M (OM) A
Posted on August 11, 2017
When I travel to New York City, which is quite often for someone living in California, I pack the usual necessities along with a few luxuries and a lot of cute clothes for my young grandchildren who live there. Also, it’s critical to bring the most stylish but comfortable shoes I have in my closet. This last item being a nearly impossible feat, if you will excuse the pun. Comfort can be diametrically opposed to style especially where footwear is concerned. Boot season is, therefore, my favorite time of year to hit the streets of Manhattan. It’s hard to go wrong with galoshes.
Regardless of the weather, the most important item on my packing list is a New-York state of mind. From the minute the eastbound flight attendant asks me if I want more cawfee, I start to ratchet up my mindfulness quotient. I become more present, more aware, and more attuned to my surroundings. So, by the time I’m collecting my luggage from the baggage-claim carousel, I’ve managed to wedge myself in between two Hasidic men who are poking each other’s lapels and arguing in Yiddish. I’ve pushed away the SUV-sized stroller (baby being held by mom… what am I, an animal?) belonging to an oblivious family of four, and jockeyed my way to an enviable position at the rotating belt of bags. With both hands on my hips, my elbows define my wingspan like the raptor I’ve become.
I get to the airport’s taxi stand with my Google maps already pulled up because I know I have to implore the driver to take Atlantic Avenue instead of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway so that I can keep the meter under $60 as we drive to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He feigns any knowledge of English, but I’m on to him.
This is all to say, I’m geared up. My circuitry is sufficiently wired; my attitude is what I would call vigilant. Bring it on, New York.
On my most recent visit to New York, however, I was not staying in Brooklyn; I was not visiting my grandchildren. Instead, I went to rendezvous with an Australian friend of 40 years who was meeting me there. My friend and I had planned many activities that included events I usually cannot avail myself of due to time constraints or impossible subway commutes during rush hour. Even my pointy elbows are of no use when the trains are packed like staples housed in their brand new box.
At the Museum of Modern Art, on the first Wednesday of the month, the museum opens at 8:30 a.m. to members. Naturally, for us members the admission is free–the only catch is that in order to be the first one in the galleries at 9:30, there’s a pre-admission requirement to attend a class led by a knowledgeable, often renowned meditation teacher. I know! This was blowing my mind. Guided meditation in MoMA along with a few other intrepid souls early on a weekday morning? A small price to pay to be in a gallery filled with the artist Robert Rauschenberg’s enormous and startling paintings and sculptures. I’d have the place to myself, relative to any other time of day at MoMA. And by myself, I mean with only about 75 other people. In New York numbers, that’s empty.
For those of you who visit Manhattan, you know that unlike leaving your house and walking, say, 50 feet to your car, where you presumably take complete control of the auditory pleasures of your radio or your phone and where you can adjust the temperature to your own taste, when you leave your hotel or your apartment in New York you leave behind your autonomy too. There might be a crowded or at the very least a forever-in-arriving elevator to the lobby; perhaps a polite doorman or maybe no doorman but an annoying neighbor who doesn’t hold the door for you. There’s a cab to hail, a Lyft driver’s progress to keep tabs on, or a subway seat to vie for on a delayed, airless subway. If the latter, like it was for my friend and me on this particularly humid, summer’s day, there is also an 8-block walk just to get to the subway station. So humidity be damned, you’ve got to hustle.
There were another 8 or so blocks to get from our arrival station to the museum itself. And, so, naturally we hadn’t allowed enough time for all the commuting malfunctions that inevitably occur. Incidentally, if you DO allow enough time for shit to happen, it never does and then you arrive too early and have to find a place that makes a reasonable cappuccino in order to kill time. Personally, I find $10 for a coffee and pastry worth every cent if the air-conditioning is working and there’s a place to sit down inside the café.
Overheated, overwrought, and late, we scuttle through the museum’s revolving doors and I flash my membership card at the receptionist. The art museum is oddly quiet and anyway, we’ve entered through a portal that is not the usual one for its daily admissions. I find myself disoriented and trying desperately to retrieve both my confidence and my curiosity in order to not bail. After all, I’m sweating and it’s only 8:40 a.m. But, I remember that I’m headed to fuckin’ meditate. So, let’s do this.
Then, I hear it: Gongs and chants played through a loud speaker. And, like any good musical arrangement, the bass line was there too but in the form of deep murmurs from people situating themselves. My friend and I drift through security (yes, security) as we follow the mystical breadcrumbs to find our location. There in the atrium—the same atrium that hosts preposterous performance art or enormous sculpture exhibits, or even tables set for the occasional evening’s donor dinner—are about 450 little butt hammocks filled with rear ends of all sizes. These portable seats are reminiscent of those perches people bring to their child’s soccer game: small and clever roosts than allow the audience to refrain from sitting on the floor. Huge speakers are pendulously hanging from the ceiling, and I see these are the source of the auditory bombardment. There are a few big screens, too, that make the space feel like part sports event, part Beyoncé concert. A pragmatic usher points to a couple of empty chair slings and thus our butts, too, are planted in position along with the rest of the atrium’s humanity.
Suddenly, the music and chanting cuts out and in its place, I hear our speaker introduce himself. Now, I am grateful for those oversized screens because I can see our leader—a handsome, early-50ish-aged man in a dress shirt and navy blue puffy vest. The first thing he says is this: “I apologize for the chanting over the loud speakers. If they had asked me about it, I would have told them no way in hell do I want to hear that.” Or, something to that effect. In any case, I was in love with this guy. Dan Harris, my new crush, goes on to tell his story of what led him to meditation. At this point I refer you to his podcast: “10% Happier with Dan Harris.” I promise you’ll learn more. He then introduces his own meditation guide and teacher who proceeds to lead us in our Quiet Morning meditation.
And, this is where I start to hope that something more entertaining—like Beyoncé—will appear on those large screens and divert my attention. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve groomed myself for this trip to New York and now as I sit in this butt sling in the middle of a cavernous, iconic and familiar space smack dab in the middle of Manhattan Island…a place that took me 16 blocks and one jostling subway train to arrive at…a room filled with heavy-breathing strangers in an array of fashion statements from black business suits to blacker yoga pants, I am beyond distracted. I’m ferklempt.
And, I drift. With the help of my breath, as suggested by our meditation guide, I’m following my inhalations and my exhalations. I’m being told that I’ll notice my mind wandering and not to admonish myself. I’m encouraged to close my eyes and to simply be. I’m being asked to notice…and suddenly I do notice! I notice that it’s 1969 and I’m in the funky yet oddly welcoming, shingled two-story house somewhere near the UC Berkeley campus with a rose on my lap and a white handkerchief in my right hand. I’m seated on a large, poofy cushion that is situated on an Oriental rug of many faded colors. There are wispy puffs of incense streaming from two wooden sticks stuck in a brown-and-green hand-thrown ceramic mug that has been placed on the dusty windowsill to my right. In front of me is my personal guide, a bone-thin young man—older than me by maybe five years—shirtless, shoeless, and underpantless beneath his linen draw-string pants. And, in my left hand, all wadded up, is my $75. Cash.
The Transcendental Meditation House was where my best friend and I were introduced to the concept of meditation. Our first gurus probably were The Beatles who met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM, in 1967 and then in 1968 traveled to India for further enlightenment. My friend and I, however, were more limited in our abilities to seek spirituality especially considering we each had to borrow the $75 from our highly skeptical parents.
On the pillow, in front of the half-naked cute guy, we were given our own mantra. Our secret, personal password to nourish us and enable us to go deeper into our minds. You know: relax and float downstream, etc.
I was then instructed to place the rose I was now clutching near the incense. I did as I was instructed. The mug holding the incense sat adjacent to a framed photo of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Furthermore, I never ever breathed a word about my secret mantra. To do so seemed to violate all tenets of meditation etiquette. Besides, we promised. And, after all these years, I cannot tell you what the purpose of that handkerchief was. I am fairly confident, however, that the $75 went straight to the cute guy. And, I’m absolutely positive that I never paid back my father.
Opening my eyes again, I see with some relief that I’m still in New York and that my purse is still by my side. I watch the big screen and notice that some people are beginning to stir while others are snoring; I glance to my left and observe my friend as she sits in her mini-chair with Pilates-perfect posture. To my right, a woman is checking her texts. Her posture is lousy, and it makes me sit up straighter.
A gong is played. The guide encourages us to gently open our eyes and find ourselves in the present moment.
I’m so past the present moment, I’ve collected travel miles. Time travel will do that. I’m already anticipating how I’m going to get my friend and me out of this holding area and into the Rauschenberg exhibit in the most expeditious way. I am beginning to feel like I need a cup of coffee, and I’m wondering if the museum’s café is open yet. I’m also worried that I might need to figure out how to collapse the butt sling.
But before I leave the atrium, I text my old high-school, Berkeley-meditating friend to see if she can remember her secret, personal mantra given to her all those many years ago. Because, and probably due to the 20 or so minutes of quiet meditation I had just experienced, I suddenly remembered mine.
On the way out of the museum’s atrium, I hear my phone’s ping indicating she was responding to my text. As it turns out, we both had both been given the exact same mantra.
The present is a gift, but do you still need to write a thank-you note?