Why I Meditate In Public

I take my seat on the wooden platform built around a beautiful old tree on the campus where I work. It’s 9:15am, and I’m trying out a new routine, meditating before I transition to the work day. The air is beginning to thicken with humidity, but a light breeze keeps me comfortable. I set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes, cross my legs, and position my fingers in Jnana Mudra (thumb touching forefinger with palms facing upward). I imagine I look like a caricature of someone meditating. To sit like this in public, with people walking by on their way to work, is about as vulnerable as it gets.

Why meditate in public when it’s so much easier, and safer, to do so in the comfort and privacy of a quiet room indoors? Why put myself in this vulnerable position? For one, I like being outside and having a moment with “nature” before starting my day in front a screen. I could probably find a more secluded spot. And yet, after meditating a few times in this spot, outside a building where people go to work, I have grown interested in the energy I feel in this vulnerable space. I can feel that my presence, in this blatant pose that must look odd to passersby, changes the energy around me.

Every few minutes, I hear soft footsteps pass by and I’m aware of other people, imagine that they see me, feel the slight nervousness of being watched (or the possibility of being watched, as my eyes are closed), feel the tiny pricks of fear in my defenseless, open hands.

This is uncomfortable and little bit scary. It’s not for everyone. It feels embarrassing and, to a degree, unsafe. Today, I hear workers conversing a few feet away and notice the moments where the conversation quiets to awkward pauses, possibly whispers, and I think, Ok, I get it, I look weird. They see me, and they are not used to this. And yet, the longer I sit, the more I feel that these strangers and I, collectively, are getting past the awkwardness of this scenario. I sit through my own discomfort and the discomfort I imagine radiating from the people nearby. It’s funny how palpable that feels.

And the energy changes. It begins to soften. I can feel myself and the people around me getting used to this. I’m not afraid of being laughed at or someone throwing a paper airplane at me (hello, memories of childhood bullying! Nice to see you.) The energy in the conversation I overhear dips into moments of silence.

It feels almost like performance art to sit like this. And yet, to sit in public staring at a screen in your hand does not draw startled stares. It’s normal. It’s safe. It’s what everyone does, and what everyone is conditioned to do. Holding a miniature computer in your hand, pouring your thoughts and desires and goals and tasks and messages and hopes at all hours of the day, in all places, in public, yet alone–that’s normal. Sitting in quiet presence, fearlessly open to the world, doing nothing at all, though–that’s weird.

When my timer rings its bell, I look up, and the people have dispersed. I’m alone. I check my phone and answer some texts, and a few minutes later the same people (I assume, I didn’t see their faces) have returned. I look up, and at this point I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. One person looks at me and smiles gently as they walk by. Did the energy actually change in the air in this simple act of sitting? Did it rise to lift the corners of this stranger’s lips into a smile? Then it was worth it.

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