The Unexpected Joy of Meditating In A Mall

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Meditation is a big part of my life and has been ever since my anxiety collided abruptly with the stressfulness of university and my uniformly miserable self care habits in 2016. As a guy who was being woken up by his own heart beating out of his chest and starting to have legitimate, full blown panic attacks, I needed help pretty bad. When I got help, one of the first recommendations made was 10 minutes of daily meditation. For the uninitiated, meditation is basically nothing more than sitting still and focusing on your breath for extended, preplanned durations of time. At least, that is the foundation of it. There are plenty of variations that work well for some people but not others and there are disagreements about fine grain details (eyes open or closed, seated or laying down, etc.) but what I have just laid out is really all you need to get started. Just recently, after two years of semi-consistent practise, I found an opportunity to expand on the way that I meditate that I found quite productive. To put it simply, I meditated in the mall.

I work in the mall and my job can be stressful. It’s not an unmanageable amount of stress but it can be somewhat fast paced and keeps me on my toes. As such, I find I benefit from prework meditation on days that I anticipate will be busy. However, the unexpectedly busy days are more difficult to plan for. I had often considered just sitting down in the mall and meditating there but I had never quite been comfortable with the idea*. When actually considering why I was uncomfortable with the thought of public meditation, I realized exactly why I had to do it.

Let’s take the first and most obvious reason: it’s too noisy. How are you supposed to meditate when people are walking out of the movie theater speculating about the post credits scene of Ant-Man and the Wasp or trying to explain that when they said “no pickles” they actually meant more like “light pickles”? Personally, I think this perception that meditation can be hampered by distraction is misguided. There are two major roots of the misconception that I can see. Mainly, people think of meditation as involving some kind of Buddhist nirvana feeling that would be disrupted by all the chaos. In my experience, mediation actually benefits from a little background noise. It’s about honing your focus, after all. The chaos around you can act as additional plates on a bench-press or an uphill slope during a run. It challenges you to exert more control over your focus and thus be more mindful. The second problem is an offshoot of the first. Newcomers specifically get frustrated because background noise makes the meditation harder and it makes it easier to quit. That may be true but my advice to meditators who have this frustration is to commit to the attempt, because I think the results can be worthwhile.

There was another big roadblock to my meditating in the mall and it has to do with the way anxiety can skew our perception of the world. You know that person who is constantly worried that people are listening in on your conversations? Or the person who thinks that someone who is laughing loudly in public must be laughing at them? I like to avoid blanket statements but 9 times out of 10 these thoughts have anxious origins. Without any justification or positive evidence, this person is worried that people are paying attention to them and, worse yet, the people paying attention don’t like what they see. You might know this person, or you might be this person but the point I’m getting across here is that with mindfulness and calm comes the realization that everything isn’t about you. People are just living their lives. They are laughing because of something their friend or family member did. They are looking at you because you remind them of a person they used to know (or maybe they’re just daydreaming? The possibilities are endless). You are bringing in self directedness and negativity all on your own and both self directedness and negativity are what I would use to describe anxiety to a sketch artist. To come back around to my main point, I was worried people would think I looked goofy meditating in the food court. Or worse yet, maybe they would mess with me in some way. It may seem silly but I briefly imagined someone waiting to scare me when I opened my eyes or balancing something on my head.

After contemplating these twin motivations, I knew I had to meditate in public. I say public because it doesn’t have to be a mall. This advice applies to any area that is dynamic and filled with people as opposed to the solitary meditation areas we are used to (for me it is my dining room chair). I am happy to report that I was right. There was something profoundly satisfying about coming through the other end of my meditation to see that (surprise surprise) nobody seemed to notice that I had done it. Even if they had noticed and privately thought it was weird, from my perspective it was identical to them having paid no mind to me at all.  Not only did it put my self-conscious fears to bed, it enhanced my practise by demanding more of my attention. I had to shift focus from movie chatter and returned orders as well as my own negative and unproductive thoughts and come back to my breath.

I want to acknowledge that there is a certain irony to meditating in a mall to cope with the stress of existing while living in a modern capitalist society. I have heard legitimate grievances about absorbing practises with anti-materialist origins to keep the consumerist juggernaut chugging along. My short answer to these concerns is that any advice I have is for the here and now. I am all for working towards large scale change that makes it so we don’t need to constantly be coping all the time, but until then the pressure is on and meditation can be the make or break for a lot of people between functionality and total shutdown. So, in the mean time, I am looking to find the positivity in public meditation and offer help to people looking to stay present and function better in their day to day lives…at least until the revolution, comrade.

I’m not saying that you should go seek out public areas to meditate in or that you are wrong if this style of meditation really doesn’t work for you. This is mainly a recommendation for meditators looking to try something new, change it up and maybe get a bit more out of their practise. I sincerely hope this is helpful to whomever tries it and I have sincere gratitude towards everyone who took the time to read about my experiences.

 

 

Eighth Grade Review: A Empathetic Look at Anxiety, Youth and Love In The Modern Age

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I cried all the way through Eighth Grade, the excellent debut feature of Bo Burnham. This experience was a new one for me. Usually my cinematic crying experiences are limited to a couple tears rolling down my cheek or that thing where your eyes get a bit red but no actual liquid comes out. I should explain that there were tears of joy as well as tears of sadness through the screening. Still, I’m not sure I could overstate the visceral emotional reaction I had to the movie. The main reason why I am framing this discussion in terms of crying is partly because good film criticism involves working backwards from the actual experience of watching a movie. What the movie actually makes you feel is an incredibly important part of analysing and understanding it. More than that, I bring up my emotional response because Eighth Grade is a movie that places such a high value on empathy that I want to be totally transparent and communicative about those emotions. This movie is arriving at a time when it’s sorely needed and its mission statement of placing empathy above all else makes it a truly radical and worthwhile experience.

When I say radical, I don’t mean it like how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might mean it. I am talking about the radicalism of Antifa or the Black Panthers. We live in a time of diminished empathy. I don’t mean to say that North America was ever a bastion of empathy and kindness. However, from where I sit, it is undeniable as refugees are turned away because saving their lives might stifle economic growth and as a buffoonish cartoon character still presides over the United States due in large part to his promise of erecting a giant monument to hate that we have an empathy problem. This problem isn’t just an insiders/outsiders thing either, it is also generational (to name just one way we are bad at empathizing with each other). This is a time where the young blame the old for destroying the planet and ushering in a neoliberal hellscape from which there might be no return and the old blame the young for being self absorbed, whiny and perpetually “triggered”.

Eighth Grade feels like a movie aimed squarely people who digest anti-millennial hot takes with glee. It is a movie that has the courage to treat the life of a middle schooler as having real weight and importance. It asks us to empathize with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she goes to pool parties and agonizes over her lack of popularity. Burnham has the wisdom and technical filmmaking skills to make these things feel like life and death because, despite being conditioned to view young people’s lives as unimportant, this stuff subjectively feels like exactly that to them. The main way that Burnham addresses this generational divide is through the relationship between Kayla and her father, Mark. They are always framed in wide shots together, occupying opposite ends of large frames as they fail to communicate their positions to one another again and again as the film goes on. Mark is far from the crotchety and disgruntled guy that a you might think would represent his generation on screen. Even though he has his flaws, he is an example of what Gen Xers ought to be. He is persistent, willing to be patient with his daughter as she learns to articulate herself and always responds to her problems with love.

It is a sad fact that “love is radical” reflexively evokes comparisons to the perpetually stoned and lazy hippie archetype because it’s the actual truth. Underneath all of the compelling drama and visceral cringe scenes,  Eighth Grade is a movie about learning to love yourself, love your family and love even the scariest, most unpleasant parts of life. I was exactly like Kayla until, if I am being honest, recently. Anxiety dominated my life in a really big way until I finally decided to seek help for it midway through my university degree. Until I made the best decision of my life and talked with professionals about these issues, anxiety chipped away at my confidence, self worth and ability to articulate myself in a big way. It still does, in fact. I persistently work on learning to love myself and others. I work on being okay with the fact that my nervous system will conflate sharing an idea with my professor or boss with being attacked by a stampede of machine gun wielding dinosaurs. This film really gets what that journey can be like and the honesty and reality of the depiction is unlike anything else I have seen in a movie.

This review is more personal than most because the film is as personal as they come. That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the movie is an extremely well made version of what it is. The movie feels largely plotless, which serves it well in an unexpected way. If “on a general trajectory to what feels like nowhere in particular” doesn’t describe adolescence than maybe I just had a strange one. Burnham also leans heavily on POV shots to convey Kayla’s perspective as well as a repeating theme of slow tracking shots both towards and away from her.  Through these shots, we are always made privy to Kayla’s tendency to be hyper critical and self focused while also being reminded of her status as one microbe in a vast social ecosystem. This is strong filmmaking that I wasn’t sure Burnham would have in him. Any praise I have for Burnham’s direction is met equally by the astonishment I have towards Fischer’s performance. She is so convincingly inarticulate and so authentically layers her performative social persona on top of her anxious, hyper-aware personality that the film often feels like a documentary. Kayla arrives from scene on as a complex, multifaceted human being and Fischer is magnetic for every step of her journey.

My reaction to this film is deeply subjective but, if you can help it, don’t write off this review because of that. The best movies find universality in specifics. I have never been a performer who is coping with his perceived irrelevance but The Wrestler resonates with me every time I watch it. I’ve never found out that I was, in fact, a superhero and had that information solve a lot of my midlife crisis issues but Unbreakable is my favorite movie of all time. I have no doubt that you will see yourself reflected in Kayla’s experiences as I did because when it comes to anxiety, popularity, self worth and socializing we are only really different in degrees if you don’t count serial killers. There is so much more to say about this film and even in this somewhat lengthy review I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. I urge you to see this movie in a theater while you can, it’s as vital and endearing a debut feature as I have ever seen.