The New York Open Center’s Meditation and Contemplative Studies Program
By Thomas Amelio
I’m excited about the New York Open Center’s Meditation and Contemplative Studies Program on several counts: as one of its founders; as faculty; as a perennial student myself, learning from these teachers of extraordinary commitment who have taught and practiced for decades, and, above all, as program facilitator—who will help weave the threads between the weekends to build our ongoing community.
In writing this I hope to give you a sense of what it would be like to explore—both philosophically and experientially—other contemplative traditions, to see the common threads among them, and appreciate the unique work of “spiritual art” each path holds precious.
The Growth of Mindfulness
Mindfulness, as both a meditation practice and, more importantly, as a way of being with life, has grown tremendously in popularity. Besides in-person and online classes, tens of millions use meditation phone apps, corporations have mindfulness classes to improve employee well-being and productivity, and much more. If you are reading this you are probably already somewhere on the spectrum of a beginner-explorer to being a seasoned practitioner.
Mindfulness, as it is often practiced now, includes an awareness of breath, thought, and sensations—an attending to just what arises in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness meditation in set periods of the day spills over into our daily life: we become more attentive while doing dishes, interacting with people, and any other activity. This attentiveness allows for a more peaceful presence in the midst of actions that once caused us stress. Our concentration improves, and we can make better decisions.
Meditation Awakens Our Capacity to Mine the Gems in Other Traditions
As I mentioned in my last essay Seven Things You May Not Have Known About Meditation, meditation, as a practice, does not depend on religious dogma or belief. It is an experiential means of clearing the mind and resting in awareness. If you are religious, however, you will find that a more centered mind is a precious aid in seeing the hidden gems in your chosen path. Meditation awakens our intuitive capacity and our ability to receive insight.
Why Explore Other Contemplative Traditions?
For many, the stress reduction and centeredness of mindful practice is not enough. Some may take great solace in the traditions, practices, stories, symbols, and special holidays of their original tradition, even if they don’t agree with the dogmas and rules of organized religion. Others may not even know that religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have inward-centered religious, mystical, and contemplative elements that illumines the more esoteric aspects—and these are the focus of our program.
While mindfulness is wonderful in and of itself, there still may be a longing for the unique time-tested traditions, and—in a word—soulfulness of religious contemplative practice. Many of us have left religions that assert a dogmatic authority, but we don’t have to reject the beauty, history, and gorgeous metaphors they contain.
I have found profound value in exploring the meditative and contemplative practices of other religions. To quote from my July essay: “my familiarity with the Bhakti-yoga (devotional) principles of Indian philosophy have illuminated my understanding of the Islamic mystic poets—such as Rumi and Hafiz; Jewish contemplative wisdom; Shamanic teachings which reverence the all-pervading divinity in nature; and the Catholic devotional rituals of my youth.”
I remember, as a kid, my older brother poking my arm in Church whenever I yawned—which was frequent. Years later, as a twenty-something living in an ashram, I’d attend church while visiting family in my home town. While in the mass, I found I no longer yawned; I realized my yogic meditation practice opened whole new insights into the religion of my birth. I was struck, for example, by the similarities to Indian satsang. Satsang means “gathering in celebration of truth,” and often includes inspirational reading or lecture, combined with music, ritual, incense, candles, prayer, devotion. All these induce a transcendent bhava or divine mood, so important in the Bhakti tradition.
My Personal Explorations
I have meditated since my early teens and have explored a number of approaches. My dad, a businessman, and a regular beer drinking, sports-watching guy, had Kahlil Gibran’s poetry on his shelf, along with books on yoga (which we practiced together), Edgar Cayce, Dale Carnegie, healthy eating, and more. He had funy stories to tell of his childhood self-hypnosis experiments! Somehow his open-mindedness sunk in as I began my own explorations into concentration practice, pranayama and yoga asanas, Mystical Christianity, Kabbalah, Sufism, Paganism, Vedic Studies, Theosophy, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung and more.
I so loved my paperback copy of Huston Smith’s classic: The Religions of Man,* that I reduced it to a tattered state—my own version of the Velveteen Rabbit. (And I was thrilled, decades later, in 2000, to have the author speak at the Ross Institute in East Hampton, where I was director. I met a number of celebrities in that role, but meeting Huston was my biggest “fan-boy” moment.)
My explorations as a teen led me to enter into a full yogic and monastic lifestyle at Kripalu Ashram in Pennsylvania, which we later incarnated into the sprawling yoga and wellness education center it is today, in Massachusetts.
The New York Open Center’s Embrace of World’s Traditions
Since my first visit to the New York Open Center, 28 years ago, and a bit later as both faculty and staff member, I have always been struck by its offering of the best in the contemplative approaches from all the world’s traditions.
About five years ago, while still the Center’s president, and seeing society’s blossoming of mindfulness, I felt the need for a longer, immersive program that would put together some of the best teachers in these traditions. I believed, of course, that the Center was uniquely qualified to deliver this.
A small team was formed, including (the late, brilliant, and beloved) Sandy Levine, program consultant Tom Valente, and others, with special thanks to long term faculty member, Andrew Vidich, for his genius in bringing together most of our first group of master-teachers, and as the first facilitator.
Thus, the Meditation and Contemplative Studies Program was born.
The Power of Community
Those who took the program last year have said that the program deepened their practice, and that the community formed was a remarkable joy and support. Some deepened the practice of their current religious tradition; others were delighted to discover new paths which they felt propelled to explore further beyond the program; and those already involved in teaching, ministerial, or therapeutic work found that the program added new depth and knowledge to their profession.
I’ll say again I am especially honored to serve as facilitator of this program—being a steady supportive presence as we journey together.
While most of these weekends can be taken on an individual basis, to take the entire course as a whole brings the power of mutual support in community, as we explore our realizations and inquiries together.
We will do this through regular monthly on-line live gatherings (with the option for on-site ones if the interest is there); bonus materials for our circle only, and an ongoing private online group where we can post our realizations, discoveries, encouragements, and resources.
I will also invite you to keep a “spiritual practice diary” with me, which I have found to be a profound means to objectively look at our progress, insights, and “failures,” —thus seeing how rich learning comes from it all.
Note: This program may not happen yearly, so if you are interested please consider this rare opportunity to learn and experience from this unique blend of master-teachers from the yogic, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic-Sufi, Shamanic, and the Taoist-Qigong traditions.
I hope you will join me in this remarkable exploration!
And please do feel free to contact me directly with any questions.
*Retitled The World’s Religions in later editions.
Thomas Amelio intensely studied yogic disciplines and philosophy in India, where he edited Rajarshi Muni’s classic, Yoga–The Ultimate Spiritual Path. He is a founding member of, and has been a senior teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for over 40 years, and is President Emeritus of the NY Open Center in New York City. His latest CD is Mantra Darshan–Vedic and Tantric invocations for meditative absorption. shivananda.net
To learn more and register for the program, click here.