words and interview by Nick Ramsay
photos courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art
This article is part of Greenroom's "Creative Inlet" series, an on-going exploration of modern meditation practice, told through interviews with an eclectic mix of artists and creative professionals.
It's a Wednesday afternoon in Fall, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The street is quiet, save for some yelling and laughter outside a Catholic elementary school where kids are coming back from lunch and standing in line, waiting for a teacher to usher them inside. A few doors down, there is another line forming at The Rubin Museum of Art. The Rubin is home to New York's largest collection of Himalayan art and cultural artifacts, but the people in this line are here for more than the artwork. They're here to meditate.
Like the 700+ people who recently lined up at Pier 40 to attend The Big Quiet's "Mass Meditation on a Boat" event, the line forming at the Rubin is comprised of New Yorkers who are eager to explore meditation practice in new, secular settings that have something extra to offer-- in this case, art. There are notably more gray-haired individuals at the Rubin than there were on the boat, many of whom seem to be long-time fans of Sharon Salzberg, this week's meditation guide. Salzberg is an unlikely "meditation teacher celebrity" (if such a thing can exist) who has been teaching Americans how to get centered since long before "mindfulness" became a buzzword in Western science.
By the time Salzberg sits down at the center of the stage, the 140-person room is filled to capacity, and a hush has swept the space, from one wood-panel wall to the other. Behind her, the audience sees the image of "Footprints of Drigungpa Jikten Sumgon"-- a yellowish-gold cloth artwork that contains the actual footprints of a prominent 13th Century Tibetan teacher. Salzberg begins: "I love that piece of art. I chose it for today... because the whole point is a path. Not a belief system, not a dogma, not a philosophy, but a path. Which is an offering for those who are moved to try it."
If you're moved to try it, you'll probably enjoy what the Rubin is offering. The Mindfulness Meditation series invites visitors to spend their Wednesday lunch-hour in the calming confines of the Rubin’s theatre-turned-meditation-hall, where they have the opportunity to contemplate an art object from the museum’s collection, and then take part in a guided meditation based on that object’s theme. To learn more about the series, Greenroom sat down with Dominique Townsend, the museum's Head of Interpretation.
Her role at the Rubin aside, Dominique is a Brooklyn-based poet and children’s book author who spent most of her 20’s living in Asia and studying Buddhism, and eventually picked up a Master's from Harvard and PhD from Colombia. In addition to discussing the Rubin's Mindfulness Meditation series, we touched on Buddhism, poetry, and her new children's book "Shantideva: How to Wake up a Hero." Check out the full audio of the interview, and a few highlights, below.
Dominique Townsend, on what led her to The Rubin:
The focus of my dissertation research was on Buddhist material culture and aesthetics in Tibet, and particularly at one Tibetan monastery. So I was looking a lot at how Buddhist institutions also serve as centers for culture, for education, and poetry, for instance. They're certainly centers for the arts, in terms of being repositories for the kind of art that we show here. So, my interests were always both in religious studies, and in material culture and the arts too… The Rubin was kind of the perfect place for me because it's a very rare example of a museum that's dedicated to exactly the kind of art that I study.
...On The Rubin’s relationship to the type of Buddhist institution that she studies:
It’s interesting because we're not a Buddhist institution, we're completely secular in terms of our orientations, but the fact is— it is a very interesting kind of intersection, and a nice point of comparison and contrast to the kind of institution I'm talking about, which essentially are monasteries or temples. So, we have this sort of— one of the same roles as being custodians for these works of art— but with much more of a secular rather than a religious mission.
...On how events like The Rubin’s Mindfulness Meditation series fit into this relationship:
I feel it has such a deep connection with our mission and with the art that we show, but also, as you were saying, a kind of moment of quiet and refuge for busy New Yorkers… I think this meditation period is a nice opportunity to provide the space for people to engage in practice that's not religious, [mindfulness meditation], the approach of the Insight Meditation Center in New York. It’s rooted in Buddhist practice and philosophy, but with the meditation being presented in our theatre, we really want everyone to feel comfortable— you know, someone who has never meditated and has no background or interest in Buddhism, and then someone who might be a very serious practitioner with deep faith in Buddhism—the approach is such that all different types of practitioners, we hope, feel comfortable there.
...On why art and meditation are a good match:
I'd say one of the really wonderful features of our particular approach to this is the focus on the art. These objects, especially the ones that are coming out of the Tibetan Buddhist cultural context, really support the practice…whether through ritual function, or inspirational function, or through being the actual focus of meditative visualization. These objects, within their own cultural context, are meant to literally support someone's practice. So I think that we have the benefit of being able to sort of frame that, and provide that experience with the expertise we have about the art, combined with the expertise of these teachers. Also, I just think anytime you step outside of your normal approach it can be really mind-opening and can shift your own experience when you go back to your regular practice after this shift of focus and thinking about the themes of the art.
...On phones ringing during the meditation:
I actually haven't heard of it happening, but it wouldn’t surprise me either. But I think— One thing about this approach to meditation is that— you know, of course we don't want phones to be going off, and we want there to be a space that's a kind of refuge from the daily grind— but the fact of the matter is that mindfulness is about being present with whatever arises, with whatever arises in your own mind, with the sounds around you, and to be able to— even to hear a phone ring, can in some sense fit into that practice. So I think, the idea of just being able to focus and not be pulled away from your own engagement with that mindfulness practice, with whatever goes on around you— So I don't think that ruins the session, even though, of course, it can be irritating.
...On the role of community in building a meditation practice:
You know, it's a lot harder to sit in your own home and meditate and be consistent, and stick with your practice, than it is to join a group with people who are offering each other the base and support to be quiet, and not be compelled by the usual—
you know, all the things that are usually compelling us— like looking at our phone and checking emails and, you know, answering all the demands of the world around us. I think that sense of community is something else that's incredibly valuable.
...Responding to a quote about how the Rubin’s art “might appear esoteric to mainstream Americans”:
I think what [Martin Brauen, former Rubin chief curator] was saying there is that— Yes, the art that we show might be unfamiliar to you, it might even look very strange to some people, but it is deeply connected to themes that are really very human— themes that really stretch across cultures. So, that's both a kind of challenging position and a really wonderful opportunity to offer experiences that start in a place, by relating to an art object that might seem strange, and then having the opportunity to connect it to a theme like altruism or compassion, that is so basic. That intersection of the unknown and the universally meaningful is kind of where we operate, I would say, in really all of our programs. And this meditation series is really a great example of that.
...On concerns about the Westernization of meditation practice, and whether or not “Mindfulness” has become a controversial term:
I think it is controversial... There is so much focus in our broader culture on the benefits of quiet reflection, of focusing the mind, of not being obsessed about the past and the future, but somehow drawing the mind to the present— those are things that are emerging in our popular culture as having really tangible benefits. Which, importantly, are not necessarily the same aims that those kinds of practices have in the traditional Buddhist context. So, I think some of the controversy comes from borrowing practices that might be—let’s say, ultimately aimed at enlightenment, as a religious goal. By taking those same practices, like breathing techniques and focusing the mind— with what are, in some ways, kind of mundane goals— like relaxing, being more focused, being more efficient, and being more patient. The risk would be in mistaking the secular mindfulness practice as exactly the same thing as a really devoted Buddhist practitioner's way of engaging with meditation.
But I think that— I'm very much in favor of recognizing the distinctions between ways that practices might be used— but also, I think, it would be kind of silly to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and not recognize the benefits of these practices, even if they're not in a religious context. Even if it's not with that ultimate goal of enlightenment, you know, but just the fact that these practices do help us. And, in effect, something like saying "Well, maybe you notice that mindfulness practice makes you more patient or more tolerant." You know, those kind of ethical goals do tie very much into Buddhist themes as well.
...On the relationship between meditating and writing poetry, from her perspective as a poet:
To me they are very connected. Poetry is so much about very close perception of the present moment, of the world, of experience, of relationships and connections to other people— and I think that has everything in common with being alert to the movement of your own mind, or whatever you're experiencing in the present moment through meditation. To hone that heightened perception, or that heightened concentration and awareness, you know, those things are very closely related. And also, actually, the practice aspect of it. You know, any art requires practice, whether that means you have the intention to meditate or you have the intention to be a writer or an artist. That commitment to actually doing it, whether it's challenging, or boring, or upsetting, or, you know, whatever other kinds of experiences we go through in these kinds of endeavors— I think both writing and meditation do demand a certain kind of commitment and, again, that sort of regularity of practice— so I think there's a lot of commonalities there.
...On poetry at the Rubin:
We collaborated with the Poetry Society of America— They approached various poets that they selected, a wonderful group of well-know poets, to respond to works of art that we have on display currently in our masks exhibition. And each poet selected a mask from the exhibition and then in the meditative process, or the general artistic process, responded to the artwork, and created a new poem in response to that— so the collection is really lovely. We made a small chap book of the poems and the images, and there will be a reading of the poems by several of the poets who are able to be here, as well as a related masked dance— a ritual dance from the Tibetan tradition. So that's going to be another great example of this sort of intersection between the art and creativity.