By late October 2015, life was going well, at least on paper. I was in a happy marriage to a wonderful man, I had a healthy son who was doing well in school, and I was doing better financially and professionally than I ever had before. While I was still dealing with my ongoing eye issues, I was managing to keep severe vision loss at bay.
Still, even though I was showing up for work, for my son and husband, for my family and for my community-at-large, I wasn’t showing up for myself as often as I needed or wanted to. Due to my work travel schedule, I wasn’t as plugged into my community of care as I had been, and I was craving connection.
I remembered those evenings as a single mom, when Liam was in bed or at his father’s house, when I had time for long meditation sits, for deep journaling and for intense thinking. The hectic stressors of everyday life weren’t allowing for that, and I longed for that feeling of connection that I once felt to myself and to the women in my community of care.
And so, in a spontaneous moment, I found myself staring at my Facebook page and decided to post the following message on my wall:
“If I taught meditation on a Sunday morning, who would join me? And where would we meet up?”
To my surprise, within an hour I had more than 20 responses from friends and acquaintances, ranging from “I’m in!” to “I really need this in my life right now.” After a few days of going back and forth and investigating potential convenient locations, I settled on Hollywood North Beach Park in Hollywood, Florida, a public-access beach with plenty of parking and no obstructions from condominiums—a rarity in South Florida—on Sunday, November 15, at 8:30 in the morning.
I created a Facebook invite with all the details and sent it to those who had indicated interest. I gave the event a title: “Cease & Exist.” On the Saturday evening before our gathering, I checked the weather report, which called for high winds with gusts of up to 25 miles (about 40 kilometres) per hour—not hospitable for beachgoers and certainly not conducive for meditation. “You’re still going?” my husband, Jason, asked.
“Of course,” I responded. He rolled his eyes and knew that it was useless to argue with me. Secretly, I hoped that the meteorologists’ predictions would change overnight, as they sometimes do, and that I’d wake up to a sunny morning. But alas, nature had other plans.
At 6 a.m., I opened the back door to let the dogs out into the backyard before I left, and I witnessed the chop of the pool water and the fronds of the palm trees violently swaying to and fro, bending to the point that I thought they were going to snap. “Show up,” I muttered to myself. “You’re going to show up.”
I gathered my beach towels and grabbed a hoody, added some fresh coffee to my mug and headed for the front door. Jason walked into the living room and harkened, “Hey! You’re still going!? It’s crazy out there. No one is going to show up.”
I responded: “I am going to show up.”
For 30 minutes, I drove in silence all the way to the beach. When I pulled up to the parking lot in front of the beach, the booth attendant looked surprised to see a car. I rolled down my window to pay, and she waved me in, probably thinking that I wouldn’t manage to stay put for more than a few minutes.
I parked and scoped out the spot where we were supposed to meditate. The dark, ominous sky was threatening to unleash a serious amount of rain, each cloud like a saturated sponge about to be squeezed. The boardwalk was mostly covered in blown sand, and as I reached the short wooden pathway leading to the beach, I had to fight to keep my eyes open in the fierce winds. My hair was tousled, and pinpricks of sand painfully abraded my face.
I walked back towards the car and checked the time on my phone. It was seven minutes past eight. I decided to wait until quarter after to see if anybody else showed up. Rather than sit in my car, I resolved to sit in a crabgrass patch near the concrete path, a spot partially shielded from the wind by the sea grape trees and my car. I rolled out my towel and sat cross-legged, closing my eyes and placing my palms on my heart. If I can meditate here, I thought, I can meditate anywhere.
After a few minutes, I opened my eyes, and to my delight, I saw two women in the distance approaching me with their rolled-up towels. My heart jumped. I felt so validated to have shown up, and I’m certain they were relieved to see me. They sat down in front of me, and soon more friends joined, one at a time, until by quarter to nine, 12 of us were sitting in basically a patch of dirt in the parking lot, sheltered by sea grapes.
We formed a small circle and faced one another. I paused to smile and gaze upon everyone’s face as we fully arrived in the moment. Then I gave a lesson about meditation, went through a few breathing exercises and asked everyone to close their eyes. Small ants were crawling on my towel and up my leg, but that was irrelevant. All that mattered to me in that moment was that I was leading my first guided meditation.
We meditated in these inhospitable conditions for 25 straight minutes, and when it was over, the wind seemed to momentarily stop. There was calm, a silence before the storm. For a few minutes, we shared our experiences, and then we felt the first drops of rain begin to fall. A torrential Florida downpour was moments away, and we hustled to gather our belongings and get in our cars. As we exchanged brief hugs, my friend Jessica asked, “Will we meet again soon?”
“Of course!” I responded without hesitation. As I crawled into the front seat of my car, the sky broke open and I sat and listened to the drops as they pelted the roof of my car. I exhaled and smiled, giving myself a little nod of credit for the small success that day. I planted a seed. I started a ripple. I felt something shift—I didn’t then know what—but I knew I’d keep going with this flow to find out.
A weekly event
When I got home, I modified the Facebook event and changed the date to two weeks from Sunday. I posted the link on my wall with a short message about the morning’s experience. Fourteen days later, on a sunny day, when I returned to the same beach, 20 people showed up. And the following week, 30 people showed up, not all of whom I knew.
Each Sunday gathering brought out new friends, old friends, passers-by who were curious about our gathering and friends of friends who saw a post shared on Facebook. In late January 2016, as the gathering was nearing 70 people, I came home and announced to Jason that I needed to purchase a small portable microphone and speaker.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because the people in the back can’t always hear me above the waves crashing ashore.” He seemed perplexed by the phrase “people in the back.”
“Who are these people?”
“I don’t know all of them, but this is starting to gain momentum and we’re starting to build a community. There is something magical happening. There was a before, and now I feel like I’m in a black box, but I don’t know how I’m going to emerge yet.” Now he was even more confused. Still, he went online that afternoon and helped me order a portable speaker and microphone. A month later, I returned home to announce that I needed a wireless PA system that could amplify my voice even more.
“Why?” he asked, surprised.
“Because I have close to 200 people each week now. And they can’t hear me with this little microphone when they’re all spread out.”
“What!? That’s incredible! Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m totally serious. I struck some sort of chord with people. I don’t know why they keep showing up and multiplying. We all need each other….” I trailed off.
Adding music to the mix
That afternoon, we bought a large rechargeable, portable speaker with a tripod stand, and the following weekend, Jason came down to the beach to “help me” work the speaker. Really, I think he wanted to bear witness and get a better understanding of what was happening. The speaker had Bluetooth capabilities, and so I decided to curate a playlist of my favourite songs about peace and happiness.
As soon as I got to the beach, before anybody showed up, I connected my speaker to my phone and hit play. Familiar guitar chords and a harmonica belted out, then the distinct voice of Bob Dylan. Others in my ever-growing playlist were Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Marvin Gaye and the Pixies. The music greeted the hundreds of people gathering each week, until eventually we expanded with additional speakers, daisy-chaining them together, 20 feet or so apart.
By Mother’s Day weekend in May 2016, almost six months to the day after I’d shown up for the first time, we had more than 1,000 people gathering to meditate, filling up every inch of the beach from the dunes to the shoreline.
I often asked myself why people were attracted to the gathering—I couldn’t believe for one second or give myself credit that it had anything to do with me. I was just the conduit, I told myself; I was the pebble thrower.
But now and again I got a handwritten note or a direct message in my social media inbox, or someone stayed after class to give me a hug and cry on my shoulder. They told me things like: I feel welcome; it’s the first time I felt unintimidated when trying to meditate; I appreciate your honesty about your struggles in the talk before the guided meditation; thank you for being real and relatable; thank you for making this free and open to everyone.
Reflecting back, I’m most proud of the community we built, which has managed to sustain itself ever since that fateful day I chose to sit in a windstorm rather than sleep in. For more than five years and counting, our “sand tribe” has managed to ensure that there are no barriers to entry—not finances, not stigmas, not age or gender, religious affiliation or level of experience. We remain open and free to all.
The music is familiar, the location is naturally relaxing and our sacred space is a place where an old Jewish woman from Brooklyn can sit next to a Black lesbian from the Caribbean, who is next to a tatted-up biker dude with a mohawk and a leather vest. It’s a weekly drug-free Burning Man gathering on a beach instead of in the middle of a desert, full of love and acceptance.
image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Jason Tygielski, image 3: Jason Tygielski