Friday, April 25, 2014

Waiting for Binoculars Guy

Last fall, the second or third time I led a Lingam Puja ritual in New York's Riverside Park, a man in his sixties came up the trail a few minutes after we'd started, clearly focused on the group though still a hundred yards away. A latecomer, I thought. I smiled in welcome. He marched up and announced, "You can't do this here."

"I'm sorry--what are we doing that's against park rules?" I asked.
"You're off the path in a bird sanctuary," he said, and then added. "People do it all the time. They let their dogs run in here, but they're not supposed to."
"I didn't see any sign."
"Well, it's a rule."
"I'm really surprised I didn't see a sign. I'll look for it when we're leaving."

"You're obviously holding some sort of ritual. That's not allowed."
...and a little more dialogue after that. I think he felt heard, if not satisfied, and after a few minutes  he stalked on up the path.
The next time he appeared, a couple of months later, binoculars around his neck, he objected that we'd moved some brushwood to form the circle in which we meet. The third time he confronted us, his complaint was less focused but just as full of frustration.
This man clearly loves the park and feels called to care for it. He finds meaning in his vigilance for a greater community good. The unfamilarity of seeing a small group of men engaging in a ritual he doesn't understand raises anxiety and suspicion.
Dealing with him always knocks us off balance in unwelcome ways. The impulse to push back rears up among us all. I struggle to go on anchoring our practice despite the turmoil of my own reactions. His hostility tears at the integrity of ritual time and space, as he exercises every New Yorker's God-given right to object to every other New Yorker taking up space.
The glorious early spring afternoon of our last gathering, I braced with more than a little anxiety for his next appearance. I combed the web to print out all the relevant park regulations I could find. I recruited a friend to act as spokesman and keep him if possible out of our midst. In my introductory words  to the group, I mentioned our earlier run-ins and encouraged everyone, should he appear, to stay mindful. Could we make a conscious choice not to receive his energy full on and absorb it, nor simply to reflect hostility back to him? Could we instead hold the integrity of our space, and let anger dissipate around us?
With all this practical and emotional preparation as our talisman, Binoculars Guy never appeared.
But I don't want to be too quick to rejoice in the good luck of avoiding him. I don't want to discount the gifts Binoculars Guy has brought us. If it weren't for Binoculars Guy, we wouldn't have had the incitement to become more grounded in our response to the energies that inevitably flow through the space we take up in a Manhattan park: helicopters overhead, sirens on Riverside Drive, dog owners calling their off-leash pets back from a circle of strangers they regard with wary curiosity. He's helped us to become a more cohesive community. He's helped me to become more conscious of all that holding space for this improbable, eccentric  ritual practice entails,  to think more deeply about how to mediate between our group and passersby, to consider how we can minimize our impact on them and yet stay focused on why we're here, on who we are and who we hope to become.

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