Last Sunday, I was in a crowd that is the essence of New York City -- writers and bankers, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, Americans, ex-pats and immigrants. But this time, rather than horns blaring, cell phones demanding our attention, and people in game-face rushing to their next meetings, this mix of humanity that is New York sat completely still. 2,700 people had gathered together in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall for the launch of I Meditate NY, a campaign to bring the rejuvenating benefits of meditation to New Yorkers. Posters were all over the city about this event, emails had been flying, and quite a buzz had been created on Facebook. Still, I was amazed at the crowd that was drawn together here. I even bumped into a friend from my freshman year, whom I hadn't seen in about ten years!
The event began with these written words from New York's Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg: "New York has always been a city where people of every background and belief strive to live together in harmony. Our residents proudly claim heritage from every corner of the globe, and our administration continues to promote innovative practices that help us all live longer, more fulfilling lives. That is why I am pleased to applaud "I Meditate New York" for helping New Yorkers refresh, recharge, and overcome the stress that can sometimes result from living and working in a city as fast-paced and dynamic as ours.
We were guided by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a spiritual teacher from India whose mission for the past 30 years has been to spread ancient practices and the wisdom of peace and love, to benefit individuals and communities throughout the world. His reach is widespread, touching the lives of over 3 million people from 140 countries. This was the first time he'd brought meditation to such a large New York audience.
Before taking us through an experience of meditation, Sri Sri spoke about the relationship between meditation and prayer. Prayer is asking something of God. "Please give me this, or help me with that." An intelligent prayer is saying "I'd like this, but if You have something better in mind, I'll take it!" Meditation, on the other hand, is listening to God. When we still the mind, we can tune into what's really going on instead of just what we think is going on, and with that, we can hear what God is saying to us. Our intuition heightens and we connect with love. "'I love New York' and 'I meditate New York' mean the same thing," said Sri Sri. "Because meditation is simply connecting with your true nature, which is love."
Sri Sri laid out the three guiding principles to enter meditation: "I do nothing, I want nothing, I am nothing".
I do nothing: By moving the body through yoga, stretching and exercise, we remove the restlessness, the agitation from the mind and body, which naturally builds up, especially in a city like New York, whose hustle and bustle pulse has coined the expression "the city that never sleeps."
I want nothing: During meditation, we must momentarily leave aside that ambition that propels us forward through the rest of our life. Meditation is the opposite of concentration. Expecting something to happen during or as a result of meditation makes us concentrate. Meditation is not concentration but total relaxation.
I am nothing: If we think we are someone important, or someone unimportant, if we think we are very rich or very poor, intelligent or not, we cannot meditate. Meditation is beyond all of these identities. During meditation, we experience the freedom of being nothing.
As we collectively sank into the experience of meditation, the boundaries between us -- faith, language, and background -- blurred. Taking this moment to shut out life's distractions ... close our eyes ... and dip into stillness ... seemed to fade these walls.
Have you noticed over the years how the walls we carefully construct around ourselves, to protect and separate us from others and from ourselves, have gotten thicker? When I was a kid, it was common to strike up a conversation or offer help to the person standing next to you. Now, we don't even acknowledge the existence of the people around us. We don't even smile at each other on the subways and streets, or, if we do, we give plastic smiles, as our minds are far too distracted to mean it. Our iPhones and iPods and widgets and gadgets have given us the illusion that our fast-paced lives are far more important than the simple act of momentarily embracing being a human being.
I was amazed by how just closing our eyes together for eighteen minutes could bring a crowd of strangers closer together than hours of conversation. It did not matter what faith we came from, or whether we had any faith at all. It did not matter if we had years of experience of meditating, or none at all. The experience was pure, real, and human.
As I walked out of the theater through the crowds, I noticed how intimate it felt. It was like no one wanted to leave -- even twenty minutes after the event, the halls were still packed with people, greeting old friends and making new ones. I asked my old college friend Jim what had drawn him to the event. He told me about how stressful his life had been lately -- he found himself tired and overwhelmed so much of the time. He knows meditation is helpful, and when he heard about this event, the timing was right. I asked him if it was worth it, his big smile matched his enthusiastic "Yes!"
Days later, people are still buzzing from the experience. "I had the most amazing experience on Sunday," shares Jodi on I Meditate NY's Facebook page. "Just knowing that all of us were working together and creating this wave of peace is comforting. My husband, who doesn't have a meditation practice, was overwhelmed by his experience. I am so blessed to have been there."
I Meditate NY is bringing meditation to thousands of New Yorkers, supporting a community of meditators throughout the city through social media and offering free meditation sessions at its center three times a week. To find out more, visit www.imediateny.org.
Uma Viswanathan leads Nouvelle Vie Haiti, a project in Haiti sponsored by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's humanitarian aid organization, International Association for Human Values.
She draws upon experience bringing meditation techniques to diverse groups in the US, India, and Haiti, ranging from stress-management seminars for young professionals; and trauma-relief programs for victims of the Virginia Tech shooting and Haiti earthquake; to violence-prevention programs for youth gang members in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Uma received B.A. in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in History of Science from Harvard University.
Following I Mediate NY, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar went to Austin, Denver, and is currently in Los Angeles through Tuesday, as his last stop in the U.S., on behalf of his non-profit organization, The Art of Living Foundation.