The Art of Doing Nothing at Buddhist Center in Irvington

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Jane and Derek Kolleeny, two of the founders of the Westchester Buddhist Center, in the Eileen Fisher headquarters.
Jane and Derek Kolleeny, two of the founders of the Westchester Buddhist Center, in the Eileen Fisher headquarters.

| by Krista Madsen |

Dharma teacher Robert Chender was talking about the neuroscience behind meditation, among other heady topics, at a recent Sunday morning gathering at Irvington’s Westchester Buddhist Center (WBC), when a flock of geese outside the grand riverfront windows momentarily stole the show. Chender paused and smiled as the rows of attendees turned their heads to admire the passage of the squawking birds; nature was making a very Buddhist point.

“Certain things can wake us up and pull us out of our thoughts,” said John Baker, WBC co-founder. “It might be the geese flying by or the sun catching the ice on the river – and it makes you stop and notice how beautiful it is, cuts through the thinking mind and brings you to the present… but then it’s gone in a second and you want to grab your phone and take a picture.”

Stacy Thomas, of Armonk, among the center’s most dedicated volunteers, described that, in time and with effort, these fleeting moments of achieving “presence” have a way of growing and changing a person.

“Coming here gives you a little bit of time that is just yours, a chance to be gentle to yourself,” Thomas explained. “And this gentleness expands and starts to include others and your world opens. You feel that your heart expands; it seeps into who you are. It’s fascinating to watch people change and watch them open.”

Among the newer guests here dipping his toe into the practice is Tarrytown resident Tim Thayer. He had been looking for a Buddhist center in the area with a lecture component when he happily discovered, last June, that such a place existed “just down the road” in the Eileen Fisher headquarters.

“I’m generally a very curious person, and I also know it’s very hard to observe yourself – we tend to know others better than ourselves it seems. So meditation is a chance for me to observe my mind,” Thayer said. “And it’s also a chance to be part of my surrounding – in a sense observe less of myself – a bit of a paradox there that I’m happy with.”

Initially Thayer suffered the discomfort of just sitting, but that went away. Now he leaves with big ideas to ponder, good people to talk to, “and from meditation the realization that my mind can’t stop thinking for two seconds (working on that) and the chance to be more present in the moment for my kids, my friends, my work and myself.”

John Baker, along with co-founding couple Derek and Jane Kolleeny, and some other regulars here, all date back to the 1970s in Boulder, Colorado where they studied under Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Rinpoche interpreted Tibetan Buddhism for Western lifestyles and minds, borrowing terms familiar from psychoanalysis: neuroses, ego. In Boulder, Baker co-founded and taught at Naropa University, which is now fully accredited.

Both Derek Kolleeny and Baker have Northeast roots – Kolleeny notes he was born and raised in Irvington – and found themselves pulled back, launching other careers. They became involved in the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, which is still thriving in the city, though it recently has to find a new location.

By 2009, Baker and the Kolleeny’s had decided to open their own center and were seeking out a space to rent. They checked out a yoga studio above the Bedford Post Inn in Bedford. “The next thing I know,” said Baker, “I’m sitting across from Richard Gere [then part owner of the inn and famously buddies with the Dalai Lama], and he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’” Gere let them use the space basically rent-free.

In January 2011, they grew into two centers, when women’s clothing (with a social conscience) empire CEO Eileen Fisher, an Irvington resident, invited them to use company headquarters under the umbrella of their wellness program.

“Eileen’s another of these people [like Gere] who’s very generous, gracious and self-effacing,” Baker said. “I admire them for being kind and, despite their success, having a small ego.”

By 2013, the Bedford location became too far to manage – Baker had moved to the city by then, the Kolleeny’s live in Sleepy Hollow – so they consolidated their efforts here in this glorious space, where dozens faithfully come from all over to spend hours, if not much of the day, to sit in silence, learn, and commune.

Berkeley McKeever practically spends her whole waking life here as she works weekdays in the Fisher offices and spends her Sundays here with the Westchester Buddhist Center. “It’s just so generous when you think of people pulling it together and making it happen,” McKeever said. “It’s just such a gift to be able to come and practice here. Everyone is happy it’s working so well.”

“It’s mostly a labor of love,” said Baker, of the non-profit which collects donations and not rigidly.

The Center enjoys use of the company kitchen – where guests drink tea and coffee and enjoy muffins donated by nearby Red Barn Bakery; there’s a yoga room upstairs, where they hold more guided meditations for beginners. Thomas points out the lactation room for nursing mothers on the job, the massage chair. “[Fisher] has really fostered a corporate culture that embraces wellness,” she said.

Shoes and coats are deposited near the entrance; practitioners sit in rows of chairs in the expansive, high-ceilinged room or up front on floor cushions, hands palm-up in their laps, backs straight to absorb some combination of silence and listening.

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