Writer: Erin Lee
This article was first published here on 7 September 2020.
"In this place, we belong to ourselves, to one another, and to our world. There is no separation."
- Deborah Eden Tull, in Relational Mindfulness: A Handbook for Deepening Our Connection with Ourselves, Each Other, and the Planet
THE MIND LEARNS TO COEXIST
As my cab pulled up in front of the cafe, I hurriedly opened the car door and stepped out onto the pavement. I flipped my wrist to check the time. 3:26 pm. Phew, I thought to myself. I'm not late after all.
Having very kindly acceded to my last-minute request to push back our meeting by 30 minutes, I knew that my friend Wei had been waiting for some time. I hated the idea of making someone wait for me. As I walked briskly towards the cafe, I pictured Wei sitting at the table, tapping his foot impatiently, restlessly fiddling with his phone, and wearing a slightly annoyed look on his face. I mentally rehearsed an apology.
I swung the cafe door open, and caught a pleasant sight of Wei sitting quietly in an upright, cross-legged posture on the cushioned bench, leaning slightly forward, his hands resting on his lap. I glanced down and spotted his canvas shoes laid out on the floor, void of feet. I looked up to see that his eyes were closed, and his body, absolutely still. Wei was meditating, right in the middle of a bustling cafe in Chinatown.
As the cafe staff took my temperature and helped me check in, my eyes scanned around the room to see if Wei, in his unmoving stance, was attracting any stares. All around him, cafe-goers were either eating cake, sipping tea, engaged in animated conversations, or working on their digital devices. Nobody paid attention to this strange barefooted man sitting in stillness all by himself, with his eyes closed, and doing nothing but breathing in and out. I took a mental step back, investigating the entire atmosphere of the cafe. Wei's stillness was not at odds with all the busyness going on around him. Instead, it was a seamless part of everything. In those moments of my observation, stillness and commotion seemed to be coexisting perfectly well.
Not wanting to disrupt his moments of peace, I gingerly walked towards Wei, and as I sat down in front of him, I observed a micro-smile growing on his face that suggested he was having a joyful inner experience. I wondered why I haven't seen more people sitting like this in public - well, at least not in Singapore.
I now think back to the last time I sat and meditated in a public space. It was a few weeks ago at Singapore's Gardens By The Bay, a lovely 101-hectare nature park host to the most beautiful blooms and landscaping designs. I too was waiting for a friend, and as I strolled along the calm and serene Dragonfly Lake, I decided to sit down and meditate by myself until my friend arrived.
It didn't take long for the body to settle into stillness, and as I rested by the lake in a sitting posture, my mind started to get busy. I meditate on a daily basis, mostly in the familiar comfort of my own bedroom; I go on yearly silent meditation retreats at a dedicated centre run by compassionate volunteers; I also teach mindfulness meditation regularly in private and enclosed indoor spaces such as meditation studios and workplaces. Meditating alone in a relatively busy outdoor public space - if it isn't a familiar experience for you - gives the mind a few things to obsess about.
Sitting on the deck along the Dragonfly Lake, I wondered if passers-by would find what I was doing to be interesting or even pretentious, and start taking pictures of me. I worried about joggers, immersed in their state of flow while running, somehow tripping over me and falling head-first into the lake - the goofy imagery invoked a silent giggle in me. I was then suddenly reminded of my belongings - what if someone sneaked up on me and stole or snatched away my backpack? I wish someone was here sitting with me. My fight and flight response was clearly brewing. Keeping my eyes closed, I groped around for my backpack, pulled it closer to me, and tucked it safely under my right knee. I settled back into stillness and smiled, deeply amused by the nuances of my own thought process. I sat for 30 minutes, patiently observing the chaos of my mind learning to coexist with the stillness of my body in the middle of an unfamiliar environment, until my friend called to announce his arrival.
THE NEED FOR COMMUNITY
Over the next few hours, we roamed around Gardens By The Bay, identifying many spots suitable for sitting and practicing. We envisioned a group of people gathered together at various spots and doing nothing but just sitting and being present. A park seems to be one of the most intuitive places for practicing mindfulness and meditation - there is nature, fresh air, and a welcoming sense of openness, so why don't we see more people doing this?
Perhaps we would like to, but we feel conscious about how we might be perceived by others. Even Wei himself was curious about whether people were staring at him while he was meditating at the cafe. Meditation for most of us seems to be a more obscure experience and a personal endeavour. Many people, like me, practice in our own home. It is recommended that we set up a cosy space at home dedicated to meditation, which helps us build a healthy routine around our practice. With this kind of arrangement, we are most often practicing alone.
My students, upon completing the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, have shared with me their struggles of sustaining a regular practice at home without the continued support of fellow practitioners and teachers. In an informal survey I had conducted, the majority of students responded most favourably to having a regular group of people to practice together with as a key motivator for continuing their mindfulness practice.
Without a doubt, resources like mindfulness programs, meditation apps, articles and books are extremely helpful in getting people to kickstart a personal practice, but having a community to practice with seems to make all the difference in sustaining it.
I now recall my past experiences of participating in yearly silent meditation retreats. At specific hours of each day, returning students had the option of practicing in the large meditation hall with everyone, or using an individual cell about 2/3 the size of my wardrobe back home. Every year I would feel eager to use the cell during the first few days; the setup of being confined in solitude, free from sensory distractions, was conducive and definitely beneficial for one's practice to progress. But after a few hours of sitting alone in the tiny cell, I would sense the arising of a deep urge to gravitate back to the meditation hall where everyone else was. It wasn't because I felt lonely and needed company. There was something about sitting collectively in a shared space, breathing in and out with others, that I intuitively knew was important for my practice.
As I left the cell and returned to the meditation hall, I would find myself once again confronted with the challenges of practicing in the same space with a group of people - Lady with Bandana sitting behind me and intermittently letting out sharp, persistent tongue-clicking sounds; Always-Cold Lady to my right tickling my knees with the thick furry blanket wrapped around her body; constant sounds of restless bodies shifting and shuffling; people coughing, burping, clearing their throats of phlegm; loud breathing sounds accompanied by a thin whistling noise that indicated sinus issues. With practice, these initially-disruptive sounds would gradually fall into the background, and I would find my body and mind becoming at ease with the people and the external conditions that were here with me.
Sitting together and learning to be present with a hundred other strangers in the same space felt oddly safe and supportive. Just as we shared the same space and breathed the same air, we were all connected with the same intentions - developing deeper awareness of ourselves and how we engage with this world.
Similarly with the MBSR program, on top of the opportunity to practice together and motivate one another in keeping up with our practice over the course of eight weeks, the group learning aspect of the program also offers participants a deeper look into the common grounds of humanity that we all experience, and through the authentic sharing of practice experiences and challenges, we discover at a deeper level that we are not alone in our difficulties, and as a result, personal ego and feelings of isolation tend to subside.
This does not mean that mindfulness practice can only happen in groups or communities. We can certainly practice alone, and we should, regularly and consistently. And what if we extended a part of our personal practice to a shared field of connection, and a less obscure one at that?
CREATING VISIBILITY AND "ORDINARINESS"
The retreat centres I visit around the world are usually located in the suburbs or more remote areas of the city, and often require some traveling. Each time I get dropped off at a different retreat centre, the driver would express some skepticism towards what I was going to be doing at such a "dubiously hidden" place. Is she involved in a cult or secret society of sorts? They might wonder. One driver even very kindly offered to come pick me up in case I ran into any trouble! There are certainly benefits to doing long retreats away from the commotions of the city - the relatively concealed location of a retreat centre serves the purpose of offering quietude and other ideal conditions for deepening our practice. However, I cannot help but wonder if this obscurity might also have created a barrier for more people to get to know about the life-changing practice of mindfulness meditation?
As a mindfulness teacher, there are two key questions that I think about most often: (1) how could we inspire more people to begin practicing mindfulness, and (2) how could we encourage them to keep practicing, since mindfulness is a skill that gets stronger only with consistent practice?
We might explore making greater efforts to "normalize" mindfulness meditation as an everyday activity, and as a social endeavour. If practicing in a community proves to be a key motivator for starting and sustaining mindfulness practice, then perhaps the answer lies in awarding greater visibility and "ordinariness" to groups of people meditating together in open spaces, feeling safe and at ease, free of concern towards potential judgment or danger.
A few like-minded friends and colleagues of mine have recently shared common sentiments about how public spaces in our city are designed or designated for different kinds of social or communal activities. There are public spaces for eating and drinking, exercising and working out, learning, interacting, playing, etc., but there doesn't seem to be any spaces specifically designed for mindfulness or meditation, or simply being present. Or maybe there are, only most of us are not aware that they could be used for such a purpose. If we look around with more awareness and intention, we might realize that the possibility of turning places into a shared space for social meditation is everywhere.
What if we intentionally made use of public spaces for mindfully walking together, moving together, sitting together, breathing together, and just being present together?
Where would we sit? How would we sit?
Let us begin imagining a world like this.
Let us begin with "The Big Sit".