“If you are regular in your practice, you will shift the field” – John Friend
I used to read like crazy on the subway. I would almost panic if, after procuring a seat, I opened my bag to find that I had left my New Yorker Magazine or my book at home (Was it on the table where I had inhaled my breakfast? Did I toss it on the chair by the door when I put on my coat?).
But one day I became a yoga teacher and something shifted. Suddenly I had so much to do, so many things to think about, and so many practices to implement. I no longer had the desire to read on the subway, which was really very strange because I love to read. I crave books like food. For years I have shared a joke with my similarly-inclined friends about how I want to take a sabbatical from my life so that I can spend a year doing nothing but reading. Do they give grants for that?
I remember my best childhood friend Kristen musing, It’s so unfair, they just keep writing and writing – we can never catch up. It was pretty funny, but there was an anxious passion beneath what she said – a desire to know as much as we could know and to travel down every possible avenue of beauty and creativity available to us. She ended up working in film in LA and I found myself in the NYC art world, supporting myself as an artist by commuting to the far reaches of every borough lecturing about art in the public school systems on behalf of MoMA. This brings me back to the whole subway situation.
Suddenly I wanted to be more fully in the experience I was having at the moment that it was occurring. I wanted to connect with what was going on around me – not that I wanted to engage in conversations with strangers, but I wanted to listen more and escape less. I wanted to soften to the richness of each moment and recognize the interesting-ness of everything. I wanted to become more sensitive, more aware, more engaged and entertained by the world. And the more I did it, the better it became.
I no longer feared the unbearable boredom of the flickering lights, the jockeying for seats, the banality of the beige-yellow-orange subway seats or the clacking of the machinery. I was interested in it all. I admired the clean lines of the stainless steel doors. I wondered why the woman across from me tapped her foot so anxiously and whether the workmen in their dusty clothes were traveling to their construction site or headed home. I found myself listening for mantras in the patterns of sound – the screeching and clattering – the voices – the iPod music overflow – the newspapers – the multilingual conversations. There were so many stories, emotions, plans, and thoughts packed into a small space. Amazing.
There was this practice that I began to do, because, despite my new interest in my immediate commuter reality, its shoving, noise, and dirt still really got to me: people taking up precious subway real estate with their mounds of bags or their widely-spread knees, their dripping umbrellas, their open-air coughing…So I slowly began, one by one, to look for god in every person in my vicinity.
Maybe I would choose the angry guy who crammed me into the corner with his backpack in my face – or the self-absorbed teen eating a pungent slice of pizza and dropping greasy napkins on the floor. I would take them in and then soften. I would think, someone loves this person. This person has aspirations, things they feel passionately about, personal tragedies and victories that I cannot imagine, yet are as significant as my own. And I could see these things in their faces, their postures, making me feel tender toward humanity. I shifted the field.
I spent last weekend with my teacher John Friend. He alluded to that “feeling in the heart when a friend does something that reminds you of god,” and I had this flash of association – of the almost physical feeling of connectivity to the world around me when I regularly did my subway practice. John said that one of the first things his teacher Gurumayi said to him was, “See god in each other.” It was storming outside as he spoke about this, and he invited us to see our experience of the world like the storm – as having a layer of disorder or an appearance of chaos, but if you backed off just enough to see the individual raindrops, there was deep order and amazing beauty.
These days I do most of my reading in the afternoon or evening. Sometimes I can’t wait to get home and read my book. And when I do bring one with me on the train, I usually find that it rests undisturbed in my bag, waiting for a more settled reading time. I often skim through my emails or briefly peruse the NY Times headlines, but sometimes I stop myself, click off my phone, slide it into my bag, and choose to reenter that place of wonder at the world, which, since the moment I discovered it, has been continually available to me.