It’s quiet, a little too quiet.
The continuous exhales of heat from the ceiling vents create the only sounds in the back space at Scuppernong Books. On the floor, arranged in a circle, lay about a dozen black pillows where men and women, young and old, sit, their legs crossed and eyes nearly closed. Surrounding them, others sit still in chairs, also in silence, the expressions on their faces unmoving, their bodies calm and motionless, their only movement the slight rising and falling of their chests as they breathe in and out.
The Gate City Zen Meditation Group has been meeting once a week for the past decade. Every Sunday, they file into the used-books area in the back of the indie bookshop in downtown Greensboro to meditate. Shoes, jackets and purses lay in random piles outside of the space, delineating the area beyond the curtains as a space of tranquility removed from the rest of the cacophonous world.
“It’s about riding the thin line between thoughts, sensations and emotion,” says co-founder Denise Gabriel, who has been practicing meditation since 1983.
When she first moved to the city in 2009, she established a sitting group in the house she was renting on Mendenhall Street. When Scuppernong opened a few years later, she, along with Sarah and Gregory Krive, moved the gatherings into the bookstore.
The group’s practice is grounded in a branch of meditation called Zen meditation, or zazen, which literally translates to seated meditation. Drawing from the Zen Buddhist tradition, the practice involves being seated, with a focus on posture, says Sarah Krive.
“You want to make your body a three-pointed stool,” she explains. “You sit with a natural curve of your spine and you keep your eyes open with a soft gaze on the floor.”
Practitioners’ hands are folded and rest lightly in front of their bellies in what Krive calls a mudra gesture; then they just sit.
“You’re not supposed to stop your thoughts,” says Gregory Krive. “You’re supposed to watch them wash up and don’t judge them. Kind of like watching waves wash up on a beach.”
Gregory, who has been practicing on and off since he was a child, says meditation appeals to many people during times of transition.
“They come when something in their life is causing them pain,” he says. “Whether it’s divorce or some type of glitch in their career.”
In decades past, churches would have been the place many would go in times of need, but Gregory says that these days, the population of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious is growing. And that’s where meditation fits in.
“It can be very healing to sit in sangha or community,” says Sarah, who began practicing meditation in 2000. She was at a time in her life where she felt anxious in her career as a teacher.
“I could talk about fear and anxiety and [the teacher] just held it,” says Sarah, who now teaches at UNCG. “I felt supported.”
Sarah explains that she sees how anxious her students are, especially her students of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+, and wishes there were more meditation resources available to them on campus. Gregory, also a professor at UNCG, says some of students’ anxieties may stem from increasing student debt and the cost of higher education.
Their group is open to all individuals regardless of experience or religious background.
On a recent Sunday morning, about a dozen people congregate at their weekly meeting. Most tend to be older than college kids, but Gregory says that attendance shifts due to the fluid nature of the practice. Like physical or even talk therapy, meditation can be a temporary tool for those facing hardship at a particular time in their lives, and once they overcome their obstacles, they may stop coming for a while. Others make meditation a constant practice.
“I had tried it on my own, but I couldn’t get into it,” says Linda Hensley, who has been attending the meditation circle for five years. “But in this group, 30 minutes feels like five minutes. You can feel the depth of relaxation and spirituality.”
Hensley says she initially decided to try meditation after her husband passed away and she was searching for comfort in community. When her husband was alive, she had attended a Christian church but after his passing, she said she didn’t feel like a part of the church.
“For me personally, I find that being in a group helps more than being by myself,” she says. “It’s therapeutic in terms of life. It gives me a sense of well-being.”
As the members of the group sit peacefully in the back of the bookstore, the streets outside begin to bustle with activity. Cars drive past and couples and families walk to and fro on the sidewalks, ready to enter shops and start crossing items off of Christmas lists. It’s a hectic time of year, but within these walls, time seems to stand still.
“You get a break from being human for an hour,” Gregory says.