Living in the Moment on a NYC Subway- David Foster Wallace Style

The fruit that is mythified to keep doctors away, that plopped on Newton’s head with a force that he later postulated in his theory of gravity, that is a key component in pies, ciders, shakes and even styles of jeans and body shapes, is the same fruit that is eponymous with the melting pot of all skyscrapered pots and shiny pans out there.

The Big Apple.

You can spend all your pre-dentured years devouring it and yet still feel that there are more picturesque junctures, more billboard-ed avenues, more Michelin star venues, all screaming for attention, all waiting to be captured on several rolls of photographic film rather than simply being retained in the memory film of the mind. This mentality is true for how many of us perceive life – that if we could just travel more, purchase more, update and upgrade more, we would achieve more happiness. There is literally no end to the allure.

There are also those outliers who have covered every continent yet remain shockingly narrow in thought, whilst carrying a sign of “We’re closed” on the doors of their fixated prejudices; or some who have yet to experience a plane ride and travel outside their homeland, yet still remain wonderfully rooted to the pulse of our global culture. We can think of many examples of the former like the crooked politicians who travel in their VVIP aircrafts on taxpayer money, yet brew hatred on the pretext of religion, caste, or gender without realizing that we are all connected to each other. For the latter, the cases are much rarer. Personally, I know of one friend, close to my age, who has never set foot in India or any other country for that matter, yet she is one of the most humble, open-minded and culturally rooted Indian women I know. It may have a lot to do with her education in one of the most diverse schools in America [Rutgers] and the amazing upbringing of her parents but it is a significant contrast to some of the other Indian folks I’ve met who always cling together like moths to a light and I try to avoid them like Aamir Khan avoids bad movie scripts.

Traveling does do wonders to open the frontiers of our mind but self-exploration is key. Before I talk about the Big Apple, let me make mention of another apple. No, not the protrusion of cartilage around the larynx for all the grown up Adams out there.

The company.

Visiting India, and observing the massive poverty and simplicity in the way of life of those said masses and spiritually inclined, alone, did not propel Steve Jobs to build his legacy of simplifying the way we look at phones. I don’t find myself qualified enough to talk about the life of such a visionary but I must say that in spite of all the failures and setbacks he faced, he lived, dreamed and breathed Apple. In fact, Apple was his sole form of sustenance (edible pun).

Not everyone has to become as wealthy as Jobs or Aamir Khan to prove the worthiness of their ideas but my own takeaway from such idols, dead or alive, famous or unknown, is that our dream of contentment will become all the more elusive when our boarding pass has a final destination yet our life continues to head nowhere. By no means is this an indication to compete with other such clueless souls for the sake of competing but more so about forging your own path in whatever ‘nookad‘ of the world you may be in. You may fail but you will be content in knowing that you tried your level best.

One of easiest means of achieving contentment as transcribed in almost every spiritual teaching, from the likes of Buddhism to the eclectic origin of the works of Tolle, is to focus on the present. It may not be possible to do so at every instant but as you grow to enjoy the present, you will find that peace is no longer such a far-fetched notion.

living in the present

Of all the things you are anticipating, say a trip, a promotion, or even an acknowledgment from that unattainable crush, what good things are happening right now that you can tune into your consciousness?

I’m going to share a humbling story, not from the streets of NYC but from a whole different world that lies below it – where the lively rhythm of the train moving on its designated tracks matches the rhythmic beat of blood flowing in its designated arteries in people’s hearts, where the steam of the subway pipes effortlessly intermingle with the warmth of people’s breaths, where all men and women carry equal (public transportation) boarding rights, and where survival of the fittest to squeeze into a jampacked car during rush hour is an unwritten commandment of subway citizenry. Apart from the smell of a few commuters in serious need of deodorant or perfume de-vaporizer, the sights of Peter Pettigrew’s animagus form, and the rest of the senses overwhelmed by the overall claustrophobic environment, there lies a bouquet of talent waiting to brighten the mood of even the burliest of souls.

music subway

Many times, I find myself getting a front row performance at what could perhaps be a hip hop dance-off on “So You Think You Can Dance?” or a musical accompaniment at the Royal Albert Hall or a solo at the Met Opera.

But there’s a big difference.

These performers entertain and alleviate depression for free.

Just a little over a year ago, I was caught up in a 8a-8p routine of home-work-home (which shall reprise itself in the future.)

Here’s a picture of me at my desk, circa 2011.

spongebob work

At that time, I would be peeved to see these underground performers pop up out of nowhere, thinking that their obvious intent was to beg for money.

“Why can’t they just find a REAL job?” was my first reaction.

The definition of what society deems a real job is to become a participating economic contributor, mostly through consumption and (for the rare Atlas Shruggers of the world) – creation. Some of us may work in companies that ruin our bodies and our environment by selling terrible drugs, foods with GMO ingredients, cigarettes, carcinogenic pesticides, animal growth hormone manufacturers, unregulated industrial toxins etc. all under the umbrella of an award-winning/CSR leader conglomerate. These companies may test on humans and animals alike, and shove their money into the pockets of our government, so much so that we can be sure the government is no longer on our side. Heck some of us may work for the government and put our vested interests in controlling other citizens by denying their rights. We may spend our lives defending such companies for our livelihood depends on it, the brainwashing being no different than preaching one religion over another.

We are all born into the same world. As we grow up, we are taught how to make a living but not how to live. Our overly saturated paper education slowly turns into mental constipation. We throw ourselves in the rat race and peddle along in the self-inflicting hamster wheel. We get consumed by societal constraints that purportedly make us human to ultimately lose the very spark and inventive streak we once innocently treasured. Somewhere along the way, we find a mate, make babies and watch our kids follow the same aforementioned steps. 

human rat race

In this perplexing, rat race cycle of a world, I realize now that these street performers have something that many don’t — the guts to follow (through on) their passion.

They have the admirable confidence to present themselves in front of strangers who may question their background, pass sneering remarks or barely even acknowledge their presence.

Only yesterday, I saw two men, one Hispanic and the other of African descent, pulling off a feat of flips, locking and popping, dangling with one leg bent on the uppermost holding bars and superbly nailing amazing twists and turns with the help of the two poles in the middle; all of that in a moving train with some beats churned with one man’s Iphone connected to a mini-boombox. There were no standing passengers and the entire seated audience was mesmerized with stunned faces of ooohs and aaahs. The two passengers beside me were noticeably annoyed that these performers disrupted their mumbling rants revolving around one man’s endless tirade of how much his life sucks. Ironically, he had just visited France and was due to travel again on vacation. (Le sigh! It was very hard not to overhear their loud voices and suggest, “Please watch David Foster Wallace’s This is Water.”)

What mesmerized me the most was that the African American man had a tattoo written in Arabic on his upper right arm and wore a T-shirt that carried stunning paintings of Lord Shiva in the front, and Lord Ganesha on the back. Both men made it clear from the very beginning that they were neither poor nor homeless. Rather, they were part of a bigger troupe of dancers wanting to showcase their art form and any donations were welcome. For the first time in my life, I slipped in two dollar bills into one man’s cap when they came around (one starving artist supporting another) :). Another kid across from me donated a dollar bill with the help of his parents. That would have just about covered the subway entry fare for one passenger.

A year or so ago, I may have been embarrassed to donate money this way to people who didn’t work like me, but today, I was very happy for them. I wanted to take a photo of their live performance and say a few words of gratitude. However, the next stop arrived moments later, the curtains rolled down, another subway door of opportunity opened up and they left to entertain a new audience.

I’m sure I will be fortunate to see artists like them again and be able to convey my message to at least one of them –

Keep inspiring us with your talent and please don’t turn into one of those suited and booted kind of a cloned personality. There’s enough of those guys. The world needs more healers; more innovative thinkers who are motivated by the uniqueness of their good, not by the uniformity of another man’s greed; more souls who dare to change the world for the better because they don’t fear to think and do differently. The world needs more people like you.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
-David Foster Wallace (2009)

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Aside | This entry was posted in Buddhism, David Foster Wallace, New York City, Self-empowerment, Uncategorized, United States and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Living in the Moment on a NYC Subway- David Foster Wallace Style

  1. Chintoo says:

    It was great reading it.. It is suggesting that one should become Sakshi… I am ready for it.. 😉 One can not be as brave as you are and as “free” as you are… You are one lucky person…. But yes, I completely agree appreciating the present and others is a great source of contenment which people miss out on these days… Future and past keep playing a game of catch and present is in the air… 😦

  2. Thanks for your feedback chintoo but it’s not about luck or kismat. It’s about mehnat 🙂

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