New Lisle meditation center raises the profile of spiritual community
The new Science of Spirituality campus nearly moved Lakshmi Kapoor Willis to tears the first time she stepped inside.
Based on outward appearances, there was nothing remarkable about the old center, a bland building set back from the Warrenville Road tech corridor in Lisle and Naperville.
But seeing its replacement -- the striking gold facade, the grandeur -- prompted an emotional response in Willis.
"It was just the sheer beauty of it," said Willis, who runs the center's library and lives in Bolingbrook. "The silver and gold and the embracing arms outside. It really speaks to what we stand for."
Outside of her spiritual community, the center's low-key grounds were more widely known as the host of Veggie Fest, a two-day celebration that attracted about 45,000 people in 2017 before a hiatus this year.
Housed in a former church, the center was as nondescript as it was inappropriate for an international organization that welcomes all religions, but also espouses a lifestyle for followers who shun drugs, alcohol and meat.
Five times larger, the new International Meditation Center is big, bold and impossible to miss from the corner of Naperville and Warrenville roads. It's welcome exposure for Science of Spirituality leaders who are trying to raise their profile locally beyond Veggie Fest.
"The design of the building was very carefully intended to blend elements of East and West and not look like a church, a mosque, a temple, a synagogue -- because we're not a religion," said Gary Moed, who heads the welcome center. "We're not a faith. We're a group of people who have backgrounds from all walks of life who enjoy an interest in meditation and enjoy getting the benefits of meditation."
The center serves as the North American headquarters of a New Delhi, India-based organization that teaches the Sant Mat method of meditation. Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj is the group's spiritual teacher and a retired engineer who has met with the Dalai Lama, spoken before the United Nations and has written more than a dozen books.
On Monday, he will lead a "Welcome to Science of Spirituality" class as part of a new curriculum of courses on meditation and introduce the community to the roughly 71,000-square-foot center.
"The intent of those programs is to reach new people," said Michael Ribet, a board member and Oak Brook investment banker.
That's not to say membership is hurting. Science of Spirituality long outgrew the previous center's sanctuary, which accommodated about 250 seats in old church pews.
"We were always looking for a place to have our meetings," Ribet said. "For the last seven or eight years, the existing building had been too small."
In recent years, the main weekend meetings were routinely moved off-site to hotels and conference centers. With size such an issue, Science of Spirituality leaders decided to build a spectacular monument to their organization and hired Gensler, an architecture firm that designed Shanghai Tower, China's tallest building, among other ambitious projects.
Ribet declined to say how much the project cost, but said it was in the "tens of millions" of dollars.
"Having this great facility and knowing that it's ours and that we're home now and we wouldn't have to move was just a real thrill," he said.
The exterior sets a calming tone with a reflecting pool and a 3,000-pound statue of a "meditator."
"You can see that there's an outward curve, and that's meant to indicate an embrace for everybody who comes into the building," Moed said.
Off the lobby is the 1,200-seat main hall and a 500-seat dining hall that will host free vegetarian cooking classes. Inside the smaller of the structure's two gold bowls is the meditation sanctuary, open to all from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"The concrete that the sanctuary sits on was poured separately from the concrete that this sits on so that any noise, thud or vibration wouldn't transfer into the meditation sanctuary," Moed said inside the lobby.
If there's any rule, it's that you should remain silent in the circular, dimly lit sanctuary. You're also asked to remove your shoes or wear shoe covers. Inside are comfortable benches and plush carpeting ideal for the lotus position or any meditation poses.
"We all have our sense or idea of what peace and what sacredness and what wholesomeness is, and in our organization we embrace everybody, and however somebody wants to connect with their true self, however somebody wants to connect with the Creator, that's fantastic and that's wonderful," Moed said. "And this is a place where somebody can come in and just be alone with their thoughts. They can pray. They can mediate, whatever is significant and meaningful to them, they can participate."