Students sit cross-legged on the edges of their cushions, backs straight and heads tilted slightly downward. Their gazes are aimed at the floor, just past the small container of burning incense. As their eyes move in and out of focus, the meditators try to concentrate on their breathing to clear their minds.
“We provide a space where people can all come together and enjoy something away from the pressures of regular life,” said Ravenna Michalsen GRD ’08 — co-founder and president of Lotus, Yale’s student Buddhist society.
Most of the group’s directors are practicing Buddhists, but many students who come to Lotus meetings are not. Such students seek a place to relax and escape the daily grind of student life. The directors welcome students who are only trying meditation, even those who come to one meeting and never return to Lotus.
“Meditation is a great way to explore a different way to engage the mind,” Michalsen said.
Some inexperienced students end up returning as they become comfortable with the meditation process and the group itself. Chris Ornelas ’07 said he first contemplated meditating when he came to Yale.
“I didn’t start meditating until I came here,” Ornelas said. “I came because I wanted a break from the academics.”
Ornelas, who now does publicity work for Lotus, said meditation has helped him cope with an otherwise busy lifestyle. He said many other “curious” students seek the same break.
“Pretty much every meeting there is someone [new] or someone who brings a friend,” Ornelas said.
Meetings, which the group holds three times per week at 8 p.m. in the meditation room in the basement of Trumbull College, average about 10 people, Ornelas said.
Jason Protass ’04, undergraduate president of Lotus, said meditation is part of his daily religious life. He meditates while he walks and even while he washes dishes, he said.
“For me, meditation is mundane daily life and doing it on the cushion is just a special time for it,” Protass said. “You’re always breathing.”
Michalsen — who is a certified instructor for Shamatha meditation, one of the three main types of Buddhist meditation — said she wants to make sure everyone has a good experience when meditating for the first time. She offers guidance to newcomers to help them maintain the proper posture and breathing cycle.
Michalsen said it is as important to have a “knowledge-holder” for meditation as it is for any other religious practice. She said only through instruction and practice does one begin to understand meditation. Thoughts drift in and out with one’s breath, she said, and emotions can take the form of thoughts.
“When you sit over time, you definitely have a chance to feel angry or sad on the cushion,” Michalsen said. “What I’ve noticed is that emotions seem to be just thoughts, but cloaked a little different.”
Although many meditators primarily seek a respite from their academic lives, Lotus also accommodates the serious Buddhist practitioner. Michalsen said she and a friend started Lotus as another option for Buddhist students when the only service offered on campus was run by the Kwan Um school at the New Haven Zen Center.
“We were off-put by how nothing was explained and everything was in Korean,” Michalsen said. “It didn’t feel welcoming.”
The Zen Center service is no longer offered on campus. Yale Buddhist Chaplain Bruce Blair currently holds silent meditation services in Battell Chapel nightly from midnight to 2 a.m..
Michalsen said Lotus offers an ecumenical approach to Buddhism, so the group does not practice any meditationparticular lineage of Buddhism. But she said Lotus is a place where one “can still engage in Buddhist teachings.”
After each meditation session, attendees read selections of Buddhist readings, passing the book around the circle from person to person.
Protass said he appreciates the form of Buddhism Lotus practices, which is different from “pop Western Zen” and from many cultural Buddhist practices that are native to a particular country.
He said Lotus seeks to educate about many of the different Buddhist practices. Lotus recently brought a meditation instructor to campus to teach a different form of meditation. Protass said the group also hosts campus-wide Buddhist events throughout the year.
“Most Buddhist speakers that come to the campus come through Lotus,” Protass said.
Ornelas said Lotus draws a diverse group of students to its talks as well as to meditation meetings.
“It’s a group that’s constantly fluctuating,” he said.