New Experience: Des Moines Zen Center

Sky Blue Sky

Back in September my mini intention was to spend 10 minutes each day meditating. This was partly inspired by my favorite magazine, Esquire, and their article about the benefits of meditation, but also inspired by a desire to enhance my spiritual well-being. After a month of mini meditation sessions I was further introduced to the concept at a conference I attended in Florida which piqued my interest even more.

This past Tuesday I attended the Des Moines Zen Center Introduction to Zen class. I wanted to share this experience with someone so asked my friend Emily to join me for the two-hour introductory session. I was a little hesitant to go by myself because I wondered “what if I were the only person to show up?” As it turns out, Emily and I arrived a few minutes before the session started and there were already about a dozen people there! 

The first hour or so we discussed the particular type of meditation we would be experiencing and learned a bit about Buddhism. One of my favorite messages of the evening was the importance of having wisdom and compassion. You can be as wise as an owl (my analogy; I like owls) but without compassion you can’t apply that wisdom. In this hour we also discussed the Noble Truths, Bodhisattva Precepts, and the 8-Fold Path which seemed too complex to really get into in such a short time but interesting nonetheless.

After sitting for an hour learning about Zen meditation we learned a meditative walk. Going very slowly around the room in a circle, we held ourselves in good posture while being intentional with each step and aligning our breath to match with each step we took. Next the priest told us we would do a 30-minute meditation. She encouraged us to find a comfortable seat and face the wall. One thing I was surprised by was that we were told to keep our eyes open. In the past I had done most of my meditation with eyes closed. The priest said that when we close our eyes it can be difficult to remain awake and in meditation, you want to be aware. You’re also supposed to avoid too much daydreaming – although she did say that you will have thoughts and that it’s ok to acknowledge them but you shouldn’t let them unravel too much. So we turned around to face the wall, the bell rang three times signifying the beginning of practice, and we meditated, for 30 minutes.

I will admit that I had several things running through my mind. Anything from, “wow, I’m so cold” (the room was very cold probably because it’s very cold outside) to “this reminds me of time-out when I was a kid” to “how long have I been sitting here?” I think you have to really practice this discipline to avoid too much “mind clutter” but overall I believe I did a good job of acknowledging my thoughts and not letting them take me too far away from just being present.

When the bell rang once that was the indication that the practice was over. I couldn’t believe I stared at a wall for 30 minutes but I did; we all did! I can’t really recall the last time I turned away from all distractions – feeling hungry, thirsty, my phone, the television, the radio, conversation, etc. and just was alone in my thoughts. I would definitely recommend this introductory class to anyone wanting to learn more about meditation or explore a different culture and new experience.

Attending this introductory class and all classes at the Zen Center are free but you can donate to help cover operating expenses. None of the priests involved with the Zen Center are paid, therefore the donations go to cover the rent and heat. I would definitely like to go back for a sit and maybe even one of their monthly potlucks to meet other people in the community interested in meditation. Staring at a wall and being alone with my thoughts are certainly things I can do in the comfort of my own home but there was something especially comforting about the experience in the presence of others in the beautiful Zen Center.

P.S. Please check out my friend Emily’s page, Choosing To for some inspiration. Ems