Solace in the City

Ahhhhh … inner city transport. Most people describe this means of transportation as: crowded, loud, smelly and at least once a week a drug addict will be itching to explain the ways of the universe to you. But I adore my underground journeys for two reasons.

First, the subway is like a mobile café for you to enjoy your coffee/internet news source/favorite book while jamming to the stellar tunes in your headphones.

Second, it forces strangers to trust each other. The subway is a vulnerable place without police, security guards or even daylight, and due to the recent attacks suffered in Europe and the United States, trust has become a more noticeable human quality to me. The subway system may not be the best example of trusting strangers but it’s the example I witness twice a day … typically turning me into the only smiling commuter at 8 a.m. on the U7 line.

What’s a San Diego girl doing on a subway? I scored a marketing and event planning internship in Berlin for a yoga retreat company. The owner of the studio has even taken me under his wing to show me some non-physical aspects of yoga.

I know what you’re thinking: hippie alert! Here comes the speech about karma and veganism. Don’t worry, that’s not where this is going. After all, I did win the “biggest party girl,” award at a staff event last year (not my biggest accomplishment but worth mentioning for a little insight into my lifestyle choices). The fact is, my summer in Berlin has proven to be sobering and radical in its own way. Last week, there were a few stand-out moments that impacted me and I’d like to share them with you.

Religion/spirituality is whatever you want it to be

I was not raised with religion. I viewed organized religion as means of restricting individualism and free thought … until last week when I was dusting the yoga room.

In a corner nook, there is a praying area I’ve seen 100 times but never really noticed. This cluttered corner housed at least 10 gold statues of exotic looking deities, a couple of Buddhas, a dusty photo of The Pope and a picture of mother Mary with a Christian Bible verse etched in the frame. Puzzled by this, I asked my boss to explain this chaotic corner of Christian, Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist religious figures. He explained that this alter is for his daily prayers to his yoga masters and the reason for the Catholic and Christian pictures was simply that he received them as gifts many years ago, thought they looked nice and decided to keep them.

“I think they all like to be next to each other. In my mind they’re all friends,” he said as he danced away with a big smile on his face.

This was revolutionary to me, I had never met anyone this devoted yet carefree about religion. “Who does that? Is this allowed?” were my first thoughts. “What if everyone viewed religion this way?” was my second. In that moment I discovered that everyone has the ability to create whatever spiritual reality they want and with that I found great comfort.

Things come to you as they should

One day my boss’s wife asked me to help move some cement bricks into their garden. What I didn’t know was that this was preparation for a 5,000-year-old Indian fire ceremony (called a puja) and I was expected to participate. In attendance there were six Germans, myself and three VIPs from India (two men considered to be highly enlightened masters and one female doctor). The ceremony lasted about 45 minutes, I didn’t know what was going on the entire time but did my best to play it cool and show respect for the experience.

Afterwards, one of the German guests and I walked to the train together. We hadn’t spoken much in the garden, but now he was telling me about his sick grandmother and his theory on reincarnation. At this point, I had reached my hippie threshold for the day and just wanted to be alone and decompress with my book and some gangster rap. Good thing I kept listening because he gave me a gift!

On the topic of (me) needing money for traveling, he stated that he never chases money but somehow always has it. Even after buying his friends plane tickets to travel with him, he never felt like he was losing money. “I have it, never wanted it, so I give it away … but it always finds a way back to me,” he explained. Our conversation was temporarily interrupted because we had to change trains. In our new seats appeared a €2 coin. “You see?” He said, “Just talking about how much I don’t need money brings more of it to me!”

Observing that the coin didn’t feel right in his hand, he passed it to me which I was thrilled with because that meant a snack for the walk home. Then a girl came on the train, someone I assumed to be a drug addict, begging for money. I had never given money to anyone on the subway before but I thought this was the perfect time to start. I gave her the €2 coin and saw her later that evening buying food at a gas station. The next day, I received €70 out of the blue. No way to know for sure if that €2 donation was a small investment that yielded me this return, but it felt like more than a coincidence.

I was curious to see if this newfound theory about monetary reciprocity could be applied anywhere else. I didn’t have to look far; the female Indian doctor from the fire ceremony confirmed the same lesson as the man from the train. Waiting for the subway to arrive after her lecture at our yoga studio, I learned how she also applies this financial philosophy. The money she earns from guest speaking all over Europe, she donates. At the hospital where she works in India, she does not collect a paycheck. Shall I repeat that? yes, she’s a doctor … for free.

I asked all the questions you’re thinking because I too was not yet convinced. She lives at the ashram (yoga center) that her parents started so she has no rent and eats whatever is prepared for the students. If money is needed, she asks the hospital for compensation but says she rarely does so. To summarize, she simply keeps her desires low and, thus, always has the feeling of satisfaction. Such a simple idea was so foreign to me. Almost everyone in America is constantly dissatisfied and wanting more, I realized.

Once I escorted her to the correct station, I continued my voyage home but this time no book or music was necessary. Seventy-two hours ago I was moving cement bricks in my boss’s garden and now I am sitting on the subway, not able to move, thinking about all the conversations and experiences that had seriously rocked my world. Even I wasn’t sure what it all meant.

But one thing was for sure: Living in one of Europe’s biggest cities, during the political and civil chaos that the world is suffering, I had been given a small sliver of peace.


Stephanie Dunbar is an international business major. She is interning abroad in Berlin for the summer.

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