Ten Years After


Photos © James and Karla Murray

In a few weeks I’ll be visiting some of my old neighborhoods in New York City. It’s been a while since my last visit and I expect to feel discombobulated by its unfamiliarity. Like a time-displaced Captain America bounding into a future-ized Times Square, I’ll recognize all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces and reconcile myself to the fact that they look all wrong.

But it’s not just a case of sullen nostalgia because my old haunts don’t look they way they used to; it’s a case of disenchantment because now my old haunts look just like everyplace else. When I was born, no other city in America looked like New York City. Now, New York City looks a lot like everyplace else. People from Des Moines can have dinner in New York at the same restaurant they go to in… Des Moines! C’mon: really? You’re in the Big Apple and you want to eat at Applebee’s?

Every day everyplace looks a little more like everyplace else: the same corporate brands, the same architectural design, the same urban planning, the same kind of commoditized experience, sanitized and made safe for mass consumption. You used to be able to escape from the malaise of the suburbs by moving into The City. Now, the only real difference is that you won’t need a car (but you will need a trust fund).

What irks me isn’t change in and of itself or even the velocity of change; it’s the velocity of change compounded by the nature of the change from personal to impersonal. Our environment is an outer manifestation of our inner landscape. And our inner landscape is a multi-layered universe of perpetual change. But when time compresses to the point that our external landscape changes way faster than our internal landscape then it’s reasonable to expect the world to look a little blurry, for distinguishing features to become indistinguishable, and for meaningful relationships to be harder to maintain.

The beclouding of distinguishing features and meaningful relationships is a symptom of nirvisesa; impersonalism. And impersonalism is both the material cause of hyperactive metamorphosis (the mode of passion, raja guna, being the efficient cause) and the effect as well; like a feedback loop spiraling into aural mush, the blurring of the world into a homogenous façade effectively erases its distinctive qualities.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get to live long enough to watch our world vanish right before our eyes. And if we’re unlucky, we’ll live in a world where we don’t have to live very long before it happens. It took 50 years for most of my world to disappear; most of the world we see today will be gone in 15. Maybe 10. Unlucky.

And it gets worse: from the standpoint of yoga, getting caught up in the loopy calculus of accelerating external transformations multiplied by corresponding internal transformations is a sure-fire way to fall even further out of touch with reality than we may already be:

“That which is temporal has no real substance whereas that which is truly real is eternal and changeless. Seers of the truth have reached this conclusion by studying the nature of both.” (Bhagavad Gita 2.16)

Assuming, as traditional yoga does, that we have real, eternal, changeless spiritual identities that are as distinct from the geography of the mind as they are from any particular geographic location, you could say that the great homogenizing of America is symptomatic of a collective personality disorder, a kind of Pneumapathology, a breathlessness of the soul.

What’s the cure?

Looking forward to your thoughts and comments – hope you’re enjoying a beautiful spring day.


Photos by James and Karla Murray, who returned to photograph locations they had previously photographed for their book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York City, and photographed them again, ten years after. See more on their Facebook Page.


  1. Judy Thackaberry
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 10:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Is that not the case for any town one has not visited in some time?

    • Posted April 13, 2014 at 10:57 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Yes, change in and of itself lets us know that we, too, will vanish and time will erase all trace of our having ever been here. But when everyplace looks like everyplace else it’s even worse because the town we once knew hasn’t just changed into a place we don’t recognize or relate to; it’s lost its personality altogether and subsequently, drains the personality out of its inhabitants. Thanks for your comment, Judy.

  2. Cathy
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 11:53 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and share your concerns about what the future is going to look like. When I get lost in the craziness of sterilization and monotony, I remember that there are small but more personal ventures coming up everyday…like many of the sellers on etsy, or the Herbalista van I just read about in GA (free herbal clinic on wheels ;), or food trucks or any multitude of ventures in my potential dream home of NH where mom and pop shops are still a common scene. I guess I ramble on to say that we can still look for personalization in the small spaces, the individuals, and the kind interactions we have everyday. We can also enjoy more meals at home! While I don’t know if this will “save” any sort of culture or personal experience in the long run, it keeps my tiny head from exploding when I think about the mass commercializations of just about everything 🙂

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:01 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, Cathy. I think you’re right: personal interactions and relationships persist in impersonal environments just as grass grows between the cracks of a concrete sidewalk. And the more we water that grass the better chance it has to push the sidewalk out of its way.

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