From the vaults: I no longer suffer from a 90-minute commute, but I look fondly back on my TTC Zen. Relive it with me.
People stare. I’m sure of it. How can they not? I’m just sitting there, eyes closed, clearly not asleep but clearly not part of the hermetical little world hurtling down the subway tracks. My head isn’t drooping incrementally the way it does with those suffering from insufficient sleep, jerking spasmodically up when their chins hit their chests. No, I’m sitting there as quiet and motionless as a dresser’s mannequin. My eyes are shut for what must seem like no good reason to the casual observer. Little do they know I’m secretly meditating.
I have no choice. Most mornings for the last 17 years it’s been my practice to meditate for 20 minutes before heading out the door. It started after a particularly long, dark night of the soul in ‘99 as a kind of new year’s resolution. I was introduced to the fundamentals in karate class as a seven-year-old, and picked up the rest of what I needed to know from books. In the intervening years it’s become an essential start to my day, a check-in and a chance to focus, to inventory how I’m feeling, to balance my mind before the day starts, and to bring my awareness wherever it feels it needs to go.
Unfortunately, my 90-minute commute means I get up far earlier than any night owl should have to. That means economizing time, which means an extra 20 minutes to meditate at home each morning is a luxury I can rarely squeeze in. What does that leave me? A focused 15 minutes on the shaky, rattling, noisy tin can rocketing northward through The Big Smoke each morning.
How it’s possible to meditate with all those distractions is a paradox: the distractions actually help maintain focus. Without the swaying and clickety-clacking, snatches of conversation, acceleration, deceleration and station announcements, it’s easy to get distracted by “monkey mind,” as people far more zen than I refer to it: that propensity for your brain to become aware that you’re trying to focus and chill out, and thus start thinking about what you’re doing, making associations, leaps, observations and worse. Before you know it you’re remembering to pick up Drano on the way home, worrying about your 9:15 presentation, reliving how good the strawberries were at breakfast and hey – how did I end up mental miles away all of a sudden?
The stimuli provided by the Toronto Transit Commission mean the gears in my brain suffering from a deficit of attention have something to chew on besides themselves. That makes it possible to focus, to remember what I’m doing and then to let it go. Simply being able to manage those distractions is a useful practice in and of itself.
So there I sit, eyes shut, looking sightlessly across the car, bag on my lap, hands crossed over top just in case anyone decides to try lifting something (it hasn’t happened yet). I’ve only got so many minutes before St. Clair station, when the train will likely make a short turn back downtown, forcing everyone off. So I have to make the most of the time I have, which provides an extra incentive to focus. And so I begin.
10 – 9 – 8 (“The next station is St. Andrew – St. Andrew station.”) 7 – 6 – 5 (Someone sits down next to me) 4 – 3 – 2 (Is that garlic? Who has garlic for breakfast?). 1. Repeat.
On a bad day I’m too frazzled to really calm that monkey mind and prepare for the day. Maybe a kid sits down next to me with some exceptionally bad death metal bleeding out of his earbuds. Maybe this is the one train in ten where the P.A. is exceedingly loud (“THE NEXT STATIONS IS ST. ANDREW – ST. ANDREW STATION!”). Maybe the guy who just sat down next to me really should have taken that shower he skipped this morning.
Or maybe the distractions are just right, and I can tune out the monkey mind and wipe the slate clean for another day.
Relax. Focus. Reset. Commute.