A Walk in the Park

14 September 2013    Saturday morning, Russell Square Gardens.  It has been raining hard, but has by now stopped, so a few people are sitting outside the café while others stroll by, enjoying the fresh, damp air. 

A group of assorted people arrive, with square dark blue cushions in clear plastic bags, and proceed, with some discussion, to sit themselves, in jackets and various headgear, in a threequarter circle.  Another group – myself among them – form a line and proceed to walk, slowly, two by two, circumambulating the Gardens.

It is a first for many.  Some have never tried Buddhist meditation practise before.  Many have never attempted such a public event.  It is an experiment for all – engaged in with enthusiasm, dedication and humour. 

In all I make three circuits of the Gardens.  Feet feeling the path.  Breath coming and going.  Hands cupped one in the other.  Noticing thoughts.  Catching myself when jaw and shoulders begin to tighten.  All the senses are wide open, and strangely, although the traffic never ceases, what is apparent is peaceful silence.  Silence like an empty canvas across which sounds dance and paint their colours.  Amidst the City, Nature teems – the rain has released the rich scents of Earth, of grass and bark and lichen and clouds of leaves.


At a certain point I sense joy – two dogs race after the ball their owners throw them – one is always slower than the other, and equally keen to catch up.  A squirrel flows in its stop-start way across the grass.  A woodpigeon waddles without hurry.  A terrier stands and watches us go by.

The other humans in the Park respond variously.  Quite a few appear not to notice anything unusual at all.  They hurry by deep in conversation.  One or two are slightly bewildered as this strange crocodile crosses the path.  After some time, more people realise something is “going on”.  On our return to the sitting group after each circuit, passers-by take photos and read the sign saying who we are.

It occurs to me it is like a human moving sculpture.  The social space about the sculpture is slightly shaky.  It is delightful to take part in such civilised subversion.  At the same time it is exposing, both for those taking part, and for those encountering us.  There is an edge to what we do.

I also realise it is not unfamiliar.  It takes me back to the early eighties when I attended a number of silent public peace vigils organised by the Society of Friends (Quakers).  Vigils held in the context of nuclear proliferation and fear of nuclear war.  Witness in the context of protest.  So I find a root in the past.

Today there is no such immediate context, though the disquiet of the City is all around.  But the peace seems palpable.  And I reflect, is this something we create together, or is it something pre-existing, made manifest by our strange public configuration?

Light through the damp air, refracting on the dew, glistening on the polythene, vivifying the lichens on the tree trunks which flow gracefully from the earth.  Sounds in silence.  And a flock of pigeons, passages of fluttering light, forming and reforming about the Gardens, taking our breath away.

Tim Philbin is a member of the London Shambhala Meditation Centre. He lives in Cambridge.

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