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Meditation For Contemporary Life

When you walk into the Cell Theater at 338 West 23rd street, where Jeff Cannon holds Dharmalogue, you get that feeling of sacred space: lofty ceilings, tall windows broken up into geometric panes, Sunday morning light pouring in, a small garden in the back. But that’s as far as it goes in terms of traditional spiritual spaces – at Dharmalogue there’s no ideology, no rituals, no rules, just time to explore meditation and talk about how it can enrich our lives.

Jeff Cannon learned this first-hand from his personal struggle with seven brain tumors. Trying to figure out how to deal with this horrible situation, Cannon, discovered how the brain can bookmark positive input and develop new responses to frustrating situations—the kind of situations that can dictate the course of our days and moods if we don’t become aware of them.

Dharmalogue was created to provide a space, inner and outer, to refashion our choices through introspection and conversation.

Setting the tone for the morning, Cannon is chit-chatting with attendees. His enthusiasm is infectious because this is what he really cares about. In fact, he left his high-powered job as director of an advertising agency to grow his program, but you can see why he might have been successful anywhere: he is affable, the kind of guy who would loan you his scarf to sit on if there were shmutz on your subway seat.

As the session starts, Jeff stands where one would expect the performer to be—but he’ll soon shift the theater to the contents of our own busy minds. “It’s just after Labor day,” he opens. “But how many of you are already planning your holidays?” Many people raise their hands. He nods. “We follow the seasons in our own messed up way, but how many of us ask, ‘What will I do to be happy’?” Almost no hands rise. This is an honest crowd.

He moves the audience into a meditation, one of the many short, 3-5 minute practices threaded throughout the session: “Breathe in, let air settle, breathe out, let air settle.” This takes the edge off, despite whatever mental chaos one entered with, and is a simple meditation, the backbone of Cannon’s program.

As Cannon guides our attention repeatedly inward to help figure out what is driving our lives, the volume of these voices suddenly turns up. The meditations are inquiry-based: “What—or who-- are we listening to, in this inner dialogue? Which voices shape the life I am currently leading? Is this the life I truly want? What do I need? What do I want? What do I love?”

His approach stresses awareness of when you are “in a thought, and the quality of that thought”—or how it feels. The meditator can use the spaciousness of meditation to create a novel response to a familiar stimulus: “Will I do the same thing I’ve always done, or something different?”

Dharmalogue, which Cannon conceived of inspired by the rough, yet relatable monologues of writer and actor Spalding Grey, is centered around the lessons and meaningfulness in everyday events-- such as someone stealing your credit card or the crowds pushing out of the subways—common to all of our lives.

These can be luminous portals to enlightenment, and the dharma itself—if we choose to treat them that way. Rather than dismissing them, Cannon asks us to enter into them more deeply to mine for lessons on our journey.

You can tell his modern meditation has incentivized him to observe the urban world even more acutely, as he looks for material which he shares with the attendees: “On the way here, I watched a huge SUV try to fit into a parking spot it would never fit into. The driver was getting increasingly frustrated. When the SUV finally pulled out, a little car zipped along and fit immediately, without effort. Which car was meant to be in that parking spot?”

From the anecdotes, which urban life seems to offer up freely, as if dana into the giving bowl of his perception, he crafts the lesson of the day: Our products—cars, technology, even accessories—should be there to empower us to live the lives we wish to. How many of us are living lives someone else designed for us? How many of us have a strategy for happiness?

The truest luxury, Cannon proposes, is simply to be ourselves.

Cannon ends with another short meditation. All of the dharmalogue meditations are brief, as the point is not to test the stamina of the attendees, but to give them an experience they can use. He instructs us to breathe an inner smile through the entire body, and to feel it flow between others in the room: “This is the feeling to come back to when you’re spinning out,” he suggests.

Cannon lives with yet another tumor in his brain, but its growth has been arrested. Nonetheless, it is an omnipresent teacher for him to respond to life with simplicity: A laugh. A “letting go” into a choice rather than into an outdated, pernicious habit. This is renewed permission to choose one’s own true path at every moment, the ultimate luxury.

Dharmalogue happens every Sunday morning at 11 AM and Wednesday evening at 6PM at The Cell Theater in Chelsea. On Wednesdays, Cannon’s meditation is followed by jazz music, “a spontaneous form that carries a lot of energy.” Come, get lost in the improvisational energy and experience the moments.

--Sara Nolan. A yoga teacher and writer, at Essay Intensive, Sara helps teens write the college admissions essays of their lives-- with a twist. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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