Subway Meditation

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By Ankita Rao

As a journalist on a budget living in New York City, the subway has been more than just a means of commuting. It has served, on different occasions, as a safe spot from an unsavory late night crowd, a mobile office for article writing, and a haven from falling snow.

But the silver trains can also make you feel like the marble in a pinball machine, knocked back and forth in the deafening underground tunnels between Queens and the Bronx. I’ve spent hours on the train with my head in my hands, waiting for the first breath of above-ground air.

When I moved to the city, I was thrilled to have the cheap network of trains at my disposal. I could go to the beach at Coney Island or head up to Harlem for a drink and some reggae, all with the same unlimited mustard-colored Metro card. I would smile at kids, appreciate the Chinese flutist, comment on cute shoes, and ask people directions. I wasn’t a naïve country girl in the city for the first time, but I wanted to make every day an adventure.

A few months later, however, I was turning up Erykah Badu on my iPhone and escaping into my own daydreams as the train buckled and heaved toward my stop. If I spoke to someone, it was to get around them or apologize for getting in their way. Instead of finding the station buskar's music charming, it became noise bleeding into my own playlist.

It’s clear in the way I, and my fellow passengers, react to being shoved up against the door, or waiting for the 20-minute delay, that there is little shanti, or peace, reserved for daily commutes.

Not long ago, a bit of unsolicited awareness crept in to one of my commutes. It's easy to stay present at a beautiful yoga retreat in the hills, or know my purpose doing a volunteer project in a low-income neighborhood. But could I bring that kind of attention, every day, to my subway rides? Could I actually yank my practice off the mat, as I purported to do?

I started to experiment. First, by taking more notice of what was around me, and then by identifying what was going on inside.

Subways reveal the city’s pulse quite clearly— from the pressed and perfumed investment bankers to the Nigerian immigrant holding a bundle of purses and wallets to sell on the Upper West Side. Since trains link a range of neighborhoods, the disparity among passengers can be unnerving— like a microcosm of our uneven economic situation. On the New York train you will find both the angriest and kindest of people. You meet thoughtful neighbors but also get demeaning glances for the way you're dressed. It’s the yin and yang of transport.

By purposely trying to stay mindful, I immediately recognized my ignorance about my fellow passengers. I often gave my seat to pregnant women or elderly people, but I hadn’t noticed the needs behind the weary lines etched around a laborer's eyes, or a mother at her wits end with a gaggle of young, rowdy children. Just by waking myself up, I found a little more compassion, a bit of empathy.

I also found myself surrounded by artists and thinkers. I eavesdropped on conservations about philosophy and education, and peeked at Kindles to find people reading the same books as I was. I wasn’t about to strike up conservation with every person reading Outliers, but it was the tiny dose of human connection I needed.

My second experiment was to turn inward. I would set a time to keep my eyes closed and do a mini-meditation. I wanted to practice having a quiet mind in a noisy place; be able to focus my attention without the crutch of a dimly lit room and a comfortable pillow. Between 42nd Street and South Ferry I would put a hand on my stomach and feel each rise and fall, trying to keep my drishti between my eyebrows. Some weeks, this was the only time I meditated in the entire seven days.

I have yet to reach a deep enough quiet, and I by no means transcended my daily routine. But every now and then, when the doors are sliding shut, and people are rushing and yelling, and the shuffle of everyday New York is at it’s peak, the chaos becomes a muted vibration to be harnessed as a new version of silence. Almost like an Om.

Ankita Rao is a writer and yoga instructor in New York City. Find her online at her website or on Twitter.