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Mindfulness in the city

MIndfulness is moving off the meditation cushion and coming to a street near you. Anita Chaudhuri looks into the new trend of 'street wisdom'

by Psychologies

One setback to living more mindfully is that daily life bombards us with endless demands for our attention, particularly if you live in an urban environment. This is where Street Wisdom comes in. Dubbed the University of the Street, it was set up by leadership gurus David Pearl and Chris Baréz-Brown two years ago and has expanded from London to New York, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. Corporate clients such as Google have even taken the programme in-house.

The idea is that by using the principles of mindfulness, you can find the answer to life’s most pressing problems – by wandering the streets of your home town.

So it was for this reason I turned up at Covent Garden piazza on a sunny Sunday morning to meet David Micklem, a Street Wisdom volunteer, and a dozen other intrepid explorers. Micklem, a theatre producer, attended a Street Wisdom event last year and, like many others, started to run his own free events. The aim is to get one million people involved by 2017.

It has to be said London’s Covent Garden is not the most mindful place one could choose, with its hordes of tourists, jugglers, buskers and human statues all vying for attention. It soon became clear that this is precisely the point.

‘I want you to think of a question that you’d like to find an answer to,’ begins David. ‘Something you can contemplate deeply, as opposed to, “Should I have lasagne for dinner?” Just bear that question in mind throughout the morning.’

We start off with a series of ‘tune-ups’; five- and 10-minute assignments. The first was simple: notice what attracts you. We all go off in separate directions. ‘Have you thought of a question yet?’ a smartly dressed woman in her 30s asks me anxiously. I mumble something lame about wanting to find more connection and wander off. I spy a young man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Wild Thing’. Maybe I need to take a walk on the wild side? Then I pass a woman carrying a bag with a Scotland logo. Maybe I need to make more Scottish friends. Or move back to Scotland. Or donate to the SNP. I’m already feeling mentally exhausted.

We report back and stage two is simpler: slow everything down. Again, we wander off. This time I become aware of all five senses, a warm breeze on my face, the savoury smell of burgers drifting from Shake Shack and a busker playing beautiful violin music.

Our third assignment is: notice patterns. Finally, I begin to really notice the life going on behind the crowds: a chef in a shady corner stealing a cigarette break, a couple in traditional Islamic dress holding hands, the man at the cigarette kiosk hopefully waiting for customers.

Lastly, we’re instructed to see the beauty in the everyday. By now, we’re getting the hang of things. I notice a woman singing Oom Pah-Pah to her little boy, a homeless man, the blanket on his knees a vibrant shade of red, then two friends of a certain age excitedly reading from a guidebook about the history of Covent Garden Market. It dawns on me that human connection is going on all the time right under my nose.

Lastly, David sends us off to explore further afield and we’re given a card with a mystery address to reconvene for lunch in an hour’s time. A whole hour? The strange thing is that time suddenly seems to fly by. I feel like I’m in that Philip Glass film Koyaanisqatsi, where people are moving very fast all around me, the colours saturated, sounds exaggerated – it’s all positively trippy.

When we all report back later, everyone has stories to tell. Many of us had come with similar questions of finding greater connection in the city. Others were contemplating answers to problems about where to live, what to do for work, who to love… you know, just the small stuff.

I’m not sure if I found the answers I was looking for; I’m still living the question. But in a way, the simple act of showing up to Street Wisdom in the first place provided its own answer to: where can I find more connection? For here was a ready-made group of like-minded people right in front of me.

For more information, see streetwisdom.org

To join the free Street Wisdom event in central London with the Mindful Living show on 12 May, click here.

Photograph: Istock