Meditation is, to quote Allen Iverson, “practice.” It’s a spiritual practice, and it’s practice for “real life.” In most cases, the longterm goal is not to sit and stare at walls for years on end, but to enhance the way you move through the world.
Over time, formal practice (done on a cushion, in solitude) shifts into life practice, which meditation teacher Vincent Horn describes as “blending and integrating meditative awareness into all the activities and environments that we find ourselves in.” You can expedite this process by trying formal practice in public, surrounded by sirens, street vendors and other strange chaos.
Few environments are as conducive to mixing formal practice and life practice as Chicago in the summertime. It’s an environment full of noise, sound, beauty, distraction, day drunks and other delights. When you train yourself to notice different layers of life, you discover a near-infinity of glorious detail.
If you’ve wanted to try meditation but you don’t think you have the space and time, this summer affords you an excellent opportunity to practice in Heritage Green Park or on the Green Line, at dawn or on your lunch break. Meditate in public. Notice what happens.
How to Meditate in Public
1. Find a place to sit where you’re somewhat out of the way and unlikely to be disturbed.
2. Sit up straight with your head slightly bowed. Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
3. Wear earbuds. You can listen to guided meditation recordings (my teachers Vincent and Emily Horn share theirs for free online at heartofinsight.guide), or nothing. Either way, they’ll suggest to others that you want to be left alone.
4. Some people will bother you anyway. People will talk crap to you and ask you for money. Experience this as a part of your practice. Acknowledge the distraction. Handle the situation gently, as needed. Then return to the practice.
5. Don’t worry about looking like a weirdo, a loser or a goofball. One of the many great things about meditating outdoors in Chicago is that you probably won’t stand out.
6. You’ll get distracted. You’ll get lost in thought. Come back. Come back to your object of focus. You can always come back.
What should you focus on, though? Here are two basic meditation practices to start with.
To be mindful is to entertain the question, what is happening right now? The goal of mindfulness practice is to notice what you notice.
Be still. Be aware of anything you experience. Let go of the stories you tell yourself about your experience. Just show up for it.
To start, because it’s an easy one, observe the rising and falling of the breath. When you notice a thought or you experience a sensation, acknowledge it, call it by its name—there is thinking, there is breathing, or, there is screaming—and let it pass, as it will.
When you notice you’re lost in thought, recommit yourself to the practice for its duration. Repeat as many times as necessary, probably at increasingly infrequent intervals. You’re getting this! There is self-congratulation. Back to the breath.
Suffering doesn’t come from the way things are. It comes from thinking things ought to be different. You’re learning to navigate the space between the things and the thoughts, which will help you take more mindful action, when the time comes.
Heart-based meditation may be referred to as metta or lovingkindness. The purpose of heartfulness practice is to incline the mind toward opening the heart.
In heartfulness practice, you focus your attention on key phrases—may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe and protected, and may you live with an open heart—first for yourself, then for the people closest to you, and slowly expanding outward to include everyone in the city, everyone on the planet, and all sentient entities, known and unknown, in the universe—literally everything, all the time.
Start with people you find easiest to care for and then level up to people you aren’t as fond of, strengthening your compassion muscles as you go. If your compassion fails you, have compassion for that. Keep practicing compassion until it radiates into all areas of your life.
If you don’t get awakened, take it from the top. When it’s over, if you don’t get the results you expected, you’ll be eligible for a full refund. (Emerson Dameron)