While Ram Dass was absolutely right in cautioning that “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family,” you don’t need to leave town for this reality check. You can get it every morning when you commute.
Based on mine, I was probably adding 13 lifetimes to my tab every single day.
The good news is that I won’t have to commute in my next lifetime.
The bad news is that’s because I’ll be a dung beetle.
This was gonna require a major overhaul.
The Old Way: Let the Rat Race Begin
Here’s how my normal commute went.
I put on my game face as soon as I left the house, steeling myself. At my Brown Line El stop (that’s Chicago for above-ground train), I’d barrel through the station turnstyle, barely breaking stride.
If someone stood on the escalator instead of walking, I’d take the stairs to get to the platform faster. (In the winter, this actually makes sense: you can literally get frostbite waiting for the next train.)
I nearly always got a seat, and I’d read, blocking out everyone and everything around me.
Jockeying for Position
This cocoon didn’t last, however, because I had to transfer at Belmont. This was bad. By the time the Red Line subway gets to Belmont, it’s packed like a sardine can.
I stood at the platform’s end so I’d be in the prime spot to easily exit ahead of the swarming crowd when I got off. The incoming train never stopped at the same place, however (maybe this was the drivers’ way of messing with us), so if I wasn’t close to the door, it’d fill up and I’d have to wait for the next one.
When the doors did open, the train people looked at us platform people with disdain – and sometimes hostility – as we grimly pushed our way on. (Once we became train people, we did the same to the platform people at the next stops.)
Getting a seat was out of the question, so I made a beeline to the left-side doors, which only opened once before my stop. If I could get there, I’d be as undisturbed as one can be slammed up against five other people’s body parts. In those tight quarters, it was phone reading or nothing.
My Back up Against a Wall
I’ll do almost anything to get my back against a wall. I was stalked in college, and ever since, I’m hypervigilant about who is or might be coming up behind me. The wall spot also means I don’t have to surf the ride without holding onto anything.
At my stop, I bursted out of the train like a rodeo bull, and then marched up the escalator, onto the streets, and into my building – to wait in a long line for my $5 security-blanket-to-face-the-day soy latte.
By 9am, I felt like I’d already been in battle.
Need for a Change in Direction
Taking a step back, it was blatantly obvious how insane this was.
It wasn’t very effective to sit on a meditation cushion for 30 minutes and then undo it all with that. Plus, it was aggravating my TMJ something awful.
I considered my options.
- No commute – Until I win the lottery, I need to work. Commute was staying.
- Alternative transportation – I don’t have a car, limo drivers didn’t volunteer, and Google Maps said the walk takes 2 hours and 14 minutes. It’d be the train.
- Change myself – Why does it always come back to this?!?!
If You Want to Change a Situation, Change Yourself
With options 1 and 2 clearly infeasible, I accepted reality and went with #3.
I needed some help, so I looked to the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and Sharon Salzberg. Each is a mindfulness master, and they both offer very practical, accessible advice that even I can sometimes understand.
Presence, Peace, and Lovingkindness
Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh believes every moment can be joyful when we are fully present. He sees everyday occurrences (like red lights in traffic, for example) as opportunities to wake us up to the present moment and to connect with and feel compassion for all beings.
Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t just say these words from some peaceful Buddhist monastery. He’s walked the walk in a war zone.
As the Vietnam War escalated, Thich Nhat Hanh took to the streets, leading a movement of nonviolence, peace, and compassion as war and death raged all around him. He so inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. that King nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
As challenging as my commute may feel sometimes, it’s certainly not a war zone (most days).
Sharon Salzberg calls the practice of lovingkindness revolutionary because it “has the power to radically change our lives, helping us cultivate true happiness in ourselves and genuine compassion for others.”
Lovingkindness practice changes our brains in profound ways. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson used sophisticated EEG and fMRI technology to find that experienced lovingkindness meditators showed substantially more activation in the insula region of the brain, responsible for our ability to empathize and attune to others’ feelings.
Other studies demonstrate that even novice lovingkindness meditators show increases in generosity and increased activity in brain areas involved in empathy and increasing positive emotions.
Heck, I’d be psyched to be less cranky – those brain changes would be quite a lucky strike extra.
Lovingkindness it would be.
Traditional Lovingkindness Practice
Lovingkindness begins with loving acceptance of oneself, then extends first to loved ones, neutral people, and finally, difficult people or enemies.
Bring up each person, including yourself, fully in your mind’s eye, picturing him/her smiling and full of joy and remembering their positive qualities.
As you focus on each person, repeat a set of phrases that express your loving intentions. You can choose any phrases you like, but the important thing is that you deeply connect with the words, sending your intention with each and every statement.
May I (or the other person) be safe from harm.
May I be healthy in body, mind, and spirit.
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be happy and joyous.
If it’s too difficult to genuinely mean these words or if anger or irritation arise when you think of a difficult person, don’t do it for them now. Wait until you’re further into your practice – and be compassionate with yourself and acknowledge that your intentions are good.
Last, but definitely not least, notice how this practice makes you feel.
Having practiced lovingkindness before, I was familiar with it (even if I wasn’t exactly doing it frequently).
I put it into commuter action – and man, are my mornings different.
When I get onto that packed subway car, I still move to the door or wall if possible. Then I focus on my breathing and what’s happening in my body. (Sometimes I close my eyes to keep out the distractions.)
I start the lovingkindness meditation, beginning with myself, repeating the phrases as I soak up those intentions.
Now the stealth fun begins.
I focus on each person around me, and since I don’t know them personally, I connect with them by remembering what we all want – safety, health, happiness, love, etc.
Once I feel connected to the person, I silently repeat the phrases – May he/she be safe. May he/she be healthy. May he/she be filled with lovingkindness. May he/she be happy and joyous. Then I move on to someone else and keep going until I get to my stop.
It’s like being Santa with a bag full of invisible presents.
I’ve been doing this for about two months now, and here’s what I’ve found:
The ride – and my day – goes much better. The commute passes quickly, and I feel less anxious (and less hostile) about being in such a crowded space. I feel lighter, more energized, and peaceful. It’s definitely a bright spot.
Lovingkindness is a revolutionary act. With all the distrust, anger, and hate splayed across the news, spreading kindness is a powerful counterforce. It doesn’t even matter whether people know I’m doing it or not. Think of it as covert ops, Buddhist style.
People notice. Here’s the wild thing: when I genuinely connect with someone, they usually seem to sense it. Even though I don’t stare when sending kindness (this is a Chicago subway – hellooo…), about 70% of the time, the person stops what he/she is doing, looks around the train, and often catches my eye.
Coincidence? Maybe. But I don’t think it is.
I believe it’s the power of compassionate connection. What would it be like if a train car of people were doing it. Or the entire train. Or everyone commuting…
Give it a try and see how what it does to your commute.
Enjoy the ride, feel free to send some lovingkindness my way, and of course, let me know how it goes.