjure up safe space, outdoor activities. This past summer, in August she chartered the Bailey Island schooner Alert—an auspicious meditation word—for a two-hour silent meditation, contemplating the infinity of the sea, the enormous power of water and awareness of all the natural elements. “We also sent prayers out on the current,” she said, “hoping they would be carried to the world.”  In July, she arranged for walking meditation at the Scarborough organic farm of group member Maureen Goronson who specializes in growing historically medicinal plants like the medieval roses that were used as medicine during the plague years and various mushrooms used in teas. The group walked among the animals, silently blessing them, then did a special Mother Tara prayer for a time of epidemics. Khenmo is currently cooking up another outdoor idea. She is also very involved with the interfaith clergy and participates representing Buddhists in their many public programs, such as one every Martin Luther King Day. Since Covid, she’s been hosting online meditation sessions that can be a weeklong or monthlong or just a one-day retreat. People from all over including Canada have been tuning in, creating what she calls “a lovely intimate caring community.” Some of the little time she has left she has spent at the Preble Street shelter feeding people to show compassion meditation in action and working to improve the health and language skills of refugee Tibetan nuns at the Indian mountain nunnery she trained in.

For the past 15 years, five to ten members of a group called Dharma Gates Abounding have been meeting monthly in York County on the banks of the Kennebunk River near the home of a founding member, Stevie Westmoreland. They are guided by the internationally popular Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose bestselling books include The Miracle of Mindfulness, Peace is Every Step and The Art of Eating. According to Westmoreland, they sit silently in meditation for 25 minutes, then share with each other how meditation is working in their daily lives.

Peaceful Heart Sangha in the Augusta-Hallowell area is another of the 14 Maine groups that practice meditation in the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh. (Sangha is the Sanskrit word for people who come together to meditate, the group formed.) It’s been run since its official beginning in 2008 by Martha (Marty) Soule whose own discovery of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings happened in 2001, ten years after she began searching for spiritual guidance. She was so captivated by his Five Mindfulness Trainings, she set out to learn how to build a group to do them. She studied not only meditation but organization with the Open Heart Sangha in Yarmouth, then launched Peaceful Heart at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Augusta on Monday nights from 6-8. It became so popular, she set up a second group in nearby Hallowell on Thursday mornings in River Studio. Pandemic precautions have pushed the sessions to ZOOM but that has attracted participants from farther away, like North Carolina and further up in Maine. Soule estimates every session gets 15-20 people. “It’s very hard to do this by yourself,” she told me. “You really need a community for support and we try to provide that.”

Peaceful Heart sometimes runs longer programs called Days of Mindfulness when monks and nuns come to give instructions. People of all ages come and come back. “They find ways to see things clearly, so they can actually be helpful. All of us get too wound up in emotional responses and don’t pause long enough to check them.” Soule has taught mindfulness techniques to faculty at UM Augusta, to children, and for several years in the local prison. “That was amazing,” she said. “One guy told me for the first time ever in his life instead of striking out or screaming at someone, who did something hurtful or dumb, he didn’t escalate and didn’t turn to drugs to deal with his frustration. He’d found a better way.” The prison classes have been a way to put meditation-developed compassion into action, which Thich Naht Hanh calls “engaged Buddhism.” Soule and some members of her group have engaged in peaceful political protests as well.

According to her website, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mary Eyerer MD is a family doctor who longed to share the solace of meditation she’d found growing up in Nova Scotia with her patients in the Bangor area. She discovered the program Zen, which practitioner and medical doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn has been running for decades in Massachusetts, and signed up, first as a participant, then again as an MD pursuing teacher certification. The long arduous process involved, among other events, five silent retreats averaging eight days each. She became fully certified in 2017, the second teacher in Maine. Eyerer says the training process increased her sense of how to be with each class as they experience the curriculum together. “It is truly,” she says, “an honor to be with participants as they learn to be with the suffering in their lives without judgment and as they develop or deepen their practice of meditation.” She is currently offering meditation open to everyone via ZOOM biweekly at 4:15 pm.

John Puffer lives in Lynn, MA, but as a certified Transcendental Meditation teacher for 47 years, he drives regularly to Portland to meet with Mainers interested in learning more about it, at a local hotel. People as young as 5 and senior citizens, professionals and tradesmen, people from Presque Isle as well as Portland. He meets one-on-one for an introduction to the program with guided practice. At the end, he gives instructions for using the specially designed Transcendental Meditation mobile device app as immediate follow-up. After that, meditators join half-hour ZOOM sessions with other Mainers. Prior to the pandemic, there was an immersive four day, in-person program called Think Tank that might be revived when public gatherings are safe again. Puffer says Transcendental Meditation, which has been in the West for 62 years now, “allows people to experience deep inner quiet, deep rest, deeper than deep sleep. This eliminates anxiety, stress and tension. People report feeling more alert, creative and in a permanent state of wellbeing.” He says the response to the program has been “consistently excellent. There is definitely strong interest.” So strong, that starting in 2022, he will be meeting one-on-one with people in Bangor as well as in Portland. There is also a Transcendental Meditation teacher, Lisl Fuson, based in Farmington.

Last year, Jack Leopold graduated from UMO with a degree in mechanical engineering but decided not to pack up and leave. His personal search for meaning had provoked him to re-evaluate his future. Building community is what he decided the world needed, mental rather than mechanical engineering, so he stayed on as Program Coordinator for the increasingly popular meditation program started three years before at the Wilson Center, an independent, progressive religious and spiritual building for the University of Maine‘s Orono campus.

When it began in 2019, 10-15 students would meet once a week for meditation in the style of Thich Nhat Hanh. In 2020, when the woman who initiated and led those sessions graduated, Leopold filled in. He began mixing up Buddhist meditation with sessions that taught Kabbalah, the medieval mystic Jewish meditation he had been drawn to. By the start of 2021, the evening sessions alternated between Kabbalah, Buddhist and other forms of meditation, all with different leaders. “We‘ve been open to anyone who wants to share their meditation practice moving into leadership,” Leopold told me. These days as many as 30 students from freshmen to seniors come to meditate at the Wilson Center.

Leopold says meditation is always followed by a discussion in which people explore or explain their experience with it. “They can be open and vulnerable in a safe space and they find this very beneficial.” He says students really feel the workload and busyness of college and meditation gives them a break, a pause that helps reduce their stress and anxiety. He told me he started meditating at 13, but only took it seriously in his freshman year of college, so he understands. He is getting a lot of support from other university organizations, particularly the Wellness Center which, he says, “sees us as a great mental health resource.” Leopold has added a multi-faith dialogue dinner on Wednesdays, a free dinner from 6-8 that gives students a chance for spiritual exploration and sharing what works for them, even Tai Chi. Between 50 and 100 students have been showing up. Leopold recently got an email from a very impressed faculty member, who works with student life, wanting to know the secret of his campus-wide success.

It’s not just college kids sitting still. The Cape Elizabeth Middle School has a Mindfulness Director, Erica Marcus, who gave up being an English teacher to do this. “I kept thinking about how I could teach kids not just reading, but skills and strategies to be human,” she told me.

She was already a certified Yoga instructor and had tried Zen Buddhism, then was doing what’s called Insight Meditation, when she learned about an Oakland California program called Mindful Schools. It trains teachers to bring secular mindfulness classes into public education. She got certified and, after several years traveling around the state from district to district when requests for a mindfulness class would come (Yarmouth, Portland, Lincoln County), she became a full-time Mindfulness Director. That was two years ago. She works with kids 10 to 14, in grades 5 through 8. A social worker joins her for classes with the younger students, and they teach mindfulness as self-regulation, focus and compassion training. Once a week, for example, they play a short game to hone focus and attention with the students. Sometimes they ask: “Where is the anger in your body? Where are you happy?”

Marcus tries to support individual needs too. Sometimes it’s learning that being imperfect is okay.  Everybody is. She works with parents, teaching them mindfulness skills so they can be more attuned to their children. And she tries to be a resource for the other teachers. “Teaching is a hard profession,” she told me. “I want to help them, maybe develop skills to forgive and care for themselves. I try to offer strategies similar to what they might teach their students.” She says there are pockets of people doing this around the state, that it’s very much alive, a bit different from the adult versions because it’s more curiosity and game based, but to the same end: better attention, emotional regulation, permission to be imperfect and kindness to yourself and others.

Maria Morris, a specialist for JMG (Jobs for Maine Graduates), who has won an award for her teaching, opens her classes at Morse High School in Bath with a few minutes of meditation, which she bills as mindfulness. She has a certificate from Mindful Schools and took a course called Nonviolent Communication at the Belfast Center for Adolescent Studies. She has five classes a day. “Each day we do something different: silence and stillness in which we use 2 minutes to quiet our body and mind—to relax, or we do breath work: ocean breath, candle breath, 4x4 square breath—to energize them. Or we do mindful movement or gratitude admission when students tells us who is the favorite person in their life and why—to show them traits they should cultivate.” Morris told me she always says the students don’t have to participate if they don’t want to and there are a few at the beginning who choose not to join in. “Maybe it was a bad day. The reasons vary, but most of them stick with it.” She did a survey of her students this past November and some wanted longer sessions, while others wanted them at the end as well as at the beginning. One student wrote: “It takes time away from class but it makes it easier for me to focus.” Another wrote, “When we first started, I felt anxious but after a few times, I find it keeps me calm.” The success of her sessions has led other JMG specialists around the state to ask her for training, so she’s no longer the only mindfulness teacher in Maine high schools.

Meditation has become a popular repeat course with retirees enrolled at the University of Southern Maine’s senior college, OLLI. Teacher Heather Edgerly, who’s also taught it at adult ed programs in Saco and Old Orchard Beach, has a Master’s Degree in Buddhist Studies and doesn’t avoid talk about the Buddhist origins and meaning of the practice. “I explain how the Buddha started, what he taught, who followed the tradition and what they learned. I explain that lovingkindness meditation is based on Buddhist ethics and explain how they have been adapted here in the U.S. Nobody minds hearing the Buddhist background,” she told me. “They understand this is the root, where the idea comes from—they actually appreciate knowing that, understanding this is a spiritual, not specifically religious practice, confined to one belief system. I talk about the scientific studies that show psychological and physical health benefits. This is an evidence-based practice that uses the breath to strengthen the mind and body. With the seniors, I focus on memory building aspects.”

Edgerly has been teaching at OLLI for 5 years and keeps offering the course because people keep coming for its benefits. “I teach them that it’s not about them alone; it’s about them becoming a better citizen. Often they arrive thinking they will have to totally empty their mind. That’s a mistake people make. I tell them we don’t empty our mind, we acknowledge it. We learn what myths we live by and try to dispel them in favor of reality. I teach them the science of happiness by giving them tools (different practices) for gratitude, resiliency, awareness. I follow up the class by offering resources to spark continued interest, like books, apps and videos.” Edgerly told me the most asked question is always: “How to I integrate meditation into my daily life?” She gives options: a mental body scan, breathing meditation or prana yoga—sitting still options as well as ways to engage when you can’t sit physically still. She sometimes draws on her training as a yoga instructor.

That is not surprising because there is a connection between a meditating yogi and a stretching yoga practitioner, the mind-body connection. That’s why many of the massage and yoga centers that have sprung up around the state in the last three decades often offer meditation or mindfulness sessions to coordinate mind and body for what is now called “wellness.” People are meditating at Downeast Massage Therapy in Pembroke, upriver in Waterville at School Street Yoga, in Portland at Aleksandra Townsend’s Spiral Tree or the 22-year-established WholeHeart Yoga Center offering experience in yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices.

That is not all of it. Tisha Bremner runs Inner Light Wellness LLC that serves Androscoggin County with corporate mindfulness and employee wellness programs. Angela Absher, who has studied both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, brought meditation training to the Recovery Center in Portland.

Barbara Sinclair has been practicing Tibetan Buddhist meditation for decades and moved to Maine years ago because her lama found it more conducive than southern California. She affiliated with a group in Ellsworth now 23-years strong. Working in the ‘90s and early ‘20s as a therapist in the August area, she offered instructions to chronically ill patients to help relieve their pain and stress. Since she retired, she works in hospice and sometimes teaches the families of patients a form of meditation called Tonglen, which means taking and sending because it focuses on sending out love to others and taking away their suffering. She says it soothes family watching their loved one pass; they feel there is at least something they can do.

And this isn’t even a full accounting of how many people are sitting still in Maine.

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