What happens when a massive group gets quiet in Central Park?
I started meditating daily more than five years ago. It happened so naturally, I can’t remember how or when I began. I simply felt a need to sit quietly in the early morning hours before beginning my day, and I used the kettle boiling for my French-pressed coffee as a timer.
My practice evolved over the years, and eventually, my husband prompted me to pursue formal training. We learned together from a 95-year-old treasure of a woman in her home in Beverly Hills. She had been a protégé of Maharishi, who is credited with developing Transcendental Meditation and bringing it to the U.S. in part through the Beatles, whom our teacher had known in India.
But in truth, my meditation practice began much earlier, with my studies and experiences in the arts and growing up in nature.
As my practice evolved, I became interested in joining others in a larger meditation as a group, which led me to The Big Quiet.
The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet, an event held in Central Park on Summer Stage, reflected my own circuitous and diverse journey with meditation (with one major difference being the large mass of people sitting with me beneath darkening clouds and dampening trees on a July evening).
The Big Quiet is an event series born of smaller, monthly events called Medi Club, where experienced meditators, self-described as agnostic and diverse in meditation styles, gather to practice, discuss and support one another. “If our group can organically inspire others to meditate, we will make the world an exponentially better place,” says founder Jesse Israel.
Here’s how the event went for me …
Standing up to a world that screams
I’m curious to find out what it means to meditate on such a large scale. After carving out the time in my schedule to participate, the anxieties start to kick in. What do I wear? What do I bring? It might rain. Can I find someone to go with me? Am I going to be surrounded by Millennials and will I feel old and unstylish? Ergh. Uptown Manhattan trains during evening rush hour are something I’d rather avoid. And what will I wear?
You get the picture. I am, however, very excited, and so I set my anxieties aside after settling on a sundress, something comfortable and decent even if I have to sit on the ground.
5:45 pm I shut my door, toting my bag packed with umbrella, light scarf (though the humidity and heat is heavy), denim jacket (possibly to sit on) and water. My usual walking cadence is fast, bordering on very, very fast, and tonight is no exception. I hope to explore the bazaar of vendors inside the venue before the event begins.
6:43 pm After riding rumbling, screeching trains and fighting through swarms of hot bodies moving at different paces and with different agendas — all seemingly, annoyingly in my way — I make it to Central Park. You’d think the pace would slow there, but the park is filled with tourists, carriages and competitive walkers and runners. I barely slow my own determined stride to acknowledge the Imagine memorial for John Lennon. As I speed by, I try to imagine how it will be possible to be quiet in a sea of people in this very noisy city. And I’m later than I wanted to be.
6:52 pm After finding the venue, I find the line. Yes, like anything else in New York, there’s a line. I even hear one fashionable lady remark into her phone, “We’re waiting in line like it’s J.C. Penny at a f-ing Christmas sale.” Hmmm, yes. On that note, I join the human mass awaiting entrance. Though the line is annoying, I’m very relieved to find we are diverse in dress, sex and age. I’m not so old and frumpy after all.
Once inside, I find myself a comfy spot in the bleacher stands, with a nice view of the stage. Well, maybe not comfy, but who says meditation shouldn’t be without its challenges? I finally begin to relax, a little.
7:15 pm Jesse Israel, the event founder, makes a few simple welcome remarks to a hushed crowd just before big drops begin to fall out of the sky. Umbrellas go up, but nobody budges or seems all that disturbed. He introduces a few other speakers, information is shared about the organization, and acknowledgments are given for the event as well as for the difficulty of digesting recent, terrifying world events. Nothing heavy or dramatic, nothing sensationalized or hyped (for once), just a simple coming together of people who desire community and space held in respectful quiet. It is happening.
7:30 pm In a perfect blend of soothing tones and inspiration, Jen Kluczkowski leads a short, heart-centered meditation, though we are encouraged to follow our own unique practices if we have them. Sara Auster, a group called Attonal Meditation and Rick Patrick create a sound bath that lifts the meditation. Soon Kluczkowski’s words fall away, and we are set adrift on the sea of sound, pierced occasionally by outside city noises that, surprisingly, don’t disturb the moment. In fact, the city soundscape underscored by singing bowls opens my heart in a way that takes me very much by surprise — in the middle of Central Park, in the middle of one of the most diverse cities in the world.
I am filled with a sense of empathy and even love. Despite all the hate-filled events we’ve witnessed recently in the world, a kind of hope in me is renewed. At first, it feels like sadness, but it quickly reveals a deep, abiding joy that I so rarely feel in the hustle and bustle of this city. I remember the hours and days after 9/11 (I happened to be visiting) and how everyone seemed to hold each other, without actually physically holding each other. We recognized each other’s humanity in the simplest, barest way, and that was a comfort.
This feels similar. It pierces me for a moment and then ebbs away, as I sink deeper into the 25-minute meditation. At some point the sound bath fades and there is a long moment of silence before three bells chime to signal the end.
The city soundscape underscored by singing bowls opens my heart in a way that takes me very much by surprise
8:00 pm The meditation is immediately followed by music that helps to ease us back into the present space of the city. For the most part people remain silent, with a few gradually, respectfully getting up to leave. Eventually, a very early call and a long train ride home prompt me to ease myself out of the tranquil bubble we have created together.
As I walk through Central Park alone, much more slowly now, I notice the difference in my awareness and enjoyment of my surroundings. Gone is the constant barrage of anxieties that often drive me. My first year and honeymoon period with this great city may be over, but a new journey is beginning. One that is less about the excitement and more about the deeper virtues of any lasting relationship: kindness, empathy and boundaries.
The Big Quiet seems to me a radically rebellious act in a city — no, a world — that constantly screams and demands, physically and digitally. With the Big Quiet, we have collectively, peacefully demonstrated our humanity in a time that has created many insults to our basic sensibilities. We’ve done that simply by deciding that in this time and place, we won’t allow the demands of our world, our city, our jobs or our private lives to intrude on this bliss of being. In this moment, we will simply be quiet. Imagine.