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What on Earth Is a Meditation Flash Mob?

By Elina Pen

A meditation flash mob is a gathering of people who sit in meditation in a public location, usually for no longer than an hour. Wake Up London organises meditation flash mobs and announces them a month in advance via social media, Meetup.com, and our weekly newsletter. The intention is to raise awareness of meditation in public, unite people from all backgrounds, cultures, and faiths, and send positive intentions out to the world. We come together to celebrate our very real capacity to generate peace in the here and now. This is the peace we offer to our cities and to the world.

PEACE IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE

Surprisingly, the first meditation flash mob had a big turnout. It was in the middle of Trafalgar Square on a sunny Thursday evening in June 2011.

In the previous month, I saw video footage of a flash mob of people do­ing yoga in Trafalgar Square. I thought it would be great to do the same with sitting meditation. Several months before this, we had conversations in Wake Up London about practicing in public––including doing a walking meditation along Oxford Street, one of London’s busiest shopping streets. I also remember a monastic brother talking about getting a group of people to meditate in a shop window. So these seeds were planted some time before and I thought this was the time to really make something happen. I thought it would be a great way to spread the word about Wake Up London, too. But I needed support because this was something totally new for me. I put up a Facebook status asking if my friends would come to a meditation flash mob. The comments were more encouraging than I’d anticipated.

Despite receiving some support from friends, I had no idea how people would generally respond to this event. Not long after the Facebook event in­vitation was set up, it seemed like it went viral. Week after week I was seeing hundreds of people sign up to attend. It was really astonishing. The invitation reached other spiritual groups in London, and it felt wonderful to be united in this initiative with others, even if our traditions and practices were different.

On the evening of the flash mob, when the time came, I sat down in the middle of Trafalgar Square and invited the bell. I was really nervous but re­membered to breathe. For the first thirty minutes, I had my eyes closed, so I wasn’t sure how many people were there. I don’t think I was even meditating that much but instead wondering what was happening around me and how I looked. I opened my eyes to start the sound bath, which is when we chant sounds together towards the end, and to my amazement, there were hundreds of people sitting in concentric circles around me––it was a beautiful sight. I had never imagined that being in the middle of Trafalgar Square could feel this peaceful.

We sat for forty minutes in total, and at the end many attendees came up to me with glowing faces, expressing their gratitude and that they wished to do it again. A couple weeks later, there was an online article in The Guardian about it!

Soon afterwards, I started planning the next one with my friends. As I began to see the growing interest, I organized a flash mob every month in different locations around London––including Covent Garden market, outside City Hall, and even inside some museums. I’d usually get permission from the people in charge, especially for indoor locations. The numbers of attendees would vary, sometimes around fifty people, sometimes up to two hundred.

I’d always feel a bit out of my comfort zone when turning up for these events. I’d feel anxious about what could happen. That’s also quite exciting. But each flash mob turned out to be very peaceful.

I felt we were building a big Sangha in London made up of beautiful people from various walks of life, ages, cultures, and faiths. Seeing children attend was a joy for me. There was this great sense of warmth towards each other when the meditation finished. Some people even felt moved to clap and cheer as if to celebrate what we had done together. It’s quite funny because we don’t tend to feel like that in the meditation hall, where it can feel serious. We started to end the flash mobs by coming together as a circle and holding hands or shoulders, and then spiraling into a group hug. The flash mobs gave me a profound sense of togetherness and connection among a mix of strangers and friends.

A GLOBAL MOVEMENT

As I was organising the first meditation flash mob in London in 2011, I came across the group called MebMob that had been mobilizing synchronised meditation flash mobs around the world earlier that year. Knowing that these meditation flash mobs were already happening in America and in other parts of the world gave me a boost of inspiration.

Now there continue to be synchronised flash mobs around the world throughout the year, particularly on significant days like International Day of Peace, World Water Day, World Earth Day, Winter Solstice, and Summer Sol­stice. Many Wake Up Sanghas have been involved in organizing them in their cities, including Tokyo, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, and various places in the US.

I think social media plays a positive role in facilitating global movements such as this one. I’ve used Facebook to advertise upcoming meditation flash mobs and then later to share the videos and photos. These links are often shared with people around the world and inspire people in other countries to get involved.

What was amazing was organising a huge public meditation in Trafalgar Square again, but this time with Thay and the monastics! It was a huge honour. After seeing the success of the flash mobs in London, some monastics in Plum Village envisioned a really big one that could be integrated into the UK tour in 2012 with Thay. I worked with Brothers Phap Linh and Phap Lai, several members of Wake Up, and the Heart of London Sangha to put it all together. It was called “Sit in Peace” and around four thousand people attended. Thay offered a guided meditation and then a talk on true love. Then the chanting of “Namo Avalokiteshvara” by the brothers and sisters followed. It was truly a momentous day.

This event was such an inspiration that when Thay went on tour in other countries with his delegation of monastics, there was usually a public meditation and talk included in the itinerary! In May last year, for example, there was a public meditation in Barcelona, which seemed to have even more people than there were in London––possibly five thousand or more! It was the subject of news coverage on TV and in various newspapers in Spain.

MEDITATING IN A PUBLIC SPACE

Sitting in public can feel daunting. Perhaps some people presume that it will be difficult to be calm and centered in such busy places, that we can only meditate indoors or somewhere really quiet. Sitting in public doesn’t really provide you with the ideal conditions you’d usually need to help you concentrate and touch the stillness and peace of meditation. These flash mobs aren’t really for that, yet it’s still possible to some degree.

Having a daily mindfulness practice helps us develop the resilience to be at ease wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Finding time to sit in a quiet spot regularly by yourself and with a Sangha will help to develop your sitting practice so that when you sit in a public place, you’ll know what to do. You’ll find it easier and more natural to be able to breathe with whatever comes up for you and to feel settled in your body and surroundings. I find it helpful to welcome the sounds of the traffic and the crowds. They can be a bell of mindfulness when we allow it. I notice the feeling of self-consciousness coming up. I notice how I get totally distracted by a conversation nearby or what others are doing. We can kindly notice where our attention goes and try not to get caught in it with discursive thoughts and story lines. We bring ourselves back to our breath and body with gentleness and care. A half-smile also helps!

There’s not much to do. The peaceful energy of the group is enough to help me come back to myself and concentrate. It’s so supportive to sit with a group.

It certainly takes some courage to be doing this in public. I can be extremely shy and self-conscious. What gives me inspiration and strength is feeling that these flash mobs are part of something bigger––part of a movement that is helping to build a more peaceful world. And that starts with being the peace. I offer my deep gratitude to Thay for his inspiring teachings on peace: “Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”

This article was adapted from an interview that appeared on huffpost.com.

Elina Pen, Refreshing Compassion of the Heart, lives in England and co-founded Wake Up London with friends in September 2010. She worked as a coordinator for a year helping to build the Wake Up community in the UK. 

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