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By Tom Holmes
Jacques Slaiher drove all the way from Batavia to attend a class at the Zen Life & Meditation Center, located in Oak Park just north of West Suburban Hospital. When Robert Althouse, the center's director learned that Slaiher found the center on the web, he was delighted.
A year ago, Althouse and his wife, June Tanoue, made a major change in the way they were trying to spread the teachings and life lessons of Zen living. One of those changes was, without apology, doing a better job of marketing what they were doing.
"We do all our advertising now online," he said. "We're very smart and disciplined in the way we use key words."
What Althouse and Tanoue did a year ago was to reincarnate, if you will, their business model. They changed the name of their center from Zen Community of Chicago to Zen Life and Meditation Center, and they became more "consumer friendly."
"I try to run the Zen Center like a business," said Althouse. "We do surveys and ask for feedback. If a participant complains that the chairs are not comfortable, we change the chairs."
A more profound change, however, has been the way he approaches his teaching.
"I started rethinking everything a year and a half ago," he said. "When the economy had the big downturn, I realized that meditation or mindfulness can help a lot of people. I wanted to ground Zen practice in a mindfulness approach and then translate it into an American cultural form that would make it more accessible."
To accomplish that mission, he has paraphrased a lot of religious argot into secular language. Participants at the first session of his Primer Series, which began on March 1, heard him use terminology borrowed from western psychotherapy, neuroscience and philosophy. It's still very much a spiritual path but Althouse tries to make that path as accessible to Westerners as possible, partly by avoiding the use of religious terms. He emphasizes that he is not out to convert anyone to Buddhism but to teach a Zen lifestyle and the practice of meditation.
Althouse knows from experience how inaccessible Zen can be. In the late 1960s when he was first getting into meditation, he visited a Zen community in San Francisco. He was something of a hippie at the time, he admits.
"I didn't like the community. Everyone was wearing black robes and looking at the ground. They all looked like automatons. It was a little scary."
Nonetheless, a few years later he joined a Zen community where he wore a black robe and spent a lot of time looking at the ground. Forty years after being ordained a Zen Buddhist priest, his love for the tradition has grown stronger, even as he has loosened his approach.
"Before the change we made a year ago," he said, "I was more traditional in my approach. I wore black robes and did lots of ritual with lots of bowing."
Both he and Tanoue are ordained priests in the White Plum Lineage. According to the Zen Life & and Meditation Center brochure, Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse is a fully empowered Zen master who has been practicing for 40 years and teaching for 18.
It was the realization, however, that the traditional approach wasn't appealing to most Americans that motivated Althouse and Tanoue to revamp their approach.
The core of the new approach is a three-part curriculum, the first being the Primer Series. At the class on May 1, the 17 participants nodded their heads in agreement when Althouse described contemporary America as a culture "on steroids."
"We need to cut through this busyness and be still," he told the class. "We have to find a way of keeping company with ourselves, of becoming attuned to ourselves." He calls that way "mindfulness," and the way to get to mindfulness is through meditation.
Althouse ascribes to a definition penned by Elizabeth Scott from the website About.com: "Mindfulness is the practice of becoming more fully aware of the present moment — non-judgmentally and completely — rather than dwelling in the past or projecting into the future."
The brochure promises "A Fresh Approach to Zen ... Providing tools for a more effective life of openness, empathy and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty."
The 17 participants on March 1 all felt motivated to come to the first class and seemed interested in learning about what Althouse calls a "Zen-inspired life," but their reasons for attending varied widely.
"I was going through some things in my life," said Kimdra Jones of Westmont, "and I thought I would come in and learn how to be more positive, and [how] meditating would help out with those things."
Slaiher explained that he uses the concept of mindfulness in his work as a child and adolescent therapist. "It's important that I practice what I'm teaching the kids," he said.
Andrea Bucsi grew up in Hungary when it was a Communist country. "There was no religion or spirituality," she said. "I've been very interested in Zen for a long time, and my friend has practiced here for many years."
The second part of the curriculum is called the the Gateway Series. Building on the Primer, Althouse teaches more advanced skill sets like focusing and non-violent communication and facilitates something called the "Big Mind Process."
Life Application Sessions make up the third part of the curriculum. In three sessions, participants are provided "with key tools to apply in their daily life."
Some people take one or two series of classes and never return, but the new approach has been effective enough to increase the center's membership from 8 to 55 in just the last year. Many of those who have remained active in the center say a big reason they stick around is the sense of community they feel inside the old Victorian house on Humphrey Avenue.
Allison Morgan, a Chicago resident who is an advanced student at the center, said that in her experience in American culture, genuine community is hard to come by. But from the first time she stepped into the Zen Center she felt like she had come home.
"I felt like here was something I could trust," she recalls, "that I could count on to be real and authentic. There's a community here that I've come to appreciate for its warmth and generosity and good humor."
Tammy Brock is a stay-at-home mom in Oak Park who comes to the center partly because being part of a group doing meditation helps her stick with the discipline.
Morgan tried to articulate how meditation, which is essentially a solitary practice, can lead to community connection and vice versa.
"What's new for me in this context is the experience of not being alone and at the same time being alone," she says. "Both are true. It's a very rich aloneness and a very rich companionship."
Crystal Fogle found the sense of community at the Zen Center so compelling, she moved to a home on Humphrey right across the street, so she can access not only the meditation times but also the Tuesday evening vegan meal called Zen Eats, as well as the retreats and a small book club, which is presently reading Sacred Path of the Warrior.
Kevin Kennedy, who lives in Chicago and has been practicing meditation for 18 years — and specifically Zen for the last two years — talked about a different motivation for being a member of the center: It helps him slow down and connect with something bigger than himself.
"When I meditate," he explained, "I find that my mind calms down. And when my mind calms down, I can be in touch with a deeper wisdom. I don't think it's my self. I think it's something bigger than my self. I don't understand it, but I feel like I can touch it and be a part of it."
Monday through Friday mornings, beginning at 6, people are free to come to the center and sit in meditation. Times also include Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at noon and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 p.m.
The meditation gathering on the evening of March 1 began with a person striking a bell three times, followed by 20 minutes of silence. Some sat in a lotus position on cushioned mats on the floor, some knelt, and some sat in chairs. Five minutes of walking meditation came next, followed by 20 more minutes of silence. When the bell again rang three times, the people who had been sitting in meditation got up and either went on with the business of their day or stayed at the center to socialize.
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