Shortly after I began attending my first and only meditation training class, my teacher began a session by claiming meditation could be done anywhere; the ‘meditator’ should not worry about finding the best or the correct place to do ‘sits.’ Sit anywhere; find a support for your back so you can sit upright; but if you can’t you can meditate lying down. I found this catholic attitude to the position and location of the meditation sit refreshingly non-stifling. I found the last of my many excuses to not meditate melting away: no longer could I complain about the discomforts of meditation sits. So I began meditating. I would meditate at home in my living-room, sometimes in my daughter’s room when our household was busy, in an academic library, at a friend’s home. All I needed was a chair and a quiet spot.
And it didn’t have to be too quiet either. All I had to do was sit comfortably, close my eyes, and meditate. If noise was present, then I had to be mindful of that too: acknowledge the noise, notice its presence, but don’t dwell on it; do pay attention to what happens if you find yourself trying to ‘process’ the noise. The key was to acknowledge that meditation was about mindfulness, not about escape from the every-day, or beguilement. Meditation asked me to be present in the present, not absent in the present. In a mindful way.
With all that said, one logical venue for meditation became apparent: the New York City subway. I often read in subway cars; indeed, they were one of my primary reading venues in my daily life in the city. But I never thought of them as a place of tranquility even though, quite clearly, they were for an experienced New York City commuter like me. All I had to do was find a seat, open a book, and very often I would be ‘lost’; a reading reverie had caused me to miss my intended station of disembarkation on more than one occasion. So why not meditate?
An opportunity presented itself soon enough: one day, while working in the library, I missed my afternoon meditation session by the stacks. Now, time was running out; I still had to catch the subway back to Brooklyn to pick up my daughter from after-school care. I would have to meditate on the subway if I wanted to get my session in before nighttime parenting duties began. And so it came to be that I took the Q train downtown, scouted for a seat, found one, plopped myself down, secured my backpack between my legs, pushed myself back, and closed my eyes.
I sat for twenty minutes, while the subway took me from downtown Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn, through Chinatown, over the Manhattan Bridge. All around me I could hear sounds, feel sensation, smell aromas: the train scraping and screeching on the tracks, station and delay announcements, phone notifications, the occasional murmured conversation, french fries being eaten, my body moved and swayed, my head drooped, bodies around me moved and shifted as fellow passengers arranged themselves in various configurations for standing and sitting.
I was in a subway car; I was present, not absent; I was mindful. I’m a human being; sight is my overpowering sensory modality. With the eyes closed, a different world pops into view. That day, while supposedly ‘checking out,’ I was more aware and sensitive to a certain dimension of the interior of a subway car than I had ever been with my eyes closed. I hadn’t gone anywhere; but I was still in a different place. On the subway, that was true literally, and figuratively.