Meditating on the Tube

An Essay on London


Street in London at night, significantly blurred. Showing street lights, a road and building in the background.

After spending time in London, you will likely hear the phrase: “tired of London, tired of life”. The phrase dates back to Samuel Johnson, the author of the first dictionary ever written who lived in London. Although I doubt we should be taking life advice from a dictionary writer, which sounds like the very definition of a tiring life, the phrase has struck a chord with many. Yet the saying has always vexed me. While living here I have found many of my experiences incredibly tiring and I don’t believe it is because I have given up on my life. It’s just that London demands a level of stimulation that many find uncomfortable, including me.

Let’s take a very common experience shared by anyone who has lived in or visited London: riding the tube. I have often imagined that if hell has a sound it would be close to the screeching and roaring heard on the Jubilee line between Green Park and Westminister. While riding on that stretch, I see each person putting on a stoic expression as conversations are extinguished and ears are plugged. This experience is common all over the tube network. Sudden sounds can bleat at you through the endless hamster-cage tunnels. It’s hardly pleasant and causes my whole body to clench, like it needs to run away.

It was manageable to start with but it started to wear me down. I saw signs of this in others too, where many sitting opposite would close their eyes or bury themselves in games and music. I soon found myself joining them in trying to cut myself off from the stimulating environment but it always left me feeling anxious afterwards just the same. The only solace I was able to find on my journeys was to meditate on the tube. I spent journeys totally concentrated on my body. I observed in detail how I contracted and reacted in step with the tube’s hellish soundscape and erratic motion. Through this I could regain some safe ground and expand my tolerance for it all. Unfortunately this is not the only situation where tolerance needed to be built in London. It turns out that everywhere is subtly like the tube.

The people of London are unique in that they are so diverse yet all share a common value of ecstasy. I mean ‘ecstasy’ here not as the drug enjoyed by dopamine fiends everywhere. I mean it as the mental state marked by the moments in our lives where a surreal level of happiness or enjoyment is reached. Think of: a surprise party, seeing a favourite band, tasting a gourmet meal or being applauded by a crowd. Of the many people I have met in London, those who loved the city and seemed the fit in the most were all direct seekers of ecstasy. They were serial planners with calendars filled to burst. Always building up to a next big achievement while heading off to lengthy parties on the weekend. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was common, known less romantically as ‘burning the candle at both ends’. This shared value creates the buzz of the city. Some may find it endearing and exciting; yet I only find it uncomfortable.

Whenever I hear somebody say ‘tired of London, tired of life’ I usually have a fleeting moment of asking myself ‘am I boring person?’ Yet this is an absurd conclusion. As we go through life, we each grow an idea of what a valuable life looks like. There is no one right or essential answer to the question ‘what is a valuable life?’ So just because my view of a valuable life is not aligned with the normal London experience, it does not mean that I need to change or I have poor taste. In fact it a helpful indicator that London is not a place where I want to put down roots or commitments. Ironically it means that if I am currently feeling tired of life, then I am probably tired of London.