I spent a major chunk of my summer hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail where mindfulness was practically forced out of me at every turn.
In the wilderness it’s hard not to notice the present moment: the beautiful lakes, the shimmering snow, the creeks whooshing by, the sun kissing my face, the butterflies fluttering, the birds chirping.
Where else would my mind be right now?
This fall, life brought me from the fairytale land of mindful-bliss to the heart of chaos and sensory overload: the city of San Francisco.
In the first couple months here I felt as if my senses were being assaulted.
The honking cars, banging trash trucks and blasting sirens made my eardrums bleed.
The fowl smells creeping into my nostrils from sewers, exhaust and trash poisoned my breath.
The concrete walls, barred up windows, and homelessness burnt my eyes and enveloped my every experience.
Somehow I felt lonely and isolated in a sea of people. I was overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, and spinning out quickly.
The only way I knew to gain a little sense of ground was through my mindfulness practice. Not just sitting on the meditation cushion, but applying my practice to everything about my daily life in the city.
While this is not an easy task, the rewards have been endless. Mindfulness practices saved me from panic attacks, grey hair and most importantly, premature evacuation of this amazing city.
The simple practices that transformed my experience of living in the city are:
1. Body scans.
Body awareness allows me to slow down and ask myself what is really going on at my most basic level of experience.
I do this by starting with a deep breath, which brings my attention down into my body. I often check in to see if I can feel my feet on the ground or if there are any other internal sensations jumping out at me.
When I am anxious, I notice my chest and stomach get tight and my energy feels as though it is moving up and out of me.
Sometimes I inquire whether there is a shape or color associated with my sensations, and I also check in to see if there is any part of me that I don’t feel at all. Am I numb anywhere right now?
The benefit of practicing this type of mindfulness is that it pulls me out of my spinning thoughts and criticisms and it grounds me back into the present moment.
I also notice that the sensations at my most basic level of experience are non-judgmental. The city was not assaulting my senses, it was just stimulating them in a way that I wasn’t used to.
2. Walking mindfully.
This basically breaks down to paying attention to the people and things that are going on around me and this practice has shifted my experience of the city in three major ways:
By slowing down, I have been able to notice creative expressions in the form of architecture, fashion, facial expressions, natural spaces, and even businesses.
I challenge myself to make eye contact and smile at every person I walk by. Most of the time my gaze is ignored, but each time it is met and a smile is exchanged with a stranger, my heart lights up and my day is made that much better. Walking allows connection in the midst of chaos.
Bipedal exploration also allows me to appreciate nature, as it exists in the city. There are still trees, flowers, clouds, birds, and parks all around me. Last week a hummingbird flew right in front of my face as I walked down the street. It woke me up just in time to notice it feeding on the flowers beside me. Beautiful.
3. Public style meditations.
These have really helped me to treasure the seemingly overcrowded world I now inhabit. I don’t know about other people, but it’s easy for me to feel frustrated at the smelly guy next to me on the train, the girl chomping her bubble gum in my ear, or the slow-poke blocking my path to the meditation hall (yes, I said it).
A favorite public style meditation comes from the book If the Buddha Dated. Author Charlotte Kasl refers to this as a “meditation on kindness.”
When you are in a crowd, look around at all the different people. Notice their clothes, faces, hair, sizes. Look at their gestures and movements, noticing if they are loose, stiff or free. Just take it in, without judgment, as if you were looking at a garden of people.
Then see them all as energy fields, the same as you. Just energy. As you continue watching, think to yourself, every person here has had to live every day of their lives, just like me. They have had to get up every day, decide what to wear, face loss, success, hurt, shame, just like me. Everyone fell down while learning to walk, everyone probably felt anxious the first time they kissed, just like me.
Each person has a story to tell. Some chapters are heroic. Some of them are about loss, some about fear, some about achievement or joy, just like my story.
Then continue to think of them as energy, conceived as an egg and sperm, just like you.
The Shambhala Meditation Center of San Francisco offers social gatherings, practices and conversations which have also helped me tie together my trail experience, mindfulness practice, social circle and city life.
Although integrating myself into the city hasn’t been easy, as usual, I am grateful for the challenge. I am blessed to be learning to appreciate human nature in all it’s expressions, to let go of long standing judgments about sensory overload, and to have the opportunity to live with an open heart in the midst of a chaotic city.
I know that it’s easy to be mindful in nature. The real practice lies with making mindfulness my nature, no matter where I am.
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Apprentice Editor: Emily Bartran / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Alyssa Miller via Flickr