"Thank you for the calm and serenity you are spreading! Sooo pleasant. And: Thanks for the easiness you smile with when someone interrupts you..."
How did he react?
On his way out he took my note and said, "Okay..."
How did I feel?
The perfect meditation place. What do you think of when reading this? A temple? A beach? A mountain range? A trippy moment at some magical spot full of breath, calm, spaciousness? Or maybe, “Meditation. Weird stuff. Tried it once, doesn't work for me.”? Whatever you associate, here is a bet. I will tell you does not come to mind: A smelly subway train. Am I right?
Meditating on the subway, to me that sounds like spending your bridal night at a comfort station. Or reading a philosophical text at a techno club: Just as little fun as I would have concentrating on Wittgenstein with a heavy base tickling my body I would enjoy closing my eyes and focusing on my breath while people's kebab pieces were raining down on my legs, their gossip about their coworkers was intruding into my ears and their shoes were leaving grey marks on mine. Spacing out during my rush hour commute? Absolutely impossible.
Guess what: I am all wrong.
Since yesterday I know that the subway is a great meditation spot after all. The meditation master disproved me. Here is what happened:
Sleep deprived and cranky I entered the U7 at Yorckstraße. A neverending series of classes behind me I counted down the minutes until closing my apartment door behind me. The train was so crowded I was lucky to find a seat. To my left a lady was stridently discussing her tinder matches on the phone. Next to her sat a Turkish family whose mom tried to keep her twins from pulling each other's hair. Fulminations and vociferous protest were involved. Several people were spacing out, their eyes either clinging to a smartphone or the Berliner Fenster screen. They did not seem to notice the soundscape. I heard boys fight over soccer stars, a homeless beg for money, an elderly lady soliloquize in a corner, stringing together swear words I did not even know existed. Berlin transport at its best. I scanned my bag for my earphones, ready to put on a tune loud enough to zoom me out. I could not find them. They were probably still lying on my desk. I sighed and lifted my gaze. Right across from me sat a man.
His dress shoes were holding a briefcase, his suit pants were perfectly ironed. On each of his thighs lay one of his hands, the palms facing upwards. His eyes closed, his back straight, his face radiating with relaxation. There was a sense of calm in his expression that I had seen before: He was meditating. I kept looking at him for half a minute. He stayed motionless. As time passed I felt my shoulders release and my jaw soften. Watching the man was like hiding under the only tree in sight on a field in a rainstorm. I did not want to avert my gaze. Without me noticing the train stopped. People got off, others hopped on. The seat next to the man became vacant. A lady with a massive backpack and a child in her arms slumped into it. Her kid fell on the meditator’s lap. He got thrown against the window behind him. The mom laughed. For a split second there was fright on the meditator's face. I felt like someone had just cut my tree in the storm. But then: He took another breath. Slightly perked his eyebrows up. Next he slowly opened his eyes and turned his head. He still looked irritated. However as soon as he saw the child his eyes relaxed and he smiled. Bringing his head back to center he closed his eyes again. His face went back to stillness.
I was amazed. Not only did he close his eyes and focus on his breath in this surrounding, he even managed to maintain his calm once twenty kilos landed on him out of nowhere. I wanted to tell him how beautiful his radiance was and how impressed I was by the easiness of his reaction. How thankful I was to have spotted him. That he had just taken a lot of stress off me, in only a minute of taking in his vibe. However I knew the last thing I wanted to do was to interrupt his practice. I wondered: How could I say something without saying something? Finally I took a used ticket from my wallet and wrote a message on its back:
“Thank you for the calm and serenity you are spreading! Sooo pleasant. And: Thanks for the easiness you smile with when someone interrupts you :)"
Two stops later he got up. I handed him the note on his way out. He looked at me in surprise and said, "Okay-...". The door signal shrilled. He hopped off.
Yeah! This man got me thinking. After he had left I wondered why he chose the subway for meditation. I remembered a Yoga teacher of mine who would put on a disturbing soundtrack to her class from time to time, preaching "If you can't find a steady breath and a quiet mind practicing Yoga to a bunch of hardcore songs, how are you going to make it out there? Yoga is not designed for your mat. This practice is supposed to get your mind ready for the challenges life brings."
Yesterday, after the meditator had left the train, with the tinder expert next to me still weighing up the ups and downs of her last three dates and the Turkish mom lifting her kids from their seats, ready to get off, I realized something: Maybe meditating on the subway is not equal to spending your bridal night at a comfort station after all. Sure, if you are able to find romance and bliss with your spouse between dirt and toilet-wall-scribbling it probably means you are a hell of a spontaneous and easy going couple (or two full on crazy people), just like finding stillness in the subway tells you something about the stability of your meditation practice. It is a good sign. However I don't consider the idea of a bridal night a regular practice or challenge in itself. I see celebration and enjoyment in it. That's all. Meditation on the other hand is an activity which requires discipline and grows through time. It is a means to various things. One of them might be meeting the challenges in your life more even tempered, another one might be grounding down between two appointments, like rebooting a computer, or experiencing unity. Whatever reason the meditation master had he sure picked a great spot to practice at. I am convinced of that now. After all meditating at a dreamy location is a great place to start and return to while finding stillness within the masses might be a different level of intensity (if that is what you are looking for in your spiritual practice after all).
Once I had figured all that I decided to have a bite of subway stillness for myself. I tried meditating on the U7 today. It worked better than expected: Though I got distracted from time to time I left the train feeling more relaxed than before I had hopped on. I have no idea whether or not today's neighbor is on tinder, blessedly. In return for not knowing I got a soft pair of shoulders once I got off- and I did not even have to wreck my ears by listening to my subway playlist on full volume for that. All I had to do was close my eyes and breathe. To me that is a fair deal. Thank you, meditation master, for inspiring me! From now on I will follow your lead more often.