In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting and amid arguably the most vitriolic presidential election in
recent memory, Paul Lukasik believes mindfulness meditation can bring people together.

Lukasik will be leading the first week of the Mystic Heart Meditation Program at 7:15 a.m. Monday through Friday at the Main Gate Welcome Center. Run by Subagh Singh Khalsa, who has been teaching meditation for more than 40 years and published four books on the subject, the series will bring in teachers versed in different faith meditations to lead a week of sessions. Practicing Vipassana, a type of Buddhist meditation, Lukasik will go through a progression of daily training to acclimate beginners to the practice, until he reaches what he calls mindfulness of “loving kindness” on Thursday and, finally, mindful thought on Friday.

This loving kindness can allow people to grapple with anger, hate and other emotions that arose after the Orlando shooting, Lukasik said.

“Mindfulness and loving kindness practice allows us to hold that emotion with care and intention,” Lukasik said. “[We] direct the heart toward this acceptance of what happened and a deep realization — only people can realize this for themselves — that it’s love that will eventually heal this hatred and division that we’re seeing in the world.”

The idea that only love can conquer hate is not unique to Vipassana meditation. Luke the Evangelist and Martin Luther King Jr. offered similar platitudes. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, even sells a “Love Conquers Hate” T-shirt. But Lukasik said that mindfulness meditation, with its focus on the body, can offer a unique path to this type of healing, dissolving the barriers that divide races, political affiliations and sexual orientations.

Lukasik, a certified mental health counselor from Buffalo now in his fourth year at Chautauqua Institution, first experienced mindfulness meditation when he attended a 10-day retreat as an undergraduate. He called getting up at 4:30 a.m. and meditating all day in pure silence one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences of his life, a “baptism by fire.”

“It’s a practice of mental purification and … when you’re feeling the purification it’s painful; [there is] anxiety, difficult memory and then difficult memory,” Lukasik said. “But on the other end of that is when the purity happens. That’s when the practice gets really good [and] you get into a calm peacefulness. Some people experience deep happiness or joy.”

That level of purification can’t be achieved in a single week of hourly meditation, Lukasik said, but Chautauquans can get a taste.

Although meditation has its roots in Buddhist teachings, a slew of studies in the last two decades have lent scientific credence to ancient religious practice. The American Psychological Association notes mindfulness therapy can reduce stress, boost working memory and even improve morality, among other benefits. In what Lukasik calls “secular mindfulness” counselors now use the practice to treat specific disorders such as depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At Chautauqua, Lukasik will instead focus on spiritual meditation, focusing on helping people achieve general peace rather than targeting certain illnesses, and bringing in concepts such as the Buddhist afterlife and the idea of an ethical universe, in which actions have consequences across lifetimes. Although the meditation is rooted in Buddhist tradition, Lukasik, a practicing Catholic, said the practice can benefit anyone, helping them achieve spiritual freedom from material desires.

“We’re really talking about liberation of the heart,” Lukasik said. “There’s a way of being in the world that doesn’t revolve around seeking out this endless cycle making money, buying a BMW and getting the next job, … a way of living in the world without being trapped by it.”

But even as mindfulness gains greater recognition in the West, traditional practitioners have criticized what they see as the Western commodification of an ancient way of life. Apps for mindfulness now abound, charging upward of $13 a month for “premium” mindfulness, and writers in Slate, The New York Times and The Atlantic have criticized organizations who try to use mindfulness for productivity, ignoring its ethical dimensions.

To that end, Lukasik has brought on a young Buddhist monk, Chipamong Chowdhury from Bangladesh, to lecture on the origins of meditation after each morning session and in a workshop Tuesday afternoon.

Khalsa, though, doesn’t care if some of meditation has become commercialized. He just hopes Mystic Heart can give Chautauquans a reprieve from the daily rush of lectures and symphonies, and perhaps offer a path to spirituality for the most committed. That, he said, can help bridge the gaps between groups, achieving the type of loving kindness Lukasik calls for. 

“Everyone is so caught up in the controversies of the day, whether it be ‘Save the Amp’ or ‘Save the United States,’ and it’s not about the issues; it’s all about these emotions,” Khalsa said. “I think more than ever, this culture that we live in really needs people who are bringing a sense of togetherness and peace into the conversation.”

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