My first experience in Ocean Beach, California, a suburb of the City of San Diego, felt like I’d been thrust through a time warp into the 1970s. The day’s Surf Report by a surfer nick-named, “Bird,” proclaimed a, “Flat Attack,” being that waves on the sapphire blue Pacific Ocean were less than two feet high, unlike the photo above. Most of the store fronts and houses haven’t changed in decades, because, as I later learned, the residents fight City Hall tooth and nail to keep them that way. I half expected the Beach Boys to show up and start singing, “Good Vibrations.”
It was a crisp, sunny winter’s day and the place was deluged with noisy locals and flocks of tourists who all seemed to be smiling. Driving down Newport Avenue, on my way to meet Jenna at the Dharma Center was tricky because the parking spaces in front of the stores and restaurants, made long ago for smaller vehicles, held only half the Ford 250 I was trying to get past, leaving the other half sticking out into the street. Oddly enough, nobody seemed to care much about the traffic glitches caused by SUVs or trucks pulling in or out of tiny parking slots.
Parking in downtown Ocean Beach, affectionately called O.B. by the locals, was all but impossible that weekend. I finally talked my way into the lot at Nati’s, a charming little Mexican restaurant a block over from the Dharma Center, by promising to eat there after I finished.
Making my way on foot through a loud throng of kids and parents, dogs and diners to the Dharma Center, I saw two San Diego Police Department cruisers trolling the oceanfront, leaving just a hint of angst in their wake. I also noticed the SDPD trailer plunked on the beach. A new breed of upwardly mobile homeless young people with bank accounts and credit cards invade O.B. from time to time. Apparently, ten to fifteen percent of the homeless youth, now called Urban Campers by locals, are not so upscale and have been known to accost tourists, sometimes violently, for hand-outs. Hence, a noticeable police presence.
Tourists spend over 8 billion dollars a year in the San Diego area and the tourism industry supports more than 160,000 jobs.
According to Mike Akey, a Vice President of the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association, his group has installed street cameras and hired several security guards who wander the streets anonymously, to keep trouble away from businesses and their patrons.
The Dharma Center is located on the third floor of a balconied building at 5059 Newport Avenue. Street noise faded to a muted roar as I walked into the courtyard in the center of the building and up the stairs to the third floor. Jenna was sitting at the front reception desk as I walked in. She closed the door and there was silence.
Jenna Sundell is not beautiful in the Hollywood sense, but there’s a warm tranquility about her. She’s like a lovely bird poised on the end of a tree branch, feathers gently ruffled by the breeze. The glow coming through her clear brown eyes reminds you of sunlight through a window. Her smile is infectious and you find yourself wanting to know her secrets.
In weekly classes at the Dharma Center, Jenna teaches Practical American Buddhism, which is a form of Buddhism without ceremony or dogma, offering instruction in meditation for people who live and work in the world.
She says that although the word, Dharma, has many different interpretations, she likes the one from the Sanskrit, “It’s the teachings of truth, the pathway, that inner connection to all that is.”
At twenty-one Jenna was a student at San Francisco State University when she met the irresistible but controversial, self-proclaimed Enlightened Master, Dr. Frederick Lenz – Rama to his students. A year or so later, she left university and moved to New York to study full time under Lenz.
When she got to New York, Lenz helped her find a place to live and encouraged her to go back to school to study computer programming. It was the early 1990s. She says, “Rama was very much about independence.” Within a year Jenna had a certificate in computer programming, went to work, and in a short time was earning enough to pay off all her debts.
Frederick Lenz had a doctorate in English Literature and studied under Sri Chinmoy, an internationally renowned Indian Spiritual Master who taught meditation in the West from 1964 to his death in 2011. Lenz took Chinmoy’s teachings, and translated them into what he called, Tantric Mysticism, Buddhist Yoga or Old Zen, among other titles. He taught a method of silencing or stopping thought through meditation.
The goal is to reach Samadhi, the highest form of meditation where one is said to experience oneness with the universe. Other forms of Buddhism call this state Nirvana.
What are the effects of being in the presence of an enlightened Master?
“When you study with an enlightened teacher, they emit a very powerful energy field. It kind of protects you from the bad side of life. It’s a constant source of energy being given to you,” she explained.
When Rama died, Jenna decided to teach meditation, moved west to Ocean Beach and rented a room for her classes. She laughs when she describes her first four week course as having only one pupil.
Nonetheless, she was inspired by the success of that one person.
“It was so amazing to watch. When he came, he was unhappy and stressed. I taught him mediation and we talked about his life. At the end of four weeks, he was happy, his business was better; his whole life was better.”
How do you meditate? She teaches simplicity, “Get comfortable sitting, close your eyes and concentrate on one thing; it doesn’t matter if it’s a rock, your breath, or music. Stop thinking. If a thought creeps in, gently pull back to your focus.” She says if you keep at it, your energy will increase and you will be happier, emotionally stronger.
In 1998, shortly after Lenz died, Jenna was diagnosed with a severe illness. She says that without meditating twice a day, she’d be dead.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle, and intermittent invasions by the homeless in O.B., the Dharma Center has been an oasis of peace and quiet for 16 years.
“We’ve never had any problems with anyone in O.B. There’s one schizophrenic homeless man who comes here. He says the Dharma Center is the only place where his voices stop. He smells, and so we ask him to wash up in the bathroom before he goes into the meditation room,” she laughs.
At the end of my chat with Jenna, I was back on the sidewalk, immersed in the happy noise and frenzy of an O.B. weekend. On my way back to Nati’s, dodging kids and dogs, I found myself missing the silence of the Dharma Center.
I wondered how many people Jenna and her group of meditation teachers had quietly helped to live better lives. No doubt meditation isn’t for everyone, and perhaps, as some reported, Frederick Lenz was a charlatan who hypnotized his students, but Jenna Sundell changed her life with the practice of meditation. She has managed to stay happy for decades with a severe disease plaguing her waking moments.
In the end, it’s all about what’s true for you. As Buddha said,
“Rely on the teaching, not on the person; rely on the meaning, not on the words…”