Meditate Washington Buddhist Vihara to relieve holiday stress

It’s the time of year when we pack our days with parties, shopping, cooking, decorating, wrapping and family time. Lots of family time.

It can be enough to leave anyone breathless.

This holiday season, take a breather — literally — and feel what it’s like to meditate.

“I know that I’m breathing in. I know that I’m breathing out,” says Bhante Mandawala Pannawansa, a Buddhist monk leading a weekly meditation at the Washington Buddhist Vihara, a monastery on upper 16th Street NW.

Open to anyone, the hourlong guided meditation offers a short escape for people of any religious background looking for a holiday reprieve. “It’s very peaceful,” said Robert Rhyne, 45, a lawyer who has been a Buddhist for more than a decade and who sometimes leads the meditations. “People just enjoy the sense of peace. . . . There’s little ritual so it’s easy for Westerners to come.”

On a recent Sunday, 20 people entered the monastery, which is simply a house with a modest but colorful sign in the front yard. Everyone removed their shoes and walked quietly into the dimly lit, empty living room. Photos of Buddhists sat on the mantle in the back of the room and a large white statue of Buddha sat in the front, facing the meditators. Otherwise, there were few visual distractions.

Most meditators grabbed cushions from the back of the room and sat down. A few sat on folding chairs.

A couple of people arrived late, without disruption; it’s easy to sneak in and out anonymously, because there is no sign-in sheet or overt donation request. The only prerequisite is that visitors come seeking quiet.

“Silence is most important,” Bhante Pannawansa said before beginning the meditation. And yet when a phone rang somewhere in the house, he seemed undisturbed. He explained that the mediation would be in three parts, one part focused on breathing, another on the body and sensation, and a third on compassion meditation.

Change your position if you need to throughout the mediation, Pannawansa said. And then he began the session by banging a thick stick on a large metal bowl three times.

“This is an inward journey we start with breathing,” he said as everyone closed their eyes. “At this moment, I am in the here and now.”

Most meditations include a discussion afterward with the monks. This works well for first-time visitors to the monastery such as Gilberto Zazueta, 29, a student from Silver Spring who learned about the meditation from Meetup.com. He said he and his wife, Stephanie Somohano, 31, “Like to study religions.”

But for Brandi Walker, 40, a social worker in the District, the weekly meditation she regularly attends means something more. “Slowly, through exposure, I was able to grasp how the mind works, how we create suffering for ourselves. [Meditation] allows you to just breathe. It takes the weight off,” she said. The monastery “is like an oasis in the city.”

Where: The Washington Buddhist Vihara, 5017 16th St. NW.

When: Saturdays at 7 p.m., Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m.

How much: Free.

Information: 202-723-0773. www.buddhistvihara.com.

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