Like a growing number of Americans, Randy Wedin wanted his Thanksgiving back. He’s always loved the sentiment of the holiday, the celebration of gratitude and community it represents, but he resented the way that the Friday after, a day formerly reserved for touch football, naps and turkey sandwiches, had somehow morphed into a frantic shopping extravaganza.
While Wedin, a board member at the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, knew he could never singlehandedly shut down Black Friday, he at least wanted to offer an alternative. So last year, he came up with Blank Friday, a Buddhist alternative to the shopping-focused day.
“Black Friday is the epitome of commercialism and materialism,” Wedin said. “We wanted to suggest an alternative approach, another option for people to consider.”
Spending a day fighting shopping-mall crowds and giving the old credit card a workout can actually be bad for a person’s mental health. A better alternative, Wedin believes, can be found at the 40-year-old Zen Center, where members come together in community to hear talks on Buddhist practice and to meditate, finding joy and enlightenment in their search for the ever-illusive blank mind.
“I am a lay practitioner,” Wedin said, “but my own perspective on the issue is that we get really busy in our lives with all of our responsibilities and distractions and it is easy to lose sight of things that are truly important. One way to get your life back into perspective is to just spend some quiet time in meditation. For me, the nurturing environment of other people that are thinking the same way and working on similar goals has been very helpful. You can find that kind of community here.”
Attention to the alternative
Last year’s Blank Friday event drew more than 100 people to the Zen Center at 3343 East Calhoun Parkway, a quiet stucco building just steps away from Lake Calhoun.
“We thought the event would be a catchy idea,” Wedin said. “Instead of heading out for shopping, why not go inside and meditate?”
The event was such a success that this year the center decided to expand the offerings, including a “Doorbuster Special,” featuring a midnight meditation and related activities from 11:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day to 1:30 a.m. on Friday morning. Friday will also include two 60-minute introductory meditation classes, a silent meditation room for experienced practitioners and tours of the facility.
Blank Friday, Wedin said, is “an open house, so people who are curious about what we do here can just drop in and find out. Over the years, a lot of people have walked by — we are located on the shores of Lake Calhoun — and wondered, ‘What goes on in there?’ This is a chance to look around a little bit. That may be all they want to do, or they may pick up info about coming here sometime.” The lectures scheduled for the event are targeted to meditation newbies, he said, “to give them an introduction to this approach and give them time to ask questions.”
The idea of the event is to offer something other than the stressful, commercially centered activities that have become the post-Thanksgiving norm in American life, said Susan Nelson, a priest at the Zen Center.
“What we wanted to do was offer an alternative for people to rushing out and spending money with droves of other people. We wanted to offer a quieter, more contemplative option that seemed to fit with the themes of gratitude and community that Thanksgiving is about. We’re offering this space where you can come, simplify and empty out instead of acquiring more stuff.”
Support in hard times
In this stressful post-election period, many Americans are looking for solace, Nelson said. Last Sunday, churches and other places of worship nationwide were filled with people looking for answers and support in a time where many feel confused, stressed and adrift.
“It makes sense to me that people wanted to go to their faith communities,” she said, “to be comforted and supported and be around like-hearted people.”
Minnesota Zen Meditation Center was no different. The weekly Sunday talk, given by Ted O’Toole, Zen Center associate guiding teacher, drew a large number of people. The talk, titled, “What to Do When Things Go Bad,” focused on providing helpful responses to bad news. “It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen here,” Wedin said.
Nelson thinks that this increased cultural interest in spirituality will extend to the day after Thanksgiving. From her perspective, that can only be a good thing.
“My guess would be that we might well have more people at the Blank Friday event,” she said. “They are looking for this time that’s blank, that’s not filled with political news, and we can offer that.”
Plus meditation costs much less than a trip to the mall, Wedin added. Blank Friday is free and open to the public.
“It’s a good option,” he said. “Quiet, focused time with community recharges the soul and helps us prepare for the year ahead. That’s much more important than getting the shopping done.”
More information about Blank Friday is available on the Minnesota Zen Center website.