Seeking Bliss Among the Honks and Hisses

11th of Apr 2011

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, 54, the Indian spiritual guru, said it was his first time in Times Square, as he walked up Broadway on Monday morning.

“It’s a nice place for a stroll,” he said. “A lot is happening.”

Indeed there was. The Crossroads of the World was as hectic as ever, teeming with traffic and sidewalk crowds toward the end of the morning rush.

Mr. Shankar stood, taking it all in: police officers, tourists, office workers, vendors, bomb-sniffing dogs. Even for Mr. Shankar, who lives in the city of Bangalore, this might seem to be sensory overload: a news “zipper” sign overhead trumpeted items like “Long Island Serial Killer Taunting Victim’s Teen Sister.”

The guru smiled broadly — he always seems to be smiling — and ambled up Broadway, dressed in sandals, a flowing, white robe, and a tan, wool scarf. He has a full, dark head of hair and beard, and suffice to say, he stands out even in a crowded Times Square.

Mr. Shankar was in town to offer a workshop to inaugurate the program I Meditate NY, which provides meditation classes to deal with city stress. On Sunday, he conducted a program for 2,700 people at Avery Fisher Hall.

“There is so much energy here, you need help to cope with it all,” he said, looking across Times Square. “When you have so many people of such diversity squeezed together, you need a lot of it.”

Urban life would especially lend itself to his form of breathing and meditation, he said, with its goal of rejuvenating participants physically, mentally and emotionally.

“People who have a lot to do in life, they have a greater need to meditate,” he said. “When you live in the middle of this hustle-bustle, and you have a lot of responsibilities and demands on you, you naturally have a greater longing for it.”

“It is important for people to take a few minutes every day to sit with their eyes closed and look for inner peace,” he said, walking up Broadway, and passing a panhandler holding up a cardboard sign with the words, “I listen to your problems for $2.”

“You need a source of silence and sanity and it is healthy to clearing the mind,” he said.

Mr. Shankar said he envisioned a world free of stress and violence and said that meditation helped nurture the individual love, compassion and enthusiasm to reach these broader goals.

Every few moments, he was interrupted by passers-by who recognized him. At 45th Street, a group of Indian immigrants bowed to him and smiled, and a half-block later, an English tourist, Charlotte West, 20, stopped him and said she took his meditation class at an ashram in India several years ago.

Then a truck rumbled down Seventh Avenue and the driver bellowed out: “Sri Sri Ravi, you’re the greatest.”

The guru’s followers stared at each other and burst out in incredulous laughter. Mr. Shankar simply smiled and kept walking. Still smiling, he then passed Foot Locker, the Swatch store and a souvenir shop displaying “I Love New York” T-shirts.

That logo has been imitated by his group I Meditate New York, with the heart replaced by a sitting meditator.

Mr. Shankar founded the nonprofit Art of Living Foundation in 1982 to help spread the use of meditation to alleviate stress and societal problems and violence, he said, conducting programs for people of all religions and cultures.

Mr. Shankar’s father was an auto executive, but young Ravi took a spiritual path early on, and by age 4 was able to recite from the Bhagavad Gita. He was born on the same day of the year as the Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara and followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, developing a rhythmic breathing exercise to help relieve personal suffering. The technique came to him in 1982 “like an intuition” after a 10-day period of silence on the banks of a river in India, he said.

He calls the technique Sudarshan Kriya and has made it the core of his Art of Living courses.

“It gives you a deeper rest than sleep,” he said. “It adds dimension to your life, and it is so suitable for today’s busy life.”

Standing at the curb at 46th Street, an Indian man stopped next to him and did a double-take. The man, Sunin Elias, 42, and his son Nikhil, 13, shook the guru’s hand. Mr. Elias said he lived in Bangalore, where he runs a software company.

A stylishly dressed woman standing on the sidewalk in front of the DoubleTree Hotel was next to approach Mr. Shankar. The woman Kavina Trujillo, 38, a skin care specialist from Seattle said she had come to New York on business and taken his meditation lecture and workshop in Manhattan on Sunday.

“I kept falling asleep,” she told Mr. Shankar, who in response kept smiling but did not speak.

“You’re making me nervous,” she said with a giggle. Finally she shook his hand again and said, “You changed my life.”

At 48th Street, he turned and began walking down Seventh Avenue. He passed several husky men standing next to an inflated 12-foot-tall bedbug and handing out notices attacking a local business. In front of Planet Hollywood, he was greeted by a young man wearing a gold chain and a red baseball hat.

The young man, Kenny Pena, 23, a music producer from Brooklyn with the nickname Nyce and a production company called Money Game, shook the guru’s hand.

“I felt a lot of positive energy just shaking his hand,” Mr. Pena said.

Mr. Shankar’s handlers were anxious to rush him to his next appearance, but he said he enjoyed walking Times Square.

“Once in a while,” he said, and piled with three other handlers into the back of a waiting car, smiling all the while.