Meditation is going through something of a renaissance. What was once practised behind closed doors can now be seen in full view on the busy streets of central London. For the past year there has been a growing trend of predominately young people coming together in large numbers to meditate in open spaces unshielded from the general public. These bold but grounded gatherings have come to be known as ‘Meditation Flash Mobs’. For many young people who are looking for a spiritual path or for those just looking to feel a sense of community in a city that can feel cold and disconnected, the Flash Mob group provides a safe haven for people to congregate, and practice meditation.
Often held in the evenings, most people arrive at these meditations having come straight from their busy, stress-filled jobs in the city. For many it is an opportunity to unwind, and an opportunity to release the daily pressures of living in a fast-moving city. There are now dozens of sitting groups in and around London, but this is no ordinary meditation group. These flash mobs send out a very bold message to the public. The young people who congregate at these gatherings want to redefine the way in which they experience spirituality by bringing sacred practices like meditation out of the closet and in to the world in which they live and function.
As a result of video-sharing websites such as Youtube and social networking sites like Facebook, it has become much easier for young people to find and access key spiritual figures, New Age literature and Meet-up groups. But whilst this has helped many to delve more deeply into their spiritual journey, many are beginning to ask how can they integrate their spiritual practice with their everyday lives, and how can they engage with the world around them from this place?
The meditation flash mobs, which are organised by Wake Up London, consist of young mindful practitioners inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and are helping people to answer these probing questions. Since their inception, meditation flash groups have become something of a worldwide phenomenon, popping up in Jerusalem, Mexico, USA, Russia, Hawaii, Bulgaria, Germany, and Ireland to name a few. However, it all started with one girl, who had a vision of bringing masses of people together under the umbrella of meditation. The girl in question is 27-year old Elina Pen, who is a practising Buddhist. ‘‘When I first suggested doing a meditation flash mob to the rest of the Wake Up group they were very resistant towards the idea. They didn’t understand it; they thought it was weird. They all kept saying to me, why would people want to meditate in public? During this time, I heard about a Yoga Flash Mob in South Kensington and I thought if people enjoyed that, then maybe they would enjoy a flash mob meditation.’’
Sensing she might be on to something, Elina sent out a Facebook message asking her friends whether they would be interested in attending a flash mob meditation. ‘‘That was the first thing I put out there,’’ she recalls. ‘‘And I got, maybe a dozen likes. But my colleague at work was like, “let’s do it!” She really encouraged me. I think if I’d done it by myself, I wouldn’t have had the confidence. Luckily, I had enough friends who were interested in doing it, so I set up a Facebook group and it just spread. 500 people said they would come. It was so interesting to see how the whole thing spread.’’
Since their creation, the flash mobs have taken place in some of the capital’s most frequented hotspots, such as Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, City Hall, and the Tate Gallery. For many of the regular meditators, the flash mobs have become their way of making a difference in the world. Aleksandra, who works in hospitality, says that the experience of participating in the flash mobs keeps her centered. ‘‘It motivates me to keep meditating. You can do it by yourself, but when you know you have 20, or 40 or 100 more people with you, it’s even more empowering. And who knows, someone might see us meditating and it might inspire them to go read a book like ‘The Power of Now’, they might decide to go to a Yoga class, or do something creative. It doesn’t have to be spirituality. Any sort of creativity; anything can be meditative.’’
Richard, who has been attending the flash mobs from the very beginning, says that the people who show the most interest are usually the last people you’d expect to be interested in meditation. ‘‘Funnily enough, its people in business suits who are most drawn to us. Maybe it’s because what we are doing is so far removed from their world. And there have been other times when very tough-looking young people will come up and ask, ‘what’s this all about?’ trying to find out if we are Hippies or Krishna’s. And when they find out there’s nothing behind it, no agenda, they love it,’’ he laughs.
Dozens of passing Londoners and tourists often hover around the meditators taking pictures on their iPhones. Some have even joined the meditation. Richard believes that the pictures people take play a key role in helping to promote the flash mobs, as most people find out about it through seeing photos posted on Facebook.
Serena, who is doing a Masters in Visual Communication, says the biggest challenge you experience meditating in public are some of the things you hear people say as they pass by. ‘‘Whilst I was meditating I could hear people in the background saying, ‘Oh, what are they doing? Are they doing yoga? Why have they got their eyes closed?’”, she recalls. ‘‘I didn’t really find it as distracting as I thought I would. It’s quite empowering to be in such an open space.’’
Katrina who has been part of the Wake Up London group since its inception but only recently attended a flash mob, says that she found the experience of meditating on top of a roof terrace next to St Pauls Cathedral to be just as powerful as her more personal experience of meditation. ‘‘I think they are both very different experiences, and I think both are needed,’’ she states. ‘‘When you are in a group it may not be as quiet, but then again you’ve got a group of people together feeling that collective energy, especially the chanting. You can’t chant the same as if you were by yourself,’’ she explains. When asked whether the flash mobs can help people to enhance their spiritual practice, Katrina says it all depends on how open you are to the experience. ‘‘If you’re unsure about doing something like this, then you’ll bring it with you and you’ll sit down and feel weird. I’m naturally more of an introverted person, but I’ve realised that there is something very powerful about us coming together like this. And although I’m not sure what the long-term effect will be, on an unseen, energetic level I think people are profoundly affected by gatherings like this.’’
Elina says that the community she has built through Facebook and with the flash mob gatherings has taught her that we can’t progress on the spiritual path alone. ‘‘I used to separate myself a lot, but I’ve realised that we can find so much happiness in knowing that we are all interconnected. I’ve surrendered to that, and now I find so much joy in community. I hadn’t felt that kind of pure happiness, this kind of community before. And seeing that happiness in others when they come together makes me feel that I am living a life of service.’’
Elina is optimistic about the future of the flash mob meditations, and will continue to organise them as long as there is a demand for it. ‘‘Every month I always think to myself, why am I doing this? Will people even come? But they always do,’’ she says. ‘‘I’m beginning to see that the city is like our canvas, and we can do whatever we like to it. I get such a warm feeling whenever I walk through some of the spaces that we’ve meditated in, like Trafalgar Square, because I know that we’ve meditated there, I remember the energy there. It’s like I’ve transformed it, in my mind I’ve transformed it. And I feel that maybe people have transformed their view of London through the flash mob meditations. Practicing mindfulness is not just in sitting meditation, it’s a way of life.’’
If you would like to find out more about Wake Up London please visit the website: http://wkuplondon.org/
You can also see one of the flash mob meditations in action at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqZA5cToPgs