The Mindful Commuter

Originally posted in 2013, I thought I’d bring this one to the top of the cue to help commuters, especially my fellow commuting Bostonians make it through the last few weeks of winter:

I must confess, before moving to Boston last year, I was a little afraid of the subway.  This might have something to do with the Kingston Trio song about Charlie riding the MTA and never returning that my folk-loving parents played on their turn-table back in the ’60s when I was just a wee little girl growing up in New Hampshire.


But the T got real for me this winter as I commuted from my home on the South Shore to my office in Harvard Square.  Most of the time I enjoy the commute and try to use the time to practice mindfulness.  It turns out that commuting provides great material for practicing mindfulness.  I get to practice letting go when the train is late and I start to worry if I’m going to make my first appointment.  I get to send loving-kindness to my fellow passengers.  I get to notice the small things that are going well when the train is on time and not over-crowed.   Some mornings are delightful, some are a major-league mindfulness challenge.

One snowy morning two weeks ago, I got on a crowded car full of passengers who were not amused by the spring snow storm.  The car was packed, and there were several stops as we waited for the tracks to clear.

I happened to sit next to a woman who was clearly not doing well.  She had a full garbage bag by her feet and she was rocking back and forth, trying to keep calm on the crowded train.  She had a baseball cap on, and her head was turned toward me in a shy child-like way.  The bill of her cap was bumping my shoulder.  If I had to diagnose her I would guess something in the schizophrenia family of disorders.  But it wasn’t my job to diagnose her, it was my job to be human.  I ever-so-gently leaned toward her to try to let her know she was safe and protected.

Check out our new worksheet on mindful commuting

When the T is full and you are lucky enough to get a seat, you will be staring at standing passengers belt buckles for the duration of your ride.  This can be disconcerting even for those of us with a strong mental constitution and no history of trauma.  My friend beside my continued to rock back and forth as more passengers crammed in the car at every stop, twisting her head toward my shoulder in an attempt to feel safe.  Finally she had had enough, and yelled, “Hey, get the f— away from me! Back off!” to the belt buckle belonging to the young man standing directly in front of her.  This startled-but-kind young man gently said “okay, okay” and moved to the other side of me.

I practically jumped out of my skin when she yelled.  Part of me wanted to get up and make my way to the other side of the train.  But another part of me, the more mindful side, remained seated, and remained present for this woman who was so obviously struggling with some pretty powerful demons.  I continued to let her burrow her baseball cap into my shoulder.  Looking back, I kind of wish I did more.

When we reached Harvard Square I got up to exit the train.  Coming face-to-face with the young man, I said, “rough way to start your day huh?”  He said “Ya, double-whammy,” referring to the snow storm, and his interaction with the woman.  I left the woman on the train feeling unsettled, wondering if I had helped at all by staying by her side, knowing that my mindfulness practice made a really bad commute bearable, and allowed me to not completely close off to the struggles of those around me.  Spring will return to Boston eventually and I’m looking forward to savoring some of the benefits of commuting in good weather.

Got a mindful commuting story to share with us?  This is the place.

We wish you twenty minutes of mindfulness every day!

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