Thursday, April 19, 2012

Unofficial study

For as long as I can remember I have struck up conversations with strangers. More often than not, I get a disinterested response and I regret opening my mouth. And yet I continue to do it. I can't help it. I see something unusual happen on the street that a passer-by witnesses as well and I am compelled to remark on our joint experience.

Maybe it's my southern upbringing that leads me to instead of being wary of strangers to look to them as potential conversation partners. I should conduct a study of whether chats with strangers are more likely to be fruitful in Virginia than in NYC.

A study I have conducted in great detail is of chivalry. There is not much chivalry to be found in the NYC area.

Case in point: I have devised a system for getting the best standing spot on my commuter train. It's only a 22-minute ride and I sit all day long so I don't mind standing at all; in fact I enjoy it. But I prefer to lean against the door instead of hold on to a pole so that both my hands are free to hold my book.

I could rush onto the train when it arrives in the station and hope to get a spot against the door on the opposite side of the car. But instead I hold back and get on last so that I can lean against the door I enter.

Almost always it's no problem at all to board last. Until today. A man stood aside and motioned for me to enter the train before him. It was not his plan to lean against the door. He was just being chivalrous. He entered the car after me and took a spot a few feet from me. I leaned against the door.

A few moments later I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "So few people are actually chivalrous anymore -- like you were. You see, I have this system, which works because everyone rushes onto the train car..." And I told him my system.

He smiled and said he was glad it worked out and we both went back to reading our books.

Just before his stop he tapped me on the arm and said, "thanks for telling me about that. You really made my day."

And that, my friends, made MY day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Submerging the chatter

I recently learned about a Buddhist meditation technique called vipassana, which is basically saying to yourself over and over what you are doing at that moment. It can be used when doing walking mediation. So, you can say "walking walking walking" as you walk. You can also say "looking" or "seeing," whichever word works for you. I prefer "looking" because it's when I'm noticing something in particular. It's a more active word than "seeing," at least in my thinking.

When I'm done looking at a particular object I go back to saying "walking." Sometimes I change it up and I say "feet feet" and center my concentration on my feet. I notice how my feet strike the pavement, whether any part of my toes are feeling rubbed by my shoes, the sound of my footfalls.

Speaking of noise, I also really enjoy switching it up to "listening listening." I have discovered that when I focus on listening with an open mind, the world around me sounds different and I hear all sorts of things I'm not sure that I would notice otherwise.

I really like the effect these techniques have on quieting the chatter in my head. On one hand, I wish I could simply turn down the chatter and be done with it. But I can't make that happen without assistance right now. And it turns out that this type of mediation turns those voices right off.

Apparently some people who practice this meditation will allow their thoughts to wander and then they will simply silently chant "thinking" when they notice that happening. That doesn't really work for me because when I'm doing this exercise I prefer to not allow my mind to wander. So when it does I calmly steer my thoughts back to the chanting right away.

Vipassana is so effective that I can do it almost anywhere and even better if I'm able to close my eyes.

I was on the train headed to Brooklyn yesterday evening and there was a lot of chatter. So I closed my eyes and checked in with various parts of my body. I silently spoke to each part of my body and focused on how that body part felt. When I got to body parts that felt like they were not calm, I stopped on them and I spoke gently to them. "Forehead, I get that you're tense right now. Do you want to try relaxing a little bit?" That sort of thing. I have never spoken to my body like that before, but at the time it just seemed like a good idea.

I have to say: it REALLY worked. I opened my eyes after a little while and felt completely relaxed and no longer tense in any way. I calmly looked out the window then and saw my local stop whizzing by. While in my trance, I had missed the announcement about the train switching from a local C to an express A. Damnit! All sense of calm disappeared in an instant.