Groups hope Dalai Lama visit will boost interest in meditation

Just after dawn on a recent weekday, a trio of motionless figures perched on black cushions inside a Mid-City shotgun building faced the wall in silence. They were trying to find stillness within their minds.

The meditators were members of the Mid-City Zen Center, one of a handful of groups in New Orleans that are hoping that the upcoming visit of the Dalai Lama will boost interest in meditation practice.

The group, which was founded in 2010 and run by Michaela O’Connor-Bono, 29, and Koji Dreher, 31, offers group meditation sittings six days a week.

O’Connor-Bono and Dreher, both ordained monks who practiced in a Zen monastery before moving to New Orleans, aspire to share the benefits of Zen meditation with others.

“When you still your mind, you’re more in alignment with what actually happens. It leads to harmony,” said O’Connor-Bono, whose interest in meditation was first piqued when she took a class in Zen at Loyola University.

The center recently raised enough money to buy a lot in the Freret neighborhood with plans to build a traditional Zen temple.

“We want to create a community that can sit half a day and then go to a second line,” Dreher said.

If constructed, it would be the second Zen temple in New Orleans.

In 1988, Robert Livingston, a New York native who studied Zen in Europe for 10 years under the guidance of the Japanese teacher Taisen Deshimaru, established one of the first Zen centers in the South in a four-story building in the 700 block of Camp Street.

Livingston, who has been practicing Zen for 40 years, said New Orleans is a tough place to have a Zen center, as the city’s many festivals and celebrations keep people entertained.

Yet, the temple sees a steady stream of newcomers seeking a deeper understanding of their consciousness.

“People run into problems because they are so self-involved,” he said.

“In Zazen, you’re studying your brain, not with you mind but with your whole being. You learn to live more in the now,” he said.

Rose Bratcher, one of two permanent residents at the temple, said that her meditation practice has left her with an increased sense of harmony and focus.

“The effect I’ve seen is like going from buckshot to laser,” she said.

New Orleans has a dearth of meditation offerings compared to other major metropolitan sittings, and many groups are run by lay people who balance their practice alongside 9-to-5 jobs.

Larry Ozenberger, 56, began practicing insight meditation five years ago and started the New Orleans Insight Meditation Group in 2010.

Ozenberger, a lawyer, said his first instruction came via a correspondence course as he prepared for a 10-day retreat.

He said that his practice has made him a kinder and more aware person and that he’s seen those within his group benefit as well.

“It can be calming to drop all of our electronic diversions and step out of the story of our lives and just be present when we breathe,” he said.

Ozenberger said that he gets the sense that more people are opening up to meditation both nationwide and in New Orleans.

He thinks the Dalai Lama’s visit will boost awareness of the practice.

“He’s a wonderful example of what a human being can be. I’m hopeful that his visit will set in motion some very positive things in the city,” he said.

Delores Watson echoes that sentiment.

A 40-year practitioner of meditation, Watson opened the Flowering Lotus Retreat Center in McComb, Miss., in 2011.

Watson’s center offers monthly retreats with teachers across the country and accommodates up to 40 attendees.

She said that attendees range from teenagers to those as old as 80, and that she’s noticed a surge in interest as of late.

“People have a chance to really be quiet, to hear that inner voice and experience an aspect of themselves that many have never experienced before,” she said.

While the majority of meditation groups in the area are of Buddhist tradition, there are groups of other faiths with active practices.

The Rev. William Thiele, founder and spiritual director of the School for Contemplative Living, said his organization offers support and year-round training in a variety of contemplative practices.

In conjunction with the Dalai Lama’s visit, the organization will be holding a workshop on “New Monasticism” and a program called “Compassion: Jesus and the Buddha as Brothers.”

Many of the groups Thiele works with have a Christian influence and practice centering prayer, a meditation where practitioners release thoughts to open the heart up for the presence of God.

Thiele said the underlying premise — personal transformation and open heartedness — is the same as many forms of Buddhist meditation, and his organization has strong interfaith ties.

He’s hopeful that the visit of the Dalai Lama will galvanize more New Orleanians to consider contemplative practices.

“It’s just not what he says but the life he leads that can inspire people to look for something similar inside themselves,” he said.