Urban Mindfulness--The Book!


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    Holiday Mindfulness: Tips for Making It Through the Season

    By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

    I’ve been feeling pretty shell-shocked lately. There’s a lot happening in my life and the city. Budget problems and economic woes dominate the headlines: MTA is facing a serious budget shortfall, Mayor Bloomberg wants to withhold annual rebate checks for homeowners, and companies are laying off workers daily. The stock market has been going up and down so often that it reminds me of a hyperactive toddler on moon bounce. On top of these stressors, it is also the holiday season.

    Last year around this time, I spent a lot of time thinking about holiday cards while embroiled in gift-buying angst. What do I buy for whom? How much should I spend? What’s the “perfect” gift?

    This year, I have found that my mind has been dominated by thoughts on limiting expenses and working within a budget. When I see something that looks like it would make a nice present, then “It’s too expensive” quickly comes to mind. It indeed might be “too expensive,” but I haven’t considered it yet in any thoughtful way.

    While I might be preoccupied with the economy and presents, others might be distracted by thoughts of spending time with difficult family members or worried about work’s “Secret Santa” exchange. Of course, our holiday-related thoughts aren’t always negative. We might be excited by having a few days of vacation or hosting a joyous celebration with family and friends. Regardless of whether we’re thinking “negative” or “positive” thoughts about the holiday, we’re still stuck in our heads. Thinking, considering, excitedly planning, philosophizing, wondering, worrying--it doesn’t matter. All of the stuff “up there,” can remove us from the world “down here” where we live.

    So, what to do? How can we practice mindfulness during the holiday season in the city? Well, here are a few tips that I’ve found to be helpful personally.

    Return to your senses for information about your surroundings. Many places have put up holiday ornaments or lights, which are a distinct departure from the norm. Some can be quite pretty, too. It doesn’t have to be something as grand as the tree at Rockefeller Center. Pretty lights and displays can be found all around us. Even the electric menorah at your dry cleaners might be pretty in some ways. Why not take a more serious look? Some restaurants and cafes have seasonal foods. Try a gingerbread muffin, and allow yourself a few moments to revel in its taste. Nice? When you pass a Christmas tree seller on the street, take a few moments to smell the pine. When was the last time the aroma of pine wafted through NYC streets?

    Make an effort to spend more time with friends and family either on the phone or in person. Rather than searching stores for presents or trawling the internet, talk with someone who is on your list. Learn more about them and what’s been happening in their life. By being present in such a conversation, you might naturally discover what would be a nice present for him or her. However, having a heart-to-heart chat demonstrates more care and love than an expensive present anyway. Also, the whole point of getting someone a present is to show how much they matter to you. Maybe you can express this sentiment directly through a deep talk or a card. Consider what would matter more to you: a “perfect” present sent from someone who you haven’t been close to lately or more time actually spent with that person. For me, it’s been a relief to realize that I’m rich with friends and family, regardless of the economy. As such, it is more important for us to spend time together rather than spending money on each other.

    Continue (or start) your meditation practice. Meditation has been shown scientifically to have substantial health benefits. Often, it can provide a sense of groundedness and peace as well. So, be sure to continue your practice during the holiday season. Or, if you haven’t tried meditation recently (or ever), read some of the UM handouts and give it a try tonight. I’ve also recommended some books in the UM Amazon store, which you might want to consider for yourself or someone you love.

    Do something seasonal. There are many events and things to do around the city. You can volunteer at a local relief shelter, visit Santa, or attend a Hanukkah celebration at your local synagogue. Check with TimeOut NYC or re-visit some of organizations that are important to you. Typically, there will be some seasonal offerings. Even Buddhist sanghas appreciate the importance of the holiday season. For example, this weekend, the Shambala Center of NYC is hosting a Winter Solstice celebration for families in celebration of Children’s Day. Take a peek at what’s out there and enjoy!

    Be mindful of your breathing. Bring it back to basics: our breath is always here. We can always become aware of our in-breath and out-breath as a way to anchor our mind in the present moment. I particularly like using the breath as a focus of mindfulness because it is omnipresent and inconspicuous. You have to breathe, even if it’s holiday time in the city.

    Mindful Exercising in Urban Spaces: Tai Chi for Aging Boomers

    By Irene Javors, LMHC

    I live in Jackson Heights, Queens. Across the street from my apartment, there is a small public park. Most of the time, you can find neighborhood kids playing handball or shooting baskets or just hanging out. Toddlers are in the sandbox or screaming with glee as they go down the slides. Parents are busy chasing after their children. There is always a long line for access to the swings. The benches are filled with local workers eating their lunches, elderly people with walkers, and some homeless men or women who have somehow managed to find themselves in this rather out of the way street in a rather unknown part of Gotham.

    Unknown to most, this little enclave also serves as a place for contemplation and mindfulness. I leave for work very early in the morning. As I walk by the park en route to the bus stop, I am privileged to be a witness to a glorious vision of two groups of men and women doing tai chi. The participants have been doing this for many years. They are a neighborhood fixture.

    Most members of these groups are well over fifty and appear to be in excellent shape. As they do their daily exercises, they radiate an energy that is centered and focused on the present moment. They are in the 'now.' Their meditational movements go on for about a half hour. As mysteriously as they come together, they disperse.

    Most of us have a hard time imagining that an urban public space can function as a place of mindfulness. We associate public venues with frenetic energy that serves to distract us from ourselves. But these 'tai chi' mornings challenge such assumptions. Mindful awareness is available to us anywhere and at anytime.

    When I was much younger, I thought that the only place that I could meditate 'in the right way,' was within the confines of a room, facility, zendo, that took me far away from my everyday life. I have learned that, for me, the real challenge is to be mindful within the context of ordinary life.

    Every time I see these aging 'tai chiers' doing their thing, I am filled with joy. They remind me that there is room and time for everyone no matter the setting. The little park isn't state of the art, the benches are dirty and the garbage cans are filled to the brim, yet it is a place brimming with life and lots of opportunities for mindful living.


    For information about Tai Chi opportunities in your local park, check out 2 resources offered by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

    1. Visit the NYC Parks Website and search for “tai chi”

    2. Visit the BeFitNYC Website and search for “martial arts”

    MTA Woes: Riding Trains of Thought

    By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

    Is it me or has the subway become slower and more congested over just the past week? I think that I’m waiting longer for trains to arrive. And when they finally come, they’re packed with people. Suspiciously, I’ve started to wonder if the MTA has started reducing its train service already in order to address its budget shortfall next year.

    I’m sure that my thoughts about the subway have been fueled by the wide press coverage of the MTA’s financial problems and its proposal to cut service, fire employees, and raise fares. Of course, I can’t tell if things have really changed now or if I’m just imagining it.

    My consideration of the subway demonstrates an interesting quality of the mind: once we start to pay attention to something, it changes our experience of it. Typically, the simple act of noticing can trigger a flood of thoughts, emotions, and judgments. It happens naturally when we bring something that has been taken for granted in the background, and move it to the foreground for our focused attention. Don’t believe me? Then try this little exercise:

    Look at your hand for about a minute.

    What do you see?

    What comes to mind as you continue to gaze at your hand?

    Most likely, you’ll notice a few visual qualities of your hand, such as wrinkles, fingernails, etc. Then, your mind will start commenting on them. You might ask yourself, “Has that mole always been there?” or note, “I really need a manicure.” Such is the nature of the mind: if we don’t remind ourselves simply to be present and attentive, then we’ll jump to having a whole host of thoughts and reactions to what we were noticing. If you can have such discursive thoughts relative to looking at your hand, imagine what comes up for us as we pay attention to the diverse elements of city life, like walking down the street or commuting to work.

    Instead of getting lost in the content of these reactions, we can become mindful of the process as it unfolds within us. For example, as I wait (and wait) for the subway, I can notice the thoughts that bubble up regarding mismanagement at the MTA. Usually, such rumination makes me feel irritated, stressed, and powerless. I also know that I don’t particularly like feeling this way.

    The issue is not whether my “bubbling-up” thoughts or true or not in this particular moment, but rather whether or not they are helpful.

    Okay, so now what? Well, with the wisdom that this particular train of thought is harmful, I can decide to get off and stop riding it. I can transfer to a different train by thinking about something else, like mentally writing a letter to MTA officials. Or, I can “exit the station” entirely by doing something different like meditating on my breath or reading a few more pages of my book.

    It is through our consistent practice of mindfulness in this way that we can achieve peace in the middle of it all.

    BTW, if you would like to voice your own opinions about subway service, then be sure to fill our a survey for the 2nd Annual Rider Report Card. The survey starts next week! Check out www.mta.info for details.

    Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving from UM.

    Launch date: Waiting for stuff, man

    By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

    Leaving a subway stop earlier today in midtown, I noticed a line of people standing still on the stairs. Initially, I thought that these people waiting to exit the station, and in fact some departing subway passengers went straight to the end of the line. However, the exit seemed clear, so I kept going up the steps and emerged outside.

    Soon, I realized that these people were waiting in line for something. The line snaked around the corner, so I wasn't sure what that "something" might be. A few possibilities ran through my mind: celebrity sighting, free crepes, or the chance to be an extra on "Law and Order." As I rounded the corner, I saw that people were waiting for a clothing store to open. In the window, a sign indicated that the store would open at 9 a.m. for the "launch date" of a familiar-sounding clothing designer.

    My first reaction? To glance at my watch and consider whether or not I had enough time to wait in line for the store opening. Did I know this designer? No. Did I know what a "launch date" is? No. Did I need new clothes? No. Did I even like the clothes that I saw through the store window? No. Yet, my automatic programming was to check to see if I could wait 40 minutes in order to attend the "launch date". This process occurred almost instantly, without any conscious awareness or reflection. While it only took a few moments of my time, it profoundly demonstrated what has happened to me as I live in a hectic, “consume”-oriented environment.

    Here in New York, we are constantly bombarded by information competing for our attention. Much of it can prompt us to think and react in particular ways, like my experience at the clothing store. Any one instance is not particularly earth-shattering or distressing. Yet, over time, we can feel a little like the ball in a pinball machine as we get bounced around mentally from place to place. We notice something, then react, then we notice something else and react, and so on. (Of course, what we notice might be our internal thoughts or private experiences, as opposed to something more external, like a huge puddle that we're about to step in.) The practice of mindfulness can provide some relief from this process. We notice sooner where our attention goes, and we notice its effect on our body, emotions, and behavior.

    With reflection, we can change how we react.

    With mindfulness practice, we can change that we react.

    So, I invite you to explore the resources available on our website. Check out a local meditation sittings listed on our calendar (we endeavor to include ones that are not preachy or "guru-ish"). The present moment exists until we die. We can always check-in and notice our breathing, our thoughts, or the world around us. Why not start now?

    Nostalgia mindfulness: Staying present when your past creeps up on you

    By Irene Javors, LMHC

    I have lived in NYC my entire 60 years. I have seen whole neighborhoods undergo so much change that they have become unrecognizable to me. Usually, I do not think much about any of this and I just go on my way. But, today I felt differently. I was walking along fourteenth street between sixth and seventh avenues to meet a friend for breakfast. As I passed the discount places, shoe stores, jewelry dealers, and sidewalk hustlers, I remembered walking along this same street with my father on a Saturday morning in the mid-1950's when I was around 8 or 9 years old. Every week we shlepped in from Brooklyn so that I could take guitar lessons at my father's union headquarters. At that time, fourteenth street was a dump. As I remember, the avenue seemed to be perpetually cast in steel grey tones.

    Today's walk along this selfsame street conjured up these memories from very long ago. I felt a nostalgia for the past and found myself removed from the now. I became mindful that I felt a longing and a sadness for a world that no longer exists except within the inaccuracies of my mind. These feelings were also attached to others: I felt really old and I wondered if anyone else remembered fourteenth street the way that I did. I resented all the changes and I wished that life didn't have to change so much.

    Through all of this mess of fluctuating emotions, I remained mindful of the importance of staying in the present. The 'nostalgia trip' that I found myself on was a way to distract myself from dealing with my own relationship to change and aging.

    Not clinging to the past is really difficult. The wonderful thing about NYC is that it is ever changing and ever new. The city may get a bit tired and dragged out at times, but Gotham always finds a way of renewing itself. The city has been around a long time yet it knows how to 'optimally age' - do the most with what its got- by maintaining its openness, curiosity, spontaneity, and humor. Cultivating these qualities within ourselves are the best way to stay present and not succumb to the 'nostalgia blues.'