The subway is a moving temple: Underground meditation on the A Train

I concentrate on the passengers, closing my eyes, and picturing them thriving and joyful, often in a state of bliss

By Joshua Bee Alafia
September 3, 2018 11:30PM (UTC)
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(Getty/Emmanuel Dunand)

Excerpted with permission from "Still, In the City: Creating Peace of Mind in the Midst of Urban Chaos," edited by Angela Dews. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

When a New York subway becomes a mobile temple, when Los Angeles traffic becomes a vehicle for awakening, when a Fifth Avenue sidewalk offers a noble path through craving, generosity, and sorrow—that's the fierce practice of urban Buddhism. And that's what two dozen Buddhist teachers share in Still, in the City, in their cities, as they practice the story-telling teaching tradition of the Buddha. The teachers are: Margo McLoughlin, Sebene Selassie, Gary Singer, Harrison Blum, Alex Haley, Wildecy de Fatima Jury, Eve Decker, Alice Alldredge, nakawe cuebas, Tracy Cochran, Bart van Melik, Joshua Bee Alafia (Jbee), Diana Gould, Paul Irving, Nancy Glimm, Ellen Furnari, Nobantu Mpotulo, JD Doyle, Rachel Lewis, Rosemary Blake, Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Tuere Sala, Walt Opie, and Diane Wilde.

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Like most of the inspirations that move me in life and have lasting impact on my journey, this one starts with a dream. I was nineteen and had had a few experiences sitting with Tibetan meditation teachers in Santa Cruz, California, while at college. I was home for the summer and dreamed of walking into a subway car that was completely filled with Tibetan monks in robes, chanting. I sat and joined them, chanting along in unison, and had the realization that subway cars are actually moving temples. The power of the experience raised my heart rate and woke me up.

That realization sparked the practice of training underground—a regular practice for me these last seventeen years living in New York City—concentrating on passengers, closing my eyes, and picturing them thriving and joyful, often in a state of bliss. Later, I would learn that this practice is a version of giving metta, unconditional love and lovingkind­ness practice.


In this way, in regard to the body one abides contemplating the body internally . . . externally . . . both internally and externally. One abides contemplating the nature of arising . . . of passing away . . . of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in one to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and con­tinuous mindfulness. And one abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body one abides contemplating the body.

—Gautama Buddha, Satipatthana Sutta


Descending the stairs into the burrow of the A train, I feel a damp breeze, the bass of wind and steel on steel resonates in my chest. I pick up my pace in case my train is pulling in; turn the corner to see the sound is coming from the other side of the platform. I can slide my Metro Card and go through the turnstile leisurely. The downtown train on the other side car­ries subterranean tailwinds as it pulls off and the roar softens into the distance.

I find my waiting place beside the tracks and look down the dark tun­nel for any signs of an oncoming train, then smile to myself, realizing the breeze always precludes the train’s headlights. Three dark grey rats scam­per playfully about the tracks. One, surveying a semi-crushed soda cup from the pizza place upstairs and seemingly disappointed by the contents, rushes off to catch up with its friends.

I settle into my body; my knees bend slightly. The bending of the knees in standing meditation always makes me smile, as that is the instruction given to keep one from falling asleep standing up. I feel alert as I contem­plate sensations in the body internally and externally. I can still feel the pressure on my ankle from where my son sat on my lap as I read to him, minutes prior to me running to catch this train. I feel the moisture of sweat on my forehead from the subway dash. I smell the blend of urine, cologne, laundry detergent, pizza, and Jamaican curry (not necessarily in that order) that perfumes the corner of Nostrand and Fulton avenues. I can hear someone playing Sade’s “Your Love is King” through the vents that connect the subway to the sidewalk. I notice how my awareness sensation surfs, noticing the ring-out of sensations, sounds, smells, the coming and going, coming and going.


READ MORE: I'm not running scared

“There is a body,” I say, internally, my personal abracadabra of mindfulness, immediately bringing my awareness of sensation, of being in the body in the present moment. I feel the weight of the body in my high-tops. “I’m here,” standing in the epidermal level of the planet earth. “I am rooted.” I feel my abdomen rising and falling as I breathe. My breaths begin to deepen as the symphony of sensations of rushing leaves me.


Thinking, “God, I love Sade. I can’t believe I’ve never seen her live. She’s like one of my all-time favorites. She’s so beautiful. I wonder what she’s like. Would she get my sense of humor? Could we possibly fall in love? But she’s based in London. Would she be down to move to Brooklyn? . . . Whoa. There is a body.”

This air that I breathe is sustaining me. My abdomen rises. My abdomen falls. I feel the front of my love handles kissing up against my beltline. “No matter how much I exercise, I always have that li’l extra love handle. I think it’s genetic. Whoa. I’m inside of this body. There is a body.” I feel the breath fill my lungs, my rib cage feeling the expanse. My spine cracks as some relaxation releases stiffness in my lower back. Breathing in. Feeling the air leave my body in the outbreath.

The train breeze cools my forehead. Breathing in the breeze, I see the train light. I’m relieved the train is coming. I feel my weight in my feet. “I am here, right now. I’m here.” The train races toward my body. I bring all my weight to the right leg and feel lightness in my left foot. The train stops and passengers rush out of the doors past me. I lift my left leg and step, step, step, step onto the train, feeling awareness in my feet and noticing the train is packed. I find my little corner, standing right against the door opposite the one I entered. Faces have mostly neutral expressions. I see what looks like sadness in the eyes of some of the people around me. Perhaps it’s just a mild disdain of the process of getting to where they are going. Perhaps their faces are just relaxed in thought and I’m projecting my own conditioned perceptions of what sadness looks like. I even go as far as perceiving their expressions as the look of dreams deferred. The mind, the ultimate storyteller, the griot of griots! “May you be happy!” I extend to my fellow passengers.


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