Meditating on change
I’ve meditated in yoga studios from L.I. to L.A; in the midst of big crowds led by an orange-robed, head-shaved gurus, and with shamans in a yurt. I’ve meditated in a remote section of the Great Wall of China and on my bedroom floor. I’ve meditated everywhere from the Ligurian Sea to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe and many places in-between.
But rarely has the outside environment matched my inner state of mind than when I meditated with Max Zahn, founder of Buddha on Strike, on the streets of New York City. And when I say “on the streets on NYC,” I mean literally: we sat (on yoga mats) on the sidewalk in front of Goldman Sachs headquarters on a ridiculously busy corner of West Street, a stone’s throw from the West Side Highway. We were there in an effort to bring compassion to commerce, to create awareness that it’s possible to break big business’s addiction to greed through empathic intervention.
I know. Crazy. It would be naive to think that a small group of mindful activists seated at the foot of the giant glass building that houses big money could affect anything at all. And I was thinking just as much, as I sat, eyes cast at a 45 degree angle, focused on one particular striation in the grey pavement. I’ve been distracted while meditating many times, but this effort posed a particularly difficult challenge. In addition to the traffic, car horns, buses hissing, people laughing and talking, heat, bugs, (more on that later), cameras clicking and attending photographers comments, foot traffic, fast food aromas, and bomb-sniffing dogs that surrounded me, I had to work extra hard not to be thrown off my “mission” by the busyness going on within my own loudly chattering, full-of-doubt mind.
It’s common (particularly for those new to meditation) to think that meditating means eradicating your thoughts and achieving some ecstatic state of bliss. The truth is that meditation exposes all of the loose wires that are jangling within, and makes it uncomfortably evident that our minds are chaotic ground.
Here’s just a tiny sampling of what was going through mine: Within the first 25 minutes (Max leads an hour of meditation every business day, featuring 25 minutes of seated meditation, followed by 10 minutes of walking meditation and then another 25 minutes of seated meditation), I worried about my summer cold getting worse, getting sunburned, terrorist attacks, getting arrested, having my cell phone stolen, being harassed or ridiculed, freak accidents involving cars jumping the sidewalk, getting stuck in rush hour on the way home, what I was going to have for lunch, what the guards thought of me, what people walking by on the sidewalk thought of me, how I possibly was hurting Max’s effort with all my thoughts, and how meditating in public in one of the greatest cities of the world could possibly be doing anything but making me look foolish.
I had to work harder than ever to let go of the spontaneous impulses that my mind churned up. Help came toward the end of the first 25 minutes in the form of a horse fly. Of all the bugs out there, horse flies pose a particular problem for me. I’m highly reactive to them. A horse fly bite can produce impressive swelling to go along with the maddening itch. This horse fly seemed pretty attached to the florid red lettering that spelled out the word “Pause” on the sign that I was holding. It investigated the flowery color and scope of each letter in order, from “P” to “E,” while my supposed to be focused gaze followed its trajectory nervously. Somewhere around “S” it occurred to me that the horse fly was as out of its element as I was, and I decided to try an experiment. If I could extend compassion to this bug, would it change the outcome of our proximity?
I concentrated all of my compassionate efforts on the purplish wings of the fly. This was no easy task, since I knew that it is essentially a bloodsucking, disease carrying creature, and my fingers were just micro-inches away from it. But as I watched, I noticed an iridescent cast glimmering beneath the black body, and I was struck by how assiduously it followed the trail of red lettering across the sign. This led to a thought that the horse fly is an important pollinator of flowers. I continued to send compassion to this misdirected bug, who was clearly just looking for nectar (aren’t we all)? and when the horse fly finally flew off the sign, I had another thought: that the guards, who were standing just a few hundred feet in front of us, might be struggling with the insistent buzz of their own all-consuming thoughts, rather than focusing on me and what I was up to.
That’s when I realized that what we were really doing there was not taking on the whole of harmful corporate practices in one bite, we were working from the ground up to effect change, one person at a time. So I extended my compassion out to the guards, who had to stand there hour after hour, day after day, subjected to all of the same concerns that I was having. And then, I extended my compassion to everyone who works at Goldman Sachs, remembering that they too, want the same peace of mind that I seek.
As Max says, Goldman Sachs bankers are people. There’s nothing inherently evil or malicious about them. They are products of a complicated history. Perhaps one of the set of feet that passed by me sitting in meditation at shoe level, felt something positive from our collective meditative energy. Perhaps my small effort struck someone at the exact moment they were struggling with their own teeming mind, and my attempt to extend peace in that environment provided a catalyst for a small change that in turn, might create a chain reaction of changes.
When the Buddha himself began his own personal journey toward enlightenment, he did so because he was uneasy with his own privileged environment. As he journeyed, he became aware that suffering happens on a minute-by-minute basis in all of the frustrations, failures, disappointments and personalizations that we encounter every day. He learned that none of us functions in a vacuum; that the things that made one person prosper depends upon the efforts of others.
What affects one, affects the whole. As Max clapped twice, signaling the end of the hour of meditation, we folded up our mats and blended back into the anonymity of New York City. And as I walked toward more familiar ground, I left with the hope that my tiny offering made an impression on even just one person who walked past, one person who I would know only by their shoes, one person who might be inspired to make more conscious choices that day because I was there, meditating on it.
If you want to join Max in meditating or support his efforts, email him at email@example.com. He conducts meditations daily (times change week-to-week, so check in with him before showing up) at 200 West Street, between Murray and Vesey.