Natural State Dharma Group learns to meditate


Photo credit: Genevieve Humphreys

Illustration by Genevieve Humphreys

Every Thursday evening from 6 to 7 p.m., senior Malcolm Fox leads a meeting of the Natural State Dharma Group. A group of six to 10 students sits on a ring of cushions in the Margarite B. Parker Chapel. They discuss a quote that Fox reads out: Recent readings have been from “Awakening the Buddha Within” by Lama Surya Das and “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. The discussion is followed by a period of seated meditation, then walking meditation. Finally, the meeting concludes with journaling and discussion about Buddhist topics.

“For usually 15 minutes, it’s quiet, and you can do whatever kind of meditation techniques work for you,” said senior Chloe Sonnier, a member of the group. “A lot of people will [focus] on the breath and [try to] empty the mind. After, we do a walking meditation for 10 or 15 minutes. Then we do some journaling, to reflect on whatever you want to reflect on. We’ll discuss the rest of the time.”

Fox founded Natural State after he had come back from a study abroad program in India in his junior year, where he took classes on the different meditation techniques such as Vipassana, Zen and Tibetan. He wanted to bring this level of meditation instruction to Trinity, so he formed the Natural State Dharma Group.

“It was a real gift [to get] these teachings from real accomplished meditation traditions,” Fox said. “I wanted to [take this] opportunity to [lead] a weekly meditation event and make it more Buddhist and maintain this tradition of meditation instruction, mindful discussion, and thinking critically about life and the big questions.”

Meditation is the practice of discovering a quiet and calm area in your mind. Natural State typically uses the Vipassana technique, which focuses on a clear awareness of the self and surroundings but has explored Zen and Tibetan techniques.

“I define meditation as a contemplative practice which uses a variety of mental techniques to develop the conscious and subconscious mind, and its faculties,” Fox said.

Sonnier joined Natural State after seeing posters around campus advertising the meetings. She had been meditating on her own, but the idea of meditating with a group appealed to her.

“I’ve seen some benefits [from meditation], and it was cool to go do it with a group,” Sonnier said. “When I first came [to the group], it was a pretty welcoming atmosphere. As somebody who didn’t know very much about Buddhism, I’ve learned a lot. I found it pretty accessible.”

While the group is rooted in Buddhist traditions, according to Fox, it should be accessible to anyone from any background.

“I’m a religion major, so I think [Buddhism is] super interesting on a technical level,” Fox said. “I’ve worked hard on trying not to use terms and refer to things that nobody knows. A large part is offering chances for other people to speak. [We talk] about things that almost anybody can relate to, from a Buddhist or a non-Buddhist perspective.”

One of the significant events that Natural State participates in is the Insight Meditation retreat led by Howard Cohn, a meditation instructor from San Francisco, which occurred over the weekend from January 31st to February 2nd at the Holt Center. This is the second year the retreat has happened. Richard Reed, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, connected Natural State with the event.

“I’ve been sitting with Howard Cohn for some years on various kinds of retreats,” Reed said. “He [teaches] in a way that’s accessible to American audiences. So, when the idea came to bring him to Trinity, I jumped on it.”

The Insight Meditation retreat, which happened last year as well, allows both newcomers and experienced mediators the opportunity to explore meditation in the Vipassana style. This year, seven Trinity students and faculty joined the retreat..

“The retreat was organized in hour and half-hour intervals,” Reed said. “You meditate sitting for an hour, and then you meditate walking for half an hour, alternating back and forth. It keeps your body from working out too quickly, and except for the break for lunch, that’s what we did all day.”

Cohn set up guided meditations throughout the days. His guided meditation involves leading participants through different strategies of exploring their senses to calm down. After providing the general structure to achieve a calm state, Cohn stops talking and allows participants to get comfortable with meditation. Fox expects the Insight Meditation retreat to become an annual event.

“Howard led more guided meditations and had less-planned Dharma talks [this year],” Fox said. “I’d say that this made for more of a beginner-friendly atmosphere, although that’s definitely the overall vibe of this retreat.”

Natural State is sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropolgy.

“This department might be [sponsoring the group] because many of us have had a lot of experience outside of the United States with a variety of different ways of living and variety of different religions,” said Reed. “It’s something that kind of comes naturally.”

Reed had been practicing meditation outside of campus with a group called the Yellow Dog Sangha before he joined Natural State. He now regularly attends Natural State’s meetings.According to Reed, Natural State’s central focus on meditation can be a benefit to the busy college student, as it allows pausing a busy schedule to highlight self-awareness and observation.

“[Natural State] is available for everybody anytime, any one of us can do it at the drop of a hat. There’s nothing special that has to be done,” said Reed. “I think that’s the joy of Natural State. It’s an opportunity for students that want to seek that quiet spot.”

With Fox slated to graduate, the question of whether the group will continue its current structure is unresolved.

“I do want it to continue. Whether or not it is still the Natural State Dharma Group is kind of up in the air, because the way I’ve set it up is really my own personal effort,” Fox said. “I do think that it’s going to need to be [a person or] a small group of people that are committed to doing this.”

While the next leader of Natural State is not set in stone, Fox has a few options in consideration.

“There are quite a lot of people interested in Buddhism,” Fox said. “It could really be anyone. Anyone who feels strongly about it.”