Talk of mindfulness is ascendant in American popular culture. Inner tranquility, peace of mind, effortless effort is the mantra of our time with celebrities ready to help. Transcendental meditation has made a comeback since it was first introduced in America in the 1960s now practiced with fanfare by famous people. Meditation as a practice is as old as consciousness itself and fundamental to the practice of every religion and spiritual discipline on earth. It’s more popular forms today seem more accessible to us by virtue of their decoupling from the stifling strictures and traditional baggage of organized religion. The quieting of the mind requires effort though, it is the opposite of what comes naturally to us. It’s easier to stay busy, always thinking and feeling, always doing.
It has been in and around cities where we have stayed busy for most of human experience and now also on-line. No doubt the constant stimulation of the internet in combination with the transformation of our cities into an amalgam of manic work places and amusement parks has intensified the momentum of the mindfulness movement. Our pace of work, disorienting, disembodied interactions on the internet and our addictions to ceaseless activity are exhausting and unsustainable. Traditional meditation practices desired to transcend the mundanity of daily life. Contemporary meditation practices emphasize the practical psychological benefits of surviving contemporary life. To be still is to survive.
Americans didn’t invent the city park but like libraries and college campuses they are a uniquely American tradition mostly because of timing (there are beautiful parks in cities around the Mediterranean, but more often than not, they’re an after-thought). Until 200 years ago economies were mostly agricultural. Towns were rarely much larger in area than that which anyone could walk in less than an hour. Before America came into its own in the 19th century towns were here and across the western world compact, surrounded by agricultural and open lands. People worked to survive, nature was everywhere and probably taken for granted, seen as an obstacle to overcome or a resource to exploit. It is no coincidence that nature loving philosophers such as Thoreau in the east and Muir in the west emerged with the first stirrings and full swing of big cities and the industrial revolution in America.
It was not until the 19th century when because of the industrial revolution towns grew into cities that the idea of a park with grass and trees— a microcosm of nature embedded within a city--became a thing. Seen by the benevolent affluent as salve against the crushing pressures of factory life, nature now mostly inaccessible to most working people the city park became a psychological necessity, a way to survive city life.
In the mid-century the nature of work changed again and everyone got his own park—their front yard and their back yard. The city park morphed into a place to recreate—to relieve the tedium of now sedentary work of corporate office life. Parks became home to ball fields, tennis, volleyball and basketball courts and then “playgrounds” (children now bound by suburban tracts no longer running around farms and fields) then skateparks and dog parks. To this day most cities manage their parks through “Recreation and Parks” departments. They love to fill their parks with stuff and stuff to do.
The park as a place to entertain followed not far behind. Amusement parks existed in America as early as the 19th century but in the mid-century they burgeoned. Then cities became amusement parks. Most cities compete to see who can entertain who the best and the commercial tax base and the tourist dollars are too tempting to resist. (Serenity apparently doesn’t sell.) But is this really what we most need now? When we endure 24/7 work lives and 24/7 social lives, when a city is an amusement park where is the relief? Are we not right back where we were when Olmsted designed Central Park as a place of refuge from the daily grind of urban life? Isn’t it just a different kind of grind?
And yet we can’t help ourselves. We don’t make the effort, we can’t leave well enough alone. We can’t bear the quiet or be still. We are unable to appreciate or apprehend in life or design that emptiness is a virtue, something to value, a portal to transcendence. Just as not every moment of every day needs to be filled not every place in every city needs to be filled. Just as we benefit when we make the effort to do, say and think nothing, our cities benefit when we make the effort to make places where nothing happens and serenity settles in.