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But the only meditation-like activity I've ever engaged in — except for the few blissful minutes during final savasana when the Yoga to the People instructor rings the Tibetan singing bowl — was a mindfulness exercise I once did during a group cognitive behavioral therapy session. The therapist placed an almond in each of our hands and had us close our eyes. We focused on the almond's weight and warmth, its grooves and ridges, in our palms. Then we got to eat it.
My first thought when I entered MNDFL, a new boutique meditation studio in Greenwich Village, was I'd like to let this decorator loose in my apartment. The studio is spare and very stylish, evoking equal parts calm and chic with blond wood and whitewashed brick everywhere, a fireplace, vintage Edison lightbulbs housed in geometric glass-and-wire lamps, and plants and succulents in clay pots. On the shelves are stacks of books, recommended reading from each of the studio's teachers: The Power of Now, How to Love Yourself, Radical Acceptance, Full Catastrophe Living, How to Know Higher Worlds. There are also soft gray tee-shirts that read, "Still head, badass heart. Mindful outlaws."
The space — which housed the Patricia Field boutique before the designer moved to the Bowery — was designed with a very specific type of person in mind, MNDFL's co-founder and CEO Ellie Burrows told Racked: a New Yorker. "Why isn't there anywhere I can go in New York City to meditate the way I would work out at Body By Simone, or the way I would get my nails done?" the former film industry executive turned "spiritual tourist" turned writer and practitioner of Vedic meditation found herself wondering. "You know, I'm a busy New Yorker and I like to schedule things on my calendar for discipline. That's how we function in this city."
Every MNDFL class has a different theme, she explained, each focused on an aspect of daily life that might pose a challenge to that ambitious, impatient, overworked, and maybe-a-little-crazy breed of human so particular to the Big Apple.
So in addition to a 101 class for beginners (taught by co-founder and Chief Spiritual Officer Lodro Rinzler, a Shambala Buddhist teacher and the author of five books on meditation), there's a class for expectant and new mothers, another focusing on breath, another on sound — tuning out the wail of sirens, say, or the sound of drunk people fighting outside your apartment at 4am on a Monday night — and so on.
The class I attended was called Sleep, and I was in need of some. As the studio had yet to mark its grand opening, there were only three other people in the class. We sat on cushions in the meditation space that smelled, like the rest of the studio, of fresh paint — a comforting, clean smell. David, the teacher, spoke softly. He looked casual and comfortable in khakis and a button-down shirt. I had gone overboard in head-to-toe Lululemon, my work outfit stuffed into a gym bag and tossed into a cubby. We crossed our legs, placed our palms on our knees, and tried not to slouch.
David began with a short lesson on the principles of the Sleep class. He took long pauses between his sentences, sitting very straight and still. He compared everyday life to a river — downstream is the past, upstream the future. If it all sounds a little New Age-y, a little granola... well, yeah, it was. This is meditation, after all, not CrossFit. I knew what I was getting into.
Then he led us through the actual meditation. At his instruction, I closed my eyes and began to focus on my breath. Inhale, exhale. I can do this, I thought. I do yoga all the time, and that's all about breath. I'm a pro at breathing. But switching my brain off proved difficult (surprise, surprise).
"As I breathed in and out, David's voice began to seem farther away, and there were brief moments where I wasn't thinking at all, I think."
With my eyes closed, I was free to fixate on every tiny sensation in my body. It was cold in the room, and I felt the cold on my biceps. I had eaten right before the session, and I could feel my stomach straining against the waistband of my leggings (come on, yoga pants, suck it in!). I could feel my shoulders slumping — the unfortunate result of sitting hunched over a computer for nine hours a day — and struggled to right my posture. But I was starting to let go, at least a little. As I breathed in and out, David's voice began to seem farther away, and there were brief moments where I wasn't thinking at all, I think.
Then David began to guide us in and out of "the river." He instructed us to go "downstream" into the past by thinking about a moment during the day that had elicited a strong emotion. Then he had us return to the present, to the breath. Then we went "upstream" to the future, concentrating on something we were looking forward to or anticipating. I thought about that long, hot shower I was going to take when I got home. And then we moved backwards again, letting the thoughts drift away.
That's what was supposed to happen, anyway. My mind was totally jumbled. I found myself seriously questioning my neurological integrity as I got lost in the river, bouncing between thoughts with absolutely no sense of control over them. How much work had I done that day? How much was left to do? When would I do my laundry and groceries? Who did I need to text later?
Despite this, the 40-minute class went by in an om. (No, there was no om-ing.) And I did feel more relaxed by the end of it. I was having two thoughts at once instead of six, which I guess is an improvement. I concluded that sitting in a bright, clean space with your eyes closed, taking deep breaths and giving yourself a moment to let go, is not the worst thing you can do after a long, stressful day. The worst thing you can do after a long, stressful day is get on the subway during rush hour at Penn Station.
I met with Burrows after the session, taking a seat on the floor in a small space off of the main meditation studio. There, she described her vision of the studio as a sanctuary where harried New Yorkers could stop in, drop their giant bags, take a half-hour or 45 minutes to clear their heads, then rush off to their next appointment or meeting or head home to order Seamless while continuing to answer work emails until midnight.
Toward the end of our conversation, Burrows gestured to the wall behind me; a large mural of moss and greenery had been mounted on the brick. "People love the plant wall," she said. I reached out to touch it and asked how the plants were watered. "You don't have to water it. It's sprayed with some material that basically freezes it in time," she said. "It's living, but it's like that forever. I keep wondering what it would be like if they made a spray like that for humans."
I thought about that on the walk home — what I'd give to really, truly stop for a little while. I guess meditation comes close, when you're doing it right.