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Calm amid chaos ; People from all walks of life find inner peace through mindfulness meditation

The members of Buffalo Mindfulness Community have one trait in common: They are incredibly calm.

They gather weekly to meditate together -- a practice that leaves them refreshed, relaxed and energized. They come from varied spiritual backgrounds, range in age from 18 to 80, and include lawyers, health care professionals, school counselors, university professors and computer technology experts.

"It's about grounding yourself, so if your day gets hectic or if you get challenged by a very abrasive personality, you understand you have a choice on how you react," said Eric Carlson, 36, a computer technology consultant. "I run into that every day. My practice [of mindfulness] allows me to stay calm and cool and ensures that I'm hearing what they're saying."

The techniques of mindfulness -- also called Vipassana or Insight Meditation -- are drawn from the teachings of Buddha but are nonsectarian. They are used by health care professionals to treat a variety of psychological disorders, including depression in adults and attention-deficit disorder in children.

Practical applications include the treatment of anxiety, borderline personality disorders, chronic pain, obesity and addiction, according to Paul Lukasik, a mental health counselor who founded Buffalo Mindfulness Community in 2003.

"This is not some New Age spinoff on the benefits of meditation," said Lukasik. "Health care professionals are using this as a technique to help themselves, and to develop empathy for their patients."

One of its key tenets -- awareness of the present moment -- allows followers a sense of peace with their current circumstances, even though the circumstances may be less than perfect. By not focusing on the past, the future or dwelling on what should have been, people who are mindful learn to live in the present.

In addition to Lukasik's group that meets Mondays at Trinity Episcopal Church, there are a handful of different groups in the area dedicated to the practice of mindful living. They join hundreds of other mindfulness groups in scores of cities, including Anchorage, Louisville, Las Vegas and Montreal.

People at any age discover mindfulness in any number of ways. They practice it daily and integrate it into their lives at home and in the workplace.

>Mental health

Lukasik, who grew up in the Olcott-Newfane area of Niagara County, discovered mindfulness in 1988, when a friend from the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo suggested he attend a seminar at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. At the time, Lukasik was enrolled at the University at Buffalo, where he studied occupational therapy.

"Mindfulness training is meditation, and it can be as little as five minutes," said Lukasik, who speaks in soothing tones. "Mindfulness develops stability, a stillness. It's a direct experience, and how it's taught is to keep your eyes open or closed and bring your awareness to the present moment and your breathing. In two seconds -- boom -- the mind is off."

Today, in his role as mental health counselor at the Williamsville Wellness Center, Lukasik uses mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to help clients manage chronic pain.

"When there are a lot of thoughts and emotions about the pain, it's like throwing gasoline on a fire, so the mindfulness disentangles you from the story you have about your pain. It's really about learning not to over-identify with the experience."

A study conducted at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in December 2010 found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy worked as well as antidepressants at preventing depression.

Mental health counselor Lesley A. Martin, 34, recalled as a child growing up in Snyder attending ashrams with her mother, a Christian Scientist. She studied religion at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. Practicing mindfulness, for Martin, came naturally.

"In time of trials and difficulty, it is great to have a place to go and just be present, because all of those problems will still be there," said Martin, who lives in the Elmwood Village.

>The mindful attorney

At the University at Buffalo School of Law, meditation sessions are offered for students twice weekly, according to Stephanie L. Phillips, law professor for 22 years. Courses that apply mindfulness techniques to lawyering skills have been taught at the school for three years.

"Integrating mindfulness in the Law School curriculum is totally cutting edge," said Phillips, who co-teaches many of the mindfulness courses.

"Listening to a client is a key skill and one that is enabled through a mindful practitioner's ability to focus strict attention on the client," explained Phillips. "It also helps you pay attention to your client's needs, not your ego's needs."

>The mindful child

Mary Carol Dearing, a clinical social worker in Williamsville Central School District, works with children ages 5 to 10. As a registered play therapist, she uses the mindful practices learned from years of group meditation in her daily dealings with impulsive children as well as those who suffer from attention-deficit disorder.

Mindful meditation originally appealed to her for its ability to reduce stress.

"The biggest piece was self-care, how to deal with my stress," said Dearing, 49. "But it was a natural fit in what I was doing with children."

"Children will naturally play out issues that might be bothering them that could be symbolic of what is going on at home or in a classroom," said Dearing.

She mentioned a mindfulness technique using a glitter ball (similar to a snow globe), learned from author Susan Kaiser Greenland, who wrote "The Mindful Child."

"We'll shake it up, and we'll see how it is all cloudy with sparkles, which is what it's like when you're having trouble focusing, or your worries are jumbled up," she said. " 'Sometimes,' I tell them, 'we just need to be still and let everything settle.' Suddenly the clarity appears."

>East meets West

Carlson, the computer tech specialist, discovered his spirituality on the golf course years before finding mindfulness in the teachings of Shinzen Yong, who leads mindful meditation retreats throughout North America. Carlson was 13 years old when he shot a golf round for the ages.

"I had this peak experience," said Carlson of West Seneca, who was raised a Catholic. "Did you ever hear of a flow state, when you're very focused on your game? I shot the best round of my life, and it got me to thinking what else was at play.

"When I was 18, it happened again, but this time through focus and concentration and centering myself. Now I find it at work when I can write a piece of documentation in 30 minutes instead of two hours."

Carlson is a technical professional who majored in psychology and philosophy at the State University at Binghamton. Meditation centered his life in his early 20s, before he married and started a family. Today, he has renewed interest.

"If you look at the poems of Sufi master Rumi, you can find mindfulness. You can find mindfulness in Ralph Waldo Emerson," Carlson noted. "You find it in Buddhism. You find it Catholicism. You find it everywhere, and I guess that's the point I'm trying to make."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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Get in touch

     Buffalo Mindfulness Community is sponsoring a special weekend of free teachings called "Living and Dying" March 25 and 26 at Daemen College. The workshops will feature the teachings of Spring Rain Sangha teachers Randy Baker and Jim Bedard.    

For more information, visit www.BuffaloDharma.org, e-mail info@buffalodharma.org or phone 626-9016 ext. 205.    

(Daemen College is not a sponsor of this event.)

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