NYC MTA = Dukkha? Commuting through Samsara 1

nyc subway platform

The Daily Grind

Every city has its own version of commuter hell.  Let’s face it, getting to and from work is frustrating the world over.  London, Paris and Milan are listed among the top ten worst traffic cities in the world.  New York City doesn’t even make the cut.  How is this even possible?  Sure, most of us don’t drive cars to work, and we don’t have to ride the famous chicken buses of Guatemala City or the tuk tuks of Thailand, but we have challenges uniquely our own.  Remember Pizza Rat, the loveable lil’ scamp who could?  And who hasn’t been death defyingly close to those boombox acrodancers who, during the 6.30 crush hour, can remarkably turn three cartwheels and do a backflip with aplomb?  There’s so much going on around us that it’s enough to make one wonder, ‘can you be a Buddhist during a New York City commute?’

pizza Rat

Pizza Rat!

The answer is, yes, we can.  You see, the Buddha said that we are to practice “whether standing, walking, seated or lying down.”  And that includes riding the subway in New York City.  “But wait, the Buddha never even rode the subway!” is a nice try.  But dukkha didn’t come from nothing.  In fact, one could argue that the pali word dukkha, meant to describe the pain or discomfort of being, came from a bad commute 2,600 years ago!  As Joseph Goldstein explains,

The word dukkha is made up of the prefix du and the root khaDu means “bad” or “difficult.” Kha means “empty.” “Empty,” here, refers to several things—some specific, others more general. One of the specific meanings refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel. If the axle fits badly into the center hole, we get a very bumpy ride. This is a good analogy for our ride through saṃsāra.

Okay, so there’s nothing new under the sun.  “But wait?  How?!  How can I cultivate non-attachment when I want a seat on the train!  And how can I practice loving-kindness when I want to kick the person who just pushed me?  And what about that guy who just told me off?  I don’t even know him!”

Yeah, I get it.  Don’t think I don’t, because I feel the same way on my commute, almost daily. There’s no doubt that refraining from wrong speech, guarding the mind and cultivating loving-kindness is more challenging in some situations than others, and that certainly includes riding on NYC mass transit.

“some monk here is very gentle, very meek, and very calm, so long as disagreeable ways of speech do not assail him; but when disagreeable ways of speech do assail the monk, it is then that the monk is to be judged whether he is ‘gentle,’ ‘meek,’ or ‘calm.'”

Whenever I am confronted with these difficulties, I think of the Kakacupama Sutta, the Simile of the Saw.  Here, the Buddha tells us that “some monk here is very gentle, very meek, and very calm, so long as disagreeable ways of speech do not assail him; but when disagreeable ways of speech do assail the monk, it is then that the monk is to be judged whether he is ‘gentle,’ ‘meek,’ or ‘calm.’  So, yeah.  I’m happy on the subway when, it’s not crowded, when I get a seat, when people are polite, don’t yap on their cell phones or play music on their iPhones without headphones.  But it doesn’t always work out that way.  So how, then can someone take their practice off of the cushion and bring it to their bus or subway ride? Well, I’m glad you asked!  Here are a five things I do to create the opportunity for a mindful commute.

Accept What Is

Renowned Buddhist scholar and Therevadan monk Bhikkhu Analayo reminds us that “liberation is not transcending the world [darn!], it is not fighting, but rather, turning to one’s own mind, seeing that the source of trouble is craving; craving in our own minds.  Craving that something be different.”  Once we give up fighting reality, insisting that the MTA should do something about modernizing the transit system, that they only just ran more trains or created more bus lanes, our lives would be better.  You see, we’re never going to win that battle, because that’s a battle we’re creating.

It does no good, except to add aggravation and perturbation to our day.  Settling down,
accepting that situation as it is now, and not as it should be, equips us to do something skillful in regards to the situation.  Maybe we can draft an action plan to improve the Subway system.  Maybe we can write a letter to Governor Cuomo [hint, hint], or maybe we can give up our internal argument and instead read a book or listen to a podcast.  Remember, deciding not to allow internal argumentation isn’t ‘giving in,’ it’s accepting, and ‘accepting’ isn’t ‘liking.’  We can still write a letter to the governor, but now, we’re actually doing something skillful, and from a place of greater ease.


subway commute
When we breathe with intention, we create space, even when there actually is none.  Our option here is to focus on the breath, mindfully and with determination.  Each time the mind goes to, “I wish that guy would get his elbow out of my head,” we calmly bring the mind back on the breath.  “She’s pushing me!”  Breathe.  “I’m never going to fit in this train!” Breathe.  Another option is to practice Tonglen, from the Tibetan tradition.  Pema Chodron instructs as follows:

So in the in-breath you breathe in with the wish to take away the suffering, and breathe out with the wish to send comfort and happiness to the same people, animals, nations, or whatever it is you decide.

Do this for an individual, or do this for large areas, and if you do this with more than one subject in mind, that’s fine… breathing in as fully as you can, radiating out as widely as you can.

The Dalai Lama practices Tonglen every day.  “Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.”  I like to imagine that I’m practicing Tonglen the same time as the Dalai Lama.  In this way, whether in a cave, a meditation hall, or a subway, we can all practice healing together.

Study Buddhist Teachings

I remember when people used to read books instead of phones.  I was always amazed at how many people engaged in spiritual reading in the morning, whether it be the New Testament, the Old Testament, a small leather-bound book of psalms.  It struck me as a way to get the day off on a good footing, to bring goodness to our morning commute in a way that will carry on into the day.  So, a few years ago I decided to follow suit and follow the teachings of the Buddha.  I mean, have you read all those suttas where people get enlightened by just hearing him speak a few lines?  If that isn’t motivation, I don’t know what is!  But I tell you, while we can’t be taught by the Buddha, we still live in a pretty good time.

I found Bhikkhu Bodhi’s class on the Majjhima Nikaya, downloaded it, along with pdf’s of the accompanying suttas, and studied every day on the way to and from work.  This allowed me to change my thinking, to one of anger over my hour and a half commute, to one of gratitude that I had so much time to study.  Is this rationalization?  Maybe.  Did it get me through almost two years of being what is called a ‘super-commuter.’  Indeed!

Mind is All

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us that the mind is the forerunner of all things.  If we speak or act with a pure mind, happiness will follow.  The same is true when thinking with a pure mind.

“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves.”

Thich Nhat Hanh
When the mind is defiled by anger, judgment, impatience, it’s hard to be kind to ourselves, much less others.  Harboring angry mind states makes it easy to act out our anger on others.  This is why it’s important to guard the mind door.  By keeping guard, we prevent the kilesas, or defilements, from entering and save ourselves from producing bad karma as well.  Guarding the mind also helps to keep us centered.

As Thich Nhat Hahn says in The Miracle of Mindfulness, “Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves  . . .  it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.”  And when you think about it, don’t we want every moment of life to be as good as it possibly can be, wherever we are?  Continually watching the mind and uprooting harmful states of mind makes this possible.

Put a Little Loving-Kindness in your Heart

During the time of the Buddha, many monks meditated deep in the forest, and during that time, there were actual forests and wild animals in parts of India that are now urban centers.  During the night, some of the Buddha’s followers became afraid.  There were tree spirits who didn’t like them being among the forest.  The monks hastily went to the Buddha and told him, “look, we can’t do this anymore.  Those tree spirits are wigging us out!”  Buddha told them to go back and continue to practice, but he gave them the metta sutta to protect them from the hijinks of those tree sprites.  Apparently it worked.  I figure if the tree spirits were chilled by the sutta, it can work on New Yorkers as well.

There were times when I listened to Ayya Yeshe’s version of the loving-kindness sutta over and over again, just to keep me in my seat.  As a result, I’ve memorized the sutta myself, and can tell you that having this sutta on call anytime, anywhere, definitely helps to calm arising defilements.

“Wishing, in gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease.”

imagine a field of loving-kindness surrounding you.  When the feeling is strong enough, allow that feeling to expand to the person next to you.  If you have time between your next stop, expand loving-kindness to the person next to them as well.   According to the teachings, when we practice metta, we are temporarily free from all defilements.  Awesomes!

No one ever said riding on the subway was going to be a party.   I mean, who calls their commute a good time, even at its best?  But, it’s a necessary part of life for us New Yorkers, so we might as well make the best of it.  The most effective was to do that is to watch the mind, the body, the breath, and make adjustments to improve the moment in the moment.  Remember what the Buddha says in the Sedaka Sutta:    “Looking after oneself, one looks after others.  Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”  Next stop—liberation.

Regina Valdez

Regina is an Engaged Buddhist and the Community Outreach Coordinator for Buddhist Global Relief. A Buddhist practitioner since 2009, Regina uses the city as a crucible for deepening practice. She's a freelance writer and has lived in New York City for over 20 years.
Regina Valdez

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