How to find peace in an urban jungle

new york city aerial skyline manhattan

The question:

“I am so tired of the city, but I have to live here because of my husband’s job. The traffic, noise and pushy people seriously stress me out. Plus it’s so expensive! My husband promises we’ll move in a few years, when he’s more established. But for now, I’m stuck. Any words of wisdom?”

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of taking a professional workshop on mindfulness interventions for stress and depression relapse prevention. Our first exercise was to explore a raisin from the perspective of what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind.” Our instructions: to see, taste, smell, and handle the tiny shriveled morsel as if experiencing it for the first time. Participants discovered faces in the raisin’s ridges, hidden flavors, and childlike delight in remembering its Playdough-like pliability.

Simply put, the point of the lesson was to demonstrate how otherwise familiar objects take on a whole new light when you slow down to pay closer attention to them. The same can be said of urban life. Whether you live in New York, Boston or Philadelphia, most cityslickers have mastered the art of tunnel vision to maintain sanity amid the pandemonium. But from the perspective of Beginner’s Mind, you don’t need to escape the city to find peace. In fact, all of urban life could be seen as an opportunity for mindfulness practice. Here are some examples:

1)     To practice Beginner’s Mind, walk down a block near your home or work that you don’t normally take. Find something that draws your attention – a tree, beautiful architecture, an animal, or a sidewalk flowerbed. Using as many senses as appropriate, spend five minutes watching and noticing the intricacies of this object. You might be pleasantly surprise to notice things you might have overlooked before.

2)     Frequent unexpected delays and detours on buses, trains and traffic offer an ideal opportunity to practice the mindfulness concept of Patience. Next time you’re stopped on the Express train while several Local trains breeze past, take several deep breaths, and gently remind yourself, “I am practicing patience.” You might also simultaneously practice “Beginner’s Mind” as you study the faces of fellow passengers and see how many soften when you smile.

3)     Unexplained, prolonged delays on trains and buses when you’re running late for an appointment, no one explains the problem, and you have to go to the bathroom, are stellar opportunities to practice Patience, Trust that your colleagues will understand, and Letting Go of circumstances beyond your control (but not your bladder). Take deep breathes and feel your feet on the ground. Simultaneously, you might also simultaneously practice Non-Judging. Maybe the conductor isn’t taking a nap, or consumed in a riveting game of iphone Solitaire. Perhaps he or she has laryngitis, ran to the bathroom, or hasn’t been notified by headquarters. Again, take several deep breaths.

4)     Circling around six times for a parking spot on the Upper West Side on a Sunday night is an opportunity to practice Trust that someone will eventually pull out just as your pulling up, and Letting Go when you realize you have to throw the car in a lot.

5)     Next time you feel you’re not doing enough, seeing enough, reading enough, and being enough, practice the art of Non-Striving. While antithetical to most cosmopolitans, non-striving means that you don’t need to do anything – just allow yourself to be. Embrace the perfection of imperfection. Also resist the desire to strive towards Non-Striving (New Yorkers, this means you!)

6)     We practice Acceptance when we see things just as they are. We accept that we got a parking ticket as the price of having a car in the city. We practice Non-Judging by forgiving ourselves for forgetting that Tuesday is street cleaning. And we accept that sometimes we have to live in over-priced, over-crowded cities because our loved ones are employed here.


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