For those who aren't in the know, flashmobs are gatherings of people who meet up to perform apparently spontaneous and unusual acts in public, and like most, this one was organised over the internet. A Facebook page gave the time, place and instructions, and word spread through online social networks. By the day of the event, more than 500 people had signed up, and from the looks of this video, most of them were actually there. Organizer Elina Pen says she was "astonished" at the level of interest, describing it as "a wonderful 30 minutes of serenity amidst the busyness of Central London..."
Meditation flashmobs have been springing up across the United States and elsewhere over the last year or so, and June 2nd's might have been the largest yet. There's something of a movement happening – websites such as Medmob are promoting the sit-ins, and while many flashmobs thrive on a sense of absurdity or lack of explicit purpose, the meditation variety seem grounded in an underlying ethos – to normalize practice through bringing people together and supporting them to sit in public spaces, and by piquing the interest of bystanders.
There's an enduring misconception in some quarters that meditation is a purely personal, even self-centred act. It's in part a hangover from its associations with the hippie and new-age/alternative scene, both of which have sometimes been accused of promoting narcissism, with an over-involved focus on "me" and "my"
development. So it's refreshing when practice is explicitly undertaken as social experiment, designed not just for individual gain but to make an offering and invitation to others.
Flashmobs are good art, too. At a time when the primary mover in promoting the virtues of meditation is scientific research and medical protocol, it's nice to see meditators injecting some joie de vivre into the fray – if the Trafalgar Square sitters didn't persuade onlookers to take up mind training, they at least gave them a decent spectacle, an unexpected memento from their day to treasure and laugh about when they got home. And maybe one or two did get inspired by seeing a large bunch of strangers (wearing everything from saffron robes to business suits) suddenly and simultanousely parking their arses in one of England's premier tourist spots.
There will be scoffers, for sure - staying silent and engaging with one's inner environment are still viewed as suspicious behaviour in sections of our go-getting, externally-focused culture. Meditation practice ("doing nothing") and social action may even be seen as incompatible, despite the fact that observing one's own mind stream can often be the first step to more skillful, empathic and compassionate relationships. If meditation doesn't lead to greater social responsibility, we probably aren't doing it right.
The flashmob groundswell is growing. Anyone can organize a local event, and if you're looking for solidarity and support, Medmob are working to inspire loosely co-ordinated events around the world, with a monthly event planned for the last Sunday of each month. So for the benefit of all, go forth and flashmob...