Five-Step Meditation for a New York City Sidewalk
For years I have loved meditation centers, empty churches, libraries, anywhere with an agreement about silence and respect. But along with this love of quiet spaces comes an aversion to noisy, crowded places. Walking through the masses at Times Square, for instance. Or standing in line at Costco. Or at the DMV almost any time of the year.
In Buddhism, we work with the three poisons: craving, aversion, and delusion. Being human, we feel them all day, in big and small ways. As a practice, we try to notice how these poisons impact us and others. As we awaken, their hold on us loosens.
But usually, it takes earthshaking news to shock us out of complacency. A dramatic event suddenly brings the important stuff front and center. But without the dramatic event, the important stuff can be harder to identify and we end up wandering in a maelstrom of unconsciousness. We flip people off in traffic, or we harden against the intimate moment, or we just find new ways to waste our precious time on this earth.
What follows is a five-step meditation that has always steadied me—both with the big moments and the small ones. You say it to four groups of people: first, the ones you love; second, the neutral ones; third, the difficult ones in your life; and fourth, the entire world. For each group, you say these lines:
1. May you be safe from inner and outer harm. 2. May you be free from guilt, shame, and hatred. 3. May you enjoy physical and mental well being. 4. May you live with the ease of an open heart. 5. And may you awaken to your true nature, which is an inexhaustible source of love, wisdom, and compassion.
I first learned it in a sacred temple, incense burning, gentle vegans all around. That environment was my baby food.
With the more substantial nourishment of time and practice, I graduated to solid food, and the need for that careful, quiet environment gradually dissolved. Its essence seeped into my skin, so that now, wherever I am is the place to meditate. The whole world is my altar.
The other day, I was on 8th Avenue in midtown for an appointment with a colleague. I wondered what it would be like to practice as I made my way there. Here’s how a New York City sidewalk became my sacred temple using this five-step meditation:
1. May you be safe from inner and outer harm.
The guy walking in front of me in the image above. I don’t like him. (Noticing this, noticing how baseless it is.) He is clearly in charge of his world. I figure he’s white and he’s a man so he doesn’t need anybody’s prayers. (Notice what I’m thinking.)
And then I remember. Just like me, he is a precious living being, making his way through life as best he can with what he’s got. Every single one of us has a hidden one that doesn’t know the way, that wishes for the wrong stuff and then suffers, and that feels unsafe, despite all the security systems in place. He’s not immune. How do I know he isn’t plagued by desires he doesn’t want to have? How do I know what threats he’s fending off? When I remember the enormity of my ignorance, he and I become kin, and the prayer deepens in my heart. It’s for real. May you be safe from inner and outer harm.
2. May you be free from guilt, shame, and hatred.
She’s got her phone in her hand, she’s going wherever she’s going. I have no idea who she is. I don’t know what she carries.
But sending her those words, I remember. Just like me, she is a precious living being, making her way through life as best she can with what she’s got. Every single one of us walks around with a list of regrets, resentments, repulsions. Every one of us has that one issue that just won’t leave us alone. It waits for an opening, then thrusts the knife in and twists it. So again, she and I are kin and the prayer deepens in my heart. I send it to her and I mean it: May you be free from guilt, shame and hatred.
3. May you enjoy physical and mental well-being.
This is a terrible photo that works. What we’re thinking and feeling takes up all the space in front of us — and it’s not even in focus. Way over on the edge of the frame is a man in a wheelchair. He’s only got one leg, and he turns his head hopefully with each new group of passersby. I didn’t get a clear shot, because I didn’t want to make him(me) uncomfortable. But I didn’t stop either, or drop any money in his basket on my way. This age-old difficulty dogs all New Yorkers: the discomfort we feel countenancing the many who suffer from poverty, no matter why.
In this particular moment, I remember. Just like me, he is a precious living being, making his way through life as best he can with what he’s got. I have no idea what kind of physical discomfort he is in, even when it seems obvious. This wheelchair man could definitely use a sense of physical well-being, perhaps mental well-being, too. Of course I pray for him.
But what do I know about the two men who eat up the rest of the image? How do I know one of them isn’t returning to work after a terrifying diagnosis? How do I know the other one doesn’t live with crippling back pain? Or that one of them doesn’t suffer from depression so bad he might not be here tomorrow at all? Either one could be my brother, my son, my father, my friend. The prayer deepens in my heart. I imagine them all suddenly free of any physical complaints, any mental troubles. Their spines restored, their minds at ease. May you enjoy physical and mental well-being.
4. May you live with the ease of an open heart.
Pick any one of the people in the image above and send them this blessing. Who to choose? It really doesn’t matter. I focus on the woman at the right, well dressed, with a no-nonsense look to her bearing. I picture her living with the ease of an open heart, and she shows up differently. I know nothing about her life. But I do know that just walking down the street in New York City, even the most openhearted of us has to close down some, just to get where we’re going.
Watching her walk past, I remember. Just like me, she is a precious living being, making her way through life as best she can with what she’s got. I feel this prayer deepen and widen within me so it can go out to her, the well-dressed woman on a mission. I imagine it loosening all the knots, opening all the valves, releasing energy and joy so it can flow freely through her: May you live with the ease of an open heart.
5. And may you awaken to your true nature, which is an inexhaustible source of love, compassion, and wisdom.
The guy on the left. Or, you know, anyone in the picture. Anyone in any of these pictures. I send this to all of them. But especially to Forgettable Man on the Left. Because noticing him, really looking with the nameless part of me, I can remember that just like me, he is a precious living being, making his way through life as best he can with what he’s got.
Who knows what he’s waiting for, or what he wants, or what he’s pissed off about? Whatever it is, he, like me, is lost in a dream of himself. He and I are both sleeping. We’ve both forgotten our true nature. We are kin.
The prayer deepens in my heart and flows outward to him. Him, specifically. Just for a fleeting whisper of a moment, I imagine that he awakens to his true nature for real, just as I’m walking by. Something comes to him and his body fills with awareness. My skin prickles from behind me and I am compelled to turn around and look. His eyes fill with presence. He is fully awake. This is what I mean for everyone when I say, May you awaken to your true nature, which is an inexhaustible source of love, compassion, and wisdom.
There are invisible temples everywhere we go.
Sometimes, the incense is garbage, urine, cigarette smoke. Sometimes it’s the medicinal chemicals at the hospital. Or your ex-husband’s cologne.
And the gurus come in many forms. The wasted addict with his mangy dog. The coiffed, manicured woman clicking down the street in her $8,500 shoes. All teachers, everywhere.
These are invitations for us to awaken. They are signposts to the invisible temples all around us. Let’s follow them together. Let’s fill those temples to capacity till they seep into us all, as we awaken to the present — nourished and renewed by that inexhaustible source of love, compassion, and wisdom.
May all beings be happy and free.