Caravaggio’s models came from the Roman streets, after all. They looked it, weather-beaten and artfully staged. “Two pilgrims, one with muddy feet and the other with a dirty, threadbare cap,” is how Caravaggio’s nemesis, Giovanni Baglione, described the painted pilgrims. The “hoi-polloi made a great fuss,” he added about the work’s popularity. He meant the masses who streamed in from the four corners of Europe and from around the corner. These were the people who today pass through the piazza and climb the basilica’s steps. They were us.
Outside, squinting in the sun, I fished for coins to give the guys who were still on the church steps, although they were no longer asking for money. One of them, hunched but gazing intently at the sky, watching a pigeon fly by, had taken off his sneakers.
The recent departure of the mural came as abruptly and unexpectedly as its arrival in May. One day residents of the London borough of Haringey were the proud owners of a work by the famous graffiti artist Banksy, who for some exciting reason had placed it onto a dingy wall in their very neighborhood; the next day they were not.
MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.
This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.