How to Transform Your Subway Commute with Meditation

I spent most of 2014 meditating in the Arizona desert — seven months of silence and solitude. Then I moved to New York City.

After all those months, I figured my meditation practice was too strong for my new surroundings to affect me. Nope. The city tore my zen calm to pieces. My only option was to embrace the chaos of the city and somehow make it a part of my practice.

In the process, I discovered that a pinch of meditation can transform the most soul-crushing parts of city life into uplifting experiences. I started finding hidden pockets of delight in the sound of jackhammers, the swarms of tourists, and even the dreaded subway.

It’s easy to hate the subway — the crowds, the heat, the variety of unique aromas — but taking the train doesn’t have to suck. In fact, all the things that make the subway insufferable also make it a weirdly perfect place for meditation practice. By playing with some simple meditative exercises, you can turn your commute into something you enjoy and even look forward to.

Part 1: Practicing Generosity

One of the main causes of our suffering is a fixation on our “self” and its petty concerns. Am I comfortable enough? Do I have all the things I want? Do people like me? It may seem like we’re looking out for our interests, but we’re actually suffocating ourselves, choking off our ability to enjoy the present moment. One of the best antidotes to this claustrophobic fixation on self is — surprise, surprise — cultivating concern for others. That’s why practicing generosity is a key part of the meditative path.

You may not associate generosity, which we all learned about in kindergarten, with the “exotic” practice of meditation. In reality, meditation is simply a practice of cultivating healthy habits of mind, and generosity is one of those habits. It makes the mind spacious and joyful — which is nice — and obviously the people around you benefit as well. It’s the purest win-win there is. Maybe that’s why the Buddha traditionally taught generosity as his first lesson to new students.

“If you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish. Care for others!”

-The Dalai Lama

Generosity is truly a practice. We tend to think of it as something you are— “I’m a generous person” — but, really, generosity is something you do. Every time you give something you value to someone else who could benefit from it, you dismantle your fixation on self, one generous act at a time, and nourish your own happiness.

The subway is a perfect place to practice generosity. You’re pressed up against a bunch of strangers in a rattling metal tube. Comfort is a limited resource, to put it mildly. The situation is rife with opportunities to pursue your own comfort at the expense of others — or to do something different and open a path for someone else’s comfort and happiness.

Generosity Practice 1: Stand

Here’s the simplest, most powerful generosity practice you can do on the subway: decide to stand whenever there aren’t enough seats. Every time you sit on a crowded train, there’s someone else who has to stand. What if you chose to be the one who stands, to make that other person’s comfort a priority? If that seems like a little too much, you can give up your seat for seniors, pregnant women, or people with disabilities.

You give up so little by standing instead of sitting. It’s such an easy way to make other people feel good. And, in addition to the physical ease of sitting, they also get the warm feeling of having a stranger do something nice for them. And you get the warm feeling of doing something nice for a stranger. Everyone wins.

In fact, every time someone takes a seat on the train — a seat that you left open for them — you can take a second to deliberately feel good that they get to be comfortable, to be happy about their happiness. The Buddha called this feeling mudita, “sympathetic joy.” You might find that this joy for a stranger’s well-being beats the physical comfort of taking a seat yourself.

Generosity Practice 2: Share

Here’s another easy generosity practice: when someone boards your train and asks for help, give something. I’ve definitely sat there, uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed, trying to ignore someone begging on the subway. Sharing what you have feels much nicer. This is another instance, like offering your seat, where giving something away brings more happiness than enjoying the thing yourself.

I prefer to offer food rather than money, so I order 12-packs of Clif Bars online and make sure to always keep two bars in my shoulder bag. I’ve also seen people give metro cards.

When I give, I try not to let the act become rote or automatic. I focus on the person, acknowledge that this is a fellow human being who needs help, and form the wish that whatever I’m giving will bring the person some relief.

“If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”

-The Buddha

These were just a few ideas that work for me, but don’t limit yourself! There as many ways to practice generosity on the subway as there are train delays, loud headphones, and mysterious puddles… so, a lot.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about stilling the mind on the subway, the nature of distraction, and the plague known as Candy Crush.