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San Francisco Meditation Centers

Cleaning Out the Mind's Cobwebs

I'm not the kind of gal who's normally given to grandiose declarations of my goals -- and I've always thought of New Year's resolutions as falling under the same category. But this year, the tides have turned. With the tumult of global events, compounded with my own personal chaos, I've undergone a dramatic shift -- from apathetic and un-rooted to intentional and focused. Considering the recent calamities the world has been thrown into over the past few weeks or so, I've decided the New Year is as good a time as any to cultivate a deeper spiritual awareness of myself, other people and life. That's why I'm dispensing with the big ambitions and am choosing to devote 2005 to silence and stillness.

It's no surprise that San Francisco is a meditation cloud nine of sorts. Since the mid-sixties, when Buddhist meditation became popularized in the Bay Area, the practice of sitting with oneself and emptying the mind of all thoughts has mushroomed into hundreds of meditation centers -- more than a few, and most likely within walking distance of you. Whether you're interested in opening portals to spiritual awareness or just getting a few moments of peace and quiet, the following offerings will lead you into a personal nirvana away from the bustle of it all.

The San Francisco Buddhist Center offers an unpretentious and grounded alternative to practitioners who feel daunted by the monastic upshots of Buddhism. Tucked away into an unassuming corner of the Mission District, the SFBC is part of an international network of communities called the Friends of the Buddhist Order, founded by a British monk named Sangharakshita in 1968. The Center draws from a variety of Buddhist traditions: Zen, Tibetan, and Vipassana, to name a few. Focused on the development of metta bhavana, or loving-kindness, the Center is also focused on the building of community, or sangha. The SFBC is entirely run by volunteers, a diverse, international group of men and women who don't fit the ascetic monk stereotype. Some of the SFBC's eclectic offerings include yoga, performance and other arts-related nights, men's meditation sitting groups, and a monthly meditation sitting group for people of color. The common area is filled with cozy couches, teacups, and sumptuous Buddhist art -- perfect for socializing and talking about the Eightfold Path in an informal setting. All meditations are held in an airy adjacent room that has an elaborate Buddha shrine as its centerpiece. Morning meditations, which take place five days a week, are free -- drop-in meditations and classes for both the seasoned practitioner and wide-eyed beginner are on a reasonable sliding scale, and the seasonal meditation retreats that happen at the SFBC's Santa Cruz cabin are also amazingly economical.

The San Francisco Zen Center is a veritable fixture of the Buddhist community in San Francisco. Established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who was responsible for bringing Zen to the West, the Zen Center maintains the rigor and intellectual complexity of classical Zen while remaining accessible to laypeople. The Zen Center comprises one of the largest Buddhist communities outside Asia and has three practice areas: the City Center building in San Francisco, Green Gulch Farm in Marin, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, just outside Big Sur. All three centers offer a rich array of meditation, retreats, practice periods, classes, workshops, and family events. While the Zen Center is perfect for laypeople (zazen meditations at the City Center on Saturday mornings are specifically tailored for beginners and fidgeters), events are led by a cache of experienced monks, many of whom were Suzuki Roshi's students. The Zen Center is also deeply connected to a variety of social justice causes that include protecting the environment, speaking out against war, and outreach to the homeless. The City Center is also known as the Beginner's Mind Temple and offers a wide range of talks, meditation, classes, one on one spiritual counseling, and residential student programs. Workshops include storytelling and mindfulness practice for children, suggestions on how to take one's mindfulness into the hectic world, and Zen tips on parenting.

For those who are interested in a brand of meditation off the beaten path of Buddhism, check out the Makor Or Jewish Meditation Center in the Inner Richmond. Makor Or takes all the clichés out of Kabbalah mysticism and provides serious students with a healthy chunk of food for thought. While Jewish "meditation" is still a fairly new practice, Rabbi Alan Lew, the founder of Makor Or (which means "source of light") and the head rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom, infuses the center's offerings with the introspective, globally heterogeneous smatterings of New Judaism and also offers rigorous classes on the Talmud (Old Testament), Torah, and the cultural legacies of Judaism. Daily sitting meditations precede prayer services at Beth Sholom, which is conveniently located next door. The center's study groups and classes scrutinize subjects as varied as the role of prophecy in Judaism and meditations on the Book of Psalms. Monthly week-long retreats include alternating periods of yoga, meditation, Torah study, and Jewish prayer.

In my quest for inner peace, I've discovered that there are as many strains of meditation as there are people in the world. Every meditation center, whatever its method, is defined by its community, place, and epoch. So while the search is partially one for inner peace, seeking out a center is just as much about community building and the realization that no man or woman is an island. That's definitely a new year's resolution I can take some pride in.