Harlem Renaissance

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russell2.jpgRussell Simmons has a knack for bringing underground urban culture into the mainstream. During the mid-1980s, as co-founder of the Def Jam record label, he helped launch the first hip hop megastars--LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and The Beastie Boys. A few years later, he created the clothing label Phat Farm, turning street wear into runway fashion. His Def Poetry television series brought local slam poets into the national spotlight on HBO.

Along the way, Simmons has been helping everyday urban residents make their voices heard through the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, an organization that teaches inner city youth about financial credit and political involvement. Last August, Simmons turned his attention to homeless men in Harlem, a particularly invisible and powerless population. But instead of teaching these men how to speak out or take action, Simmons offered them inner peace through Transcendental Meditation.

"You're alive for a simple reason, and that's to be happy," Simmons told a rapt audience at Ready, Willing, and Able, a program that helps homeless men find jobs and housing. The program recently added meditation to its toolbox, through funding from the David Lynch Foundation, and brought Simmons in to help inspire the men to learn. Simmons himself has been meditating for years, and he told The Atlantic about his efforts to bring stillness to New York City's most restless population.


Meditation doesn't seem to be a basic need like food or shelter. Why should homeless men learn to meditate?  

Well, food and shelter are pretty good, too. But right up there with food and shelter is peace of mind. There are many roads to peace of mind. But some roads have so much proof that you know you're definitely on your way. Transcendental Meditation has really got so much research, so many examples, so many people who have become calmer and more peaceful--even enlightened. It's hard to get around how valuable meditation can be.

How is meditation different from religious faith? I'd imagine a lot of these men grew up with prayer in their lives.

Praying can be a good aid to promoting presence, but praying for something you don't have doesn't always create stillness. In the Yoga Sutras, it says Yogash chita vritti nirodha ["Meditation is the individual discipline that leads to the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind"]. You can go to church and listen to a preacher who will remind you that Jesus Christ said to be still. Consciousness comes from lots of different sources.

But when you meditate, the noise is gone and there's only bliss. Pure happiness. Look, it's all good. But when people say meditation is a direct route, I believe they've got something. My own meditation is the best part of my day, like a mini-vacation. People fly away somewhere on vacation and they drink and create more stress. I sit in my room and release lots of stress. I like that better.

When you spoke to the men at Ready, Willing, and Able, you emphasized the importance of happiness. Why do homeless people need to hear this message?

Because these are people who have been made to feel that they're less than, or their chances for happiness should be less than. They're never going to change their situation until they find happiness within. I believe that happy, hard-working, spiritual people are really attractive and draw good things toward themselves.

What do you think causes homelessness in the first place?

I can't give a simple answer to that. But it's certainly the poverty mindset that is the greatest problem for so many homeless people. Meditation gives you a rich mindset, a mindset that makes you happy with what you have. There can be a happy person living in a shanty house. Even if he has nothing, inside he feels like he has everything.

And there can be an unhappy person living in a penthouse. The other day, I spoke to a billionaire's son who's running a big company. He told me he goes to India and sees all that poverty and feels guilty that he's so rich and so unhappy. He really thinks that 'cause he got shit he should be happy! I told him he's got nothing to feel guilty about.

Have the men told you specific stories about how meditation has helped them?

I've heard good ones. One guy who used to be homeless learned TM and immediately had an experience of "I am That, you are That, all this is nothing but That." People in yoga studios try to achieve that experience and pass around books about it, but this guy got it after a month! So it's pretty amazing that these people now have a way to transcend. Certainly meditation has got to be the number one thing that I can give someone.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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