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Breathing towards salvation
Rebecca Shalomoff

Joshua Sloyer develops inner peace through meditation.

Nassau -- Before sunrise, he gets out of bed and sits. In a small room with only a cushion on the floor, he holds his back straight, eyes closed, legs crossed in the lotus position, and just breathes. When his thoughts begin to wander, he observes them and gently brings his attention back to the breath. For one hour -- a few times each day -- Joshua Sloyer meditates.

The peaceful tale begins when Sloyer, a Lawrence native, planned a five week trip to the India last winter. Along his way around the country, he schmoozed with local gurus and hung out with Duni Baba, a JuBu (Jewish born Buddhist) originally from Brooklyn.

He joined in the month-long festivities of dunking in the sacred Ganges River for the Maha Kumbah Mela, a religious gathering which takes place every 12 years. Sadhus, India's holy men, get bathing priority. They walk together, naked and covered in ash, towards the water. But he returned home with more than souvenirs in his backpack.

Inspired by the spiritually elevated lifestyles of those he met, Sloyer, 22, was determined to embark on his own Eastern-style journey. In the midst of his final semester at Emerson College, Sloyer, an acting major, could often be spotted on the grassy hills of Boston Gardens wrapped in a woolen shawl, his head shaved and sitting in silent meditation. While his classmates were agonizing over term papers, Sloyer was training to recondition his mind.

"I began to see the way I blindly express my frustrations to the people around me," he says. "Through meditation, I am able to observe the feelings in a detached, objective way and not lose myself in my emotions." 

Now, when his anger begins to surface, he mentally brings himself to a peaceful place. Instead of snapping at his mother like he would have in the past, Sloyer stays calm and looks at his initial reaction as a way to understand himself.

He no longer turns to alcohol or other mind-altering substances for an easy escape. Instead of seeking out distractions, such as watching television or diving into a bag of potato chips, he sits still and notices what he is feeling. 

The ancient practice is about cultivating an inner peace while gaining knowledge of the self. It is discovering a personal island of serenity and deep understanding. But it's not so easy.

The simplicity of meditation -- just focusing on the breath -- actually involves a lot of work, Sloyer says. Building concentration amidst a culture that tries to strip it is a big challenge. Everything from fast food to fast moving music videos treat humans as specimens with an 8-second attention span. And acting on every little impulse that enters the mind seems like a modern day birthright.

Meditation teaches practitioners to gain control over a fluttering mind. The reward: "An unshakeable balance. The ability to deal with all things expected and unexpected, the ups and downs of life," Sloyer says. After graduating in May, Sloyer signed up for a 10-day meditation course in Massachusetts recommended by spiritually elevated souls in India. It teaches a specific kind of practice called Vipassana, the term for insight meditation. The intensive course solidifies training the mind to just observe thoughts and feelings, instead of trying to control them.

Vipassana practice, which goes back to the Buddha, proposes no imagery to conjure up, no mantras or funky sex positions. One works solely within the framework of the body. Nothing external. In the beginning of the course, participants learn to build concentration, which then gets directed to noticing the subtle sensations of the body. For 11 hours each day, Sloyer concentrated on the touch of breath hitting the spot between the nose and upper lip.

Through stilling the body and slowing the mind, he began to clear out mental noise and enter a spiritually healing zone. (For more information about the free course offered around the world, check out www.dhara.dhamma.org.) "It's about developing awareness and equanimity by focusing on the natural rhythm of breathing," Sloyer says. "In meditation, we stop doing and get a chance just to observe."

So, instead of being controlled by powerful feelings, the practice gives a person the awareness and power to stay balanced even when toxic emotions try to colonize the mind. Buddhists have known about it for thousands of years.

Most recently, it has become an Oprahfied mission. In this month's issue of O Magazine, she interview the Dalai Lama about happiness and meditation. She dedicated the June issue to the principle of letting go. The gentle act of detaching from emotions that weigh us down. The anger when someone cuts you off abruptly on the highway. The lingering pain of a breakup. Disappointment with unmet expectations.

"Don't suppress them, don't express them," Sloyer says. "Just observe the feeling and breathe." Building concentration and a little oxygen to set you free. What could be more in reach? No membership fees. No lines or waiting lists.

When Sloyer returned from the meditation course, he moved to a farm upstate, putting his acting career on hold for awhile. In between sitting sessions, he bales hay for a local farmer, gardens, cooks and swims in a nearby lake with a newfound mindfulness.

"It's completely transformed the way I deal with people. It's about becoming the master of one's own mind," he says. "It's not an escape from reality, but a way to understand it and better deal with it."


Updated: 21-8-2001

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