New York City is rough. You don’t have to be.
We New Yorkers face challenges unique to any other city in the country. We are over 8 million strong, packed onto various connected islands, which are all knit together via subway, bus or ferry. We don’t have a lot of personal space, and instead of driving around in our own comfortable bubble, aka ‘the car,’ we largely get to and from our collective destinations with hundreds of other people we don’t know and probably will never see again. We do a lot of walking and are often out in the elements, whether rain, snow or the occasional heat wave. Despite the large number of people living in close proximity, it’s easy to become isolated and lonely.
It can also be difficult to keep a positive outlook—we can’t hide from social ills like those in other cities. Every day we see suffering, whether it’s the homeless person sleeping on the subway or sidewalk, drug addicts nodding off and panhandlers with serious physical or mental issues. What compassionate action can we take to keep ourselves and our fellow New Yorkers in a mind of equanimity?
An easy step is to just look up. Look up from your phone, book or iPad, and look at the other people around you. If you make eye contact, maybe offer a smile. Something as small as a smile can make a big difference in a person’s day. It could be their only source of human contact for the day. Open a door, but don’t just open a door, look at the person you’re opening the door for and smile at them. Instead of going through a self checkout line at the drug store, stand in line and have a cashier check you out. See if you can offer a word or two to the people in line, or to the clerk. Something, anything, to connect. That’s compassion in action.
We’re lucky. We have to go out and be around other people as an everyday part of our lives. We have a chance every single day to have meaningful interactions with fellow New Yorkers. Make a decision to ease the day for at least one person, in some way, every day.
Commuting Equanimously through the City
We can experience sensory overload just getting to work. Subways are crowded and buses are late. Rather than viewing our commutes through the lens of aversion, we can look at them as a petri dish for our practice. How do we embody our spiritual principles outside of a meditation hall? Do we exhibit compassion for all living beings, or do we behave like hungry ghosts in search of the last seat on the crosstown bus? Do we align our behavior with our core beliefs of loving-kindness and equanimity?
Instead of angling for a seat on the subway or bus, look around and see who may need it more. If you have a seat, pause at each stop, observe the newly boarded passengers and see if someone elderly, pregnant, or standing with difficulty. If so, might this be a good time to practice renunciation and offers a seat to them? If you’re standing in a crowded subway, see if you can practice compassion for yourself and others on the train rather than grousing about the situation. Remember that each thought or feeling plants the seeds for the next experience and set your mind to generating good karma.
What happens if we are reading and a group of friends board the train talking loudly. Observe the feelings this brings up, and if there’s anger, recognize, ‘this is dukkha,’ or suffering. See if you can observe these emotions rather than pushing them away. Watch them as they arise and see if you can observe them as they (hopefully!) diminish. This is anicca, or impermanence, in action. In this way, our practice can be with us, even in difficult circumstances, and we can choose to practice sending compassion to ourselves and those around us.
Alienation in the Big Apple
Even in a city as big as New York, a feeling of isolation and loneliness can creep into our lives. Technology can make these feelings even stronger. An increasing number of are experiencing chronic loneliness, which is associated as a significant risk factor for heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempt. With the growing number of Americans experiencing chronic loneliness, it is now being considered a public health threat. What can we do to take care of our fellow New Yorkers who may be suffering from such loneliness?
Technology disconnects us. We can regain a sense of connection, and rekindle it for others, by recognizing each others’ existence. Next time you’re at the drug store, skip the self checkout line and head over to the line with a cashier. Ask them how their day has been, with genuine interest. Speak with your neighbors once in awhile. You don’t have to be besties but at least look and smile,and speak a word or two in the elevator rather than staring at your phone or reading your mail.
“It’s clear that without each other, we can’t possibly make it through the day.”
Unlike other major cities, New Yorkers have the opportunity to connect. See how many times throughout the day you can make tiny connections with your fellow New Yorkers: at the green market, bodega, with the bus driver. When you hold the door open for someone, turn around and smile at them. Our sanghas are an important place to develop and strengthen our, and others, sense of belonging. So say hi to a fellow sangha member you’ve not seen in awhile. Being recognized makes everyone feel good, especially New Yorkers.
We New Yorkers have a blessing and a challenge: How to deal with the suffering that surrounds us. The most ubiquitous form of suffering is the large number of people living among us who are homeless. How do we recognize these people without hardening ourselves to their suffering? At the same time, how do we feel compassion without sinking into a pit of despair? The most important thing to do, as people of compassion, is to recognize them. See them. Do not look through them, as if they are invisible. Many homeless and former homeless speak of the poison of invisibility as just as painful if at times more painful than actually being without a home.
You can do something to help affirm their human dignity, even if it means just making eye contact. You don’t have to get into a long conversation, but saying a word or two can go a long way to recognizing their existence. No, these actions won’t solve the problem of homelessness, but it can do much to help people feel better. Not all people who are homeless are homeless forever. See what they might need and offer it–socks, food, even an umbrella. If they are asleep, leave some food at their side. There are many homeless people who fall through the cracks of social services and nave no support. Not from family, not from friends, not from anyone. How would we want others to treat us if we were in their situation?
Lastly, join Compassion NYC in our many opportunities to make life better for everyday New Yorkers. We have an events page that lists upcoming actions. See if any interest you. If you know of other opportunities that we can include in our calendar, feel free to drop us a line with your suggestions. As New Yorkers, and people of compassion, we choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.