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.