Once Upon a Time, There Was a Popup in the East Village That Offered Empathy

Reflections on the Empath Popup, June 14 - June 29, 2019

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“You guys help people with their feelings, right?” asked a man who wandered in from the neighborhood.

“We do,” said Bailey, one of our registered empaths.

“I was listening to a song earlier. It made me think of my cousin who died. I couldn’t deal.”

“Would you like to listen to it while I hold you?” Bailey offered.

The man nodded. Bailey gestured for him to lay down. He put his headphones in. Bailey wrapped her arms around him. He sobbed and shook while she held him snug. When he was ready, he stood up, steadied himself and gave Bailey a hug. Then he disappeared back into the East Village.

The Empath Popup was the space he needed to grieve.

The popup ran from June 14 to June 29, 2019 in a storefront in Manhattan, on 12th Street between Avenues A and B. My friends Bailey, Jessie and I ran it with the help of volunteers. We were open every day from 2pm to 10pm (ish).

“Want some empathy?” I’d ask folks ambling by. Most ignored me or said no thanks, as if I were handing out free samples of vegetables. But some people stopped dead in their tracks. “Wait. ?”

“It’s a place to hang out and connect.”

“For real?” they’d exclaim.

“Just take off your shoes.”

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In the afternoon, our guests sat together on the floor, in circles of three to ten people. We prompted conversations with questions like, “What are you most excited about in your life right now?” or “What are you struggling with?” Sometimes we used a format called T-group. In a T-group, you’re only allowed to express thoughts and feelings that are alive for you in the moment. “When you smile,” one T-grouper might say to another, “I feel curious about you. What are you smiling about?” Before you know it, you’re expressing emotions you didn’t even know you had.

The people who came to the popup weren’t hippies. Well, okay, there were hippies. But for the most part they were bonafide New Yorkers of all ages, races and orientations, without any experience in group healing. And here they were, sharing intimate details about their lives as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I used to think vulnerability was rare because too few people had the courage. I was wrong. What I learned at the popup is that we human beings are absolutely to be vulnerable. We don’t lack courage. What we lack is safety. Emotional safety, to be exact. It’s the felt sense that whatever we’re going through is safe to share with the people around us. When an environment is safe, vulnerability happens all on its own.

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As facilitators, we welcomed whatever emotions came up. If someone was sad, we never said, “Don’t be sad!” We asked, gently, “What’s making you sad?” Or we sat there quietly. Or we put our hand on their shoulder.

What I learned at the popup is that we human beings are absolutely desperate to be vulnerable. We don’t lack courage. What we lack is safety.

We made everyone feel welcome. Over the course of two weeks, I estimate about a thousand people came through the popup. We personally greeted each and every one of them with a handshake or a hug or a smile.

We ran on human time, not clock time. Conversations took as long as they needed to. There was no rushing. Folks would sit down and hours would go by, just like that, because they were enjoying the space so much.

One night, I saw a man peering through the window with an expression I didn’t recognize. A lot of people looked at us with funny expressions. They were usually confused. But this man didn’t look confused. He looked… ?

“What this is?” he asked with an accent.

“People come in and hang out with each other,” I said.

“I miss so much. Where I grow up, in Africa, we have this everywhere. We sit on floor and listen. New York we have nowhere. Good thing!”

The popup held events, too.

The first event was called Ask the Empath. It’s my own brand of performance art. I invite volunteers from the audience to ask me a question, any question, about their lives. A young lady wanted to know whether to leave her boyfriend. We felt into her feelings together, and the truth bubbled up from her gut: the relationship was over. The answers, I like to show people, are in our bodies, not our minds.

The answers, I like to show people, are in our bodies, not our minds.

We went to uncomfortable places. Bailey organized an event called Heal the Patriarchy, where men and women opened up about how #metoo was affecting them. Turns out, it’s scaring the hell out of men. We hosted a conversation called “Black Anger / White Guilt” and wondered why so many white people, myself included, claim to care about systemic racism but do nothing about it.

We had fun, too. An absurdly precocious eight-year-old girl named Eleanor taught a class on empathy — and started a pillow fight. An actual wizard, with “actual wizard” written on his business card, appeared out of nowhere to lead a wizardry workshop. And late one night, we turned off the lights, opened up a metaphysical portal, and tried to talk to aliens. Can’t say if it worked.

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Our biggest hit, by far, was singles night. It was a like a speed dating event, only a lot slower, where the point was not to meet fellow singles, but to get to know them. Love seekers spilled out onto the street, asking each other deep questions and exploring the joys of conscious touch. I’m betting at least one baby will be born thanks to that night.

People brought their gifts to the space. A muralist transformed the back wall into a rain forest. A reiki master gave sessions away for free. A musician appeared with a saxophone. ABC Carpet and Home loaned us two gorgeous rugs. And my dear friend Mark Abramson, who normally shoots for the New York Times, snapped all the pics you see here, just because he was inspired.

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The popup grew into a community. We made friends the way people made friends before Facebook. As the days went by, people came again and again just to see each other.

Bailey and I did an interview on 1010 WINS, New York’s news radio. The curmudgeonly host, John Montone, was trying his damndest to understand what we were doing. “Is it like ?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But without the numbing effects of alcohol.”

How did we build a living, breathing community in a popup shop in the East Village?

We were consistent. No matter when you showed up, you were always going to find at least one of Bailey, Jessie or me.

We were free. Well, for larger events, we charged. But during the day, there was no selling at all, which allowed people to put their guard down. We didn’t even try to collect your email address. All we wanted was your presence. And to take off your shoes, please.

We cared. That’s not something you can fake. You can’t build a community, not a real one anyway, just because you want to. You have to care about it. Don’t try to will yourself to care, either. Build a community you want to be a part of.

At the Empath Popup, our community was built on authenticity and empathy. I watched hardened New Yorkers break down in tears from the sheer joy of connecting with others in a genuine way, many of them for the first time in their adult lives.

It was the kind of community we forget is even possible. It is.

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