National news headlines. Rush hour traffic. Job hassles. People hassles. For most of us, life is full of stress. But does it have to be that way?
In recent years, the Northeast area has become home to at least four meditation centers. While each is unique, they all offer instruction in meditation as a path toward peace, spirituality, and service.
“Meditation has benefits on a physical, mental, and emotional level, although the true benefits are all spiritual,” said Arvind Naik, of the Science of Spirituality Meditation Center. The center’s goals, he added, are “deeper, richer inner lives, a stronger sense of meaning and purpose, and a more loving and peaceful world.”
This story profiles two centers: the Science of Spirituality Meditation Center, 4054 Van Buren St. NE, Columbia Heights, and Compassionate Ocean Zen Center (in process of changing name from Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center, 652 17th Ave. NE. A follow-up story on The Shambhala Center of Minneapolis, 2931 Grand St. NE, and The Meditation Center, 631 University Ave. NE, will appear in a future edition.
Science of Spirituality Meditation Center (SOS)
SOS members bought a church building in Columbia Heights in June, 2015. The building’s previous owner was an Assembly of God Church.
SOS has several meditation leaders, including Naik. His wife Ashwini Naik runs the children’s program. Members represent various faiths and ethnicities, and there are meditation sessions in English, Spanish or Hindi.
“We all work together in peaceful co-existence,” Ashwini said.“We are living in our own faith and practicing meditation.”
Arvind Naik said, “Many people recognize that spirituality is separate from religion and is not a threat to their religion. We teach people how to use meditation as a tool toward achieving happiness and joy. Whatever your religious tradition, we all can meditate. There are no conversions here. We seek to experience the peace within us.”
The center has a family focus and offers a one-day meditation “camp” for children and families. In addition to teaching attendees how to meditate, the event includes games, yoga, pizza and puppets.
Naik said that an average general meeting for adults might include an introductory session followed by a couple of meditation sessions. “Then everyone meditates and is quiet. Regular members usually can meditate for half an hour to an hour and a half. New people generally can meditate for 10 to 15 minutes. Most people think they might not have time to meditate, and they don’t know how to do it,” he added. “You ought to meditate regularly, and there are very simple instructions. You learn to work on it, starting with about 15 minutes a day. We withdraw from the senses but we’re not lost, or in a state where we can’t wake up. This is about achieving a higher awareness.”
The center offers meditation twice a week, on Fridays and Sundays. People who come to the center fall into two groups: the general public and the “initiated.” Everyone is welcome at the general meetings. Known as “inner light” meetings, they are free and conducted in English.
The “inner sound” meetings are for initiated members. Initiated members have adopted a spiritual way of life; they are vegetarians who do not drink alcohol or use drugs. Only initiated members may donate money to the SOS Meditation Center.
Naik said that the Columbia Heights site is working out well for them. “We could not have asked for a better building. This has rooms for children, a reasonable size sanctuary and a dining hall. Also, I love Columbia Heights. It’s a multi-cultural city in a metropolitan area, and it doesn’t have the challenges of downtown. It is a good centralized location in a residential area with access to commercial streets. We’re getting a good amount of people, from 80 to 100 on a regular Friday.
“Our expenses are equal to our income and we’re doing ok,” he added. “We believe that spirituality is connected to a higher purpose. There is always a higher power helping. People chip in. We find that magically, someone comes to help us out.”
SOS has 2,500 centers around the world, all under the guidance of spiritual leader Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj. The international headquarters is in Delhi, India. The United States headquarters is in Naperville, IL. Rajinder Singh is a scientist and electronics engineer who worked at Bell Labs in Naperville, IL.
“If you wish to grow spiritually, it is very important to have a role model who teaches the technique of meditation,” Naik said. “You come here to learn and stay connected. If you do it on your own, the teachings wash away. People come here seeking the peace that they are not getting in their regular life.”
Rajinder Singh came to Minnesota in 2010 and 2016. “He travels around the world and is constantly on airplanes,” Naik said. “He has to teach meditation to others. This is his passion. He is committed to spreading peace throughout the world. Last year he came here and inaugurated the center. We had 500 invited guests. They filled the building, upstairs and downstairs.”
Compassionate Ocean Zen Center
Unlike other meditation centers in the area, Compassionate Ocean’s spiritual leaders are not based in another state or country. Husband and wife Michael O’Neal and Joen Snyder O’Neal work full time teaching and running the center on 17th Avenue, across the street from the Casket Arts Building, where they used to rent space.
Michael is from Minneapolis and was raised a Lutheran. Joen attended the University of California in Berkeley and lived in a commune, The Farm, in Tennessee. She moved to Minnesota in 1973. The couple met at a Zen meditation center in Minneapolis and studied under their “root teacher,” a Japanese instructor named Jikai Dainin Katagiri Roshi. In 1980, Katagiri Roshi ordained Joen as a Zen priest. Katagiri Roshi died in 1990 at age 62. His death, Michael said, “shocked the Zen community.”
In 1995, the O’Neals began to offer classes on their own, including a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. “There were people who wanted to continue with us,” Michael said. “That was the core group of Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center.”
They quit their day jobs, he as a program developer for the YMCA, she as a special education counselor, and began full-time operation of the meditation center in 2000. While they leased space in various parts of Minneapolis, Michael spent the next 12 years remodeling a building they bought in Northeast, a former grocery.
They opened for business on 17th Avenue in 2014. The interior is furnished very simply in the Zen tradition, with little ornamentation.
The center offers orientation and introductory classes, weekly meditation practice, retreats, and discussions on climate change. It also has classes on Buddhist teachings and an eight-week program in mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) titled “Total Dynamic Living.” Most of the classes have fees, but others, such as the Friday and Sunday morning Meditation and Dharma talks, do not. Sometimes Compassionate Ocean Zen Center partners on classes with the Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul.
“It’s always a challenge to get the word out when you have a small budget,” Michael said. “We try to do our best with fliers, brochures on line, and local newsletters. Our Buddhist studies usually attract about 45 people. About 2,000 people have been through the MBSR class. For a lot of people, that’s been the way they’ve found out about us.”
He said that most of the people who come to the center are not Buddhists. “People from other religions tell us that they like the Zen practice of meditation. That’s what they want to do here. Categories and labels are not so important. We don’t try to get people to abandon their faith commitment.” Also, although some people might seek out meditation because they have been told of its health benefits, the center is “not trying to market meditation as a health elixir,” he added.
“If someone’s interested in experiencing a deep dimension of human life, this is a good place to do that. There are multiple aspects of that; the first is directly through meditation practice, the second is through the study of Zen and Buddhist teachings,” Michael said. “We offer high quality instruction and support for meditation practice, and also for deeply transformative insights into how human life can bloom. Our door is open. People are welcome to come and check us out.”
The couple said they have been practicing meditation for more than 40 years. Joen said, “We consider ourselves very lucky that we get to teach what has been so life transforming and nourishing to us, and that we get to pass it on to people.”
Below: Arvind and Ashwini Naik (left) and Michael O’Neal and Joen Snyder O’Neal (right). (Photos by Gail Olson)