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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Group Meets Weekly to Practice Zen Meditation


A woman meditating in the full lotus position – a position you are luckily not required to sit in during the Zen meditation meetings on campus. 



“Biiiiiiing” rings out in the McCormack Hall Interfaith Chapel when Julie Nelson strikes the bowl-shaped meditation bell. The bell, which rests on a purple and white cushion, signifies the start of the Zen meditation practice. For the next 25 minutes everyone present will sit in silence and meditate.

Zen meditation originates in Asia and can be traced back to the 6th century. Nelson, a faculty member of UMass Boston’s economics department, has been taking part in the 1,500-year-old practice for the past seven years.

“I started with a sort of general relaxation meditation practice, and realized it was very helpful in coping with difficult things in my life,” said Nelson.

Nelson organized the Zen meditation practice on campus in the fall semester of 2011, along with PhD student Lucas Morgan.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for students to experience this sort of meditation,” said Nelson about her reason for starting the Zen meditation meetings, also known as “sits.”

The sits take place every Thursday in the McCormack Hall Interfaith Chapel. Newcomers are encouraged to arrive promptly at 8:30 a.m. for a short orientation. At 8:40 a.m. a reading from a Buddhist poem or book is read.

“The reading is to get our minds here. Try to get (our minds) off of whatever we’ve been running around doing, commuting, getting to campus,” said Nelson.

At the meeting, everyone in attendance reads a sutra from the Boundless Way Zen Liturgy Book in unison. Sutras are Buddhist teachings which were first written in books of palm leaves sewn together.

“All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them,” students recited from “The Five Remembrances” sutra.

After the reading, the bell is struck to initiate the 25 minutes of meditating. The three people who came to the meeting sit at the end of their chairs with hands resting on knees, palms facing up, and fingers making the “OK” sign.

What does one think about when meditating?

“Ideally, nothing,” answered Joe Phan after the 25 minutes was up. Phan, a freshman studying management, has been coming to the sits since the fall.

Of course it’s impossible to think of nothing, and Phan admitted to thinking about math class at one point. Even the seasoned Nelson acknowledged she started thinking about work, but not for long.

“The main practice doesn’t erase your mind. It’s just not getting caught up when a thought comes. You just don’t let it take you away. So you start thinking about lunch and you think, well, just go back to the basic practice of counting the breath,” said Nelson.

Not wanting to put the whole experience in such a simple term, Phan reluctantly describes the meditation as “relaxing.”

“I enjoy it, so I just show up,” explains Phan about why he comes to the sits every week.

Nelson explains why Phan or anyone might meditate:

“In Zen meditation, you get the chance to observe the activities of your own mind. This can be quite surprising and revealing, but what exactly a person gets out of it depends on the person actually doing it his or herself. It isn’t easily described.”