I don’t live in a big city. (In fact, the only noises I typically hear are birds chirping or cats in heat. Don’t ask.) But I’ve lived in NYC and have been visiting my family there several times a year for over a decade. So I have a fairly good grasp of what it’s like to be surrounded by a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens, a flurry of feet pounding the pavement, and hours (many hours) of traffic. Though it has many perks, city life is rarely peaceful or serene.
That’s why I really like the book Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence & Purpose in the Middle of It All by Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of UrbanMindfulness.org. In it, he addresses specific problems that plague city dwellers and gives readers a variety of strategies to feel more calm and fulfilled. (He lives in NYC, so I think he knows what he’s talking about.)
He breaks his book down into exercises you can do “At Home,” “At Play,” “At Work,” “Out and About” and “Anytime, Anywhere.”
Mindfulness is, according to Kaplan:
- “Noticing your thoughts, feelings, and actions without judgment or criticism
- Observing what’s happening around you
- Being fully aware of your senses moment to moment
- Living in the here and now without resorting to old patterns and automatic reactions
- Exercising acceptance of your own experience, whether good, bad or neutral.”
Here are four helpful mindfulness activities from Urban Mindfulness.
1. “Mini Mindfulness Masters at Home”
Kaplan says that sometimes we can find the best mindfulness coaches right at home. “Pets and children have an uncanny ability to live fully in the present moment, thus they can serve as ‘mini mindfulness masters’ to guide our practice.”
He suggests readers follow these mindfulness masters, which might mean “lying next to your cat, nuzzling your dog or gazing at your infant,” and tune into “some of the sensual aspects of the present moment your pet or baby might be experiencing (for example, temperature, sound, lightness or darkness and so on).”
Also, observe their behavior and how they relate to the present moment, whether they’re experiencing something pleasant (or not), and focus on your own reactions. Ask yourself what your mini-master would do right now. “The idea isn’t to embody or mimic this reaction…but simply to consider a different response from your usual automatic programming. If the image of your pet or baby’s reaction merely brings a smile to your face, all the better,” Kaplan writes.
2. “Exercising Acceptance”
Most of our attitudes about exercise are negative, Kaplan says. (I couldn’t agree more!) He offers four tips for cultivating an accepting and positive relationship with exercise. (Remember that exercise can be any physical activity.)
- We tend to assign virtue (or vice) to exercise. Either we’re good because we ran X number of miles today or we’re bad because we didn’t. Or we’re lazy and worthless for skipping a spinning class or superior for attending three times this week. Instead, Kaplan suggests readers discuss their physical activities without being judgmental. As Kaplan says, “It just is what it is.”
- Many of us make comparisons either to others (who are faster and stronger) or to our past selves (who were smaller, more muscular, more athletic). Kaplan calls for freeing ourselves from these comparisons. They not only make us miserable but we might push ourselves too far. “You might add too much weight to the bench press or strain yourself during a yoga pose, just to placate your inner critic.”
- Be grateful that you’re able to move your body. “Being able to exercise at all suggests having a body that’s capable of moving and helping us get through our daily lives,” Kaplan writes.
- Accept your limits. Moving can make you more prone to injuries, which might develop into chronic concerns and conditions, Kaplan says. So it’s important to accept your limits and injuries. “Railing against your injuries or pushing yourself in painful ways simply aggravates your condition, delays your recovery and worsens your pain, thus limiting your activities in the future.”
3. “Flecks of Green”
Being surrounded by nature is very good for us. Some research has demonstrated that walking in a park boosts our mood and even our ability to concentrate. You can get your nature fix in either a big-city park (like breathtaking Central Park) or smaller spots (which you might not realize even exist).
According to Kaplan, many cities have developed community gardens or smaller parks called “microparks,” “miniparks” or “pocket parks.” To find some nature near you, Kaplan suggests: searching online by typing in “micropark,” “minipark,” “vest park” or “pocket park”; visiting the Project for Public Spaces; “find[ing] a satellite image or bird’s-eye view of the area around your home and work”; visiting blogs with local events; searching out unused spaces that you and your community could convert into a garden or park.
4. “Mindfulness First-Aid Kit”
One of the last places you’re probably feeling peaceful is at work, especially if you’ve just endured a time-consuming or overcrowded commute (or both!). And it might be particularly tough to awaken from your autopilot ways and actually pay attention to the present.
Kaplan says that during these times we need something to support mindfulness practice. So he suggests creating a first-aid kit dedicated to mindfulness with objects that you enjoy and touch your five senses. When creating your kit, consider where you’ll keep it (drawer or a bag) and select several items but don’t pick anything that’s thought-provoking.
Kaplan also offers tips on picking the actual objects:
- For a visual, pick a pleasant picture. (Again, nothing too thought- or emotionally stimulating.)
- For taste, pick something with a long shelf life like chocolate.
- For sound, consider songs, meditation or prayer. (Nature sounds, he says, might be too distracting.)
- For touch, select an object with “a notable texture or temperature, like a rock, a piece of fabric, or an instant ice pack.”
- For smell, you can select anything from coffee beans (Kaplan’s favorite) to an air-freshener to “perfume-scented magazine inserts.”
- In general, you can consolidate and have objects that combine the senses and create a nice ritual. “For example, if you include a tea bag, you can smell it first, feel the warm mug as it brews, and taste it once it’s ready.”