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What Trains Make Me Think Of by Emad T. '14

Bringing the focus away from miles and minutes - and onto more enriching things

This summer, I’m working part-time at the Division of Student Life (in addition to still blogging for MIT Admissions – sorry eager blogging frosh-to-be, my spot’s still taken, but we’re looking for more bloggers!). As it turns out, my office isn’t very far away from where I live. Being able to work close to home is a plus for me, but in my case, it still does involve a commute ranging anywhere from 20-25 miles – and that’s just in one direction. That’s not insurmountable by any means, but it does add up to a substantial amount of time.

The commute starts pretty early. For the first leg of the trip, I hitch a ride with my dad to his job site in Needham, where I catch one of three trains between the hours of 7:30 and 8:30 am. Thankfully, there’s an incentive for my atypical early bird behavior. The fare, both on the commuter rail and in the T stations in the Cambridge-Boston area, is subsidized by MIT, a perk available to MIT staff, faculty, and registered students.

Then there’s the train ride itself, which has become my favorite part of the whole thing. In the morning I board the Needham line going inbound, which carves a meandering, scenic path through Massachusetts that veers down south for a spell, before cruising up to the northeast. The 40 minute route diverges from most major highways, rolling through well-to-do neighborhoods, tunnels coated in bold graffiti, and verdant stretches of trees and grass in the process.

Evenings see me taking the Framingham/Worcester line, characterized by equally-rewarding views and a considerable amount of time spent running parallel to the Mass Pike. In a world where attention seems split and starved, the accompanying sights beckon my eyes to rest. Each day that I work in Cambridge – and on days where I’m simply there for other business or for friends – I enjoy that experience.

It’s odd, then, how commuting has won a reputation for being dreadful, or for feeling like useless, dead time: even if you like your job (as I do), it can feel like an inconvenient stretch of time between places – perhaps an obstacle to clear, or distance to cover before you do what you want (or have) to do. It’s the sort of thing where you’re only kept awake enough not to miss your stop, yet tired enough to make you want to immediately go to bed when you get there. It’s the sort of thing that some people wish teleporting could just take care of already.

Physically, I guess it’s hard to not ever feel that way; there are few cures for long days besides sleep. But mentally, I allow the possibility that my regular travel, and the time I’ll collectively spend on it, can amount to something more. I thus turn those train trips into exercises in mindfulness.

Mindfulness, as a psychological and even spiritual phenomenon, is a quality I learned in earnest during yoga and meditation classes, which I took during the 4th quarter of sophomore year. Descriptions of it involve anything from “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,” to a “nonelaborative, nonjudgmental” awareness in which the objects of your attention are simply accepted as they are.

I’m not an avid practitioner of mindfulness, but when I turned to it in the midst of a hectic semester, it allowed me to maintain my composure, to make things feel a bit happier and nicer. Wanting to find that state en route to work, I started firing up that present moment mentality each morning, moving my focus to the views outside. Judging from the fact that I am now writing about a train ride with a sense of mirth, I think it’s working.

Every now and then during those rides, I also take time on other things, most of which involve books. In the past month or so, I’ve finished Siddhartha (an absolutely wonderful book that I’m just dying to read again!), picked up (and am steadily working through) an anthology of essays and poems on medicine, and bought on impulse the story of a Redditor’s transnational trip on a train. I actually started reading that last one today, prompting me to post. You could say it’s how I boarded my train of thought today. (…I swear I didn’t just make this post to say that.)

I’ve just really grown to like trains. They’re a nice way to get around, because you leave the driving to someone else, and get a decent amount of legroom (and time to yourself) in the process. That, I think, is a detail that can get lost if you see such travel time as time that becomes irredeemable and forever lost in service of some other stuff you have to do, rather than as a vacancy in your schedule that’s dedicated to you.

I guess the same thing applies to any period where you find yourself waiting. Are you truly inconvenienced by some delay, or have you just not thought of some way to take care of yourself – or embark on some self-improvement – that you could be doing right then and there?

The answer to that one, I’ve found, is entirely up to you.