A character in Jonathan Letham’s Motherless Brooklyn describes mediation as sitting and thinking about nothing without falling asleep. Awake is a higher form of consciousness than asleep, but thinking about nothing is a challenge. I have attempted it on the metro and each time ended in failure; like an infant in a car or an elevator, I soon fall asleep. Beyond public transit, boredom, self-consciousness, and my cat assail me. I did for a period succeed by viewing unwanted thoughts as alien craft in a video game, but, like thoughts themselves, good video games lead to obsessiveness and the bad ones are merely tedious.
Better then to approach mediation obliquely and, as I discovered in New York, eliminate either the sitting or the thinking about nothing. Eliminating both will end in failure for the novice. Only for the advanced practitioner will it bring total enlightenment.
Here then is the start of the practice.
People-watching on Bleeker Street.
There is a cheese shop called Murray’s. It has a bench outside on which you are allowed to smoke. It is also famous. I know this because everyone entering chanted the fact as they entered. This mantra, if you will, creates a rhythm in which to lose one’s thoughts while watching the street from the bench. As the practice continues the lost thoughts are replaced by curiosity about the passers-by. For a limited time there is the chance to direct this curiosity towards the city’s construction workers. These masters of the practice achieve very little with almost no urgency at all.
People-watching at Lexington Avenue and 83rd Street.
Another sitting practice, though without the incantatory aid. Rhythm is provided by the traffic. More particularly it is provided by the attempts of the well-heeled to hail taxis. Bets may be placed on this game of chance which is utterly out of the control of both you and its participants. Bagels and coffee are the only equipment required. Again, a bench is provided and smoking is permitted.
Walking with only a vague sense of your destination
This more advanced practice involves walking without thinking about your destination, but instead of thinking about nothing, as is suggested by traditional mediation, a curious, non-judgemental attitude to what is in front of you is developed. Being New York, what is in front of you could be anything, and so one achieves total openness to new experiences.
In the desired trance-like state, there is always the risk of getting lost. For this reason, novices are advised to begin on Manhattan where wanderings are limited by contours of the island. Also, as many streets and avenues are numbered, the need to anxiously remember a sequence of unfamiliar street names is eliminated. Those nervous about relinquishing all control to the street can choose a destination at the edges of the island. A conspicuous one will also serve, the World Trade Centre for example.
N.B. Despite the apparent attractions, the High Line is not recommended for this walking practice. Being an express route from Greenwich Village to Penn Station, executives and commuters experience nature while power-walking unhindered by stop lights towards their very determined destinations.
Despite the advantages of numbered streets on an island, it is not necessary to begin this practice on Manhattan. Indeed, curiosity and openness can be learned anywhere, though as a largely outdoor practice the arrival of warmer weather will aid the learning process. Until then, take unfamiliar routes to known destinations or visit new parts of your hometown to create opportunity for vague wandering. Extend the practice by making make your destination a new cafe. Being unknown there, you will have the possibility of undisturbed people-watching.