Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #17 – Seeing Through the Eyes of the Q Train

April 29th, 2019

Yes, us New Yorkers pride ourselves on our “antennas”. It’s a phrase we use for reading minds, a skill that seems to get refined by growing up here while negotiating the melting pot of various people, streets, and hoods. A more gross synonym for antennas would be “crap detectors”. Pardon my French. Better I stick with the term “mind reading”, or even “antennas”. Today I decided to practice my skill on the Q train. Well, not exactly practice. I haven’t used the trains for some time and was looking forward to studying New Yorkers on my way to join the kirtan in Union Square. A thought came to mind: Is this “antenna” thing just imagination or a silly cultural pride? I remember reading something on the subject of mind reading.


Malcolm Gladwell, in his classic Blink, discusses how the science of mind reading was discovered. He describes how two scientists, Silvan Tamken and Paul Eisen, studied the correlation between the activation of 3,000 different combinations of the muscles in the face with the emotions they represent. They then categorized them scientifically into what they called the Facial Action Coding System (FACA). Gladwell describes that Tamken was so proficient in understanding the face as a language of emotions that he could walk into a post office and tell by just looking at the most wanted criminal posters what crime they had committed.


In a similar vein, Gladwell also discusses autism, the mental disability where one is “mind blind”, or unable to see what another person is thinking by observing his or her behavior and bodily expression. So yes, there is something like “antennas” — an ability to decipher what a person is thinking and feeling by observing the contortion of muscles in their face. Now, back to the Q train.


I put on my “antennas” for the thirty-minute ride. My first impression from scanning the train: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”[1] Well, that didn’t take much heightened perception. Anyone could see that ordinary people in the city are generally miserable and exhausted to one degree or another. No special talent here. How could you miss what the people there were thinking and feeling about life?


Sitting next to me I observed some people whose mood seemed to be in stark contrast to the other people in the train. They looked so light and unburdened. The group was composed of two young Orthodox, not Hassidic, Jewish couples in their late twenties/early thirties and their children. They were joined by another middle-aged couple that seemed to be the parents or in-laws of the couples. I could overhear them talking. Maybe their buoyed spirits were because they were taking their children to the zoo, but it was more than that. I think my prejudice would tend to see Orthodox people as stodgy, but here I was surprised by how relatively carefree and joyful they were, and how functional and satisfying they seemed in their relationships with one another.


As I was carefully studying the situation, I began to notice that in assessing the situation around me I was using a tool even more insightful than the mind reading one. I also had at my disposal the lens of knowledge from studying a tradition of knowledge for so many years. In other words, more important than what you see is having the tools to properly evaluate it. In my tradition that tool is called, jñāna-cakṣus, seeing through the eyes of śāstra or knowledge.


One way to highlight the importance of jñāna-cakṣus is by describing what it would be like to perceive something without such a lens of knowledge. For example, without the lens of knowledge a misguided person could see someone as humble, but misunderstand it as weakness, while at the same time seeing one with bravado and ego as someone to emulate.  The ability to appropriately value and digest our perceptions is thus essential to navigating the world properly. Here’s what I saw today through the eyes of knowledge.


Through the lens of śāstra I could see beyond the fact that these people were relatively happy to the reason they were so carefree.  I have gleaned from the śāstra four pillars of stability[2] that are essential for a relatively peaceful life: a set place that one calls one’s lifelong residence, a stable life partner, a suitable and satisfying career path, and a set spiritual tradition or path to pursue. A stable tradition and community provide these pillars of stability automatically to their congregation, where the modern man, generally lacking a culture and tradition, is mostly left on his own to gain footing in life. As a result, so much energy that should be used for spiritual development has to be channeled into establishing one’s basic foundation, especially the burdensome task of finding a suitable partner, what to speak of finding a community and occupation that supports and suits one’s nature. What anxiety!


The first principle of satisfaction is understanding that the world is not just about oneself. Commitment to family and community, although not the highest conception of the self in itself, does give relief from the burning angst of selfishness by inspiring the principle of duty before self. Spiritual traditions that foster community by teaching and inspiring commitment to a common interest help the individual transcend the limited or selfish “I”, the root of all despair.


Finally, a tradition that emphasizes and keeps family and community intact provides the individual with a greater variety of healthy and dependable relationships. If there is one thing more than anything else that can be directly correlated to good health and over-all well-being, it is the number of good relationships one has had in life.[3]


Yes, traditions can be close-minded and hierarchical systems can be abused, and not everyone properly takes avail of their tradition properly, but today I clearly observed the relationship between tradition and contentment.


And that is what I saw through the eyes of the Q train.




[1] From the song “Eleanor Rigby”, which can be found on The Beatles album Revolver.

[2] The teachings of bhakti are not taught in a vacuum. In Bhagavatam a whole society and culture is described that supports one’s spiritual life. I have never saw these four pillars of stability listed, but from studying the text  in became evident that these four facilities were provided automatically in a varnashram or traditional social structure.

[3] https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org


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