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Mount pleasant mindfulness

Don Socha sits and meditates during the Central Michigan Sangha meeting at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship on Oct. 14. Monica Bradburn | Assistant Photo Editor

Walking into the sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship there is a quiet, calm and mindful energy where students and faculty members don't have to think. They can just be.

The Sangha is a place for people interested in meditation and Buddhism to come together and share ideas. In Buddhism, the sangha is the "third jewel" in which to seek refuge and it's a way to embody the teachings of the Buddha in everyday life. Central Michigan Sangha meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Unitarian Universalist sanctuary space. 

This community formed more than 10 years ago for meditation practices. Guy Newland,  professor and Religion Area Coordinator at Central Michigan University, was the adviser for the group. When students started looking to him as a religious leader, he said it became problematic because he wasn't interested in that position.

Over the next few years, members of the group tried to come up with a way to get people interested, but to also form a group with no central leader. Thus, the Sangha was born. There is a panel of practicing Buddhists who facilitate the discussions at the gatherings and lead in meditation. The Sangha discusses excerpts from chapters from different texts regarding the Dharma, or teachings of the Buddha.

"Buddhism is a way of life," said Assistant Professor of Journalism Teresa Hernandez. "You can be Catholic, Jewish, or whatever and still practice Buddhism in a way, by practicing the meditation. Anyone is welcome in the Sangha because we aren't religious or locked into one way of learning and interacting."

Hernandez is one of the facilitators of the Sangha. She started practicing meditation seven years ago and recently took her vows to become a Shambhala Buddhist over the summer. Since she had been studying for a while and has gone on meditation retreat, she was chosen as one of the facilitators of the group.

"When you meditate you learn to discipline your mind," Hernandez said. "You learn the power of your own mind and become self aware. Meditation allows you to deal with all the things that present themselves in your life. People use the phrase 'if only' but there is no 'if only,' and you realize that through meditation. When your mind stops being so busy, or spinning like a top, you start to realize that you can just let things be. Live in the moment-be calm."

Gatherings begin with 15 minutes of sitting meditation, five minutes of optional walking meditation and another 10 minutes of sitting meditation. The time is signaled by a bell, which is rung by Don Socha, a former professor. This meditation allows the practitioners to focus their minds and train their attention on whatever they may be meditating on. After the meditation, the facilitator discusses what they thought about the scheduled reading and relate it to the Dharma. After they are finished, the group is open to discuss their thoughts and ask questions.

"It's a way for people to come together and practice for a set amount of time," Hernandez said. "We usually have a book we're reading and anyone can lead the discussion, but sometimes people are assigned to give a 'talk.' People that come don't have to buy or read the book and are welcome to meditate, participate and listen to the teachings. In a way, it's a place for people to start learning meditation and learn about Buddhism. Some people may never have been part of a Buddhist group, so it's nice for them to come and learn about the different types of Buddhism."

On Oct. 13, Newland discussed the reading before the meeting and explained how it talked about the three jewels and how to personify the way things are. The three jewels: as a person are Buddha, as a set of principles are Dharma, and as an embodiment in human lives are Sangha. This gives people a way to conceptualized what meditation and Buddhism is all about.

"The group offers a sense of support in terms of thinking about practice," Newland said. "Most of the returning members do a certain type of practice, so there is a balance when we do things together or separate. When people come together and evolve over 11 months and talk about difficulties, you realize you're not on your own because everyone else is in the same situation."

Everyone in the group does there own form of meditation and Buddhist practice. There is Zen, Theravada, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Shambhala and many more. Davisburg junior Sam Ekstrom is a fan of Soto Zen and has been practicing meditation for a little over a year. After taking Newland's Buddhist Tradition class two semesters ago he became interested in the practice and decided to attend the Sangha.

Ekstrom is also in the midst of starting a meditation student organization on campus, unlike the current Sangha which isn't registered. They are looking for more people who are interested in attending, especially interested in leadership. The group is hoping to meet everyday of the week for a short time to practice meditation and once for a long standard meeting.

Ekstrom created a website for this group in hopes that people will become more involved in the practice and the planned organization.

"Meditation has become a part of my life," Ekstrom said. "It helps with inner peace, clarity and relaxation. It sounds so simple, but before I had a hard time relaxing. It really taught me good strategies."

The Central Michigan Sangha isn't the only Buddhist community within Mount Pleasant. There is also Refuge Recovery Sangha, an addictions recovery program for all addictive behaviors based on Buddhist principles. 

This group is fairly new and incorporates silent meditation. The group also reads a book that goes along with the practice of mindfulness and encourages group sharing. It takes place on Wednesday nights at the Saginaw Chippewa Behavioral Health Center.

Meditation and mindfulness has become increasingly popular in western culture and is used in a variety of ways. Businesses like Google are using it with employees to promote concentration and loving kindness, and it has been researched by University of California Los Angeles for it's effects on brain activity and people's everyday lives.

"Everyone is talking about mindfulness and the idea of meditation," Hernandez said. "People are realizing that it can lead to reduced anxiety, increased ability to concentrate and sometimes lower people's blood pressure. It's ultimately just a good practice to have."