Rio Grande, USA -- The pungent smell of incense wafts through a room shaded by thin reed blinds. In that room people sit in a circle on chairs and pillows strewn on the floor.
They discuss their thoughts following meditation.
Small pockets of people in the Valley are discovering alternative ways of healing, shunning a caffeinated life for a calmer existence.
Whether they practice Zen meditation, yoga and other forms of physical, spiritual or mental healing, they are finding there are outlets in the Valley to help them do so.
The Zen community is not large, said Mark Matthews, who founded the group 11 years ago. He said he did it in the hope of finding others with an interest in meditation as a way to improve life.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Zen meditation may seem as vague and unattainable as the gently curling smoke from a stick of incense. But its appeal has spread to some Valley residents.
Those who participate appreciate the dedicated few that keep the group alive.
Most members said they were surprised when they found others interested in Eastern thought in the Valley.
"Believe me, I thought I was the only one in Texas," said Noe Reyes, the owner of a tree nursery in Edinburg. The most recent meeting was held at his home.
Reyes built a Japanese garden and a teahouse in part of his yard to give him a serene place to meditate, and has been meditating for about six years. He said it’s helped him control anger and stay calm in tough times.
"I believe that because of my meditation, I am more calm about things and I am better able to keep my cool a lot more than I used to under stressful situations," he said.
Jennifer Klement, a member of the group for six years, said it was important to have meetings with others who practice.
"It is like a church: you need a Sangha, you need the support of others," she said, and a place to discuss the teachings and the practice of meditation.
Sangha is a Sanskrit word that means a community, either lay or ordained, that practices Buddhism.
The group creates a small community of people with similar beliefs.
Some find the group by word of mouth, while others find it on the Internet.
The Sangha was founded by Matthews, a former Catholic priest, and Sister Mary Catherine Griffin, who were both inspired by a book called "Being Peace" by Thich Naht Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who has published books on peace, Buddhism and meditation.
"I devoured the book," Matthews said. "It was so wonderful to be exposed to the practice of mindfulness."
The group was started with a few core members, most of whom have left, though others have filled the spots.
The group has taken many different turns down its path, sometimes meeting every two weeks and at other times, meeting every two months.
"We kind of naturally meet," Matthews said. "We go through cycles."
Regardless of the numbers attending, Matthews said the group connection is important.
"It’s important to have a group of people who are practicing here. It’s a support. When we get together, we have questions and we can share those experiences," he said.
Suzie Lovegren, who recently attended her first meeting with the group, said she was happy to find others who shared her commitment to meditation.
"I felt myself sitting less, and I wanted the support of others who were doing this," she said.
"Support deepens your own practice," she said.
Lovegren attended with her husband James, and three of her children.
The group focuses on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the primary principles of Buddhism, which is the elimination of suffering.
They believe that by focusing on the present, happiness can be achieved.
Members focus their energy by deep breathing and clearing their mind of "all of the things that our minds do that prevent us from being in the present," such as thinking about events in the past or future.
Matthews said some people may be hesitant to try meditation because they are not familiar with it or don’t know how to do it.
"Meditation is so simple," he said.
"It’s really training the mind to calm down, to become peaceful."
He said it was "very practical. It’s not very strange or mystical."
He said it is not mandatory to sit in a certain position. The important thing is to focus on breathing in and out, he said.
Focusing on one thing helps one to relax and "find peace within oneself."
Many group members said they were familiar with meditation or eastern thought before joining the group.
They continue to meditate daily, while meeting occasionally to discuss their practices and study a facet of Buddhist teachings.