Getting Started

For me, 2015 has been the year of the fragmented brain.

Information overload can take its toll, making memory recall and organizing tasks a challenge. By the end of the day, it’s hard to stop thinking and planning, and sleep  doesn’t always come in eight hour increments.

I’ve made a lot of progress with diet and exercise to help sharpen the mind. I cut sugar from my diet, along with simple carbohydrates and most of the junk that disrupts the body’s equilibrium while offering little nutritional value. I took on a light, five-day per week exercise routine and got rid of an unwanted forty pounds that snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking.

But I’m realizing that to experience deeper, long-term wellness, I need to make the most of how I use my mind on a day to day basis. And mindfulness meditation might have something to offer.

So what is mindfulness, exactly? In his primer, Mindfulness for Beginners, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness practice as ‘awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.’ It is a form of meditation, which Kabat-Zinn describes as (and I paraphrase here) regulating our attention to transform our experience, ‘in the service of realizing the full range of our humanity and our relationship to others and to the world.’

OK, pretty heady stuff… I thought mindfulness was taking a mental break now and then to keep stress levels in check and help the brain function better. Enlightenment seems a bit of a more of a stretch, but you never know until you try.

Off we go on week one of a two-month experiment.  I’ll start by trying to learn the meditation part, just trying to sit still and focus for ten minutes a day this week. (Fortunately, there’s an app for that.) ‘Realizing the full range of my humanity’ is probably a longer-term goal, but I’ve entered it into task manager in Outlook – just in case!

Local Centres: Shambhala Meditation Centre of Toronto

It is a little known fact that Halifax, Nova Scotia is a center of transplanted Tibetian Buddhism in the west. Canada’s Atlantic port is the headquarters of Shambhala International, a worldwide network of meditation centres with locations around the world, including one near Bloor and Christie in Toronto.

Where

670 Bloor Street West, Toronto

When

Wednesday nights

Offerings

  • Group sittings
  • Meditation instruction
  • Lectures and courses

The Experience

Newcomers are offered the opportunity for introductory meditation instruction in a separate smaller room, while experienced practitioners participated in an unguided group sitting.

Wednesday night sittings are often followed by lectures. The night I attended, I enjoyed a lecture by contemplative psychologist and meditation teacher Susan Chapman.

The Tradition

Shambhala was founded by Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetian spiritual leader who fled the country after the failed uprising against the Chinese communists.

Similar to the Dalai Lama, Trungpa fled on foot across the Himalayas into India, where he remained for four years before finding his way to the United Kingdom to pursue studies at Oxford University.

There, he helped establish the first Buddhist meditation centre in the west, Samye Ling in Scotland. But after breaking with his fellow spiritual leader, Akyong Rinpoche, and renouncing his monastic vows, he made his way to America (via Canada, incidentally) where he became a lay teacher known for making Buddhism intelligible to western students.

Trungpa was a controversial figure – known for some less than enlightened pursuits such as alcohol consumption – but I won’t delve deep into that in this post. I’ll just say that during that period, Buddhism in the west was embraced by the sixties counter-culture scene. In fact, Trungpa’s students included rock star David Bowie and beat poet Allan Ginsberg. The renowned Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödron, also studied with him.

In the 1970s, Trungpa began giving a series of secular teachings about the legendary mythical kingdom of Shambhala which began the movement, and established the hereditary lineage of Sakyongs (or ‘earth protectors’) that head the tradition. The current Sakyong, Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche is less of wild mystic than his father was. He’s a nine-time marathon runner whose books look quite at home on the Indigo self-help shelf.

Shambhala describes itself as ‘a global community of people inspired by the principle that every human being has a fundamental nature of basic goodness.’

Check out this YouTube video from the Sakyong on running: