Shedding their shoes at the bottom of purple-painted steps, seekers and disciples ascended to a light blue room recently vacated by a belly dancing class.
It's Wednesday night and time for the weekly St. Petersburg gathering of the Florida Community of Mindfulness. Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr., the Wednesday night group, or sangha, is one of three that meet on Florida's west coast.
Everyone quickly takes their positions, settling into a circle on small, round cushions, or zafus, atop colorful blankets.
"Try to find a comfortable posture. A comfortable position that feels stable,'' Fred Eppsteiner, the teacher, says.
Everyone obeys, sitting lotus-style, palms on knees, eyes closed.
"It's good to be without any thought of meditating,'' Eppsteiner says.
"Just being there. Not being concerned with the past. Not being concerned with the future. Just being in the present. We just allow thoughts to arise and pass away.''
A pair of fans whir overhead as the room stills.
The "sitting meditation'' lasts for 30 minutes and ends with the sound of a bell. The walking meditation is next, Eppsteiner tells the group of practitioners meeting on the second floor of Yoga Moves on Ninth Avenue N.
Eppsteiner, 63, grew up in a secular Jewish home. He discovered Buddhism in the late 1960s and studied at a Zen center in New York, in France with Thich Nhat Hanh and in India with Tibetan monks. Returning to the United States in the '70s, he settled into professional life as a licensed clinical social worker, married, had a family and lived in Naples. A couple of years ago, he moved to St. Petersburg. What would become the Florida Community of Mindfulness began in his living room 12 years ago.
"I'm not somebody who set out to establish anything,'' Eppsteiner said, but news of the group spread.
"It just started growing and eventually by 2000, it was already getting too big for my home.''
Now Eppsteiner spends his time leading practitioners in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Naples and North Carolina. The Florida Community of Mindfulness has a core membership of about 70, he said, but has a following of several hundred. The group practices "engaged Buddhism,'' a practical philosophy for everyday living. Eppsteiner says it's the capacity to live in the present.
"The practice of mindfulness can really be used by anybody. If one's practice is prayer to God, it's the capacity to be really present to doing that,'' he said.
The philosophy is espoused by his Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. Exiled for decades from Vietnam for speaking against his country's war, Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to return three years ago and has since been leading retreats in his homeland.
In May, Eppsteiner and four others were among 400 delegates from 41 countries who traveled to Hanoi for a weeklong retreat with the monk. The retreat was followed by an international conference on engaged Buddhism sponsored by UNESCO.
Jacqulyn Schuett, one of four practitioners who help lead the St. Petersburg gathering of meditation and talks when Eppsteiner is traveling, was among those who made the Vietnam trip. Schuett, 55, grew up Lutheran in Wisconsin and became interested in Buddhism after attending a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at his Plum Village community in France.
"Coming together in Vietnam was a particularly wonderful experience, because of the international aspect of it,'' she said.
Angie Parrish, current president of the Florida Community of Mindfulness, had traveled to Vietnam before. Thich Nhat Hanh's practical Buddhism benefits her at work, she said.
An employee benefits consultant for Aon Consulting in Tampa, Parrish, 52, says she has a computer program that sets off a "mindfulness bell'' throughout the day that brings her back to the present.
That reminder to be in the moment came often during a recent midweek gathering.
"Be present to every step,'' Eppsteiner told the group of almost 20 practitioners as they began a walking meditation.
Eyes closed, hands at their sides, the rhythm of bare feet creaking the floorboards halted only with the sound of a bell.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.