On Saturday mornings, just a few blocks from the Capitol Building, members of the Hill community gather at the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church Annex to practice non-denominational mindfulness meditation. In the church’s cozy annex room lined with gothic stained-glass windows, seasoned and first-time participants alike engage in sitting meditation and supplemental exercises for 90 minutes.
The group is open to everyone, and participants appreciate the opportunity to learn from each other. “I enjoy taking time to share a beautiful space with others and learn from those with more experience,” says Jamie, who has attended off and on over the past few years.
Lorraine, another longtime participant, agrees. “I am very happy to join whenever I can. And each time I attend, I’m pleased with the philosophy and approach to each session.”
A Unique Collaboration
This month, the Saturday Morning Mindfulness Meditation group celebrates five years of offering free group meditation sessions to the Capitol Hill community. The group was formed in 2013 through a unique collaboration between the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church – which was celebrating its 150th anniversary – and Kagyu DC, a Tibetan Buddhist Community on the Hill.
The church’s pastor, Andy Walton, and resident lama, Rod Owens, both recognized the benefit of group meditation as a community activity. They also believed that anyone should be able to participate, regardless of their religious belief or level of experience.
The participants immediately saw the value of meditating in a communal environment: “Having meditated a long time on my own,” says Brad, a frequent attendee, “I have found it very useful to be in a group and have some guidance.”
Marilyn, another participant, describes how meditation helps outside of the sessions, allowing people to “step back from what seem to be automatic reactions and make a choice in how to respond.”
Pastor Walton and Lama Owens would eventually leave the city for other opportunities, and John Rennish was selected to be the new group leader. Rennish spent many years exploring spirituality: first as a graduate of Catholic University of America, and later in training under lamas and monks within the Tibetan Kagyu lineage. He is also known for his witty t-shirts featuring a joke or turn of phrase designed to make you think. A recent shirt reads: “The Past, Present, and Future walked into a bar… It was tense.”
When asked about his inspiration for leading the Saturday sessions, Rennish focuses on the responsibility he feels to share the teachings of compassion with the greater DC community. He also believes that meditation provides a framework to counter the endless suffering and violence we see every day on the news. “If there is some power produced by a group of people practicing meditation together,” says Rennish, “then that can spread and hopefully effect change over an area that desperately needs some extra love, compassion, and healing.”
Focusing Love and Compassion
The group sessions vary with the seasons. On winter mornings, the sunlight shifts through the stained glass windows, bathing the room and its participants in a brilliant golden hue. In the summertime, the group often relocates to the church’s courtyard and meditates under a large tree, surrounded by the sounds of birds. On special occasions, Rennish will invite a visiting lama to lead the meditation in their own unique style, and to answer questions about their practice.
Each Saturday session includes several easily accessible meditation exercises, such as a relaxation meditation, a walking meditation, an awareness expansion activity, and a concluding meditation on love and compassion. Rennish always takes the time to explain the processes to new attendees; after the meditation, there is also time set aside for discussion and for asking questions to the group.
The sessions end with a meditation focusing love and compassion towards all four quadrants of DC, and then expanding further out until it reaches the entire country and the world. The calmness of this exercise makes an interesting juxtaposition to the hustle and bustle of Congress – just over a thousand yards away – making decisions that also outwardly affect the rest of the country and the world.
Yet for Patrick, one of the group’s founding members, this concluding meditation highlights the fundamental purpose of the Saturday Morning Mindfulness Meditation group: to practice “love and compassion not only for oneself, but for others in the community.”
Marilyn agrees. “It takes practice,” she adds, “but it’s worth it.”
Saturday Morning Mindfulness Meditation meets every Saturday from 10:30 a.m.-noon in the Annex/Chapel next to Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, located at 201 4th Street SE near the intersection of 4th Street and Independence Ave SE. The sessions are free and open to visitors of all faiths and spiritual paths. For more information, please contact SaturdayMindfulness@gmail.com
Jonathan Lewis has written articles for the Hill Rag and East of the River, and is the author of Babel On – a book of a poems. Come see Jonathan and other poets read and perform at the Poets’ Corner reading @Tunnicliff’s during the Literary Hill Bookfest on May 6, 2018.