Zen and the art of subway riding

From In The Fray Magazine – Focusing on the current moment and not worrying about what comes in the next hour, day, or week is counterintuitive to life in 21st-century New York. (Really, 21st-century anywhere. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that even Easter Island, a place so remote it is 2,500 miles from any other land mass, now has high-speed Internet.) My M.O., I’m embarrassed to say, usually involves something like simultaneously eating dinner with the radio on to hear what’s happening now, watching TV with the sound turned down to get the weather for tomorrow, and reading the newspaper to find out what happened yesterday.

So I’m conducting a small experiment, and I’m doing it on the subway. During a commute I decided I would just ride home. I wouldn’t distract myself from the present reality with a book or music or falling into a strange state of semi-consciousness, a condition that seems to befall me during these winter months when I leave for work in the dark and come home from work in the dark. (Note to self: this topic deserves its own post.)

I tried this twice last week with very interesting results.

Both times I chose the evening commute because it’s the time of day I am in the most need of decompressing. After a hectic and stressful day at the office, I generally spend my subway time in lament of the fools I’ve had to suffer during the day and the ridiculousness that is often the multi-national corporation. (Motto: Red tape is your friend.)

At first I found myself at a loss of where to rest my eyes. The ads rimming the cars only hold your attention for so long. I couldn’t very well overtly look at people. In other places, it’s welcoming and friendly to look someone in the eye. In New York, especially on the subway, it’s an act of aggression. But curiosity killed the cat, as they say, and I ended up stealing glances at people I thought interesting enough to take the risk.

Across from me was a woman reading a magazine. She wore a sort of half grin that never faded, not once during my ride. A green paisley scarf was wrapped around her head in a sort of swashbuckler way. I didn’t see any tendrils of hair peeking out from beneath the scarf, and I couldn’t help but notice that her eyebrows were missing and her skin was completely without the faint peach fuzz we all have but spend a lot of time and money to keep under control. Had I been engrossed in a book or newspaper I would have never noticed. I wanted to tell her, “I see you. You’re not just one of many, part of the masses (leading lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau would point out).” Then my writer’s brain checked in. That’s where I start filling in the blanks when not enough information has been provided to me. Maybe she is in remission after many long months of treatment, thus the smile. A happy secret she has all to herself. Or maybe it’s too late. She’s been given a sentence — two weeks, a month, three months. Her smile instead is a wistful one, thinking of all the things she’ll soon miss that she never gave a second thought, like riding the subway for instance.

I transferred to the 2 train, which was oddly empty, so I sat between a woman nodding off and a heavy-set man. Upon further investigation, he wasn’t heavy at all. In fact he was quite thin. He just seemed thick because he was wearing every piece of clothing he owned — at least three shirts and two sport coats on top and two pairs of pants, plus several layers of socks. Like a little kid extra-bundled to play in the snow, he couldn’t bend his arms at the elbow. It was definitely chilly outside, but I guessed this was an effort to thwart potential thieves wherever it was he laid his head.

He mumbled something and made a quick exit which gave me the opportunity to notice a mother with a stroller. She was young and pretty and thin, so I immediately thought: nanny. But no. The diamond on her ring finger could have been used as a method of self-defense. She had long, black hair and swung her head in such a way that made me wonder if she had been watching too many Cher videos. But even that didn’t irritate me as much as her need to narrate her every move and schedule for the rest of the day’s events to the little girl, who might have been all of two, in a sing-songy voice at a volume for the rest of the car to hear. “Let me put your binky in my bag. We don’t want to lose it, do we? No, we don’t. I’m just going to put these mittens on you. Okay? Okay. I’ll put the mittens on. Here goes the left one. Putting on the left mitten. Now the right one. Right. Right. Right. I should comb your hair. This is a comb. C-O-M-B. You want to look so pretty for your play date with Tyler, don’t you? I’ll drop you off there and pick you up before dinner. Then we’ll have mashed potatoes, your favorite.” In a few stops, they left the car and I could hear her voice trail all the way down the platform until, mercifully, the doors closed.

I know this isn’t exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh had in mind when he wrote of staying in the present moment. In fact, he admonished people whose minds are like monkeys “swinging from branch to branch throughout the forest.” But I’d like to think he’d cut me a break as a novice on the road to mindfulness.


  1. Chris, I wish I could take credit for the great article, but it was from In The Fray Magazine.

    Thanks for the comment though, I try to practice mindfulness anywhere and everywhere as well. As I like time at home for “proper” meditation it helps when out in the real world.

  2. I think your on right track. I do seated zen meditation (zazen) daily. however i find mindful experiments like the you have on here on the subway very helpful. it expand awareness and promotes intuitiveness. writing, walking, eating, subway riding, and motorcycle riding… any time is a good time for meditation.


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