My Zen is Better Than Your Zen

With conspicuous consumption now considered ill-advised at best, seeking inner peace has become the one-upsmanship du jour.

On a snowy, late-winter night, I pop into the Cambridge Zen Center to catch the tail end of one of its weekly Buddhism and meditation lectures. With 35 full-time residents, the center is one of the country’s largest residential Zen communities, but also offers meditation sittings, lectures, and in-house retreats that the public can attend. Although director Barbara Feldman doesn’t keep track of the exact numbers (how very Zen), she says that introductory classes have been consistently full in the past few months, and that donations, or dana, are at an all-time high.

As I follow Zen master Jane Dobisz to the Dharma Room, where meditation takes place before the watchful third eye of the Buddha, I feel at ease, despite looming deadlines and the very inaustere Balenciaga handbag I bought myself for Christmas dangling from my arm like the spawn of Satan. The place is bustling: Young, good-looking residents congregate around a table of cupcakes decorated with vanilla and chocolate yin-and-yangs; in a corner, a woman in her forties knits a blanket while manning a display of books for sale. (The center also sells T-shirts for $15 each.) “There’s an old Korean saying that a good situation is a bad situation, and a bad situation is a good situation,” says Dobisz. “We have a macro bad situation economically. But there’s now a disattachment going on, from trying to get the bigger car, the bigger house, the fancy stuff. It’s a reexamination of the values. That’s the good situation.”

More people meditating means more peace in the world. It also means more opportunities for the nonprofit Zen center, which has seen an influx of visitors from the halls of academia, biotech, and finance seeking enlightenment, serenity, and T-shirts. “I like to say that our nature is a glass of muddy water,” Dobisz says. “We shake the glass all the time. Meditation is to stop shaking and let the mud and silt settle down. The water becomes very clear.” I am tempted to hand over the Balenciaga.

Even through the mud and silt, it’s striking how fundamentally the recession has many Bostonians rethinking their decision to devote their life to their job, while wondering if maybe those eternally happy spiritual types haven’t been on to something the whole time. “There’s been a huge shift in attitudes and openness,” says Mary Ann Robbat, a former corporate executive turned shamanic healer/intuitive/medium/life coach, who now sees as many as 30 clients a week at her Lexington-based Robbat Center for the Advancement of Energy Healing. “Ten years ago, if I was at a dinner party, I would never have talked about the work I was doing. Now I have no qualms. People are searching more than ever.”

Robbat’s clientele is made up almost entirely of business professionals (in a sharp red jacket and tailored black pants and wearing significant bling, Robbat herself looks less shaman than corporate exec), who are eagerly signing on for everything from meditation to energy healing. In one regular group session, a spirit named Sage advises attendees on matters of love, family, and yes, the economy; she speaks through Robbat. “The other day I was watching Oprah and Lisa Ling was doing a story on the tent cities and I was getting really depressed,” says one of Robbat’s clients, a woman who works in biotech. “And then I thought about what Sage said and it was helpful: There is an abundance, if you seek it out and stay positive.” She pauses before adding, “But it’s not like she’s telling me anything I don’t know already.”

The price for Robbat’s services hovers around the $175-per-hour mark, yet the clients keep coming. And as they and others increasingly aim to max out their enlightenment, local purveyors of luxury will find it harder to survive in the new economy—or to resist joining in on the shift in governing tastes themselves. Last year clothing store owner Betty Riaz signed a lease on a space at Dedham’s Legacy Place, intending it to be the next store in her popular Stil clothing chain, and the first to focus on home accessories. In the fall, however, she moved her Newbury Street boutique to the Prudential Center and shuttered her Natick Collection one. “People have lost their desire to shop. They’ve lost the desire to do anything else besides find out who they truly are,” says Riaz, who has increased her own yoga practice from twice a week to as many as six times a week since October. “I started to think [selling clothes] is not the only thing I want to do.”

While Riaz intends to continue business as usual at her two remaining Stil stores, in the Pru and The Mall at Chestnut Hill, her plans for the Dedham space have changed: She’ll now open a yoga studio.