London life is frantic, busy, constant. Escaping the swathes of people busily navigating the day is impossible. The square mile is swarming with suits and other business professionals, hurrying about looking important. Central London is awash with tourists, especially around Piccadilly and Oxford Street regions.
Tucked away in the centre of touristy Leicester Square, is a small space where a community of young people (around 16 to 35) practice mindfulness together inspired by the teachings of Zen master, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The group was founded in September 2010 and is run by volunteers. I went along to one of the weekly sessions in May on a Saturday afternoon to give it a go!
This was my first group meditation session so I was a little apprehensive. It didn’t help that I was running late for the session and was the last one in the door. After taking off my shoes and grabbing a quick glass of water, I walked in to find 35-40 people already comfortably seated on the floor on either cushions or stools, with a few people on chairs. I grabbed a cushion and copied what the majority were doing, tucking it under my bum with my legs parallel to the floor, toes facing backwards. The room was quiet with a calm energy.
In the middle of the room, there were stones, flowers and candles laid out gracefully. At the front, were the three facilitators of the session. They are volunteers and take turns in leading certain parts of the practice.
We were briefed on how the session would proceed; a sitting meditation, followed by a walking one, followed by a reading from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, followed by a sharing session to close. There would be a short break in the middle, but the session was to last 2.5 hours! This was an intimidating amount of time. I usually practice formally twice a day for 15-20 minutes and that is broken up in the morning at at night, not continuous.
Part 1 - Sitting Meditation
After everyone introduced themselves, the first sitting meditation began with a soft gong and then a slightly louder one. The room fell silent and only the soothing voice of the guide lingered (so sorry I don’t know your name!). I found it easy to drop in quickly. Perhaps being surrounded by a large group doing the same helps. The sitting was a little longer than I’m used to, since we had already been sitting prior to starting as well. The 20 minute practice was easy flowing and didn’t take long to forget the rest of the world. It was led effortlessly at a perfect pace.
Afterwards, there was a sense of stillness, an almost therapeutic restfulness. The rest of the afternoon would now feel much easier!
Part 2 - Walking Meditation
Next was a 15-20 minute walking meditation, which was also a first for me. There wasn’t any guidance here, but it was a change up to stretch our backs after sitting for over 30 minutes. The process is similar, to be as mindful as possible and aware of each step in the moment.
A short break of 15 minutes followed. I expected there to be little pieces of conversation but even this was mostly a silent section of the day. Most people got up to make a cup of tea or go to the bathrooms, but nothing else. Strangely, the silence was not ever awkward. Fascinating and unexpected. In our usual lives, silence is not really a thing people experience for any prolonged period of time. At least not comfortably, hence the usual awkwardness when it persists.
Part 3 - Chapter Reading
After returning from the break, there was a change of pace. Wake Up London is inspired by the teachings of Thich Naht Hanh as mentioned earlier. He has written over 100 books. A particular chapter from one of his English texts was selected for a reading. The book was passed around the room, and a small section read by people as the book went around. The reading was a tragic story about a couple that had a misunderstanding but never chose to speak about it. Without going into detail, the lesson was around communication and leaving pride at the door when speaking with loved ones.
Part 4 - Sharing
The final part of the afternoon was a sharing piece, where anyone is welcome to share something about their life or it could be anything on their mind. It’s completely optional, but there were a few people that opened up pretty deeply about certain events in their lives. Clearly, the space is a place where members feel safe and are able to share without judgement.
As my first Wake Up London experience, I found it to be unique, uplifting and energising. My expectations were exceeded easily. Afterwards, I connected with others in the room and they were all friendly, welcoming and helpful with any questions I had. Feeling positive and motivated, I left to go about the rest of the day. It was an awesome experience, and one which I’ll be returning to very soon! I could sense the genuine nature of the individuals and volunteers in their demeanour and way of facilitating. Thanks Wake Up London! :)