Monday, January 25, 2010

Finding Silence

Silence is a rare commodity in this city. We are constantly bombarded by sound, and on top of that, are too busy to even witness the sounds bombarding us. The result is a sort of sensory habituation that is necessary in order for us to process all our busy thoughts, sort through all our Blackberry and Iphone text messages and emails, and get from one place to another without getting a headache. But, let's face it, this city is noisy. I live on a busy street in Brooklyn, and had to get used to the fact that a bus stops outside my window every seven or so minutes, and every hour or so in the early morning. There is a hushed sound of tires on the gravel, a screech of gears as it comes to a halt, a loud beeping noise as the doors swing open, and the engine churning away as passengers get on, a series of short beeping noises and a creaking sound as the doors close, finishing with a crescendo of sound as the bus accelerates and dissolves into the constant hush and swoosh of traffic.

While it's necessary to habituate these noises to some degree, it does involve a lot of psychological energy and the whole process can be physically exhausting over time. We might not even notice it, until we get caught in a rush of thoughts and lose track of what someone is saying to us, or one thought is dampened under a louder one and we forget to do something important.

So, my point is, silence is healthy. The good news is, this city does have a lot of quiet nooks and patches. Here are a few I'd recommend:

*The inner workings of Prospect Park: as soon as you get off the main road that circles around the park, you get into a network of small pathways weaving through the trees. Unlike Central Park, it is easy to find a place to sit under a tree without being trampled by a troop of toddlers or frisbee enthusiasts. During the winter, I've found a few really beautiful quiet spots along the lake, where a couple of swans have joined the other birds, all peacefully perched on the ice together.

*Museums: there are a thousand of them in the city, it seems. But have you ever tried going to one specifically to appreciate the quietness? Pay close attention to how everyone is deeply respectful of the quiet atmosphere, speaking in very soft tones, generally keeping a comfortable distance from one another. Sit in front of a beloved statue, painting, or photograph and just appreciate the silence for a while. I like to sit in front of paintings by impressionists like Monet in the Met, and just bask in the colors. It is a sort of sensory rejuvenation; it makes me more receptive and appreciative to the sights and sounds of the urban landscape when I return to it.

*The Day of Silence Retreat: the day of silence meditation retreats in Manhattan are dana based, meaning completely by donation. As I recently attended a silent retreat, I can vouch for the power of sitting in stillness and peace with others for an extended period of time. It allows us to quiet the mental torrent of thoughts and become more accepting of the world exactly as it is. At the insight center, you occasionally hear cars or other urban sounds around you, and you bring all of this into your awareness. So seeking silence has nothing to do with escaping the city, and everything to do with being in it.

And when you are being in this city, you are, quite simply, alive, and I don't know about you, but since life is relatively fleeting, I would like to be alive for as much of it as I can. So find a quiet space to concentrate your state of being. There's an urban symphony playing, every moment, all around us. Can you hear it?

The Day of Silence upcoming retreats:
Saturday, January 30
Saturday, February 13
New York City Insight Meditation Center, 28 W 27th Street, 10th Floor

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Gobo: Food for the Five Senses

I wanted to take my husband out for his birthday, so I asked him to tell me what his absolute favorite restaurant in New York City is. As he is a meat eater, I expected him to name some Sushi restaurant, and was completely prepared to to chow down on avocado rolls for the night.

He answered: "Gobo." This is a vegetarian restaurant. So that says something.

I can't say enough about Gobo: Food for the Five Senses. I enjoy absolutely everything about it. It's much more in the vein of classy restaurant, compared to joints like Vegetarian Paradise just around the corner, with low lighting and waiters going around with bottles of wine. The dishes are a notch more expensive. But for the food and the atmosphere, it's worth it. My favorite thing about eating there is the communal way it is set up. The tables are all connected, cafeteria style, and the kitchen is open, so you can watch your food being prepared. There is such an openness, a togetherness about it, and paired with the low lighting and friendly staff, it takes on a sort of intimacy I haven't found in other establishments. I take everyone to Gobo when they are visiting the city, and I have yet to hear a complaint.

My favorites? The New England rolls are outstanding, large crisp rolls filled with vegetables that come with this delicious tangy sauce. My husband's favorite dish is also one of mine, the smoked seitan medallions in a sizzling citrus sauce. It comes out actually sizzling, cooked perfectly (which is a hard thing to do with seitan), accompanied by vegetables and a dark citrus sauce. My absolute favorite: I can't get enough of the shitake caps with mashed sweet potatoes and raisins. I never thought that combination would work, but it blew me away- the sharp taste of shitake is leveled by the subtle sweetness of the potatoes. The thing about the menu that impresses me is that they aren't trying to mock meat; they list exactly what you are about to eat rather than saying "chicken," and when they use protein products such as soy or seitan, they do so in such a way as to highlight their unique taste. The menu also features an organic juice bar, although I have skipped that thus far because it is a bit too on the pricey side.

This may be the only place I would say this for: Gobo is a must for any visit to New York City. Whether you're a vegetarian or not, it is the best way to experience urban vegetarian cuisine. Make a reservation, otherwise you aren't likely to get a seat in the main dining room; if you don't care, there is, in lieu of a bar, a cute but cramped little area called the "kitchen" off to the side where you can be served if there is no seating in the main room available.

Gobo is located on 6th Avenue, between Waverly and 8th Street. Many subways in the vicinity, including the West 4th stop for the A/C/E/B/D. for menu and information on their other location on the UES. Reservations recommended!! Call 212.255.3902 to make a reservation.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Brooklyn Countryside

Lately, I have been craving to get out of the city. The city can be so exhausting, subway to subway, street to avenue, apartment to apartment. The whole structure of city life is very different from the countryside, and, having lived here for a good six years or so, I'm used to it. But I think the jagged way we move through the city goes against our natural instincts- it's all corners and stairs, no open spaces.

Which is why riding a horse in the woods was a breath of fresh air, and I did it here in Brooklyn.

Unlike the horse rides in Central Park, the nice thing about riding in Prospect Park is that you go out really deep into woods, off the roads and trails, and find yourself transported out of the city; you can't hear cars, trains, people, anything. For $37 I got to experience an hour of a very rare thing in New York: quietude. Just gusts of wind and horses trudging through the autumn leaves. It was really a wonderful time, and while the winter is upon us, it would be a lovely way to celebrate the spring. Keep it in mind.

Kensington Stables ( on 51 Caton, just walk down Parkside alongside the park from the Parkside B/Q, and turn at the circle. They also offer lessons; what I did is called a "trail ride." Call for reservations: 718-972-4588.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Dao Palate

The other night I was eating a delicious vegetarian meal and realized I haven't reviewed it here, which certainly needs to be done, since Dao Palate is quickly becoming one of my favorite restaurants in Brooklyn.

Located in Park Slope, Dao Palate offers a lot of pan-Asian soy meat, but is actually quite different from the vegan fare offered at any of the restaurants I consider part of the Vegetarian Paradise Empire. Paying attention to quality, the dishes are smaller in portion and more delicately prepared, in the same vein as the upscale Manhattan vegan establishments (such as Gobo: Food For The Five Senses in the West Village and Candle 79 on the Upper East Side), but the meals are not nearly as expensive at Dao, which pleases my wallet.

What is really exciting to me is that Dao Palate delivers to North Flatbush. I don't know how far down they will go, but I know they deliver to me on Parkside and a friend of mine on Caton, for free. I have found other Park Slope restaurants willing to trek to the other end of the park to bring you your dinner, so it is always worth calling and asking.

I've had many of their dishes; I'm particularly fond of the sweet citrus soy protein, which comes topped with sliced almonds and served on a big bed of kale- the use of healthy vegetables in their cooking sets them apart from the grease-fest that Zen, Vegetarian Paradise, and the like tend to give you. Delicious though that grease-fest might be, I really appreciate the way Dao Palate balances their proteins with vegetables; the other night I had the Tofu Teriyaki which came with a large quantity of marinated bean spouts; it was delicious.

And if you do get to journey out and eat there, the atmosphere of the restaurant is a big plus as well. The decor and low lighting are very tranquil and comforting- while you are there, order a pot of tea; it comes with small metal tea cups that are beautiful and surprisingly heavy, somehow they make me more appreciative and mindful of the whole experience. If you can't get out to Park Slope, you can always try bringing the peaceful atmosphere of the restaurant home; brew some tea, get out the nice plates and chopsticks or silverware rather than eating out of the plastic containers.

Healthy, delicious, beautifully prepared, vegetarian- what more could I ask for?

Dao Palate is located on 329 Flatbush Avenue, right off the 7th Avenue stop on the Q, across the street from Vegetarian Palate.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Note: I have been traveling, through the Adirondacks and Pennsylvania, so there hasn't been much to note on as far as city life goes. I've spent enough time in the woods and should have plenty of reviews and urban musings up here soon enough...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Finding Your Sangha

I found myself returning to a beautiful entry in the NYC Urban Mindfulness blog today, called Sangha In The City. A clinical psychologist was returning from a professional retreat, training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a very powerful program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. She speaks in her entry about the sangha: this term originates in the Buddhist tradition, to describe the community of practice in which a lay Buddhist or monk resides for support, encouragement, and motivation. But these days, the sangha doesn't only apply to Buddhists- it applies to anyone who has decided to take up formal (or even informal) mindfulness practice as part of their daily lives. Jennifer Egert, the author of the post, finishes her entry by looking at the concept of Sangha in the context of urban life:

In the city, Sangha can feel less explicit, but is present nonetheless. Sangha is here on Urban Mindfulness. It is at the Yoga studio or at the gym. It is in our spiritual communities and meditation groups. It is also at school, the dog run, the playground, in the book club, among friends and family. But like mindfulness practice, building Sangha in the city requires intention, nurturing, and openness. It also feels so important to supporting the effort to waken to life.

I started to think about the importance of the sangha, especially in this community-starved city. I think it is crucial to have others along for the ride, to lean on, to teach and to learn from. Ask yourself: where is my sangha?

For me, my sangha is Friday nights, when I get together with a group of neighbors and friends and their guests in a cozy Flatbush apartment, eat a healthy, home cooked, vegetarian meal, and read prayers and readings from a large variety of religious and poetic sources, then discuss over Turkish tea how we can use mindful awareness, spiritual investigation, and wisdom to lead more compassionate, peaceful, joyous lives. Last Friday, I taught someone about mindful walking, discussed the aesthetics of Prospect Park, and learned from an artist visiting the area that happiness is scientifically shown to improve our immune system.

That, in my opinion, has all the qualities of a sangha. There might not be any meditation cushions, but I leave feeling physically and spiritually nourished, and my meditation the next morning is all the more sweeter for it.

So, my question to you: where is your urban sangha?
(If you don't have one and can't find it, you are always welcome at mine.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Mindlessness and Murder

I have to admit, I've been a bit distressed this week. Last Sunday, there was a shooting on Parkside Avenue, right in my area. I think murder must be one of the most mindless acts one can take, to purposely seek out to take the life of a fellow human being. Being a vegetarian, I believe mindful living involves a sense of commitment to life, a recognition of our responsibility to protect it. But the concept of taking the life of another human being just baffles me. It seems to me that a person must be so swept up in their limited perspective, their motives and unchecked emotions, that they cannot see that they are acting out against their own species. That they are destructing the world they are a part of, and therefore, are destructing themselves.

So I'm upset, clearly. But what is causing my heart to ache the most is that this murder seemed to be relatively motiveless. A guy just walked by the coffee shop below my building and decided to shoot aimlessly into it a dozen someodd times and run away. The innocent kid who died seemed to have no connection to any of it. I've been trying to figure out what could possibly have led the man to do this. Was it gang initiation? Had he completely taken leave of his senses?

Whatever the case, let me make this completely clear: this is not the Flatbush I know. The Flatbush I know is a vibrant, beautiful neighborhood, with a real sense of community that is rare in New York City. And when something like this happens, it is all too easy to start to fear your surroundings, to associate the act with the place. And to say, "If this is the state of the community, of the world, how can I possibly be a part of it?"

But that's simply delusion. I am an intricate part of it. So, on that note, here is footage of the shooter casually strolling by my apartment and shooting into the Parkside Coffee and Donut. Sure, it's disturbing, but you can't see the victims from this angle, and by watching it Flatbush residents will be able to help go on community watch. Think of it as a mindfulness exercise.