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Zen pals: New Orleans’ meditation community 

Exploring meditation practice in New Orleans

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Mindfulness is one form of different meditations, [a] particular way of paying attention to the present moment with an open curiosity and kindness.

On a quiet street tucked behind the Fair Grounds Race Course, there is a little house with several pairs of shoes on the front porch. Mid City Zen (3248 Castiglione St., www.zmcneworleans.org) holds group meditations several times a week and a special instruction for beginners most Sunday mornings.

  "Meditation is such a broad term," says Michaela O'Connor Bono, a Buddhist priest and leader of the center's formal practice and teachings. "It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, depending on what sort of religious tradition you're practicing. So we are a Zen Bud- dhist sangha, which is the word for com- munity practitioners."   I attended a Sunday morning sitting, which starts with an introduction to the posture and the physical elements of Zen meditation. The zendo, or meditation hall, was quiet, calm and cool, a respite from the city's heat and noise. Black floors reflected light onto the faces of the new practitioners seated around me.   "You sit, you follow the breath and you watch what comes up in your mind and your heart," Bono said. "You stick with it; you don't push it away."   We learned the posture. Each participant sat on a firm cushion, cross-legged, hands upward and folded over each other, thumb tips touching. Bono encouraged us to be patiently aware of our form. If we found ourselves slouching or our fingertips slackening, we were to guide ourselves back to form gently and without judgment.   "It's not just about being spiritual or enlightened or exempt from suffering," Bono said. "It's about being able to understand your own suffering and other people's suffering."

Bono celebrated her sixth anniversary as a priest this September. A native of Queens, New York, she studied at the San Francisco Zen Center from 2005 to 2011. The course of study involved a lot of meditation, but Bono emphasized the community element of the monastery.

  "We spent a lot of time taking care of the land or the buildings or each other, cooking and farming," says Bono, who lived in New Orleans prior to 2005, then moved back in 2011 to lead Mid City Zen. "For me, the main benefits of meditation are being a good community member and being able to have compassion for yourself and other people because you're having to look at your own mind and heart."

  She's not the only one helping the ancient practice attract a wider base in New Orleans. Dr. Jose Calderon, who is board-certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine, founded the Mind-Body Center of Louisiana in 2009. It's a nonprofit organization devoted to integrating mind-body techniques into the larger framework of health care. He also runs the Mindful Living Program, a private practice dedicated to integrating biomedicine, psychotherapy and mind-body practices.

  "Mindfulness is one form of different meditations, [a] particular way of paying attention to the present moment with an open curiosity and kindness," says Calderon, a Mexico City native who has served as assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Louisiana State University's School of Medicine for more than 10 years. "It is a moment-to-moment awareness with an open and accepting curiosity."

  Meditation has been linked to a host of health benefits. A 1992 study by a group of scientists from the University of Massachusetts established a link between mindfulness meditation and stress reduction. Another 2016 study found that meditation increases telomerase (cell enzyme) activity, which is associated with reduced chronic stress and inflammation. A 2009 study by the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina establishes a link between mindfulness meditation training and pain reduction.

  "It's really reducing your fight-or-flight response," Calderon says. "It's a training of the mind that reinforces your control over areas of the brain that deal with emotion."

  Calderon has spent time working with victims of trauma. He finds meditation useful in helping a traumatized person re-enter society.

  "The traumatized person feels isolated from community," Calderon says. "With meditation, they can take refuge in the body and can begin to express some of these feelings. They can begin to listen and see that other people have had these experiences as well."

  Bono says meditation isn't a self-improvement practice, but a conduit to understanding ourselves and others better. From that awareness comes an understanding of how to treat ourselves and others with compassion. For her, it is one part of the larger tradition of Soto Zen Buddhism.

  "I appreciate that people are more interested in their well-being," Bono says. "The more people that take a good look at how they piece the world together the better, but it shouldn't just be another thing that people think they should do and then beat themselves up for not doing."

  Calderon says that the New Orleans community stands to benefit from meditation and mindfulness practices.

  "This is a community that suffers traumas and is polarized in many areas," Calderon says. "Meditation can be a practice that brings people together to problem solve and be together and talk together."

After the instruction for beginners, more experienced practitioners filtered into the room and took their seats. There was a sense of community in the room. People exchanged quiet greetings as they found their places and adjusted their cushions.

  "Something we value is consistency," Bono said. "Even something as simple as our schedule. It has remained largely the same over the last four years. I think just being a steady, dependable place is also something we can offer to a city that changes rapidly."

  Everyone faced the wall. The 30-minute session began.

  After a few minutes, I noticed the caffeine humming through my body. I was tempted to scratch an itch on my nose. I became preoccupied with my breathing. I had moments of anxiety. The anxiety passed. The itch passed. The time passed. A bell signaled the end of 30 minutes, but it felt like five.

  "We're here as a refuge if folks want quiet and to sit with their struggles in a compassionate way," Bono said. "The hope is that that's a real gift."

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