“Thank God I’m a Buddhist”

“Do not let pleasure distract you
From meditation, from the way.
Free yourself from pleasure and pain.” – Buddha

Well, since I didn’t really manage my time so effectively, I procrastinated my adventure blog; while this seemed like a poor idea at the start, it turned out to be my favorite blog, even being put off for so long. I had been interested in Buddhism since my senior year when I read a book about the history of the religion, or more truthfully, the lifestyle. Also, since I didn’t have too much time to go out on an adventure for religion, I opted for a more personal course of action. Namely, Buddhist meditation.

For Buddhists, as far as I know, meditation serves a fairly simple purpose, i.e., stilling the mind; they meditate to stop the rushing stream of thoughts, whether they be purposeful thoughts or rambling ones. It is to focus the mind, to take control of your mind and body as one entity. Emerging into our written history in about 1st century BCE, that’s Before the Common Era, for the laymen, Buddhist meditation is among the earliest forms of meditation. Meditation is present in almost all religions; for example, prayer is also known as discursive meditation, as well as the mantras in Hinduism.

I’m definitely not flexible enough for the full lotus.

The actual method of this meditation takes many forms, but the one I chose was a form of concentration meditation. I was to concentrate on….you’ve guessed it: nothing. Literally, your breathing was to be concentrated on, but the real aim is to think of nothing. I was not even allowed to think, “I am breathing,” because that separates my mind from my body. Not only did I choose to do a nearly impossible starter-up meditation, I opted to make it more difficult by timing my bouts of focusing on nothing. To explain a little bit further, I had a stop-watch and would start it when I started the meditation. If I broke concentration, I was to restart the timer. To give a little insight on the sheer difficulty of the task, I lasted about two seconds on my first try(cue laughter and snickering). By the end, I was making it to upwards of a minute, cue more laughter and snickering(but try not to think of the word ‘premature’, I deserve more than that). Mind you, this success was after an hour of tries and failures, all the while my legs starteed cramping from the half-lotus position.

If you have been brave enough to read this far, with all the sex jokes and whatnot, I seriously recommend doing this. It has been the most rewarding and frustrating hour I’ve had in a long time, as well as the most productive. For sitting and doing nothing, you feel so very refreshed after the time spent, well, sitting and doing nothing. Please, please do this.

Into the Fray: My Trip to the Church of Scientology

This past weekend I took a trip down to the London chapter of the Church of Scientology to learn more about the new religious movement of constant attention. Located on Queen Victoria Street just south of St. Paul’s, the building was surprisingly bland and I actually walked past it the first time. Inside, the church provides a free exhibit for those interested in the religion. I was led upstairs into a gallery split up into multiple sections, each providing video information on the basics of scientology like the way to happiness, dianetics, their anti-drug stance, and humanitarian causes (which turned out to be the crusade against psychiatric treatment for those suffering from neurobiological mental illnesses like schizophrenia and the nerve of medical professionals who prescribe them). After I watched the educational videos, I talked with a guide named Susan about Scientology and her experiences within the faith. I asked her first how long she had been in the church and why she was initially drawn to Scientology. She has spent 26 years as a scientologist, and was attracted to the faith by its ability to explain our true spiritual nature and our place in the universe. I then asked about her religious past and found out that she was Jewish. The interesting part of this is that she did not speak in the past tense, but still considered herself a  Jew. When I asked whether being Jewish conflicts with her adoption of scientology, she said that scientology is compatible with all beliefs (although she admitted she wasn’t from an orthodox background). That Scientology is open to other world-views was something that was repeated throughout the pamphlets of the exhibition. Quickly breaking off in a tangent, this sparked a thought about whether some religions have corresponding beliefs that make them more compatible with Scientology. One common understanding of human nature that both Judaism and Scientology share is that man is inherently good, something absent from a Christian perspective. If such a correlation of compatible beliefs and adoption of Scientology exists it still may not be significant, but it was an interesting idea to think about.

The most interesting part of the conversation was the subject of psychiatry. By talking to Susan and flipping through their book Industry of Death: Bring an End to the Psychiatric Fraud and Abuse, it was apparent that scientology is fervently opposed to psychiatric drugs and treatment. This conflict is rooted in the scientologist belief in dianetics, a methodology which can alleviate unwanted emotions, irrational fears. For scientologists, all negative experiences are stored in the “reactive” (as opposed to the analytical) mind, and this part of the mind throws these memories back in order to avoid the same painful experience from happening again. This is the source of all mental problems, and Scientology claims legitimacy in its ability to free the individual from the reactive mind. Scientology is on the offensive in its self-styled war against psychiatry, selling in its books like Industry of Death the argument that dianetics is truth, while the scientific consensus is lies. This is an interesting reflex to competition. I don’t think it is a stretch to compare this to the ostracizing of the Jews in the New Testament. Susan spoke passionately about the faults of psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association. It seems that competition can drive the direction of religious thought and dialogue. Overall, my trip provided valuable insight into how scientologists construct an “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Motion and Meditation

It is written in the Maitri Upanishad, “Yoga is said to be the oneness of breath, mind, and senses, and the abandonment of all states of existence.” In itself, the word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit meaning “to join.” It suggests the joining of the Atman and Brahman, allowing the personal self to blend with the totality of the universe. After our visit to the Hindu temple, the idea of using yoga as a form of meditation began to make a more sense to me. The intricacy of the designs on the temple walls combined with the general stillness of the atmosphere made it easy to feel peaceful and contemplative and inspired me to try and meditate.

A group of Hindu women doing yoga.

I had begun to think of trying something like this even earlier when we attended the Muslim prayer service. What interested me most about the service were the rituals of motion involved in the actual prayers. In other religions that I’ve witnessed, prayers are done while staying very still, allowing a person to focus solely on what they are thinking. With the Muslim prayers, it’s the combination of the movements and the words and thoughts all in conjunction that create the whole prayer. It was interesting to me to think of the notion of using the motions in order to focus the mind on a certain purpose.

If there had been more time left for us here, I would have wanted to try and go to a yoga class. As it happens though, I decided that in order to discover this link between motion, meditation, and prayer, it would be best to try and do some sort of meditation that I could do at home. To do this, I spent 5 minutes one day trying to meditate whilst remaining still and 5 minutes the next trying to meditate while moving. The first day was the most difficult. I was thinking so hard about not thinking that my mind stayed busy. I worked on slowing my breathing and focusing on that, but even then my mind was prone to wandering without my realizing. The next day was more successful, I did a series of easy dance steps and tried to clear my mind as I repeated them. In a sense, this method was more effective. Instead of circularly thinking of trying not to think, I was focused more on what my body was doing. While I’m sure with proper training still meditation might be the best method of fully clearing the mind, for me it seemed to work better to be moving and to be able to clear the mind by focusing only on what the body is doing.

A group of Muslims in prayer.

This is why the prayers at the mosque interested me so much. The rituals of moving through the motions of kneeling to standing made sense as a way of connecting the mind and the body and focusing fully on the intention of the prayers. I suppose another reason that motion route makes sense to me is because of my connection to dance. Whenever I dance, I always feel relieved of any tough emotions and calmer as a whole. After going through these exercises this week, I have realized how much dance is a form of meditation for me. For me, there is no better way to relax than by improvising a dance to music that fits whatever mood I happen to be in. So while this whole exercise was a very interesting experience and helpful in understanding the perspectives of others, I think that in the future I will slip on my dance shoes and stick to my own preferred method of meditation.

[1] Photo one comes from here.

[2] Photo two comes from here.

Sinagoga di Siena: Who knew?

This weekend, I ventured to Italy for the first time!  Since I was staying in Florence, my older sister told me I had to take the bus to Siena for one of the days.  Just as a side note, she studied abroad in Siena two summers ago and was so unbelievably excited for me to visit a place so special to her.  So, I packed my travel backpack with the maps and a paper with a few vocabulary words in Italian that she told me about and I headed for the bus station.  Since being in Siena was a whole new experience for me, I stuck to my maps and made sure I always knew where I was in relation to the bus station.

Siena, Italy

Having an older sibling can be wonderful, especially since they tend to have certain experiences before their younger siblings do.  On one hand, this is great because my sister mapped out exactly what she thought was important for me to see in Siena, but on the other hand, she expected me to do just what she did in Siena.  For example, I was so happy to see Piazza Il Campo, the Duomo, and the flags from the nine neighborhoods in Siena.  However, my sister also wanted me to walk down a small street by Piazza Il Campo and find the hostel she lived in two summers ago.  Well, just like my sister advised, I followed her directions down that little, old, cobblestone street to find her hostel.  Even though I must have walked past it ten times as I went up and down and around and around that street, I never did find the hostel.  But, I feel just as accomplished because I saw a little sign that said “Sinagoga Ebraica.”  I know this is a long introduction, but I had to set the stage for you!  And besides the long introduction about traveling, this is where my blog really begins.

Sinagoga di Siena Building

Since I had about an hour left before I needed to be back to the bus station to spend the night in Florence, I walked down the street to the Jewish synagogue and knocked on the suspected apartment-looking doors.  A modestly dressed woman opened the doors and after I told her that I was touring Siena, she let me in.  Although I learned a lot, and unlike many cathedrals and churches I have seen in Europe so far, this woman made me pay three euros for a tour.  Well, I am so glad that I had this experience because she taught me a lot!

First, this woman told me the outside of the building looks like any other apartment on the streets of Siena because it was built in 1756, well before the Jewish Emancipation of the mid-19th century.  For this reason, a Jewish synagogue would not have been widely accepted in such an area and it was important for the temple to blend in with the surroundings at the time.  However, the inside of this temple resembled most of the traditional Jewish synagogues I am familiar with.

After the informal tour, I asked the woman many questions to get a better sense of Jewish life in Siena, and Italy as well.  She told me that the Sinagoga Ebraica is an orthodox synagogue, the most strict and traditional sect of Judaism.  She continued to explain how the female congregants must sit separately from the male congregants and the male congregants are required to wear yarmulkes (the head coverings).

Interestingly enough, after telling her I am a reform Jew and do not follow the orthodox traditions, she proceeded to tell me how progressive her synagogue has become.  For example, the women there are allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs, but may only read from the Torah during their individual ceremonies.  On the contrary, and as practiced in reform Judaism, men always have Bar Mitzvahs and may read from the Torah anytime after.  My tour guide also mentioned how the female congregants get to sit on the same level as the male congregants, just on the other side of the synagogue rather than sitting upstairs where it is more traditional.  Also, the women must cover their knees and shoulders, but they may wear pants instead of traditional skirts or dresses.  I really liked hearing about these orthodox practices and comparing them to the more informal guidelines of my reform sect of Judaism.  As a brief reference, I do not keep a kosher diet, I can read from the Torah when I please, I can sit anywhere and next to anyone in my temple, I can use electricity on Shabbat (the Sabbath day), and much more.

In contrast to my synagogue and many others I have been to, this temple only has fifty congregants.  In addition, the Sinagoga di Siena is the only Jewish temple in Siena.  I could probably recall at least 100 congregants from my temple, which is much greater in size than the Sinagoga di Siena, and I can name at least three temples within a few miles from my house.  Although it is a small town, Siena, as well as most of Italy, is primarily inhabited with Christian people, so this fact was not too surprising to hear.  What was surprising to me was that Florence, like Siena, only has one synagogue as well.  My tour guide also mentioned that there are about five temples in larger cities such as Rome, but Italy is primarily populated with Christians.

As a Jewish person, and being on an adventure to a city far away from home, I feel extremely successful for the sites I stumbled upon and the history I learned about.  Since I was raised in an area with much religious diversity, being in less diverse destinations like Siena and Florence was quite an interesting and different experience.  I think this past weekend’s trips in and out of the Duomo in Siena, Brunelleschi’s Duomo and cathedral in Florence, and many other churches and these two synagogues gave me a much greater view of Italy’s religious breakdown.

A Taste Of Heaven

Every morning on the way to class, I pass by the old, brick church on the corner of Queens Gate and Harrington Road. Standing promptly in front of the aged building is the symbol of Christ on the crucifix which always catches my eye. When we first arrived in South Kensington, I used this church as a landmark to remember how to get back home. I had no idea of the stories that were held inside. On a weekday morning when I had a little extra time, I decided to wander in for a few minutes.

When I entered the large wooden doors, I was greeted with the high ceilings and darker atmosphere I’ve accustomed myself with when visiting churches and chapels around London. However, the hall was smaller, more intimate than those I’ve seen before. Even more surprising were the couches and small café bar set up as a makeshift lounge area. As I soaked in the quiet church, Chris Lee, one of the pastors, offered me some tea. Along with the refreshments he offered me information about the church and took me around the building kindly.

HTB St. Augustine’s Church on Queen’s Gate and Harrington Road

St. Augustine’s is one out of three churches of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). I asked Pastor Lee how old the church was and he laughed and told me, “very old.” In fact, it’s older than any church that I’ve been to back at home. St. Augustine’s began in 1865 when Reverend Richard Chope used his garden to worship in Anglo-Catholic tradition. As the number of attendees increased, the Church Commissioners requested a parish to be served by the church of St. Augustine. The building is constructed with a brick and marble exterior and filled with colored mosaics and stained glass. The feel and look to the church stands in stark contrast to the pristine white residential buildings of the rest of the Queens Gate surrounding area. The functions the church hosts I found were surprisingly modern. They hold concerts for alternative, Christian rock bands and interactive youth group events. Their next big upcoming event is called Focus which is “the annual teaching week away for members of HTB, its church plants, and other church friends.” I collected the pamphlet for it on my way out and it’s depicted as a weekend camping getaway of fun, community, and faith (more information can be found on HTB’s official site). Before I left, Pastor Lee invited me to join their Sunday service. Wanting to experience a service in a building as beautiful and rich with history as St. Augustine’s, I attended the 4:30 pm service. I never imagined myself going to a full service at a Christian Anglican church. Even though both my dad and my sister are Christians, I’ve never made time for church, always thinking there was something better I could do on my Sunday mornings and afternoons. After walking out of the large, wooden doors I wouldn’t say I was a changed person, but I would say that I was enlightened tremendously.

Before going to the service, I must admit that I was very nervous stepping out of my comfort zone. My nerves were soon calmed when one of the members of the church greeted me and picked up a polite conversation until the service started. I was pleasantly surprised when the service first started with a few songs sung by a five membered band soothingly strumming guitars. It wasn’t choral music which what I was expecting, instead it was more contemporary rock. Soon, everyone in the church was standing up with palms held out open to the air and sang along with the songs of worship. It was a powerful thing watching everyone sing together without really needing to read the lyrics on the helpful monitors for newcomers to follow. A real sense of community and connection was occurring within each individual in the church.

The excerpt in that afternoon’s service was from the Corinthians and the reverend evaluated what heaven was going to be like. As he read the passage, I enjoyed how he took the words and made them uplifting rather than preaching. He introduced the image of heaven with the one we typically think of when we’re kids. We think heaven as a place of white fluffy clouds filled angels and light. Then, by analyzing the chapter out of the Corinthians he concluded how heaven is in fact a place where there is no pain or worry and that you’ll be one with God.

I myself am unsure if I truly believe in heaven. I want to believe that there is a place where there is no pain and no troubles and we could remain in an eternal bliss if you have done well with your mortal life. I suppose since I’m so young, I don’t want to think about what will happen to me after this life. Whether it is ignorance, fear, or youth, the service broke through those aspects and inevitability got me thinking of these topics.

If I had to describe the service in any way, I would say it was an out-of-body experience and unlike anything I’ve really observed before.  Everyone was extremely kind to me. The lady I sat next to named Phyllis who was a regular member of St. Augustine’s told me about the lively feel of HTB. She said it was always refreshing to take a little time out of her busy schedule to be with friends and connect with God. She then told me how HTB and specifically St. Augustine’s was a great place to learn and understand not only the ways of God, but of religion and Christian faith.

She was right. I learned so much from my experience. HTB isn’t simply a place of worship, but a place where people can gather to converse with friends. Along with their services and prayers, they also put on several outreach programs including marriage courses, depression support groups, recovery courses, and job seeking courses. HTB supports the community of South Kensington. People of all walks of life come to St. Augustine’s and are treated as equals.

I truly enjoyed my time at St. Augustine’s and plan on going to next Sunday’s service with an open mind and a more confident spirit.

Focus is HTB’s next big summer event! For more information click here.

Brick Lane: A Bangladeshi Community

Belonging to a community can be wonderful thing!  After walking through Brick Lane on the East End of London, I was able to observe various things from the Bangladeshi community that unifies them.  According to News and Analysis on Islam in Europe and North America from Euro-Islam.info, compared to other major European cities, London has one of the greatest Muslim populations.  Following Christianity, Islam is the next largest religion in this worldly city.  In addition, on a smaller scale, “nearly 40% of Muslims in England and Wales live in London” and most of London’s Muslim population and their mosques are on East End of this culturally diverse city. (http://www.euro-islam.info/country-profiles/city-profiles/london/).  Clearly, there is a strong presence of people who practice the Islamic faith in London and their community is evident and observable on Brick Lane.

As stated in BBC online, many Bangladeshi Muslims immigrated to London in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Creating a pattern of people working for low incomes at unskilled jobs, this Bangladeshi community began to grow and open small restaurants.  This industrial trend has spread greatly and is represented on today’s Brick Lane (http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2005/05/27/bangladeshi_london_feature.shtml).  Mirroring the previous information, I observed many restaurants, shops, banks, and art owned by Bangladeshi Muslims.  It represents this population’s religious practices well.

Bangladeshi Food

Bangladeshi Desserts

International (Bangladeshi) Supermarket

Halal Food

The Islamic existence on Brick Lane is quite evident in their abundance of restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets.  One aspect of the Islamic diet is to only eat food that is pronounced Halal, meaning legal or lawful under the Islamic law (the Guardian) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/sep/20/halal-meat-the-truth).  Numerous restaurants and cafes in this area have signs notifying their food is certified as Halal.  I think this is important on Brick Lane because it gives the Bangladeshi people an easier experience in following their faith while dining or shopping in this location.  As a community that provides multiple food options that follow the Muslim dietary restrictions, the Bangladeshi people are working together to follow their religious practices.  The food sold here is one example of how the Islamic religion brings people together.

Ramadan Sign

Another example I noticed on Brick Lane was a sign posted outside of a mosque.  This notice brings the Bangladeshi community together by reminding them that Ramadan, a month including fasting and giving to charity, is coming soon and of their charity-giving duties during this time as faithful Muslims.  Many people will likely see this reminder as they pass by this mosque and are prompted to prepare for this religious responsibility.

I really enjoyed seeing the supermarkets, street signs, and people in this area as well.  The supermarkets, and other locations selling food, were full of food I was unfamiliar with.  For example, the fish, fruit, and desserts stood out to me.  From growing up in a relatively traditional Jewish home and community, I am accustomed to learning about Jewish and Israeli food, Israeli currency, and the Hebrew language.  My own experiences of familiarity with unusual or exotic items broadened my own knowledge of certain items I would most commonly observe and allowed me to appreciate the unfamiliar sites I witnessed on Brick Lane.  Furthermore, although I cannot read Arabic, I love that the street signs were printed in English and Bengali to show acceptance and integration of English and Bangladeshi nationalities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_Lane).  On a similar note, most of the people I walked by in the stores and on the sidewalks most likely were Bangladeshi Muslims because of their large population there.  Although there was a diverse range of socio-economic classes and ethnicities, I am sure many people I passed are worshippers of the Islamic religion.  I thought it was awesome to observe the community aspect and so many things that are new to me in this faith.

Looking Down Brick Lane

The existence of these foreign foods, the Arabic language, and Bangladeshi people tie this group of people together.  I am fond of the strong culture that exists in the London Burough of Tower Hamlets on the East End of London.  The Bangladeshi community is represented well on Brick Lane and my experience of observing this area helped me notice things valued and followed in the Islamic culture.  I am so glad I took advantage of the opportunity to view this large community in London!  Even though I am not Muslim, I appreciate Muslims’ devotion and concentration of the Bangladeshi culture on Brick Lane.  Using the Bangladeshi community on Brick Lane as an example, I believe it is important for everyone’s mental wellbeing to have a sense of belonging in some sort of community!