Melting away stress through meditation

Stressed out knowing final exams are around the corner? The Halifax Shambhala Centre will teach you how to meditate.

By Rachael Kelly

Meditation Hall in the Halifax Shambhala Centre. (Rachael Kelly/Peninsula News)

Stress seems to be a common theme around Halifax in March and April. If you’re a university student, final exams are right around the corner.

“There’s a saturation point. Eventually a culture becomes self-conscious about its busyness and its level of distraction and disconnection,” says David Sable, a professor at Saint Mary’s University and meditative instructor at the Halifax Shambhala Centre.

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. According to Shambhala, a western strain of Buddhism, the meditative state should be the default state of the human mind, where the “practitioner is invited to let go of conflicting emotions and wake up on the spot.”

To level out the anxiety in his students, Sable starts all of his university classes with a meditation session. But meditation isn’t just about stress relief – it’s about awareness.

“When you’re meditating, you’re engaging your senses quite a bit,” says Ricky Pannell, a Shambhala Buddhist. It may seem contradictory, but the premise lies in the idea that complete awareness and acceptance of one’s surroundings leads to inner peace.

Before meditation

The evening starts with a communal meal at 6 p.m., where donations are suggested.  People of all stages of life congregate at the Halifax Shambhala Centre to help themselves to a simple meal of Moroccan soup, rice and bread.

Later, participants kneel on mounds of neatly stacked maroon pillows, crossing their legs or drawing their knees up to their chests. Their eyes flit from one corner of the room to the next, surveying various artifacts, wall hangings, and gold plated columns around the studio. They sit quietly but expectantly within the meditation hall, waiting for the seminar to begin.

One woman comes to meditation because she suffers from chronic headaches. It’s the only thing that distracts her from her constant pain. Another woman meditates to sit in absolute observation of a moment, which is very much in line with the principles of Shambhala Buddhism.

 

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Meditative practice

When Sable crosses through the doorway, he certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a meditation leader in long, flowing robes. Instead, he walks into the room wearing loose khaki pants, a button-up shirt, a taupe blazer and a red tie.

Sitting down and crossing his legs in front of him, Sable looks at the group and smiles but doesn’t immediately speak. He lets the silence linger, making eye contact with prospective students who fidget under his steady gaze.

When Sable initiates the first meditation, or shamatha, he breaks down the process into two parts. The first deals with proper alignment of the body.

Cross your legs over the cushion, ensuring they are parallel to the floor. Sit with your back straight, but not rigid, and tuck your chin slightly down, loosely focusing your eyes six feet ahead on the floor in front of you. Leave your eyes open but relaxed. Breathe.

Part two of the process is maintaining this position and trying not to fall over. After five to 10 minutes of concentrated, silent breathing, Sable strikes a gong at the front of the room. After a brief discussion, he concludes the seminar.

A brief history

While there are large Shambhala communities in Chicago and New York, Pannell moved to Nova Scotia from Kentucky because Shambhala is headquartered here.

Pannell explains that Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala Buddhism, “adjusted [Buddhism] to make it better for western people.”

“We’re not going to be monastics,” he says. “It’s a different kind of culture here.”

(However, there is a small sect of traditional Shambhala monks who study and practice Shambhala Buddhism in a small monastery in Cape Breton.)

Shambhala Buddhism encourages meditation to help understand oneself and one’s environment.

“In Shambhala, we talk about non-theism. When you sit down and meditate, you work with your own mind. You’re not bowing down to anybody. You’re actually taking responsibility and working with yourself,” says Pannell. “Any symbols you see are actually symbols of the quality of your human mind. They’re not really external.”

The Halifax Shambhala Centre’s current location was opened on Tower Street in 1986. It is one link in the Shambhala chain that stretches across 214 meditation centres worldwide.

Jeff Scott, the Halifax Shambhala Centre’s director of path and culture, estimates that the centre has around 350 internal members (those who pay monthly dues), but around 1000 people who consider themselves affiliated with the centre. These figures do not include the 200 teachers authorized to teach meditation.

“My involvement with Shambhala (is) more of a natural connection as to what’s going to help one’s sanity and add compassion to the world,” says Sable.

Shambhala offers an open house every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. to encourage all those interested in meditation to visit the centre (the centre is non-denominational). These sessions are free. 

What to take away

Sable wants all of his students, whether they be in the Shambhala Centre or in his classroom at Saint Mary’s University, to apply a meditative mindfulness to listening, inquiry and dialogue.

It took three years of preparation and a 12-week intensive Buddhist seminary program under the instruction of Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for Sable to become a meditative teacher and instructor at Shambhala.

“No one is so authoritative that questions are not allowed,” says Sable. “Always remember that. That’s a key point for the future of Shambhala and the future of our world. Maintain that curiosity.”

 

The Halifax Shambhala Centre offers an open house every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for a “free introduction to meditation, social tea and discussion on Shambhala Buddhist philosophy and practice.”