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Illustration Credit: Thomas Pitilli 

Not all great escapes require a passport, sunscreen and a wad of cash. In fact, according to its practitioners, one of the most intense journeys you can take in life requires nothing more than a cushion and a quiet room.

According to some sources, Buddha claimed there were 83,000 ways to meditate. The one I chose was to visit the Shambhala Meditation Center of Boston for one of their weekly open houses, where the uninitiated are offered guidance and instruction in meditation.

Legend holds that there was an ancient enlightened kingdom called Shambhala, where the first sovereign, King Dawa Sangpo, ruled over a wise, compassionate people using teachings handed to him directly by the Buddha. The tradition holds that in modern times, the heir to these ideals was the Tibetan meditation master, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose lessons are dedicated to awakening kindness, goodness and wisdom in the world. The Shambhala Center, tucked away near Brookline Village in a non-descript building that could just as easily house a dentist’s office, is a part of this global community.

I arrived not knowing what to expect, and was greeted by people so uniformly welcoming, warm and soft-spoken they could have been manning the intake desk at McLean’s. I was happy that I’d remembered to take my Klonopin. There were 20-30 people, at least 10 of them newbies like me. After chatting in the lobby, everyone moved upstairs, and those of us who required instruction went into a room and sat on navy blue cushions, facing a shrine.

Our instructor told us to sit cross-legged and erect, but not rigid, our hands resting gently on our thighs. We were to concentrate on nothing but our breath, but unfortunately for me, the shrine was too interesting not to look at, with its crystal ball sitting atop a silk tuffet, a seashell and other distractions. That, and the fact that I was hungry and looking forward to the roast chicken waiting for me at home made it difficult to clear my mind.

But I tried. I set my gaze to an indistinct point and listened to my breath, which I have experience doing from practicing yoga.  And I immediately became sleepy.

As the instructor said, “The goal is not to zone out. Otherwise, everyone who rode the bus would be enlightened.”

I also wanted to fidget. And that damn crystal ball was just sitting there begging me to glance at it. And I could smell that roast chicken waiting for me at home.

Following our instruction, we joined the larger group in a room where we sat in a circle and listened to a lesson about “gentleness, nowness, and curiosity.” Ignoring the fact that “nowness” is not a word, it was an interesting conversation, largely common sense, about the ways in which we can all engage with the world in a kinder, more compassionate way, despite the existence of things like coworkers, insincere customer service representatives and Massachusetts drivers.

Then we split into pairs for a give-and-take exercise about how all of this pertained to our own lives before ending with a reception that I excused myself from to rush home to that roast chicken.

So did I attain oneness with the universe? No. But I learned at least two things. 1) It’s best not to meditate on an empty stomach, and 2) Enlightenment doesn’t come when you call it.

I’ll just have to keep on practicing.

Shambhala Meditation Center of Boston
646 Brookline Ave., Brookline | 617-734-1498 | boston.shambhala.org