I train into University City every day from the Main Line. It’s a long commute and often stressful: walking to the station, counting the minutes, hoping I make it in time. If the trains run late, there’s the added anxiety of reaching work on time. But that’s not all the stress that I — or regular SEPTA commuters like me — face every day. There’s relationship stress, work stress, household anxieties, worries about the climate, racism, politics; there’s stress everywhere, all the time.
I realized recently I had to overcome my stress. So, I decided to turn one of my greatest stress factors — my morning commute on the SEPTA trains — into my decompression time. If I make a few adjustments to how I react to the train rolling into the station — late or not — and take some deep breaths to expel negative thoughts about the ride, I reach work ready to face whatever the day has in store.
When the train rolls in, I tell myself it’s here and that’s all that matters. I will myself to forget what came before or will come after — the mad dash to the station just to find it’s late again; the rush to the bus stop to see the bus pulling out; walking/running to class instead; recalling the lessons I’ll have to teach all day — the list goes on. Instead, I’ve taught myself to welcome the sight of the gray vessel that’ll take me to my destination. It’ll be my cocoon of peace for the next 30 minutes.
I choose the QuietRide car. “We provide the peace,” SEPTA says, “you provide the quiet.” I appreciate the quiet outside in the train car because that is what I need within me. I put my phone on silent, look out SEPTA’s wide train windows, and switch off from human contact. I do this because I realized that people and our relationships with them can be a huge source of anxiety: your neighbor whose dog barks all night; a friend who is offended you forgot her birthday; or your child who is bullied in school because of the color of his skin.
The SEPTA Regional Rail trains are spacious: you can sit next to another person without having to rub shoulders with them. So I don’t, literally and figuratively. I just sit and look out and I choose what I want to see through the window. I see flowers, sometimes in a riot of colors, sometimes white, sometimes still buds. I see trees, green with leaves, or yellow and red, then bare and brown. I see the seasons changing and feel connected to nature. It refreshes me. When I step out of the train, I feel like I am now ready to wind my way through the concrete foliage.
I can disengage this way because I don’t look at my phone or laptop on the train. For the brief ride into the city, I don’t reply to emails or look to see how much work has piled up since I last checked. And who needs constant news updates about who called whom names, lied about what, or denied climate change? I especially do not need alerts about our dying planet when I am marveling at the bare-bodied trees outside my window. I know we’re experiencing a very warm winter; this time last year, the trees were covered in snow.
Am I being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand? I guess I am trying to escape reality. But isn’t that what meditation is, really? If you want to label it, perhaps that’s what I’m doing on the train. Science has shown that meditation helps people destress and overcome depression.
There are many ways to meditate. This is my way of focusing attention and not letting distractions impinge upon my mindful presence in the moment. You can devise your own place, pace, and practice.
Part of my practice is also to sip herbal tea as I look out the window. I carry a mug full of it every morning because coffee is known to add to anxiety, while herbal tea relieves it. So, I sip my tea and engage with nature. I shut out everything else for 30 minutes a day. Even after a sleepless night, I find this helps prepare me for my workday.
You can try this, or go to sleep. The hustle and bustle of 30th Street Station will wake you up when you reach it.