My life with Interfaith Partnership takes me to the ends of the earth—or so it seems—without ever leaving St. Louis. I’ve been welcomed in faith communities that I knew nothing about. It’s a delight and an honor to have the opportunity to visit churches, synagogues, masjids (mosques, as we Americans call them), temples and other locations serving faith communities.
Being a visitor isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s downright intimidating to walk into a house of worship, especially when I go alone. But it’s part of my psyche to seek connection and relationships—which just can’t happen without taking the small risk of making myself vulnerable in a new space. I hope that by sharing my own experiences, I can offer insights that encourage your own participation in the interfaith movement.
Sometimes sacred spaces seem hidden in plain sight. Understated or set back from main streets, they’re tucked away from my consciousness as I go about my everyday life. My brother-in-law and his wife used to live nearby this temple, and I would have driven past it numerous times to visit them in their home, but it wasn’t until this past Saturday that I noticed St. Louis’ Thai Buddhist temple as part of the wider landscape.
Members and friends of Interfaith Partnership were welcomed to take part in an open meditation session, and 30 or so souls convened for the experience. The temple is a converted building, and it maintains the original architecture of a Protestant church but is adorned with the trappings of its Thai Buddhist owners. The blond wood, characteristic of the midcentury church style, is highlighted by beautiful golden appointments, and what I would have called the chancel was flanked by two beautiful golden dragons that arc above a full-to-the-brim altar of golden tables, lotus and other blossoms, and statues of the Buddha.
(Chancel is the area around the altar in a church. The word is used, I believe, mostly in Christian congregations; I learned it during the beginning of my professional life with the United Church of Christ.)
The program was led by Dr. Kongsak Tanphaichitr, a member at the temple and the current president of the St. Louis Buddhist Council. He has a long history of relationships in St. Louis’ interfaith community, having been involved with the St. Louis’ Dialogue Group of the World’s Religions and Philosophies since its inception 28 years ago.
As both a medical doctor and a Buddhist who often speaks about his religion, he is expert on both the traditional Eastern practice of, and the modern Western research on, meditation and mindfulness. I’ve previously taken a class where we learned about the impact of mindfulness practice on brain structure: spending time in meditation, and applying its attendant level of focus in daily life, helps the brain develop new and stronger neural pathways. Practicing regularly will help the brain maintain a high level of agility and be better able to access these pathways. The ability of the brain to develop and change is called neuroplasticity. This is the Western (primarily American) approach to mindfulness—affirming what Buddhism and other meditative traditions have been practicing for millennia.
Here’s what was most surprising to me and my guests: we didn’t sit during our meditation. We showed up with the pretty firm notion (fair, I think, from previous experience) that meditation is done sitting, usually on the ground, with legs crossed. As Dr. Tanphaichitr explained, that is one kind of meditation practice. Being able to let go while one is sitting is a way of stilling the mind, usually by focusing on the breath. Instead of sitting, though, on Saturday we practiced what might be seen as the next step in meditation practice—insight meditation, in which one returns quite consciously to activity. The actions themselves needn’t be purposeful, and as Dr. Tanchaichitr explained, the series of actions that he led us through were intentionally without meaning. First we spent about 20 minutes performing a series of hand gestures that I can best describe as similar to the hand movements of the 90s dance craze The Macarena. Then the group stood up and walked the perimeter of the room, with arms clasped together in front of or behind us, not swinging them. And finally, we returned to the same hand movements, this time in a standing position, before we returned to our seats to conclude the meditation session. The guidance that he provided during the session was to keep reminding us that our thoughts are impermanent, not our own and not belonging to any other. The practice of insight meditation is to help become aware of the mind’s workings, as it is an opportunity to simply observe thought as it moves and flows through us. Eventually, we learned, the movement of insight meditation is so well practiced that one can move through daily life with the same level of awareness about his thoughts.
Wow. This was powerful, and cool, and interesting, especially because it was so unexpected. I’ll admit that I didn’t find myself able to experience any distance from my thoughts, which I’d need in order to observe them, primarily because I was so fascinated with the movement itself and the leader’s guidance through them. I’ve had meditative experiences where I was able to achieve that distance through guided stilling of the mind and then returning to a regular mode of thinking.
This was such a unique consideration, but in retrospect, not one that surprises me. I thrive with motion, as do many in my family. My cousin Michael once pointed out that he can only focus when he is in motion, which is why he likes to use a treadmill at the gym. Nobody in my genetic family does their best thinking while they’re sitting down. I feel similarly bolstered by movement, and the first thing I think to do when I’m feeling out of sorts is to exercise. So my own experience truly lends itself to the teachings of insight meditation, and now that I’ve been able to reflect on that and I understand the concept better, I’d be eager to revisit the practice and see whether I am able to find an observation point from which to glimpse my thoughts during the session.
The Thai name of the temple is Wat Phrasriratanaram, which means The Temple of the Beautiful Gem. Now that I’ve been inside, I’ll never be able to pass by without a mental salute to the precious element found therein.
Comments are closed.