The Gift of Presence

Our correspondent takes a popular intro to meditation.

There is no incense burning at Seattle Insight Meditation Society classes. There are no special robes to wear, formal poses to adopt, or gurus to adulate. Free of the trappings of Eastern culture and mysticism often associated with meditation, SIMS offers an elemental version of the practice of "mindfulness." That accessibility has undoubtedly contributed to its burgeoning popularity; the organization's weekly community or "sangha" get-togethers are about to move to a new space at St. Mark's Cathedral to accommodate its growth. And it also makes SIMS introductory classes an intriguing gift idea for someone who has always wanted to try meditation but hasn't known where to start. It's an affordable gift at that, at $50 for six sessions plus an all-day retreat.

The themes of meditation, at least as taught by SIMS guiding teacher Rodney Smith, seem tailor-made for the season of reflection and renewal. "Is there a way to live that's free of inward struggle, so that we can actually relax into life, freed from the angst that most of us live with?" Smith asks, speaking before class one evening at Ravenna's Keystone Church, where introductory classes are held. A self-described "second generation" American Buddhist, taught by Western as well as Asian teachers, the lanky, down-to-earth Smith maintains that there is.

The concept of "being present in the moment" has become a pat cliché. But Smith, a former hospice director, imbues it with meaning. He expounds upon how we commonly allow our thoughts to take over from experiencelike the ripples that emanate from a stone thrown into the waterso that we become disconnected from the concrete facts of life. "Being authentic doesn't mean being authentic to you," he tells the 80 or so students. "It means being authentic to the truth."

Smith tells us that our wandering, disconnected thoughts have a way of taking us "to the limits of insanity." When a love affair ends, for example, we surrender to escalating thoughts of unworthiness. And here is where meditation comes in, as a way of reconnecting ourselves with the specificity of life through heightened awareness of everything, beginning with our very breath.

For anyone caught up in the life of the mind, this is a challenging and even controversial concept. Meditating during classeyes closed, body upright, mind alert to every passing sensation but focusing on nothing grander than the process of breathingI find myself questioning what seems to be a kind of blankness. Do we really want to focus just on the concrete sensations of life when the world of thought offers so much enrichment, albeit laced with neurosis?

Fortunately, Smith allots time for questions in his classes, and he's more than willing to entertain doubts. It's an opportunity to wrestle with the big questions of life, which is a rare gift indeed.

For more information and class schedules, call 206-366-2111 or visit

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