Strangers on a Train



Sometimes teaching is right in front of us and we are ignoring it. Sometimes we even actively avoid it.

Case in point: I was coming home from a meeting on Sunday and had just missed the BART train. When you miss a train on a Sunday it is an automatic 20 minute wait. I planned to settle into a book. A man came rushing onto the platform, realized he, too, had just missed the train, and ended up near me. We commiserated about the Sunday schedule, chatted for a bit, and then I prepared once again to read my book. He kept asking me questions. I would talk briefly, then start to go back into introvert in a public transit station mode. Finally - realizing I was letting an opportunity for curiosity get away from me - I put the book away and gave him my attention.

He asked what I do for a living, which led to me explaining the concept of the triple soul to him, and how our lack of alignment affects us and the culture we build. We stood on the platform, a large black man and a small white woman, talking about how we try to engage with the world, about the importance of authenticity in teaching, about showing up from your past to better speak to the present. The conversation grew interesting enough that I chose to sit with him once the train arrived. We ended up having a long conversation about the young men he mentors, many of whom lack fathers. I got to hear about the death of his five year old daughter and how that affected him when he was a young man trying to work his way through college. I was able to tell him about the work I’m doing with Alan Blueford’s family. When he told me some more about how he counsels the teenagers he works with, I could relate that back to our original triple soul conversation and say “That is the animal soul!” He laughed.

Yes, on one hand, he was trying to get my phone number while acting like he wasn’t (“Just text me that information.” I don’t think so.). On the other hand,  we were two humans concerned about our world and sharing how we deal with it.

I left the train feeling grateful for the encounter, grateful for remembering that presence and curiosity are more important than maintaining my own space. This encounter reminded me of why I choose to not wear headphones in public places: I want to see what the world has to offer. Conversations like this are part of the gift of engagement. We isolate too much from one another.

Last Sunday, I allowed a barrier in myself to soften. I learned something. It made me wonder how much we miss on a regular basis. 

This week, I wonder if we can all do an experiment and allow ourselves just one encounter that we might otherwise avoid. Can we meet the stranger on the train?

I’d also like to hear about times you have done this in the past. Please share them with us. I’d love to read the reasons why you have avoided encounters, too. Perhaps we can all teach one another how to better navigate this often bewildering territory between the public and the private, between shared spaces and our own unfolding souls.

37 Responses to “Strangers on a Train”

  1. Dee

    Some years back I was eating lunch alone outside and was approached by a homeless man. I didn’t have any cash, so I offered him part of my food, which he gratefully accepted. He then told me about his life, which was really interesting, and how he was trying to get back to where he grew up. It was 30 minutes out of my life, but an amazing connection with someone most people tried to avoid seeing. While talking, several people asked me if the man was bothering me. I appreciated that they were making sure I was okay, but it really bothered me that they assumed I needed protecting because the man was homeless. They all seemed so shocked that I could have a conversation with a person who wasn’t “like us”.

    • Melissa Williams

      I have had similar experiences with the homeless. When I lived in Baltimore there was an older homeless couple who would frequent the bus shelter to get out of the cold/rain. I worked at a gourmet food store and had purchased pears for myself. When I got to the bus stop I saw the homeless couple huddled up together. I greeted them and we talked for a bit as others arrived at the bus stop. The couple had lost their home and had no living relatives. They had no support. They told me they occasionally go to the shelters but they were full. That happens a lot in Baltimore. I saw the bus approaching and gave them the pears. They were so grateful! I wished I could do more for them. When I was seated on the bus another man told me I “shouldn’t feed the homeless” because “they are like wild animals. It will have them hanging around all the time expecting handouts.” This made my stomach turn. I told him that if more people would help they wouldn’t be homeless and they would be able to get back on their feet. The man turned red and didn’t say anything else.

    • Thorn

      Dee, we tend to “Other” people so quickly. It is interesting that the people couldn’t read your open body language. Generally, if someone needs help, their body will tell us.

      Meeting homeless people’s eyes and greeting them, even when I’m saying “no” to giving money is an important practice of mine. So few people want to encounter those who live on the streets, and I don’t think it is just the dirt, I think it is partially not wanting to face such poverty. We can also feel overwhelmed by the need in the world – a little kindness actually ends up helping assuage this feeling. Thanks for sharing.

      • Ealasaid

        Thorn, that’s an awesome practice. I have a friend who attended a conference in a strange city in a wheelchair because she’d injured herself a few days before, and the way people treated her was really different than the way she was treated at conferences where she was on her feet. She has a post somewhere or other about meeting eyes with a homeless guy during a conversation on the sidewalk where she was being basically ignored and feeling a real moment of connection — both of them were people that “regular” folks wouldn’t make eye contact with.

        I used to be pretty friendly with homeless folks and other panhandlers, even when I was saying no, but had a few unpleasant experiences which made me change that habit – the only times homeless folks have been aggressive (yelling at me, following me down the street, etc.) toward me have been when I acknowledged them.

        More on-topic, I’ve had friendly chats on trains and planes, including being included in an after-work-commute birthday party on Caltrain.

  2. Thermetics

    I went to a party once with a man I was in a ‘sort of’ relationship with – he got drunk and left me on my own with a group of people I didn’t know. Being an introvert myself, I wanted to run away but for some reason I was brave and struck up a conversation with another guy I recognised from around town (something I would never usually do!)…..I’m now happily married to that man.
    Thorn, thanks for such an inspiring reminder of this-I’m forever hiding in my headphones (even after seeing how reaching out brought such happiness to my life) -who knows what I might be missing? Definitely going on a headphone ban for a while.

  3. Sherry Marts

    Once, on a long flight, I was seated next to a couple who were still wearing the little plastic name badges from their tour group. She was obviously not feeling well so I offered her my pillow to help her feel a bit more comfortable and she quickly fell asleep. I asked her husband where they had been and he said “We were on a tour of the Holy Land.” There was my first clue – not the Middle East, the Holy Land. I asked a few more questions and learned that he was an Assembly of God minister in Topeka, Kansas. I hesitated as I often do before outing myself, then decided to liven up a boring flight by saying, “I’m clergy, too” “Really? What denomination?” “Well, I’m a Witch.” There was a pause, and then he said “What exactly do you mean by that?” We went on to have a lengthy and lively conversation about faith, belief, heaven, hell, proselytizing, and other topics of a theological and spiritual nature. As we were getting ready to leave the plane, he turned to me and said, “I will pray for you, if you don’t mind.” “I don’t mind at all, thank you. And I will include you in my devotions, too.” “Thanks,” he said, and off we went – he to his connecting flight to Topeka, and I to my weekend intensive with a group of Dianic Witches. So now, somewhere in Topeka, there is an Assembly of God minister who knows that Witches are not Satanists, don’t want to destroy his church, and are worthy of his prayers. And his name is still in my blessing bowl.

    • Thorn

      Sherry, I’ve had those conversations on many an airplane. They are often very interesting and fruitful. I’ve actually never had a bad “I’m a Witch” or “I’m a Pagan” conversation on an airplane – I wonder if the close confinement makes us more willing to be polite which leads to a “may as well just ask” attitude. I like that you offered your pillow. I’ve helped people through panic attacks and nausea on planes.

      Airplanes are, however, the one public space in which I allow myself headphones. I feel willing to have conversation for 40 minutes, but not 4 hours. I don’t put them on right away, though, not liking to shut out others too quickly.

      • Sherry Marts

        Ah, well, according to the MBTI, I’m an extravert. For me a good and juicy conversation trumps the iPod and my books. I do my best thinking out loud.
        : -)

  4. Melissa Williams

    I frequently enjoy talking with others in the same manner. I love hearing others talk about the need they have discovered and how they have come to help those in need. Having a shared goal of making things a little easier in any person’s life is inspiring and really shows that I am not alone in my endeavors. For those that I speak with in public who have not taken up the act of giving I feel that some will remember what I have shared and be inspired. I am a Girl Scout troop leader for girls starting the 2nd grade and am very dedicated to teaching them about leadership within the community and helping them realize the need of others and what role they can play and filling that role. I have a contact, through Girl Guides, in Uganda and hope to reach out farther than our local community. I personally have sponsored a child in Kampala, Uganda for a few years and really cherish the relationship that has blossomed there. I really find the relationships that I’ve built with others while giving where I can rewarding. Sharing these experiences with others can only educate them and myself on other avenues where I can be useful. I enjoyed reading your post and smiled the whole way through. Thank you!

    • Thorn

      Melissa, how wonderful! It sounds like your life is enriched by these connections.

  5. Mari

    One Sunday I went to Victoria Park with my two year old grandson and his Mom. On the way there, my daughter was telling her little boy about some of the playground equipment we would enjoy. Then I chimed in about what I like best about this park….the trees and the river. I turned to my grandson next and asked him what he likes most of all about Victoria park …and his response??? “The people!” What a revelation to me, being a very shy person! This lot of “strangers” was the best part of going to the park for him! Soon we arrived and I allowed this new concept to help me relate to people in a new (or forgotten) way.

    I observed everyone without judgement. I didn’t spend my time wondering what they were thinking of us. I smiled, and continued smiling, even though some people didn’t smile back. Most, in fact, did! I didn’t care if my clothes got dirty or my hair messy with pretend leaf hair and rolling about in grass. I didn’t care if people saw me pretending to be a monkey or heard me singing on the swings as my little grandson and I flew higher and higher! Best of all, as I became less fearful and more fearless, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a young boy who people would call “severly disabled.” One of my repeated mantras preceding that day had been, ” Help me to communicate heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul with every being I meet.” So here I was face to face, suddenly, with this young fellow whose words were hardly discernable…and I was afraid…afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand, no matter how hard I tried, afraid I would, then, look and feel like a fool and I wouldn’t know what to do. It would be awkward. Nevertheless, I stayed, I relaxed and held my ground, I looked into his face and smiled and listened…and here’s what he managed to convey to me!!! He expressed his great joy at soaring high on the swing and finding, way up there, a beautiful tree! WE were kindred spirits…and I am blessed to carry that memory with me at all times and in all places and in all circumstances for all eternity.

    I learned many wonderful things that Sunday and I’m savouring my memory….of how two little boys taught me so much more about the meaning of life…LOVE!

    And, even today, I’m smiling back at myself as I reflect on my new found experience of Victoria Park.

    • Thorn

      Mari, this story brought tears to my eyes. What a gift to you and to us all.

  6. David Salisbury

    I frequently miss the DC trains and we get the same 20 minute wait, so I’ve definitely been in a similar situation of lamenting the schedule with others. I never seem to have people trying to speak to me, but I wonder if its because of the way I put myself forth? I often have my loud punk blasting in my headphones, blocking out all noise. At the same time, I’m usually reading a book or typing away on my laptop, all while commuting in and out of the city. I’ve often wondered what it would be like if I didn’t bring any of that stuff with me and just “rode the train” with only myself, paying full attention. Could be an interesting social experiment.

    • Thorn

      Try it for a week and see what happens! I met a young man on a train a few months ago who deliberately tries to meet people on trains. We had a very cool conversation. He even meets potential dates this way, which seems like a great thing. I’ve often thought it odd that large city dwellers date online, when they could be encountering people all the time.

    • Melissa Williams

      With our busy lives I think many of us have fallen into a habit of not living in the moment. Our minds are often elsewhere planning what is to come. When I feel this is happening to me I stop and use my 5 senses to reconnect myself to what is around me at that moment. 🙂

  7. tonyrella

    Often I ride a bus that is somewhat infamous in the city for being a bus that includes people from various social strata and often hosts various kinds of fights and arguments. Often times I feel tired and there’s a part of me that “just wants to get through the ride,” which I know is a peculiar kind of energy-conservation that ends up being more draining than it would if I allowed myself to be open and responsive to what happens around me. It can be difficult after a long shift of customer service, or when I’m trying to do reading for school.

    The other day, at work, a homeless youth came in who I knew from my brief tenure working drop-in hours at a center. I’m not sure if she ever recognizes me in my uniform, and I maintain a reserved friendliness because I’m not sure what to do in this situation with regards to confidentiality and professional boundaries. The other day I decided just to be particularly nice and treat her like a customer I like, and I was met by a warmth that surprised me. She asked me what I did with our food at night, and I told her we weren’t allowed to give it away, and yes it sucks. She came in later to ask my coworker, and he was thrown off by her angry response to being told again that we just threw it away. He seemed hurt by her anger.

    I don’t know her well but I’ve heard some of her poetry and I know she carries a lot of pain inside of her. I understand my coworker’s perspective, that she comes across as scary and intimidating. For a moment, it seemed like I could hold all these truths without invalidating his experience or my own. At the end of the night, I decided just to buy the last remaining sandwiches and go hand them to her, and I was so happy just to see her smile and appreciation. I’m sure part of that was because it fed my ego, but another part is that I have some sense of her pain and it was so wonderful to see a glimpse of another part of herself.

    • Thorn

      The dance of boundaries and respect can be tricky to navigate. It sounds like you did really well with this one, Tony.

  8. Soli

    About five years ago, one of my fetches told me very directly I had to stop my practice (since early teens!) of wearing headphones outside the house most of the time. It had served its purpose long before and I needed to be aware of others like that again.
    While I still engage some introversion by reading while waiting for and on public transit, I do still look up periodically and nod to people. Sometimes I even talk, which happened yesterday. It’s not much since my actual time on the bus is all of five minutes. It’s something though. And it breaks down that shell around me.

  9. Michael Butler Smith

    As a born and raised New Yorker, many of us go through life here with “shields up!” at all times. But in my case, ever since I was a kid, people would naturally approach me for directions. Without fail, if I am on a crowded NYC subway or a busy street, folks whether local or tourist, rich or impoverished, will single me out and come to me to find their way. I don’t actively seek this and would be perfectly content to simply mind my business and (like Thorn) read my book or get wherever I’m going without breaking my stride. Try as I might however, people stop me for help. I remember in my late teens asking my mother who was a devoted practitioner of metaphysics, why this was so. I always figured by that point my black Witchy attire and bling, (inc. leather jacket and kick-ass boots depending on the season!) would be off-putting to many. My mother’s perspective was they were reading my core energy – which according to her is by nature helpful, guiding and calming. People feel they can trust me. I don’t always feel this consciously but apparently, perhaps instinctively or subconsciously, others can. In a small way, I’ve literally helped people from all over the world navigate this sometimes overwhelming place – and learn a little bit about each of their lives when they choose to open up. So it all fits with my own work as a spiritual teacher and guide. I’ve come to accept it as my mother did as my core energy – and use it to help others whether they be clients and students, or complete strangers lost in a very big and often manic city, to find their way and feel a little calmer knowing they are being steered to a trustworthy path in their journey. Life offers us so many opportunities to open up to others and offer assistance – in whatever form that may take. Thank you Thorn as always for a beautiful teaching, and for calling our attention to how we raise or lower barriers within ourselves – and where that might lead.

    • Thorn


      Even at my most punk rock, I was often astonished at the little old ladies who would talk with me on the bus. Strangers sometimes tell me things I bet they talk to few others about: while waiting for a movie to start, or sitting in a cafe, or waiting on the street, or at nightclubs.

      I’ve come to call it “being a priest in every moment” and have trained myself to do so.

      Good for you for accepting this role and using it to help others find their way.

  10. jami

    Thank you for writing this story, although I wondered that with this connection why you might not want to give him your phone number! This type of openness I miss when I do not travel (I work from home), as I learn so much about the other person, about myself, and quite simply the joy of human spirits meeting on common ground.

    • Thorn

      My dance card is full!

      Besides which, I don’t like phone calls. My phone is for texting or emergencies.

  11. Taylor Ellwood

    I’ve had to learn how to do this with my coaching business at networking events. One could argue that being at a networking event involves conversations, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are listening or letting people in. It actually takes a lot to do, because it would be much easier to stick with small talk or safe areas of conversation.

    • Thorn

      Yes! Small talk is harder for me than connecting, but making the push to connect in a social situation where small talk is expected can be really difficult. I find that an inner decision has to be made.

  12. Desert Freyja

    My first response to this post was “Well, this is all well and good, but what about safety?!” while clutching my pearls.

    I have had negative encounters when trying to be “nice.” I’ve had men stalk me and aggressively hit on me because I made eye contact with them.

    But I often stop connecting with people because of fear. Fear that they’ll hurt me, reject me, ridicule me. And this fear is valid, but it has to be tempered. I have to remember my boundaries, my safety – of course. But I often ignore my inner voice that says “go ahead, do it!” I must listen more to that inner voice.

    • Thorn


      Safety is an important issue. I’m glad you bring it up.

      if he had set off my alarm bells, I would have closed the conversation, moved away, and read my book, but he didn’t.

      For years I’ve practiced strong posture and presence as well as using my aura to sense space around me. All of this helps me to feel safe enough to interact in public spaces.

    • Melissa Williams

      I do agree with Thorn here. I am cautious when engaging others. I am 32 now and can sense who to stay away from. I do feel blessed by this. I know not everyone can feel people out the same way which can limit the encounters they have with others.

  13. Leanne Pemburn

    For many, many years, living in various cities and towns and suburbs, I would watch the people around me and listen to them, but not interact. I believe I felt I was not really there, just a mind, observing. It was as if I didn’t really exist in the world.
    These days, I am present and interact as much as I have the energy for, and it is delightful. Part of it is being older – no one is going to target me until I become physically infirm – and part of it is being more self confident. But I can connect with almost anyone who is open to connection, and I value that!

  14. fortuna

    This last week, I have let myself smile at people on the street. This is not my normal demeanor. the sense of connection, of humanity, has buoyed me. Because I (italicise that please) need the connection. I want to break down this myth i’ve been carrying that only if i’m fully shielded can I ‘safely’ walk the streets of the cities in which i live. what have i been keeping out? why does the book/headphones/mobile phone/ locked energy body keep us safe?

    • Thorn

      Fortuna, those are great questions. As an introvert, I can default at times to “closed” which doesn’t actually help me.

      As you know, an open energy field is actually much safer – we can take in more information.

      And learn more about ourselves and the world.

  15. Rootrealm

    I don’t see introverted as correlating to “closed.” It often seems that it’s precisely because I feel so open, that I as an introvert often have to go and “hide” in a private place: because I’m so “open” that without enough being able to be in private, I would just be receiving far too much of other’s energies.
    This may not have to do with being an introvert, so much as being very sensitive.

    I almost never wear headphones or IPOD in public spaces, nor do I talk on my phone while walking down the street. I listen to music when hiking in the park, but when on BART or walking down the sidewalk, I feel it’s rude not to take in and acknowledge others I encounter, though if I am feeling stressed, I cannot acknowledge them as thoroughly as I’d like to. At my best, when I’ve had enough rest, enough time alone, and don’t feel stressed because of elements in the environment (loud noises, passing buses, cars, blaring music, angry or hostile people, etc can be very difficult for my sensitive nature), I enjoy looking into the faces and/or smiling at those I pass by. I find it beautiful that some people, total strangers, can cause me to feel tenderness, to break into a smile upon seeing them. Isn’t that marvelous? It doesn’t happen a lot, but if I feel a need for experiencing more of this, I go to Spirit Rock and wand find this in the Residential retreat area among the silent retreatants.

    I am feeling more and more of a desire these days to be particularly kind and attentive to strangers I encounter who are performing repetitive low-paying jobs: cashiers at Walgreen’s, Safeway, the janitor at Target. These people really need to be reminded that they are human beings, when their job is often so dehumanizing: eg, having to interact in a superficial way with hundreds of people each day (Safeway cashier).

    I do interact with strangers when I feel an intuitive pull to do so. Sometimes this feels good, and there’s real openness between us. However, sometimes when I open up to a stranger, they respond by “talking at” me (eg just spouting opinions at me, without regard to who I am) instead of talking to me, and I find this uncomfortable, and regret that I allowed them an opening. Perhaps if I had been able to bring more of an intense presence to the encounter, they would not respond with such inauthenticity?

    • Thorn


      I also try to pay kind attention to those in service jobs. As a result, my interactions with them are often marvelous.

      As for sometimes having interactions turn on us? It is a risk we take. Some encounters feel good and others don’t. I prefer to risk it – despite not getting my energy from interactions like an extrovert does – because it changes something inside of me. A willingness to interact changes my relationship with the world.


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