In the city, we are among strangers all the time. Not only are we among them, our bodies are colliding. We touch them on the subway, our thighs smashed together on plastic seats, our strap-hanging hands searching for purchase accidentally grab a stranger’s, our shoulders bracing against other shoulders, chests, rib cages, armpits. On the street we bump into each other with barely a notice. Sometimes our collisions cause packages to fall out of arms or elicit a grunt, but rarely do we bother to stop; a hurried “sorry” seems enough. In a crowded bar or coffee shop, we jockey for a seat, a place to claim for laptop, book, or writing pad. We might politely ask the person who has taken an extra seat to store winter garments, “excuse me, do you need this?” pointing at the stool heaped with clothing and feel a hint of smug happiness in their shame for having dared to take two places. Being among all these strangers gives us an opportunity to learn about interaction, behavior, habit, and quirk. It forces us to think about our own bodies in space. As we observe what irritates us as it comes from all these other bodies, we wonder, “Do I have an annoying laugh? Am I that loud? Do I also list to the right when walking down the street?” If we are paying attention, being among strangers offers us the luxury of feeling every inch of ourselves and knowing that our bodies affect all the other bodies around us. Being among strangers gives us the chance to develop patience and care for others. It can be meditative.
It is this potential for meditation that I find most interesting. It is in the “being” that we locate the present moment, the moment in which we must exist in order to let ourselves be free and light. Lately, I have used the many moments of contact with strangers to be a moment of meditation. If someone bumps into me a bit too roughly, I try only to think about the feeling of the contact on my body, rather than let my mind feel irritation or even rage. It is not easy. Not all moments of contact with strangers lead to bliss (most don’t), but they all lead to awareness of how I am in the world, and, for me, that is the most important lesson.
Next week, my class will begin working on a paper about injustices observed in every day contexts. It is easy to look at others and judge their behavior as unjust. However, I believe emphasizing to my students that they also must consider how they are in the world, how their bodies move through this massive city’s tight corridors, and how they must share these spaces with others will draw out more introspective writing about what’s fair and what is not.