Experiencing the Des Moines Zen Center

Back when I worked full-time for the paper, I would get massive anxiety the night before a new issue would launch. I was always worried that there would be some error, or someone would be offended by a story I’d written. I looked with dread at the red voicemail light on my desk phone. Thankfully, it rarely happened.

Last week, I freelanced a story about the Des Moines Zen Center. Writing it proved to be much more difficult than I thought it would be and I stayed up late crafting several different drafts. I turned it in on time, then didn’t see it again until it printed. I went to look at the story today and it turns out I that e-mailed the editor the wrong draft, so what ended up going out was a less-than-ideal version. Basically my worst nightmare as a writer and totally my fault. I am upset with myself, but the good thing is that links on the Register expire after only a few weeks, and I have a blog where stories last much longer. Here’s the final draft I intended:

Inside a brick storefront in the North of Grand neighborhood, a dozen or so people on black cushions are seated facing the walls. Airy curtains and Japanese screens block the scene from the street, yet sun filters in and leafy shadows play across the sparely decorated room.

There is no program; everyone is still. For 40 minutes, silence – save for the ambient sound of traffic, the heating system kicking on, or the hushed rustle of latecomers settling into a spot. No one taps at her phone, or pages through a magazine or jots down a to-do list. Then, the ringing of a delicate bell signals the end of the “sit” – a period of simple meditation.

Founded in 1992, but recently relocated to St. George Square, the Des Moines Zen Center serves as a resource and provides a community that’s both (or either) spiritual and social. Here, mindfulness is cultivated through the ancient practice of Soto Zen Buddhism. The frenzied pace gets checked at the door – along with your shoes – and the art of “non-thinking” becomes the goal.

“Everything stems from just sitting on that cushion, but there are broader principles in Zen,” said Teva Dawson, a Zen Center member. “You sit there and are forced to realize what it is that challenges you. (Sitting) gives you the entry point to begin to let things go.”

Zen Center members say the meditative practice helps them address the everyday challenges of busy, modern lives. Some, like retired teacher Vicki Goldsmith, have been at it for decades, and others picked up the practice within the past year.

“Slowing down and giving attention to how I place my shoes by the door or how I read the mail or interact with the neighbors results in a more fulfilled day,” said Goldsmith. “The practice changes how I deal with grief, anger, and stress.”



A growing body of scientific research supports the benefits of meditation to emotional wellbeing and overall health, but finding a time and place to unplug isn’t always easy. And once you’re there, how to quiet the mind?

“It’s not that you can try to stop your thoughts,” said Tom Houghton, a ‘lay ordained’ who balances a day job in IT with responsibilities at the Zen Center.  “Let them pass like clouds in the sky, and if you can do that, they start coming less and less.”

A first-timer might sit fixating on whether or not she’s turned the cell phone in her coat pocket to silent, or on the pain he’s feeling in his left foot. Eventually, those thoughts might make way for deeper contemplation.

“There is no magic about what happens at a Zen Center, and it’s definitely not for everybody,” said Jon Shelness, who joined the Center 12 years ago because of high stress and blood pressure. “It’s like jogging or joining a gym. To see any real results, there has to be a level of commitment to taking part in the calming effects of participation in our activities, of which a portion is dedicated to regularly meditating with the group.”

In addition to practice, the Center hosts Dharma talks that explore Buddhist teachings, potlucks, study groups and an “Introduction to Zen” class from 7-9 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month.  Anyone is welcome to drop in, and of the 200 or so on the mailing list, each event draws between 10-20 people. Nontheistic Zen practice can be integrated with other religions, too.

“We have people who come here and then leave and go to their Catholic Mass,” Houghton said.

Soto Zen Buddhism is on the formal end of the spectrum of today’s mindfulness movement. Bells, bowing, incense and recitations awaken participants to the present moment, and meditating with others adds an element of camaraderie in what’s otherwise a very inward journey.

Photo by Teva Dawson

Photo by Teva Dawson


During the social period after a recent 8 a.m. Sunday practice, attendees discussed the upcoming return of Zen Center priest, Rev. Eido Bruce Espe, from Japan and retreat opportunities at the Ryumonji Zen Monestary near Dorchester.

That morning’s crowd was a diverse mix and included a dairy farmer, a public relations professional, a retiree, a UPS worker, a sustainability director and a young married couple sporting punk-style earring gauges. Despite outward differences, they were all united in their search for peace, quiet and the possibility of connecting with like-minded people.

“I’ve been looking for something to curb stress, and I came here and sat and the 10 minutes felt like two minutes,” Teresa Zilk said. “I felt like ‘I probably need this really bad’ – and it’s working for me. I have more patience with my family and work and I’m a lot calmer in traffic.”

Members don’t expect a 40-minute sit to instantly transform their lives, but many who’ve invested time in practice report some benefit – whether it’s general relaxation, curbing impulsive eating or approaching challenges with more patience.

“(Zen Meditation) has certainly made a difference in my life,” said Richard Douglass, who began attending with his wife. “The little things aren’t big things.”


Des Moines Zen Center
822 35th Street
Ryumonji Zen Monestary
Info: (563) 546-1309, ryumonji.org
2452 Ryumon Rd., Dorchester

1 Comment

Filed under I love Des Moines

One response to “Experiencing the Des Moines Zen Center

  1. Jon

    No worries. What you wrote is fine. Yes, I see a few differences, but it makes the same point. Thank you again, and visit any time.

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