by Scott Edelstein
You stand in the doorway of a strange building, surrounded by unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. You wonder what to do, what to say, what questions to ask, and how to get to know the people inside. Perhaps those people dress strangely or use unrecognizable words.
This scenario gets acted out daily at spiritual and meditation centers around the world. This article is for people who are contemplating such an encounter. It covers what questions to ask, what etiquette to follow, what to look for, what to avoid, what to keep in mind, and when to turn around and leave.
- Call before you visit. The center’s hours may be unusual or irregular, or it may be staffed only at certain times.
- Don’t be afraid or intimidated. A visit to a meditation or spiritual center may be surprising, disappointing, exhilarating, enlightening, or disillusioning; but one thing it will almost never be is dangerous. Of course, when you first visit a center or group, everyone but you will know what to do, what to say, how to act, and what is going on in general. The best thing you can do is be straightforward. Say, “I’m new here and need some guidance.” Most folks should be happy to help you.
- Be honest and straightforward. Speak and act as you regularly do, unless you are asked to do otherwise.
- Dress in loose, comfortable clothing. This will help make any spiritual practice (meditation, stretching, etc.) as easy and comfortable as possible.
- Observe the organization’s etiquette. You may be asked to remove your shoes, observe silence for a short period, or perform a few formal bows. Feel free to ask later about the purpose or proper form of any practice or ritual. If you are asked to do something you have genuine ethical or religious objections to, don’t do it; simply stand or sit quietly until the ritual is complete. And if you’re asked to do something clearly inappropriate, such as sleep with the resident teacher, politely refuse and quickly leave.
- At the appropriate time (usually at the end of your visit), ask any questions you like. Feel free to ask both questions (“What are these cushions for?”) and spiritual ones (“How does this practice relate to the Golden Rule?”). If you don’t understand an answer, ask for clarification.
- Request practical information and details if you like. Ask for a tour of the center, for a copy of its schedule of activities, for a web address, and for any free brochures or pamphlets. These may not be offered automatically.
- If you’d like instruction in the group’s spiritual practices, don’t be shy about asking for it. You may be offered this instruction on the spot. More likely, you’ll be asked to come back at another time, typically for an introductory workshop or session. This will normally be brief (an hour or two) and either free or inexpensive (typically $30 or less); if it’s more than half a day and/or $50, be skeptical.
- Be wary of requests for money. Spiritual centers have bills to pay like everyone else, so you may be asked for a donation or a pledge. But it’s fine to say “not today” or “let me think on it and decide later.”
- Always feel free to leave. No one can keep you there if you don’t want to stay—and it’s very unlikely that anyone will try. When you want or need to go, simply say goodbye and leave. No justifications or explanations are necessary.
If you like what you experience, come back to test the waters some more. If you don’t, try another center. No two spiritual groups or centers are alike, even those in the same tradition. As with so many other things in life, it’s always wise to comparison shop.
A longtime practitioner of both Buddhism and Judaism, Scott Edelstein has studied happily and productively with several spiritual teachers since 1978. He has been friends with several spiritual teachers and worked as the editor for two. He is a committed proponent of serious spirituality in all forms and traditions. Edelstein has been a member of Methodist, Quaker, Buddhist, and Jewish congregations and is currently a member of a Dharma Field Zen Center and Shir Tikvah Synagogue, both in Minneapolis.
Edelstein is the author of 15 other books on a wide range of subjects and works as a writer, ghostwriter, and writing and publishing consultant. He lives in Minneapolis. For more information, please visit www.sexandthespiritualteacher.com or www.scottedelstein.com.