Silently starting a conversation – Reflections on 24 hours of Public Meditation

Photo by Frances Yang Martin

My fellow meditators in the windows of ABC Home

When I signed up to be part of the Interdependence Project’s meditation marathon, to sit for 24 hours in the windows of the most sheeshy home furnishing store in New York City as part of a fundraiser for the organization, I knew it would be intense.  I just didn’t know what the nature of that intensity would be.  I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about or preparing for the sit, as I didn’t have much context for this kind of experience to base any preparation on.  I mostly considered that I’d be sitting for 24 hours (with of course walking meditation mixed in), and the only context I had for such an extended period of meditation was meditation retreats, usually about a week long, that I’ve been going on for some time now.  Those retreats are, naturally, very intense from an internal standpoint.  Generally retreatants, or yogis as they’re often called, are in idyllic surroundings with delicious food and lots of silence, but are so intimately engaged in focused meditation that they tend to experience euphoric highs but also debilitating lows, with plenty of peacefulness and straightup boredom mixed in.  And so when I was thinking about what to prepare for when sitting 24 hours, I largely thought of it in these terms, as a subjective experience.

What I basically forgot about was that I’d be sitting in an *extremely* public space, a street level storefront window that’s meant to highlight things to otherwise uninterested passers by.  And wow, were the passers by  interested.  I guess it isn’t everyday that you see about a dozen people meditating in window, but wow.  The fact that our 24 hours included a Friday night in a pretty busy part of New York City probably helped in terms of the amount of attention we got.  Here are some of the general sentiments I heard, paraphrased:

“Are they for real?”

“Are they real?”

“Wow, those people are incredible. That’s discipline!”

“I wish I could do that.”

“I used to meditate, I should really start again.”

“What a waste of time.”

“Get a life!”

“How much do you cost?! I want to take you home!” (Note: not a paraphrase.)

There were obviously many more, and some pretty extreme ones as well.  Many people tapped, and sometimes even banged, on the windows, I guess to try to disturb something they thought wasn’t meant to be. Many others laughed, sometimes at us, sometimes more at how surreal the whole thing was. One person, in the more late hours of Friday night, even mooned one of the window sections. The drunk people definitely got the prize for most colorful responses.  At the same time, these highly visible responses shouldn’t overshadow the many people that quietly stopped, watched, even meditated with us, and engaged the IDP volunteers that were present to talk to people about what the event was and invite them to come for free meditation classes that were being held inside of ABC home throughout the day on Saturday.

While most of the time my eyes were closed, I did eventually start sit with my eyes open and downcast so that I could stay awake. Once I started doing that, more people would actually try to engage me, making faces, tapping, staring, and taking photos. (I actually don’t think I’ve ever been photographed more over the course of a day in my life.)  One person flipped me a bird.  Many others smiled.  Some even bowed.  Towards the end, I kept my eyes open more and more, still meditating, but often smiling back and doing lovingkindness practice, radiating well wishes for all the folks who stopped and those that didn’t.

These reactions, the inter-subjective experiences of what was essentially a group of people in dialogue over the course of 24 hours,  actually ended up being the defining aspect of my experience, as opposed to any subjective, internal mind states that might have come up (though I’ll admit that the knee pain was pretty bad). The range of those responses, how they changed over the course of the 24 hours, and my own reactions to them, ended up making my meditation experience one of relationship and dialogue about what people perceived myself and my fellow meditators to be doing.

Ultimately, what we were doing, and what I failed to reflect on in advance of the sit, was starting a conversation.  Our t-shirts said “Sit Down, Rise Up”, the Interdependence Project’s slogan. Our public sitting was an embodiment of our philosophy: if we wish to change the world, we need to change our minds, and with changed minds, we engage more effectively and compassionately with others (though the process isn’t near that linear). The people meditating started a conversation with passers by, and the many IDP volunteers that were there with flyers and talking points closed the loop and let them know what our work was all about.  And I think that people were affected, if only to see for a moment a group of people trying to better their hearts.

Many thanks to all the people that sponsored me to sit, to my fellow meditators and volunteers at the Interdependence Project, to my friends Nick, Rik and Sebené that dropped by to show support, and to all of the people that stopped for a moment to consider what we were doing.  May all beings find happiness.

And… here’s me sitting in a window. :)

Photo credit: Rik Panganiban

More pictures from the event here and here.

7 Responses to “Silently starting a conversation – Reflections on 24 hours of Public Meditation”

  1. 1 buddhatrain November 8, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    What a fascinating experiment! I meditate in public on my commute to and from Manhattan everyday, but I don’t know if anybody even knows that I am meditating. They many think I am sleeping, but I am a little too erect for that. In almost 4 years nobody has ever asked me about it. You have me wondering if I should make it more obvious what I am doing. I am going to check out the interdepedence project. Thank you.

    • 2 Nick November 9, 2009 at 11:17 am

      Way to go Rafi and IDP!

      I look forward to seeing the many possibilities inherent in this synthesis of public meditation and activism unfold in the future. I think there is a lot of potential for dissolving rigidly conceptualized and implemented notions of private/public, spiritual/political, passive/active, effective/ineffective, etc. that is opened up by activities like this. Public/Collective spiritual practice is one of our next frontiers to explore and map out!

    • 3 Rafi Santo November 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm

      I occasionally meditate on the train too, so it’s good to hear that others practice in that space. I think that there’s an interesting balance in considering the idea of being public with one’s meditation practice. When we sat this past weekend, there was an active intention to raise awareness, and, by virtue of how we did that, it wasn’t actually the most conducive environment for developing mindfulness and concentration. It was good for our purpose though of making a statement. I think it’s possible to do both, but not always necessary.

      And Nick, it is super interesting to be playing with these dichotomies. I think that the event really put many of them in the forefront, which is why it was interesting both for the participants and for the observers. (Decide who was which for yourself!) I also really enjoyed that we played with the line of consumerism, by committing an act that is at its core often about renunciation, but did it in a storefront window.

  2. 4 Debbie November 9, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    From my last posting on my flickr photo of this event:

    Interestingly, from my point of view, I saw everyone walking past, walking quickly, talking, laughing, traffic noises, wind on my face and inside the windows, all was still and quiet. There was such a sense of unity and peace behind the glass that I was envious of what you were all feeling. On the outside, we were all moving in different directions but inside you were all one, breathing together, sharing the stillness, being purely in the moment.

    I go to the city all the time and seldom stop to look at anything but I stopped and looked for quite some time. I really think you sent a very strong message, apart from the bloodshed at Darfur, your silence said a great deal about humanity in general.

    • 5 Rafi Santo November 9, 2009 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks so much Debbie, I think it’s really interesting to hear what the perspectives were on both sides of the glass. I also know that internally I wasn’t always peaceful (lots of knee pain, egads!), but that that almost didn’t matter. The act of sitting can communicate a message of peace regardless of what’s inside.

  3. 6 rikomatic November 9, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    So amazing to see Rafi and his fellow Interdependence Project folks doing their thing in such a public way. As a Quaker, we wrestle how to make our own ways and concerns known to a broader public. We have a weekly outdoor Quaker meeting for peace that meets at the Washington Square Arch, with I think some signage and flyers. I don’t really know the effect of that kind of action. But quite similar to this effort.

    Everyone deserves the opportunity in the public sphere to be exposed to other ways of thinking, feeling and being. That’s really the highest purpose of the public commons, now that I think of it. I’m sure you touched hundreds of people.

    Excellent job, to all involved!

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