ABOVE: Harbour’s Edge residents practice satsang, a form of meditation that focuses on breathing. From left are Ellie Landesman, Shirley Krug, Ann Carballo and Laurel Herman. BELOW: Instructor Tom Notarianni says one goal is to free the mind of worrisome thoughts. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Tom Notarianni perches cross-legged on a cushion on a banquet table covered with a bright striped blanket. In a glass-walled meeting room at Harbour’s Edge retirement community in Delray Beach, facing him are a dozen residents and a couple of guests, sitting in a semicircle. He switches on a recording of deep-voiced monks chanting “om” and the group joins with the recording for several minutes.
This is the end of the weekly meditation circle that has taken place at Harbour’s Edge for more than five years.
For about 90 minutes before the chanting began, Notarianni and the group discussed how to make peace with life, death and everything in between, using the tools of meditation.
Shirley Krug chose Harbour’s Edge about six years ago, when she and her husband needed a home that was easier to manage than the one they had in Boca Raton.
It was a watershed moment in Krug’s life: selling a home, buying a new one. At the same time, her husband became ill and died.
Krug had tried a meditation group in her previous neighborhood, but it left her cold. With some misgivings, she decided to join the meditation group that had just formed at Harbour’s Edge.
“I didn’t come down immediately, but when I started feeling all the stress, I said, let me give it a try,” she said. “It was not easy. It took me a long time, but in the past year or two, I’m really getting into the complete understanding.”
Notarianni runs the Peaceful Minds Center in Hypoluxo. He started 25 years ago as a personal trainer, but his emphasis gradually shifted from the care of the body to the care of the whole organism, body and mind. He now leads a variety of meditation groups and related activities.
His first sessions at Harbour’s Edge were teaching reiki, a Japanese healing art. Then he switched to meditation.
The new group foundered, with only five people attending. But Krug was by then hooked on meditation and was not about to let the group disband.
“We thought we were going to lose him, so I started to do marketing. I asked people living here and slowly they started to come down and they enjoyed it.”
Depending on the time of year, the group can now swell to as many as 25.
When the participants filed into the meeting room, they chatted for a few minutes about the snowfall in the Northeast, where many of them have families and friends. Notarianni assumed his seat, chimed a brass bowl and began the satsang — a meeting of people seeking understanding and truth.
The session began with a discussion of impermanence, the Buddhist concept that everything passes, both the good and the bad.
A portable microphone was passed to Krug for a comment, but despite several people’s best efforts, it failed to operate.
“It worked fine before,” someone observed. They continued the discussion without the malfunctioning microphone, the day’s first example of impermanence.
“We know that everything is impermanent, but we don’t perceive things as impermanent,” says Notarianni.
Thoughts, he tells the group, can bedevil them, keep them locked in the past with regrets or pointed at the future with worry.
“As long as the thought is you, it’s got you by the neck. When you learn to get separation from your thoughts, you begin to realize that I am the awareness that is awareness of the thought. That thought arose, and I became aware of it. … Am I making sense to you?”
Most of the people in the room nod.
“What I’m trying to describe is indescribable. I want to lead you to having this experience, and the best way is to practice. Spend time every day in meditation and you become more and more comfortable in that empty mind, where you’re not incessantly paying attention to every thought that comes into your mind. You are your own guru and you find what works for you.”
At the age when people enter a senior residence, their concerns can be sobering: Spouses die; the body aches and weakens; families once close don’t visit as often or have their own dramas; friends die, pets die.
These are some of the subjects that members of the group bring up, with questions about how to face them.
“The body is old but the awareness is young,” says Notarianni. “I don’t teach them any differently than anybody else.”
There is one key difference between older and younger people, he adds.
“People find themselves alone with a lot of free time, with the hamster wheel going in their mind. Some come and go and I don’t see them again. That’s natural. You come to these teachings when you’re ready. But there are a lot of people who have really connected with the teachings.
“There is a unique energy here. I notice how present everyone is in class. Something has changed. They’re experiencing life in a much more desirable way.”
As the teachings wind down, Notarianni explains the mantra, another tool of meditation. It is a word or phrase that helps to keep the mind clear of the endless chatter of thought. He gives them two: a short Sanskrit phrase and “om,” said to be the sound from which all other sounds began.
“He covers anger, fear, ego, the whole itinerary,” says Krug. “Then he gives you the meditation.”
If the words of a mantra are unfamiliar or meaningless, so much the better. Notarianni recalls a friend who, “when she felt her mind go off the rails, started singing that old song, Mairzy Doats (and dozy doats).”
While chanting the mantra, aloud or silently, he told them, it helps to hold a calming image in mind. He favors a closeup of the serene face of the Buddha.
“The mantra is the gatekeeper. You’re closing all the gates where those thoughts can get in.”
The second and final chant of the session is just the word “om,” but Notarianni demonstrates in a deep voice how to stretch it out into three long continuous syllables: ah-oh-om.
“It’s easy to remember, so it’s a mantra you can do anywhere.”
The recorded monks’ chanting is loud enough to produce a vibrating sensation. He had already warned the group to adjust their hearing aids. A rolling thunder of “oms” continues for about 10 minutes as everyone in the room sits with eyes closed, some of them chanting along. When the recording ends, Notarianni and his audience gradually open their eyes.
There is deep silence in the room.
“Do you see what that does?” asks Notarianni. “Somehow it drowns out all the other stuff, and then, aaaaah, our minds are quiet, so peaceful and beautiful. You guys were saying it pretty loudly. Did you notice that the vibration helps? It just aligns everything.”
Over the years, Krug and Notarianni have formed a mutual admiration society. He calls her a “vibrant person” who has shown a strong interest in learning more. “She has a much deeper grasp.”
Following Notarianni’s suggestions, Krug meditates every day and pays attention to exercising, eating and sleeping in a healthy fashion and, of course, attending weekly satsang.
“Oh, I could go on and on,” Krug says. “He’s not interested in making big money, he wants to impart his knowledge and he puts it in terms that the layperson can understand. I’ve learned as a result of Tom how to give myself a peaceful mind. He’s my guru.”
Then, remembering what he said at the beginning of that day’s satsang, she corrects herself. “He has shown me how to be my own guru.”
Notarianni holds regular sessions on Wednesdays at the Duncan Center in Delray Beach.
For more information on events, call 531-3626 or text “peacefulminds” to 33222 to be included on the center’s text list or visit www.peacefulminds.org.
Lona O’Connor has a lifelong interest in health and healthy living. Send column ideas to Lona13@bellsouth.net.