How I Learned to REALLY Relax At the Detroit Zen Center | Midwest Living

How I Learned to REALLY Relax At the Detroit Zen Center

Meditation is more work than you think—but the relaxing rewards are huge.

In the brown brick building in Hamtramck, a hamlet within the Motor City, Buddha statues seem to call out to the tense and weary to come in, sit down, and learn to be still. Today, that person is me.

Rushed, as always, and downing coffee, I arrive at the Detroit Zen Center’s  introductory meditation workshop. I’m intrigued by studies showing that meditation has major benefits.  A recent Harvard study pointed to an increase in overall brain function, including less stress and better concentration, with as little as eight weeks of meditating.

And so I step in, slip off my shoes, and head to the upstairs meditation room with about 20 others to learn the secrets of zen.

Comfort Comes First

Take one look at the flowy robes Buddhist monks wear and it should be no surprise that the first order of contemplative business is getting comfy. We dip our bare feet in water and dry them off before entering a room full of shoji screens and pillows—one square for each of us—to stack our bodies on.

Feet and knees go on the lower pillow with bottoms hoisted atop two smaller pillows. It’s a stance intended to take pressure off the body.

Don’t Let Yourself Get Distracted

“Some people think they have to try to not think. But that’s impossible. The point is to be present,” Abbott Hwalson Sunim, the Zen Center’s white-stubbled monk, explains as he prepares the group. I half close my eyes, stare off into the distance, and start counting my exhales. There’s a feeling of tranquility. We’re all together, but entirely separate in our inner mission to be our most gentle, peaceful selves. 

And then a guy sneezes. Twice.

People are easily distracted, says Sunim, but meditation is an exercise in concentrating and keeping the mind in the same place as the body—not thinking ahead to the next five minutes or five days. The goal of zen is to come face-to-face with yourself, and nothing else. “The mind will wander and you’ll lose track of counting [your breath]. Just start your count over,” directs Sunim. 

Just Keep Moving

After 20 minutes of sitting, the group stands and Sunim tells us to continue counting our breaths as we walk around the cramped room. I’m game, but the directive proves harder than it seems as the group quickly becomes logjammed. Sunim tells everyone to take one step with their right foot at the same time, even if it’s just a tiny step. It’s the movement that matters. I take that to heart, as I breathe-count-walk-like-a-duck. Later, I think about how that mantra—just take one step, even a tiny one to keep moving forward—applies to obstacles in life. 

Accept and Let Go

When our meditation is finished, we get an abbreviated history of Zen Buddhism and its basic tenets, the gist of which is that suffering is caused by our own emotional reactions. Instead of letting our feelings rule us, we should acknowledge emotions and channel negative energy into busy work, like folding laundry or making lunch until the emotional storm passes.

Always Refuel

The belly of the person next to me has been growling the entire, hushed session and I’m pretty sure Sunim heard it too. He announces it’s time for brunch. We head to the basement kitchen where shelves hold bulk teas, tinctures, and teapots. Seated on a cushion at a low, log table, I sip garnet-colored hibiscus tea from an earthenware cup and dine on coconut-creamed zucchini and navy bean soup, kale salad, and brown rice and mung bean casserole. It’s all tasty and surprisingly hearty, perfect for walking away feeling full and centered.

Try It

The Detroit Zen Center offers an introductory meditation workshop the first Sunday of the month from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. ($20 donation). Once you’ve learned the basics, you can attend their weekly meditation sessions ($5-$10 donation). Yoga classes are also held onsite. Or, just swing by the vegan kitchen for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. For more information, visit

Buddha photo courtesy of Detroit Zen Center.


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