September 6, 2006

Ithacans Meditate, Whirl at Zen Center

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Just when you thought that the hundreds of pages of reading, weekly chemistry lab reports, lengthy econ problem sets and dreaded history oral presentations were too much for your brain (which is slowly returning from summer vacation) to handle, stop feeling sorry for yourself, because compared to some Ithaca residents, your intellectual to-do list is as mundane as the mid-day talk shows on National Public Radio.
Marcia and David Radin, co-owners and operators of the Ithaca Zen Center, a small rural Zen community which also houses the Dervish Retreat Center, have been on a continual mental quest that breeches well beyond the depths and drudgery of college academia.
“A recurring goal of ours has been to figure out how to make sense of life,” said David, “so our center was built around teaching people how to take care of their minds from
a deeper perspective.”
David founded the center in 1978 as the Beech Hill Pond Meditation Center, a facility reminiscent of a Hippie community formerly stationed miles from the telephone and electrical lines that signified advancement into technology’s modern age. Since then, the center has moved twice — first to a location in downtown Ithaca, then to its current home, a 60 acre spread just eight miles south of Ithaca.
“Our practice involves specific postures, reading style, all amounting to reaching a certain level of being,” he said.
While its popularity has increased over the years, the Zen Center has maintained a small-community feel that lends to a daily zazen schedule at the Center and twice-weekly meditation practice at Cornell’s Annabel Taylor Hall. All sessions are open to the public and typically vary in attendance from six to 20 people.
Although there are over 20,000 students currently enrolled at Cornell, student attendance at the sessions rarely tops zero.
“Most of the people who attend [the Annabel Taylor sessions] are faculty members,” said David, “students are too focused on their careers and their current situations. They are not involved in reflecting on what their being is and means.”
However, their lack of attendance does not mean students are immune to the issues and dilemmas that those who practice meditation are working to sort out.
“Everyone runs into reasoning why we should take care of the mind,” David said, “and while some people may turn to therapy and drugs, few work to train their minds to deal with pain spiritually.”
And spirituality, while an important aspect of meditation, is also a tenet on which the Melevi, an ancient Eastern European mystic practice, is based. In 1983, Marcia Radin, who goes by her Turkish name Khadija, brought this esoteric branch of Sufism to no other place than Ithaca, N.Y. With its roots dating back to thirteenth century Turkey, followers of the Melevi, known as the Whirling Dervishes, still read the
poetry, listen to the music and practice the famous turning dance of their
spiritual father, Rumi.
“Like meditation, Melevi is a centering practice. It allows you to understand a sense of self,” said Marcia. “Although some people think it is a mystical branch of Islam, is it not. Many religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, practice it, making it clear that it is not a religion, but a type of spirituality.”
As for Marcia, she does not worship a particular religion along side her practice of Melevi. The spiritual enlightenment that she obtains from whirling is above and beyond what she thinks she could reap from organized religion.
“I can’t really put into words what I get out of [whirling], just like someone can’t say why they feel good after they go to church,” she said. “But the practices lead me to deep satisfaction.”
In her decision to give up religion, Marcia made a clear definitional distinction between religion and other spiritual forms.
“Mysticism is all about knowing, not believing,” she said. “It never makes God an object, and I never feel I needed to believe in or turn to anything, when I could know it.”
Knowing, undoubtedly, has been an important part of her spiritual development, starting from when she initially witnessed the sacred act of turning over thirty years ago.
“I first saw turning when I was a professional dancer in 1971 by the followers of Sufi Murshid Samuel Lewis in San Francisco, and it immediately entranced me,” Marcia said. “I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I have been doing it ever since.”
And since the inception of her teaching career in 1978, Marcia has traveled both domestically and globally practicing, and spreading the tradition of, the Whirling Dervishes. Her studies have brought her to, among other places, Israel, Turkey, California, Montreal, Connecticut and Pittsburgh.
With a mission as advantageous as enabling all to “experience meditation, drumming, whirling and every other activity as a doorway to being present,” she will continue to challenge her students and herself as she continues on her path towards spiritual enlightenment.
Although she notes that more and more people are becoming interested in Melevi, Marcia still classifies it as being “not very popular.” And the Dervish Retreat Center, which doesn’t advertise, and attracts people strictly by word of mouth, still boasts a pool of members ranging in age from their mid-20s through 60s.
“We don’t actively seek members, they find us,” she said.