City Tip #1: Observe a Stranger


If you live in a big city, you probably know the term ‘people watching.’ It’s a very natural part of living in close proximity with thousands of other human beings. Sometimes we observe others out of curiosity, other times out of fear, and most often out of judgement (which is a veiled type of fear). We may think a person is acting ridiculous or strangely or stupidly. And we may derive some amusement from watching this. Or someone else may catch our eye ‘just because’ and we may cook up some elaborate fantasy regarding their lifestyle, dreams, aspirations,  and insecurities based on a glance or their demeanor. Understand that all of that is fiction. It is judgement – good or bad- and it doesn’t matter. In fact those judgements say far more about who we are as individuals than about the other person. So then why am I asking you to observe a stranger? Two reasons. First, to be very conscious about what your observation reveals about yourself. Second, to see if you can go about scrutinizing in a different way.

1. Find a public space – maybe a park, a bench, a museum, a train – anywhere that you will encounter other people. Notice your breath for a few inhale/exhales to bring you into the present. Staying present, survey your surroundings and pick someone. Notice what comes up. What are your immediate judgements? Does that person evoke anger, sadness, aversion, arousal, images, desires, stories,  anything at all? No matter the material, just notice the thoughts and feelings and let them go.

2. Now, staying with the same person, say this inwardly, “Just like me, this person has dreams, desires, joys, sorrows, insecurities, and experiences suffering. And just like me, he/she wants to be happy and free from suffering.” You can put your own spin on these words if you’d like. As in the first step, be very aware of what comes up while you’re saying these words and afterward. Did that put the person in a new light? Was their resistance to this new idea? Again, don’t judge.

If you continue this brief and easy practice at least once a day for a week or so, you may begin to see its benefit. It can be a profound introspective experience on top of the fact that it is an exercise in compassion. When you really start to feel that compassion, you may experience an overwhelming sense of joy. Not only are you sending good vibes to others, but you’re also creating them within yourself.

This is a fantastic exercise to do anywhere, but especially in the city where the sense of “me vs. everyone else” is so close to the surface on a daily basis. This way of looking at others can dispel that illusion and bring you a deeper sense of self.

By Terence Stone

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Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.

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  • Great exercise!

    Other people are often the biggest triggers for our feelings — good and bad, so watching ourselves watching others is a great way to get insight into ourselves.

    That we get to sneak in some compassion is an added bonus. Not only will it show our biases in relief, but it may be more effective than Metta for some. Having the people there, having our biases in our faces, yet confronting the (undeniable) fact that they have an inner life, can feel pain and just want happiness drives the point like nothing else.

    • Couldn’t agree more. I love that idea of sneaking in some compassion. In fact, the compassion sneaks in when we least expect it! Thanks for posting.