Meditating in a storefront window on Broadway tends to make you remember why you got into this whole mindfulness thing in the first place, writes Emily Herzlin.
When I decided to meditate in the display window of a home furnishings store on 18th Street and Broadway, I didn’t realize how many people lived in New York. Apparently the population of Manhattan is approximately 1.6 million. Go figure.
This was six years after I started practicing meditation: I’d finished college, taught full time for a year, and just started graduate school. I’d changed apartments, majors, career paths, boyfriends. The only thing that stayed the same was my quest to scrape through my mental muck to find whatever was buried underneath. I’d been keeping up a relatively committed daily meditation routine on my round eggplant-colored zafu. As a challenge to myself, I signed up to participate in this fundraising event for a meditation center downtown.
Here’s what New York saw when they walked by ABC Carpet and Home on November 7, 2009:
Twenty or so men and women, sitting cross-legged in staggered rows on sumptuous, bright orange and pink cushions. Some of us with eyes closed, some with eyes gently open gazing downwards; hands resting on thighs, or folded in laps, some with shawls wrapped around proud straight backs. The placard on the street explained that we were practicing meditation. For the brave (or insane) ones: a full 24 hours. For the rest of us: shifts of 4 hours.
The ABC Home employees dressed the set magnificently the night before with all ABC’s environmentally sustainable products: Persian carpets lined the floor beneath our cushions, twinkling lamps hung from the ceiling. The set was an enchanted forest: the ground was sprinkled with fake moss and leaves, our cushions positioned among thin saplings. The windows housing us on this particular street corner were embossed with scrawled phrases – change your mind to change the world – sit down, rise up. There we perched in a human collage of words and images, encased in glass. A goldfish in half-lotus, I sat for four hours, worrying about New York: a city where there are more bars than yoga studios, where a therapy session can cost upwards of $150 an hour, where it’s possible to be surrounded by thousands of people in a park and feel completely, totally unknown.
Before I was worrying about New York, however, I was worrying about me. As I first approached my seat in the window from the opening in the curtain behind the clinking cash registers, I started to feel that old familiar escape pain in my stomach: the intestinal twinge of paranoia I felt walking down the hallways of my high school, wondering what everyone thought of me; the anxiety that made me cower in crowds and avoid school dances. Back then I worried about the thoughts of my classmates; now I was worrying about the thoughts of people who I’d never seen before and would probably never see again. How’s my hair? Will they think I’m a crunchy-new-age-hippie? All those people looking at me from outside. Not bothering to know me but judging anyway. My stomach was trying to give me a convenient way out, a reason to retreat.
I’m not doing that today. Remember, I made a promise to myself.
I took my seat in the window and settled in to practice. The stomach pains subsided shortly thereafter.
In my second year of high school, my immune system attacked my eyes, and a long series of doctors’ visits ensued. The physicians threw up their hands at the rare autoimmune disorder and doled out courses of drugs that kept my eye disease under control but made me susceptible to every infection that went around school. I’d stay home with sinus infection after sinus infection, soaking in a warm bath, worrying about how behind I’d be in calculus, trying to calm my yo-yoing nerves. I wondered why my white blood cells were confused. I wasn’t the enemy, after all. Didn’t they know?
Missing school so often made me feel like a social pariah. If a classmate tried to talk to me, I suspected them of only wanting to poke fun at my shyness, so I would respond to them as quickly as possible and turn the other way, pretending my mind was too preoccupied with my studies to engage in anything else. Otherworldly and cerebral was how I wanted people to see me, and it was how I saw myself. I didn’t belong in this place where everything seemed to go wrong.
One day a perceptive art teacher dropped a small book on my desk. The book gave basic meditation instruction, and in the back there were simple line drawing illustrations of sitting postures.
That night when the house was quiet I took a pillow off my bed, placed it on the soft pink carpet of my bedroom floor, and sat down to meditate for the first time.
Well, this is fucked, I thought.
I sat cross-legged with my hands folded in my lap and stared at the wall two feet in front of me. I tried to count how many times I could breathe in and out before a vagabond thought about something else came up, getting annoyed at myself for never getting past three breaths. This was bogus. My white bedroom wall had nothing to do with life and death, and sitting on my butt would never reveal why bad things happen to good people. I listened for the alarm clock I had set to go off.
A pain in my shoulder. An itch on my ear that wouldn’t go away. This wall is annoyingly white, I thought, so I decided to try shutting my eyes, instead. I closed them gently and looked at the back of my eyelids, unable to figure out what color they were. Sort of purple-y. That’s interesting, I never noticed that before…
Okay, the book said to focus on breathing. I stopped thinking about the color of my eyelids and breathed in, feeling the air whooshing in through my nostrils as my lower abdomen expanded outwards, tightening, then feeling my belly relaxing as I let the air out slowly. Without realizing it, I had just practiced mindfulness: placing the attention on an object (the breath) and when you realize you’ve wandered, coming back. I kept at it. My attention would sneak off, ow ow ow my foot fell asleep – or – the thesis statement of my English paper is all wrong, I have to rewrite it, damn – or – my mom is so unhappy, how can I help her be happy? – or sigh, that guy Ryan from my history class is so cute but he doesn’t even know I exist – and every time I realized I was thinking about something else, I went back to being with my breath.
The trrrring of my cell phone alarm jarred me back to my bedroom and out of my body. I placed the pillow back on my bed. Nothing was different. I still had all the same problems as before I sat down. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell my teacher that it was bogus. That had yet to be determined.
I kept at it over the next couple months, sitting and trying to do nothing but notice and breathe, notice and breathe, notice and breathe for 20 minutes a night. I was committed to giving this a chance. There was no major revelation that occurred, but there was something comforting in this simple act of sitting and breathing. I could tolerate being with myself for a while, maybe even find myself interesting, or amusing, noticing the things that my mind threw my way.
One night I decided to meditate with my eyes open, glasses off, and instead of facing the wall I faced out into the middle of my room. More visual distractions, but the white wall was getting boring. My gaze settled a few feet in front of me, where the bottom of my bookshelf met the pink carpet. I settled into my breathing routine and let my gaze soften even more. My nearsighted eyes unfocused, and the clear boundaries between objects began to blur. At first I panicked, thinking there was something wrong with my vision, but I blinked and refocused my eyes and everything went back to normal. So I let my gaze relax again and started focusing on my breath.
My eyes felt warm, watery, soothed. I liked it. It wasn’t tight. It wasn’t me trying to control it, telling myself when to see and when to breathe. My vision was. My breathing was. Breath and Sight and Me were all working together. All at once I felt something in my chest unclench itself and become fluttery with excitement. This here was something different. For the first time in a long time I felt safe in my body: I saw my body breathing, functioning as it should. I was Healthy. I was Good. My body and I are both of these things. Look at us breathing together…
Images of the doctor’s office: notice it, let it go, come back to the breath. Worrying about a physics test and how to keep my grades up so I’d get into Yale: notice it, let it go, come back to the breath. Feelings of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, frustration: look again, you’re thinking, notice it and let it go and come back to the breath.
It was a miraculous thing to discover that feelings were just that – feelings – not solid, not permanent. Pain was not permanent. Pain was not me. I was not defined by anything, especially something that didn’t even stick around when I was doing something as simple as breathing. When I finally let everything settle I found that at the most basic part of me, there wasn’t pain – there was health and goodness. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before. How did it get there? No one could have put it there, no one told me where to find it or what it would look like; I had to find it on my own. And I did.
When the session ended, I stood in the center of my room, not doing anything, just standing and looking around at my clothes and books and papers. Everything seemed different. All the crap around me felt manageable. Then and there I made a promise to myself: this meditation stuff was something I would keep up with. I knew I’d still feel sad and frustrated and angry and alone sometimes, but I could always remind myself of this moment of okay-ness. And that would help. A lot.
At my next doctor’s appointment, I didn’t focus on the needle piercing my arm to draw my blood. I filled my belly with air, and let it out. In, and out. In, and out. Needle. Breath. Contact. Breath. Withdrawn. Breath. Band-aid. Breath. All done.
The symbols in my previously morose artwork morphed into something different: no longer was I drawing gravestones and burning ladders; I drew people dodging past the ladders, building chains out of their akimbo limbs to help each other reach the sky. They were their own ladder. The only thing they needed was their bodies and each other.
Sitting in that fishbowl, three feet behind the glass, was a lot more nerve-wracking than I had expected it to be. There were all these people outside. I guess even though I hoped they’d stop and stare and be curious about what we were doing, I didn’t actually think they would. I generally think of New Yorkers as cool, unfazed by anything. Homeless man in a chicken suit playing a trombone on the subway – eh, nothing we haven’t seen before, right? People screaming on the street at two in the morning – probably everything’s okay. But get a bunch of people to meditate in a window and even the roasted nuts vendor stops pushing his cart to try and figure out what the hell is going on.
Here was my high school social angst exemplified: all these people looking at me and judging me without the ability to explain myself to them. And, while I did try to concentrate on my breath, it was a struggle. I could not help but watch the people outside watching me. So I kept my eyes gently open and instead of placing my attention on my breath, I decided to sit with whatever emotions came up.
I noticed my reactions to the different types of observers:
There were the non-New Yorkers, tourists from maybe Texas or day-trippers from Long Island or Jersey who stopped, amused, and snapped away at us with their digital cameras. I could imagine them going back home and scrolling through pictures of Times Square and South Street Seaport and getting to the photo of the cross-legged weirdos in the windows, oh yeah and then we were walkin’ up Broadway and I don’t know what these folks were doin’… I found myself frustrated by them. What were they doing here anyway? Eventually they went away.
Then there were the people who were still. Sometimes they stood at the curb, taking in the whole scene, and sometimes they walked right up to the window to peer into our faces. Maybe they were trying to figure out if we were actually mannequins. They were silently respectful and inquisitive. I liked them. I enjoyed their fascination and I wished they stuck around longer. But they left, too.
Then there were the people, usually in their teens or twenties, who walked right up to the window to mess with us: trying to meet our gaze and make faces at us by stooping down low to where our eyes were resting, or tauntingly knocking their fists on the window to intentionally startle us out of our calm. I wanted them to go away. A few minutes later, they did.
The children were my favorite. They had no malice, only curiosity. Through the pane of glass I could hear the muffled voice of a little girl about six, who was clutching on to her father’s hand, her tiny fingers stretched in my direction. She asked her father, “What are they doing, Daddy?” to which he replied, “They’re being peaceful, sweetie.”
Towards the end of the four hours, as the sunlight started to dim on Broadway, a young woman about my age walked past the window. She did a double-take and stopped suddenly, back-tracking to the beginning of the window. She studied us for a few minutes, a half-smile on her face. Then she walked right up to the window in front of the sitter farthest to the right, brought her hands together in front of her chest, and bowed to him. She moved over a few inches so she was standing in front of the next person, and bowed to her. The woman moved down the line and bowed to each and every one of us. When she came up to me I brought my hands together and returned the gesture of thanks.
Emily Herzlin is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She teachers a Meditation and Creative Writing class at Columbia University, and her work has been published in USA Today, Newsday, and The Women’s International Perspective, among others. Visit Emily at her website.