Imagine sitting on the couch watching TV, but your Tweenager has the remote and is spastically flipping through channels so erratically that your eyes/mind cannot settle on one thing. Now, you and that TV are in the back of a smelly taxi cab, driven by a novice driver from an exotic locale unfamiliar with modern traffic flow or the smooth application of brakes or gas. Now turn on some salsa music and pump up the volume. And, finally, overcrowd the back seat with some of the city's more self-centered denizens.
Remember the 80's TV ad, “This is your brain on drugs”? Well, this is your mind on a NYC street: Distracted, annoyed, confused, insulted, and in serious need of a refuge.
Walking the city streets can be wondrous and inspiring but it can be challenging; it's crowded and noisy, you're often in a rush to get to something important, and many things can get in your way: Tourists and other non-linear pedestrians; self-centered and other people not from chummy Midwestern small towns who don't abide general rules of civilized public conduct or grasp the concept of a queue; noises that can make a grown man want to stick his fingers in his ears; smells that make him want to stick his fingers in his nostrils; and dangerous drivers that make him want to flip just one finger.
The barrage quickly adds up and it’s easy to slip into a state of annoyance and negativity from which it's difficult to recover and reset.
What to do?
First, some principles and simple strategies:
1. Simplify. Do one thing at a time.
When walking city streets, commit to leaving your mobile phone in your pocket/purse. Navigating the city is hectic enough without constantly checking your phone for messages or calls, let alone walking while texting. Hazards aside, this is a low quality experience (you won’t do either one well) and should be saved for those rare moments when you really need to keep moving AND really need to respond to something immediately. Otherwise, it can wait. Permit yourself this basic sanity.
This symbolic gesture claims and redefines the commute as a mental refuge, creates space in which your mind can relax, restore, and wander. You might also try this on the subway or bus. And, when driving, don't just resist using your phone (tisk, tisk), but also try turning off the radio for a few minutes to allow mental space to open up.
2. Take control
Despite feeling buffeted about like a pachinko ball, recognize that there are actual refuges in the city. You can make the choice to step out of the fray. If you're feeling swept away, paddle out of the rapids into an eddy.
Give yourself permission to take a mini time out; duck into a contemplative place: A park, museum, church; or a doorway, lobby, or courtyard. Even some low-traffic stores and cafes have a tranquil atmosphere relative to what's going on outside.
Take refuge, get your bearings, feel the space around you, find yourself there in that space, recognize that you regained control of your experience.
Acknowledge that you have stepped out of the rush and are not going to jump back in, at least for a few minutes.
Take some long deep belly breaths, shrug your shoulders to release the tension there, gently close your eyes, bring your focus to the calming idea that you took control of your experience, that you can reset. Pay attention to your breath as it rises and falls, and listen to the sounds. Remember that you are free to feel good, and that you are prepared to carry on with your day.
3) Walking meditation
You are in control of your attention; it is not at the beck and call of the myriad eye-catching and ear-catching distractions.
You can choose to redirect your attention to specific things, in the visual or auditory fields, your body, and/or thoughts and feelings. Try it: focus your attention on the feeling of your footsteps as they roll along the pavement. Bring awareness to your posture and allow yourself to be drawn comfortably forward.
As you walk, simply notice that your eyes are being drawn to this and that, or maybe darting around searching for something shiny and pleasing. Then gently bring your attention to your movement through space. Respond to every distraction by gently bringing your attention back to your movement. Over and over.
This is not about being impervious to distraction; it’s about being able to bring your attention back to something that works better for you.
If/when you catch yourself being annoyed, simply take note of it, then bring your attention back to your posture and the dignity with which you are experiencing the world, allowing it to be what it is, yet not getting ensnared in it; appreciating it, and being part of it, yet allowing yourself to move through it… like a silver fish swimming downstream.