Meditators are quietly working to transform an old church into a place to practice mindfulness.
They envision a lotus pond outside the building at 6501 N Nebraska Ave. and a walking meditation garden.
On recent Saturdays, members of the Florida Community of Mindfulness have gathered to remove pews and to paint and clean. They plan to invite the community to Sunday night gatherings starting in October.
"Mindfulness is a way of living," said Fred Eppsteiner, 67, who is the group's teacher. "It is much more psychological and spiritual than religious."
As meditation has moved into the mainstream in recent years, the group has grown. People come for practical help for healing and transformation. Others seek relief from stress and suffering and the chronic dissatisfaction some feel in everyday life.
A monthly newsletter goes to 700 email boxes. Some people join, including 125 scattered across Florida, who pay annual dues of $240 to be members at sites in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Naples.
"This will be the home for the whole community," Eppsteiner said.
Through meditating, he said, people learn to be present to emotions rather than numbing them. He teaches in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, with whom he studied in the 1970s in France.
While the teachings come from Asia with a cultural overlap, Eppsteiner, who worked as a psychotherapist, says he pulls out the essence.
Eppsteiner grew up in New York's suburbs and first learned about the practice at the Rochester Zen Center in upstate New York in the 1960s. He founded the Naples Community of Mindfulness in 1998.
He later added meetings in Tampa, renting space at the Lotus Room on Kennedy Boulevard until February, when the yoga studio closed.
The group started searching for a new home and raised $600,000, Eppsteiner said. The members bought the John Calvin Presbyterian Church in August for $425,000.
The group had been searching closer to downtown but was happy to find a home in Seminole Heights, which Eppsteiner called a neighborhood in transition.
"Hopefully we can be a part of that," Eppsteiner said.
In addition to meditations, which are by donation, the group plans to offer classes in mindful consumption, relationships and parenting; to teach meditation to teens; and offer classes for professionals, such as teachers, lawyers and health care providers. Ultimately, the group wants to host silent weekend retreats.
On a recent Saturday, member Rick Ferriss dismantled a pew in the former church. He describes meditating with a metaphor of the mind as a horse, running rampant before being tamed.
"It's more about how we think," said Ferriss, who rings a bell during meditations, "noticing your thoughts and coming back to yourself. "
Often, people try to meditate and think they can't do it because their thoughts wander. But that's the point, Ferriss said.
"You learn to be conscious of your thoughts and then to have control over them."
Now, when drivers cut him off in traffic, he says he smiles and wishes them a safe journey.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.