Sound Bowls & Subway Meditation: How Jackie Cantwell Finds Peace Amongst The Noise Of NYC

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Eliza Dumais
·9 min read
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In theory, there are few spaces quite so antithetical to inner peace as the interior of a subway car. But for group meditation guide Jackie Cantwell, meditating in transit is a matter of practicality. As she sees it, even New York’s most certifiably Zen patrons still have places to be and F trains to catch — so why not kill two birds with one MetroCard? “Learning to meditate in Manhattan is a little like being thrown into the deep end of a pool,” she says. “But once you stop fighting it — once you settle into the idea of beeping car horns and moving ground, it all stops feeling like it’s working against you. It becomes part of what peace sounds like.”

For Cantwell, the relationship between sound and meditation goes deeper than the loud, ambient noise of New York. In fact, sonic curation is a major part of her day-to-day. As a musical facilitator for breath and meditation ceremonies working closely with major meditation hubs like Medi Club and The Big Quiet, she composes and performs music meant to elicit a feeling of Zen, using sound bowls (Tibetan bell-like instruments that create droning, harmonic waves of sound). And she’s no novice: When New York’s lockdown commenced, she’d just completed a major tour circuit with Oprah (yes, that Oprah) playing sound bowls at guided meditation ceremonies all over the country.

That said, for all of Cantwell’s hard-won serenity, quarantine still hit with brutal force. Just before venturing on tour, she’d moved into a new apartment — so, after months of nomadic living, she was welcomed back home with a shelter-in-place mandate, supremely white walls, and a Tetris array of stacked cardboard boxes. Feeling something like a stranger in her own space, she struggled. “I went from twice-daily meditation being a no-brainer to having to drag myself to the mat — even after three years of consistent practice,” she says. “I know everyone was experiencing extreme levels of anxiety and I was right there with them. I was lonely and tired and worried all the time.”

According to Cantwell, what she needed from her environs was something deeper and more complex than a dwelling-place. She needed a respite. So, in the interest of personal restoration, she set out to configure her apartment into a bonafide oasis: The sort of space that could elicit stillness — even amongst the disorderly, hackneyed motion of New York.

Fortunately, Cantwell is no stranger to the ins and outs of curation. In fact, her career in meditation burgeoned from of the art world to begin with. Growing up in Virginia with parents who worked as both art teachers and practicing artists, creative shop talk was all but second nature to her as a child. “I could discuss color and composition with my dad and his dinner guests basically by the time I could walk,” she jokes. And as she got older, her affection for visual art only strengthened: She studied painting as an undergrad in Virginia, before heading to Pratt in New York for a studio art and cultural management program — after which, she opened a notably successful Bed-Stuy gallery as a part of her thesis project. “I was doing everything I’d always wanted — I was curating and manning this buzzy gallery space and I was living this artist’s life in NYC; but things were certainly not easy,” she says. “Rent was so high and the business was so tough, I started renting my apartment out on Airbnb and sleeping in the gallery to make ends meet. I was really burned out.”

That was around the time she stumbled upon Medi Club — a rotating meditation community for New Yorkers seeking out space to participate in guided meditations, strengthen their own practices, and connect with other folks in the realms of wellness and spirituality. Almost immediately, she had the sense that this was precisely what she’d been missing. “After that, I left my boyfriend, our apartment together, the art world, and started focusing on my practice,” she says. “I plowed through self-help books, joined conversation groups, worked with local experts in my search for a better sense of self.”

At the time, Medi Club maintained a practice called “circles,” whereby members of the club could host small, intimate meditation groups in their own spaces, using helpful guidelines drawn up by the organization. After hosting a “circles” meet up of her own inside of her gallery space, Cantwell knew it was time to pursue meditation more holistically. Hence: sound bowls, the meditative soundtrack she’d grown accustomed to in her time with Medi Club.

Now, as a full-time sound bowl musician, an up-and-coming TikTok celeb in the online meditation community, and the acting director of Medi Club (among numerous other creative side hustles), Cantwell says she’s found that the deeper she gets into this new career, the more she’s made aware that her early work in the art world informed everything that came afterwards. “Even as a kid, all my favorite works of art were experiential or installation-based — where the viewer was invited to engage, or listen, or respond,” she says. “In my older years, most of the artwork I made was installation-based, too — and at bottom, that’s not so different from communal meditation. Both practices are about digging in deep, and responding to what’s happening around you in a way that feels honest and revelatory.”

As Cantwell began to pour energy into repurposing this new space, she wanted to keep that ethos in mind: the notion that design can be both visual and healing. And having come of age in a home that was anything but minimalist, she knew she wanted color at the forefront of her household aesthetic. “I was using a color palette from a painting my dad made as a guiding light for the space — lots of loud, vibrant oranges, and sexy, warm reds,” she says. “I really wanted this space to ignite creativity in a time when I was feeling deeply uninspired.”

In lieu of a home office, being that Cantwell wasn’t exactly working a traditional 9-to-5 pre-pandemic, she keeps a meditation room. In an old-school railroad apartment, it’s centrally-located — almost like a heart. Here, she guides Zoom meditations for Medi Club and for her own personal followers. She records and facilitates sound for various clients and meditations groups. She films TikTok videos, waxing poetic about mental health and breathwork. She’s even set up a Ring video doorbell outside that connects directly to her phone, so she can accept packages or buzz in guests without halting guided meditation sessions, or interrupting her flow state when she’s reached Peak Creative Energy.

Having that dedicated space for work whilst shut in at home has certainly been a blessing in disguise. “Figuring out how to move everything I was doing in person online was certainly not easy, but I’m so wildly grateful that I’ve had the space and the time to feel it out,” she says. “The amount of screen time in my life is nuts. There are days when my eyes burn — and it can be really hard to find balance. So when I need a break from video-recording and editing, or I just need to sit and answer emails, I make sure I give myself a change of scenery.”

Typically, for Cantwell, that’s the kitchen — which is bright and warm. When designing the house, she says this room was essential. As nice as it is to have a dedicated meditation space, she explains, there’s also merit to allowing yourself to settle in and find serenity elsewhere. And she’s always felt the kitchen, in particular, operates as a powerful place to check in with yourself — to access some sense of calm. “As a kid, I loved anything with ceremony, which explains why I loved experiential art so much,” she says. “But I especially loved the ceremony of watching my mom prepare coffee in the morning. The intentionality and the artistry to it. I wanted to have space to do that same thing in my own kitchen.” And so, she has. The kitchen is far and above the brightest room in the apartment, with natural light pouring in from twin, towering windows. And in all that splashed sunlight, a square kitchen table has become her most productive space for non-meditative or recorded work. “Whether I’m answering emails with a glass of wine, or cooking and dancing to soul music, I really find that this is a space that’s full of life and motion. And that’s something that’s so important to have right now,” she says. And thanks to her Ring video doorbell, she jokes, she has the freedom to entirely lose herself in a James Brown song or a red sauce recipe without missing guests or important arrivals.

Speaking of company: Cantwell boasts that this is her first apartment spacious enough for full-scale hosting in a post-quarantine world — and it’s been designed as such. “I dream of the day I can fill this place with people,” she says. “I’ve configured every room around the idea that folks will be able to come in and experience this atmosphere with me.”

And in that sense, the apartment does accomplish its mission: it operates as an installation of its own — an environment configured, carefully, to inspire interaction amongst guests. A space that emanates warmth; that brings patrons further into themselves.

Naturally, curating a home in the midst of a city-wide lockdown has not been easy. But as someone with plenty of practice when it comes to setting intentions, Cantwell says it’s become a remarkable act of self-care — and even a meditative experience unto itself. It’s one more way in which the two most formative preoccupations in her life — visual artistry and the practice of meditation — merge. “It’s ridiculous how much time I’ve spent standing in different corners of each room to make sure the vibe feels totally correct from every angle,” she says. “But I truly love this whole place. Curating this apartment feels like one of my most extreme acts of self love to date, and I’m re-inspired by it every day.”

Editor’s Note: While Jackie Cantwell had long thought that doorbells were a fixture of suburban houses (designed with old school doorbell wiring), she was delighted to learn that Ring’s battery-powered doorbell was an easy addition to her NYC apartment. So easy, in fact, that she set hers up in 30 minutes (without the aid of an instructional YouTube video, mind you). Learn more here if you’re interested in installing a video doorbell of your own.

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