The Perri Institute for Mind and Body is proud to share new projects from our Projects and Pathways Initiative via MindBodyBrew. All students and graduates enrolled in our annual courses and independent study tracks are encouraged to make an inquiry and identify a project of performance, object, writing, film, social experiment, analysis, and more that allows them new territory to apply and deepen their understanding of mind/body practice and theory. Students are mentored by TaraMariePerri and her team of advisors/experts, allowing for guided discovery until completion of each project. Additionally, many graduates of our programs also find that their course work in yoga, meditation, and philosophy inspires pathways of career, living, and family. Today, we present the project of Nicholas Grubbs, a graduate of our 2015-2016 Foundation Course.
to be noticed, noticing
One of the first aspects of meditation I was introduced to is that it can be taken anywhere and practiced at any moment. But over my first few months of consistent practice, I developed an increasing aversion to finding new spaces in which to meditate. I had my ideal space at home dedicated to my practice, which felt like enough when I considered that meditation is about getting in touch with the self—why should location even be a factor? Having my own space seemed comfortable, convenient, and like a surefire way to avoid distraction and easily turn inward—particularly in a city like New York, where it seems nearly impossible to isolate oneself from chaos.
My feeble and half-hearted attempts to practice in more public spaces further reinforced this notion: Why would I do something so “unusual” and personal while surrounded by strangers? It’s already daunting enough to turn inward while sitting in comfort and privacy, so the choice to do so while receiving confused glances from passersby seemed too difficult—I could meditate just the same, either way. . . right?
It took months of personal investigation to realize how false this impression was. Choosing to always meditate in the same space is not a negative thing, as any practice is better than no practice. But when given the option to practice anywhere, limiting yourself in terms of location can also limit the boundaries of personal discovery within your practice. My inclination to practice in privacy did not result from comfort in my own space, but from a lack of comfort in unfamiliar spaces. Just like anything else, experimenting with the new is difficult to grasp—but only until you settle into it.
"it took months of personal investigation to realize how false this impression was"
So how does environment play into meditation practice? As an experiment, I asked a few friends to join me for a series of seated meditations and movement meditations in diverse spaces across New York City. The goal was to examine the impact of environment on our practices, but the journey also provided insight into what it feels like to share spaces with so many other people, as my fellow New Yorkers must endure (or embrace!) every day.
In this series of meditations, the focus was to come back to the breath and then tune into the senses—either shifting between them specifically or attending to whatever the environment draws you to naturally. This became a very active two-way street: as we were able to tune into the environment, the space would provide feedback to stimulate mental and physical reactions. Every space evoked something different. This idea can be used as a tool for structuring your practice based on your current state of mind and body. For example, an elevated place like a rooftop or balcony provides a sense of lightness and energy, a remedy for lethargy or physical tension. A shady spot in the park might be ideal for calming the mind or cooling the body if one is feeling feverish or overwhelmed. Meditating in new spaces may also hint at ingrained physical, mental, or emotional tendencies. I almost always practice with my eyes open, but I didn’t think twice about it until a brightly sun-lit space forced me to experience the benefits of eyes-closed meditation. Some beginners may even have an easier time meditating in outdoor environments—staged, indoor meditation spaces are more stagnant, but the energy of the natural is constantly shifting, providing more stimuli for the mind to focus on if it wanders. Iyengar said it best in Light On Life: “Nature is full of variety . . . it is also constantly changing, so there is always something new to see. We too are part of Nature, therefore constantly changing, so we are always looking at Nature from a different viewpoint. We are a little piece of continual change looking at an infinite quantity of continual change.”
"every space evoked something different"
Some of the most profound discoveries sparked by this exploration occurred as a result of overcoming its most significant obstacles. New Yorkers are notorious for constantly feeling the need to stay busy—even in our free moments, we must be doing something. This pressure rises significantly when we are forced to share a space with people we don’t know; our options for activity are perceived as either interacting with someone or finding a way not to (see: looking at your phone, putting in headphones, avoiding eye contact). Social anxiety is increasingly common as we continue to train ourselves in the art of isolation and encounter avoidance. As a result, every time my peers and I would begin a public meditation, there was an underlying tension of being the only people in the space without a visible task, which has somehow become taboo in our technologically-ingrained culture. This became particularly evident in spaces that have an inherent “function.” In Grand Central station, the space determines the behavior—it exists so that people can travel. It’s uncommon for its inhabitants to be still, or present without a perceived purpose.
Facing this concern head-on taught us a very important lesson: Meditation is not strange behavior, but the absence of behavior. It’s okay to be in a space for the sake of being in a space, even in the presence of others. In fact, the presence of other people consistently started out as a cause for self-consciousness, but evolved into a comfort by the end of every practice. A large part of the anxiety that people experience in crowded spaces is sparked by the idea that others are watching them, judging their appearance or behavior. But one must keep in mind the way they consider others as they pass by them on the street, even if the passersby are exhibiting “abnormal” public behavior; their presence is but a fleeting moment in the scheme of an incomprehensibly larger existence. So as we sat and became comfortable with the neutrality of our behavior, there was almost a sense that we were invisible to the world—having little to no impact on anyone else who happened to be present. Even as we practiced movement meditation, which is without a doubt less commonly witnessed in public, passersby quickly faded into the background of our experience. Bystanders are simply doing to you what you’re doing to the space: noticing. If anything, somebody noticing you practicing meditation in public might spark them to try the same thing.
"meditation is not strange behavior, but the absence of behavior"
At the heart of this discussion is the idea that the presence of others can strengthen the connection to the self. By resisting the urge to cut ourselves off, we can become more comfortable sharing spaces with others. By immersing ourselves in contact with strangers simply by existing alongside them, we begin to shed the idea that we are any more or less significant than everyone else. Fleeting acknowledgments from others are but momentary experiences of interconnectedness: a reminder that strangers are not so strange. Even interactions with deeper implications than just noticing (a conversation, a smile, an exchange of expressions) are, just like the rest of our experience, transient. So, should we even consider meditation a personal practice? It does provide a platform for self-study, but it deepens our understanding of our relationship to everyone we happen to be sharing a space with—whether that space is a single room, an entire city, or the universe.
These lessons have been profound not only for my practice but also for my state of mind every time I leave my apartment—and I’m sure they’re a very small portion of what can be unlocked by experimenting with “site-specific meditation.” The next time you’re headed from place to place and have a few minutes to spare, just sit. Don’t try to have an experience. Let wherever you happen to be provide you with one.