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October 2, 2019

The Art of Observation: what I learned from becoming the Witness on the F Train.

It’s day two of my vacation in Brooklyn, New York.

I walk to the Jay Street Metro Tech subway. It’s a busy station, and I hope to get a seat on the F train. As much as I love jumping in an Uber, it’s much more economical and faster to take the subway.

The New York metro is a fascinating place to be an observer.

I slowly walk down the two flights of grimy stairs to the underground world, trying to be mindful in a city where everyone seems to be in a rush to get to their destination. I notice the impatience that surrounds me and choose to ignore the irritated looks. I’m on vacation; I can afford to lose track of time.

I see a rat on the tracks, sniffing around, eagerly looking for some scraps to eat. They never travel alone, so there must be more than one. My eyes wander, and I start regretting my decision of canceling the Uber. The train stops, and I get on. I find a seat in the corner, close to the door.

I love watching people on the train. I become an observer, the witness watching those around me. I am anonymous, like a fly on the wall.

I see a mother hugging her toddler on her first day of school. She holds on to her tightly as if she never wants to let her go. The little girl’s eyes roam around, curiously examining her new world on the subway.

Three teenagers are chatting about their math teacher and the new class schedule. They are trying to figure out if they will have time this year to hang out after school on Wednesdays like the last term.

A tall, lean gentleman in a brown leather jacket stands with his briefcase on the floor in between his legs. He is leaning against the pole while glued to the last few pages of his book. I try to see what he is reading without being too conspicuous. He doesn’t seem to be holding onto anything, and I hope he doesn’t stumble and fall on the Asian lady beside me playing Candy Crush, oblivious of her surroundings.

A young man wearing a red hoodie and a red and black backpack sits in the window seat, staring out into the darkness as the train rushes through the tunnel.

The passenger sitting across from me has fallen asleep; her head tips back, and her mouth falls open. I remember hearing a myth the other day that humans ingest eight spiders a year in their sleep. I wonder if I should warn her.

We come to our next stop. There is a sudden jerk, and then some movement as a few passengers get off. A ragged lady gets on the train. She looks like she just rolled out of bed—her blond hair looks like it hasn’t been brushed in three days, and her skirt and top look frayed. She is hungry and begs for some change to purchase a meal for tonight. Everyone ignores her, including myself—the typically acceptable behavior on the subway.

No one makes eye contact; it’s easy when you can look down at your phone and pretend as if you don’t notice. She is anonymous like me, except I have dinner plans.

I recognize that I have something in common with all these people around me. I too was once a mother taking my toddler to school on her first day, experiencing that mixed feeling of relief and anxiety of leaving my child with strangers.

I too was that teenager, happy to see my friends after a long summer break, or the person unable to put down that great paperback. I too, have had days when I stare into nothingness and allow my mind to wander into the darkness. I didn’t accept the invite to play Candy Crush; however, I do keep my mind occupied by writing on my phone, and I wonder if I have consumed any spiders this year…

I too ignored the desperate lady begging for small change. I pause and wonder why I turned a blind eye? Was it fear? Opening my wallet on the subway certainly isn’t wise. Should I have given her a dollar? Am I selfish and unsympathetic? What is the norm? Is there a norm? Do I care if there’s a norm?

Would I have behaved any different if I had looked into her eyes and seen her despair? What would a wise person do? Why do I feel uneasy? Could I one day be a lady begging on the train? So many thoughts run through my mind.

Suddenly, I am no longer the observer of my outside world. As I scrutinize my thoughts, I have become the observer of my inside world. It is easy to judge others and watch the world from the outside. However, examining my own actions becomes more challenging. The train slows down, and my thoughts are interrupted: 42nd Street, Bryant Park—it’s my stop.

I get up and look back. The untidy lady has disappeared. I get off the train, and the doors close behind me. I walk up the grungy steps into the light of the day feeling uneasy, leaving behind the underground, and a doubtful mind.

When we strip ourselves of all our titles, we are all the same. We are all anonymous people experiencing this world in a similar manner.

Each passenger is a unique individual, yet we all seem to have something in common. We may come from different backgrounds; however, we share similar thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

When we realize this, we will be able to see ourselves in everyone.

What makes us different is when we pause to examine our lives and our actions. We can choose the way we respond to situations. We can communicate with each other through a smile or a kind gesture—perhaps handing out a dollar to someone in need. Every action creates an opportunity for an alternate consequence: a chance to change our story and someone else’s story for that day. We can learn to think before we act instead of blindly following the crowd. Next time I get on the F-train, I will remember to keep a dollar in my pocket, just in case I see the ragged lady again.

I don’t always get to take the subway, as it is not available in my hometown. I do, however, have the opportunity to meditate every day.

Meditation is much like being on the F-train. We take a few minutes to go to the underground of our mind, where we observe our thoughts as we observe all the passengers that ride with us on the train.

We learn to watch our thoughts come and go, like the passengers on the F-train. We can choose to interact with them, examine them, or simply observe them without judgment.

If we stay on the train long enough, we will notice that as we get closer to the last stop, the number of passengers starts decreasing. Until we reach Coney Island and we are the only one left on the train. It is quiet, except for the squeaking sound of the brakes. We can now open our eyes, step off the train, and continue on our way.

Tomorrow we will ride again.

~

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author: Veena Chatani

Image: Maxime Caron/Unsplash

Editor: Nicole Cameron