Zen and the art of the zoned-out commute

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I can’t be alone in ruminating during my crowded and often late journey to work in London that if we each have an average of 4,000 weeks on this blessed Earth, as the writer Oliver Burkeman has so profitably pointed out, then this is a bad way to spend a high proportion of that time.

But, of course, if I was alone, the problem wouldn’t arise. I’d be back at home where I can earn my crust with no distractions and no one else’s odours — or videos — to intrude.

I used to love the Central Line. It was a daily gift to be sped so effortlessly below the streets from west to east on it’s magic carpet — whoosh! In my first jobs after university, it was the setting for immersion in the greats: I can reminisce about commutes spent reading Anna Karenina on the same trains I sit on today (or their predecessors) so long as I don’t dwell on the railway-themed tragic ending.

Transports of delight, indeed. But I don’t have time for that nowadays — I have to swap on to the always-baking Bakerloo Line, that huge tandoor for cooking humans. Along with my fellow travellers, I then commence multitasking and answering emails. We’re essentially at work.

Worse, the mysterious grinding noises of the Tube can’t quite drown out the background psychic hum of the frantic use of mindfulness apps. Never mind Atomic Habits, this is radioactive levels of desperation — the search for a bit of tech-enabled calm in the urban storm.

The mental health podcasts and self-improvement plans doubtless help a lot of people through emergencies and chronic problems. But is frantic meditation better for you than just staring into space or people-watching? It does get a bit William Blake at times, I admit. “Marks of woe” on “every face” tends overwhelmingly to be the case at about 8.45am midweek.

Series: Commuting Is Back

Photo of lots of commuters walking, seen from the neck down.

After lockdowns put the brakes on normal routines, workers are now back at their desks and need to travel to get there. But commuting has changed in unexpected ways.

Part one: Commuting is back — but not as we know it
Part two:
The rise of the super-commuter
Part three: Zen and the art of the zoned-out commute

Zoning out is a life skill. And most liminal spaces and in-between slices of time have been stolen by fearsome modern foes: the omnipresent smartphone and the drive to milk every second for maximum productivity. Both are culprits in fashioning today’s “mind-forged manacles,” to quote Blake again.

If life is a journey, to use the universal metaphor, I agree it’s not ideal if it’s a repetitive one with the same destination every working day. But to travel hopefully is better than to arrive — and when you let your mind range free it brings unexpected joys and nourishing reveries. Maybe that woman’s sensational shoes. This man’s profile. What is a tie? you wonder. Why is a tie? And is a city not a triumph of the human will?

Male readers are probably thinking about Ancient Rome by this stage anyway — go ahead, knock yourselves out on the low-hanging bunches of grapes in your imagination.

One post-Covid thought if you can manage it: a good trick is to plough through work at home early, then travel in to savour the joys of the office later in the morning — even during lunch. This avoids the crush and makes it more bearable to ponder the same grubby tiling, or feel your hand brush the same bristly fabric of the Underground seats.

And for those committing to this liminal-spaces-stolen-moments credo, here’s a way to re-create the benefits (should another pandemic lockdown hit). That crazily-graphic fabric on London’s bus, train and Tube network is now on special offer in the transport museum’s online shop, making the peculiar ambience of rush hour achievable at home: the “moquette”, as it is known, can be yours for a thrifty £16 per metre. I could sew my own Central Line and read War and Peace.


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