Mystic Heart Program seeks oneness through diversity

Subagh Singh Khalsa is co-director of the Mystic Heart Program, which offers meditation practice sessions and classes throughout the Chautauqua Season. Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Forty years ago, Subagh Singh Khalsa and his wife, Subagh Kaur, co-directors of Chautauqua Institution’s Mystic Heart Program, stumbled into the practice of Kundalini yoga and meditation at a lecture given by Yogi Bhajan, one of the Western world’s foremost Sikh yogis.

“We went to that talk, and here’s this guy,” Khalsa said. “I really didn’t know what he was saying, I really couldn’t get it — but I knew there was some important connection.”

After attending the lecture, the couple began an earnest practice of spiritual meditation through Kundalini yoga and Sikh Dharma. Sikh Dharma is a monotheistic faith that emphasizes equality among all people and focuses on finding God through introspection of the heart. Though they left Massachusetts and made their way west to Rochester, N.Y., and then to Chautauqua, the practices and traditions of Kundalini yoga and Sikh Dharma have been with them every day since.

“It literally overnight changed our lives. We started practicing and everything changed,” said Khalsa, who meditates at least two hours daily.

Kundalini yoga, Sikh Dharma and meditation are integral aspects of Khalsa’s life. In 1999, as the Institution continued with its Abrahamic Initiative — the formal mission started in 1998 to include worship and people of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — Khalsa recalls having asked: “What about the other world religions?” Chautauqua’s Department of Religion responded quickly and encouragingly to Khalsa’s query, and the following year the couple founded the Mystic Heart Program.

Now entering its 12th season, the program has grown up with few tweaks and changes. Each week of the season, it offers daily morning meditation practice and semi-weekly learning seminars based on different religious meditation traditions from around the world. This year, traditions include Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Jewish Kabbalah, Christianity and newly added Baha’i. Khalsa will also lead three of the weeks’ meditation and seminar sessions focusing on Kundalini yoga and Sikh Dharma meditations.

Maureen Rovegno, assistant director of the Department of Religion, said the diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds among each week’s facilitators mixes well with the Institution’s interfaith vision.

“The meditations reflect the theological and philosophical basis of various world religions,” Rovegno said.

Although the variety of meditation practices taught exposes participants to diverse religions, Khalsa said the true wonder of the program can be felt in the sense of connectedness and oneness group meditation can inspire.

“If you attend the morning sessions in that room at one time or another, there have been Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, Hindus. They all come together,” Khalsa said. “At the end of the session as people are leaving, there is just this real palpable sense that we have immersed ourselves in the same water, that any superficial differences have been washed away and we are left with raw humanity.”

The structure of each week’s morning meditations and afternoon seminars is left to the jurisdiction of each teacher, Khalsa said. Because the program focuses on contemplative meditation instead of physical activity, the classes are accessible to anyone.

“Meditation is really about emptiness, stillness, awareness, listening, just simply being without all that other stuff,” Khalsa said. “As it turns out, it’s the simplest thing to do. There is nothing simpler than not trying; and yet it’s not easy.”

The program will devote Week One to yoga tradition, led by Michael and Dariel Woltz. The seminar topics taught by Michael will focus on “Peace in this Moment” and “Serenity through Silence.”

Morning meditation sessions, which focus predominantly on practice with little discussion, are offered 7:15–8 a.m. Monday through Friday in the Main Gate Welcome Center Conference Room. No registration is required for morning meditations, but a gate pass is necessary, and donations will be accepted.

Teaching seminars that combine practice with discussion will be held 12:30–2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Hall of Missions. This season, Christian “centering prayer” sessions, led by Carol McKiernan will be held from 7:15–7:45 p.m. Thursdays in the Welcome Center Conference Room.