Meditating on Suburban Life

Meditating on Suburban Life

Class offered by the Vajrayogini Buddhist Center has taken root in Oakton.

Patrick O'Grady has been able to calm down. O'Grady, 55 of Vienna, works for the federal government and began training in transcendantal meditiation in 1995.

“Over time, I’ve gained a lot of patience in life and in my practice,” he said. “I’ve gained a lot of calmness in situations in life that would normally be very anger-filled.”

O'Grady now participates in classes offered in Oakton through The Vajrayogini Buddhist Center. When the center began operating in the early 1990s, meetings consisted of four or five people getting together at a residence in Washington D.C., said Sharon Crowell, the center’s education program coordinator.

Now, the operation, which has a formal headquarters in Dupont Circle, has spread into the surrounding area, with meditation classes offered in Arlington and Tacoma Park, Md., as well as the group that moved last year from Reston to the Unity of Fairfax Church in Oakton.

Last year, said Crowell, there were also groups meeting in Alexandria and Camp Springs, Md., but they stopped because one of the teachers went on retreat, while another went into surgery.

Crowell and others say meditation has gained popularity because its lessons, particularly in dealing with stress and frustration, are relevant to the mile-a-minute metro-area lifestyle.

“What we’re finding is that the techniques for meditation and the topics discussed in the classes are applicable to the crazy kind of life we live in the Northern Virginia area,” said Crowell.

It is for that reason, she said, that there is an increasing possibility “that the guy sitting in the cube next to you or the soccer mom that drives your kid to practice has a meditation practice.”

WALT HARE, WHO will begin teaching the class at Unity of Fairfax in the fall, is an information security analyst, parent and Buddhist. He said he was first exposed to Buddhism through a book given to him by his sister, which at first aroused little interest in him. “But I picked it up later, after I’d had some difficult experiences,” he said. “It had a whole new meaning to me.”

His practice, said Hare, has helped him “to take a more correct perspective on life.” He cited an experience with a coworker who he had at one time found “very agitating.”

“One thing I picked up from the teachings is that these perceptions were coming from my side,” he said. Upon realizing this, he said, he was able to see his coworker with a fresh eye. “Now I can appreciate that they’ve got different ideas, I’ve got different ideas, and we’ll see which works out.”

Marco Rando, a Reston resident, parent and sculptor who attends classes at Unity of Fairfax, explained how meditation can help to resolve personal differences: “We have to understand that they’re seeking the same thing we are — happiness.”

Individuals should notice their reaction toward others, pause, look the other person in the eye and realize that “they believe that their idea of self and what they want is what’s most important.” This is a sort of “self-grasping” toward which all people are inclined, he said.

“In reality, it’s discovering the mind and how it works that opens the door to all of that,” said Rando. Observation of the mind forms the basis of meditation because it is the mind that creates reality, he said, paraphrasing William Blake: “Everything that we know to be true has once been of the imagination.”

“Thoughts just come from one another, and it’s just this sort of continual stream of thoughts,” he said. He explained that an early goal of meditation is to slow that thought stream until gaps appear in it and to observe these pauses. “Over time, you gain more control over those actions, those thought streams.”

RANDO SAID THAT in the early ‘80s one of his art instructors at the Pratt Institute had suggested to students that they read “Zen and the Art of Archery.” He said he bought the book but did not read it until years later. “Then it occurred to me that for many years, I had been missing the target.” He said he has now been meditating for over 10 years, five or six of those with the group that now meets at Unity of Fairfax.

“Meditation is my life,” he said. “Every life situation becomes an opportunity to practice the teachings that one receives in meditation class.”

While life inspires his meditation, said Rando, meditation has changed his life. He said his wife has witnessed "such a profound change in my personal being that there’s a great respect for when I’m sitting on that pillow.” He said he has also gained confidence and has noticed an increasing tendency for others to gravitate toward him.

As the coach for his daughter’s soccer team, he said, he uses the lessons he has learned to help keep his players from getting too frustrated by a loss.

Hare said his studies prompted a “total turnaround” in his attitude toward his job. “I was constantly trying to control my situation,” he said. “I was kind of setting myself up for disappointment — always thinking, ‘How is this going to benefit me?’ When you think like that, you’re never going to be satisfied.”

In accordance with the “refuge vows” he took as a Buddhist, he now dedicates himself to helping others. “Doing for your self has a different effect than doing for someone else,” he said.

Hare also noted that he was able to apply the lessons he had learned to his family relationships. “A lot of times, people want their kids to be a reflection of them,” he said. “Instead, I’m just trying to teach my kids to be nice to other people and to be fair. I think about whether their actions will hurt themselves or anyone else, rather than, ‘Will I be embarrassed?’”

O'GRADY SAID meditation could also lead to new perspective on material goods. “They tend to become less fulfilling,” he said. “There may come a point where you say, ‘Gosh, I’m standing around in all this opulence, and maybe I don’t need it anymore.’”

“Buddhism has given me a better set of tools to really clearly understand who I am and what I am doing and to understand how I relate into the greater environment around me,” he said. He noted that Buddhism focuses on the same basic questions as other religions, such as, “What is the importance of what we’re supposed to be gaining in this journey, this life?”

Hare emphasized that many people who attend the meditation classes are, in fact, not Buddhists. The clientele includes Catholics, Muslims, Hindus and others, he said. “We’re not trying to convert people at all. We just want to give them some tools they can use to change their lives in a positive way.”

He also noted that students range in age from college to great-grandparenthood and that their job statuses range from company executives to the unemployed. “Here in Oakton, we’re getting a typically older crowd, a lot of professionals with families,” he said, whereas the Dupont Circle classes tend to draw a higher proportion of college students.

There are now about 12 to 15 regular attendees in the Oakton class, with others coming and going, said Crowell. Although the group remains far smaller than, say, the typical church congregation, the numbers represent a marked increase over the last couple of years, she said.

Classes at Unity of Fairfax Church will resume on Sept. 11 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. every Monday and may be attended on a drop-in basis.