By Tori Otten
The auditorium is warm and dark, its walls paneled in burgundy fabric. The atmosphere is hushed and heavy. There is a faint smell of incense in the air, and soft gong music is piped through the room.
Clad in all white, Kate Johnson sits in an armchair in the middle of an empty stage. Projected on the wall behind her is an image of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva, or the person who has attained Buddhahood due to their compassion. The image of the bodhisattva, with his thousand arms and hundred thousand eyes that let him see the souls of all beings, is the one bright spot in the room.
“I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m…at the bottom of the exhale, where it feels like there’s nothing, and kind of before the next breath has come in,” Johnson says to the roomful of people who have gathered in the auditorium of the Rubin Museum of Art, a museum in downtown New York dedicated to Himalayan art and culture.
Johnson is leading the “Election Exhale,” a special session billed by the museum as a chance to reflect and relax after a harrowing presidential election. But while the flyer for the event on the museum’s website was relatively upbeat, the actual session was much more somber.
Johnson pauses, inhaling audibly in her microphone, and for a moment it looks as if she might break down. But she composes herself and continues: “Looking into history, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel the moment of pause, and to feel whatever grief might be present, we’re just popping into reactivity. What kind of power might help us put ourselves and each other back together again, perhaps in a new way, perhaps with increased capacity to love?”
She encourages the practitioners to sit comfortably and to breathe softness and fullness into their bodies, telling them to ground themselves in their physical beings. Her voice, soft and soothing, leads them through the steps. Every few minutes, she asks them to think of themselves, or their loved ones, or their heroes. She then repeats the mantra: “May you be whole. May you be safe. May you be free.”
Mindfulness Meditation, weekly sessions, has been going on in the museum’s auditorium for a little over a year, says Dawn Eshelman, the museum’s programs director.
“This practice not only connects with our collection, but it also connects with the reason that people come here, which is to really reflect and look deeply,” said Eshelman.
For Johnson, the point of this particular meditation was to provide a source of support to her fellow practitioners who might be rattled by the election results. She wanted people to walk away with the sense that it’s ok not to know what to do next. Her biggest hope, she added, was for people to “collectively find a way to access a love that’s powerful enough to help move us forward.”
As Johnson led a musical chant, concluding the session, the room swelled with noise. At first deep and melancholy, the mantra grew in power as the practitioners fed off of each other’s energy. Soon, the room rang with a rich, sonorous melody.
Those in attendance said they were not comfortable speaking about their feelings, but as they left the auditorium, they clustered together, searching for the strength and love that Johnson hoped to help them find.
(You can watch the Rubin Museum’s Election Exhale live feed here.)