Mindfulness & The Big City: The River

March 29, 2017

The night hung heavily over the train as we pulled into Ramses station. Dots of city lights made feeble attempts to pierce the murky darkness, only to be smothered by Cairo’s grayish haze. The train’s steady chug-chug-chug slowed, replaced by a deeper hammering under my breast bone. I had just spent a beautiful vacation in Alexandria and the Nile Delta, listening to the sweet breeze of the Mediterranean whispering songs of freedom, feeling the salt on my cheeks and a love of Egypt burgeoning in my heart.


Now I hadn't even stepped off the train and I could feel the madness of the city squeezing me with an iron fist “Excuse me,” I said to the elderly gentleman in the seat ahead of me, “Is this Ramses station?”


“Why, yes, madam,” he answered with a slight bow. He wore a neat tweed jacket and bone-rimmed glasses. He had a short stature, but carried himself with pride and grace. His genteel charm could have been transported straight out of a Golden Age of chivalry.  


I reached for my bag and stumbled under its weight. “Let me call a porter for you, madam,” he said gently. His crooked body leaned heavily on a cane. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was perfectly able to handle the bag alone, but grateful someone had cared about me in this huge city. The man hobbled toward the door as the train came to its final stop.  


With a deep inhale, the train door slid open, and a mob of young men rushed forward like a wild animal with hungry claws. These were strong men, who had only eyes for finding their seats and no patience for anyone who got in their way.


The man's eyes widened as they descended on him, as mortality became a palpable concept. His fear curdled the air around us. Without thinking I squeezed past the old man and put my hand on the mob leader’s chest. I pushed him back. I pushed him harder than was strictly necessary to stop him from hurting the man. My heart pounded under my temples. “You will stand back!” I roared. “You will stand back and show respect for your elders!”


A handful of moments passed before the crowd backed off the train, persuaded either by my rage or by the gravity of the injustice about to be committed. I could see red as I headed for the nearest exit. The night air was thick around me like rotten milk, filled with the scent of urine, the hiss of cat calls, the ever constant blaring of car horns, all pulling me away from the meditative mindfulness I had found in Alexandria.


I stumbled into a taxi. The toothless driver grinned as I told him, “Ala tool (Go straight). Away from here.” Where? Just away from here? But where? Qasr El Nile bridge, one of the few places in Cairo where one can feel the river. The driver zoomed off and my heart lurched, terrified by the traffic.  


Below Qasr El Nile the Nile stretched inky black, bejeweled with the reflection of the city lights, unruffled, indifferent to the chaos that men were creating on her shores. Ancient in her grace, immortal in her wisdom, the Nile just flowed.

I remembered the first river who sang to me, the mighty Ganga, high in the foothills of the Himalayas. The yogis worship the Ganga.


I had been frustrated and angry that day too. I had come to India to study meditation. I had only a short time and I had paid a lot of money, and gosh darn it, I was determined to become the best meditator on the face of the planet in the space of four weeks. This “militant meditation” approach only netted me frustration.


“But you have to teach me how to meditate!” I screamed at my teacher, desperately wanting to blame someone else for my failure to find enlightenment. He glanced at me and continued to send an SMS. “Fine,” I yelled, “I'm going to sit in the river!”


I sat in the river for three weeks, on a shiny boulder that changed shape each day according to the water level. The Ganga taught me how to not-meditate. I just sat in the river and listened to the water.  


The Buddhists say that all pain and suffering comes from attachment, yet the river knows no attachment. Under my feet Past, Present, and Future collapse into this one moment, as the molecules of water in Aswan and the molecules of water on the delta all flow together in this moment. No single water drop can form its identity alone, but rather only as part of the whole.


The memories of my trip to India and my trip to Alexandria pain me, because they are moments gone. I feel the loss of my grandmother every day, because she is gone. Yet these moments are never gone, just as the ripple of a stone cast in the water is never done and gone. The essence of the past lives in the energy of my being today, and the energy of my being lives in the energy of those around me.


For the Buddhists, there is no cause to be worried about the future either, for the infinite possibilities of the future are present in the now. I worry about my career and finding a good husband. I want children and a retirement account. All these attachments cause me pain bring me nothing. Whatever will happen to the old man from the train, whatever will become of the unruly mob and the rude men, are like ripple waves of a stone already cast, emanating from a center in ever widening circles of possibility: was, is, and will be.

For the Buddhists, the purpose of meditation is to let go of the self and all selfish concerns. That does not mean standing by and letting a mob trample an old man, but rather rejoicing in our citizenship as part of the river.


Cairo has many rivers. The mob in the train station is a river, a torrent of the frustrations, aggregations, and despair of being a young person in this time and place. The old man and I are pebbles, boulders, and a part of the river. The humanity of the young men who had made me so angry is no less than my own. Cairo’s famous traffic flow is a river, twisting and bending to its own cadence. Cars and pedestrians are safe as long as they stay in the flow. The rhythm of the days in Cairo is a river, the silence of the dawn latent in the mad frenzy of the night.


Until I find my enlightenment, until I can simply be a drop of water in the river of life without holding my own selfish desires, I will be sitting on my rock or standing on the bridge. As I turn and start to walk to the Metro to take me home, I feel the peace of my pre-dawn meditation sashaying on the night. I feel my euphoria in those early hours of silence, when the only sound in Cairo is the birds singing their rapture at the coming day. Until I can learn to let go of my attachments, I will hold on to my faith in the majesty of the Nile.