Urban Mindfulness--The Book!


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    Urban Mindfulness on TV...Again!

    Submitted by Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D.

    A few weeks ago, I appeared on Chicago Tonight with anchor Phil Ponce to discuss my book and the practice of mindfulness in urban areas.  A couple folks have sent e-mails inquiring about the footage, so here's a link to the on-line video:  UM on Chicago Tonight.  As always, thanks for your support and encouragement!

    Honk If You Love Mindfulness!: 10 Tips for Mindful Commuting

    By Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D.

    For the past couple months, I’ve been busily promoting my new book in interviews with radio stations, TV programs, and reporters across the country. One of the most frequently asked questions has been: How do people practice mindfulness when commuting? Indeed, this can be an incredibly frustrating and stressful experience for us. Though I’ve shared insights with various media sources (see this article on MSNBC, for example: De-stress Your Commute), I thought that I would compile some suggestions and offer them here. So, without further ado, here are the Top Ten Tips for Mindful Commuting (sorry in advance for the cross-posting).

    10.  Let go of trying to get anywhere fast. Traffic jams are characterized by the two very stressful psychological factors:  (a) they are out of our control (i.e., we can't make the other cars disappear) and (b) they are unpredictable (i.e., we don't know when traffic will start moving smoothly again).  So, rather than getting mired in worry about being late or cursing the other drivers, accept that you're going to spend some time in the car.  You can't change the traffic, but you can change your attitude!

    9.  Plan to use your commuting time constructively. You know that you'll generally spend a certain amount of time commuting, so why not use it purposefully?  Instead of distracting yourself with nonsense, decide ahead of time what you'll do during that time.  Maybe you'll download and listen to some podcasts on mindfulness, create a mix tape, or listen to a college lecture.  If you're riding public transportation, you can find some nice "subway only" reading or watch a movie on your phone.

    8.  If you're on public transportation, meditate on the physical feelings in your body. If you're standing on the bus, for example, you might notice how the muscles in your legs tense and release to help you maintain your balance.  This is helpful because it provides an anchor for our thinking, which can be prone to ruminate on stressful or anxiety-related topics when it wanders.  You might want to check out my YouTube video for a demonstration: Subway Meditation.

    7.  Mindfully notice whatever comes your way. Notice the colors of the cars around you, the faces of the people, and your thoughts and emotional reactions as they arise.  Cultivate this ability to simple observe and pay attention your thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences untainted by any judgments or criticisms.  Notice what's going through your mind about the situation and how you respond emotionally and physically as you keep thinking about it. You might use this strategy if the traffic has completely stopped for a while.

    6.  Engage the people around you in pleasant and nice ways (yes, even if they're trying to get in front of your car).  If you're driving, you might make space for other drivers to come in front of you.  If you're on public transportation, you might offer your seat to someone else.  This is helpful for a couple reasons.  First, we stop taking things so personally.  The hectic commute affects all of us, not just you.  By recognizing that we're all experiencing something bad together, it can bring us closer to dealing with it constructively.  It's the difference between thinking to yourself:  "You're in my way!" vs. "This really sucks for us, doesn't it?"  Second, it feels nicer for us to be nice, regardless of how other people act.  If we're really honest, it doesn't feel good to be angry or annoyed all the time, does it?  We might feel justified in having that reaction, but ultimately it is undermining our own physical and emotional health.

    5.  Focus your attention on some aspect of your environment. If you’re driving, you might try to find police cars, which involves being on the lookout for cars on the side of the road, vehicles around you (potentially unmarked), and flashing lights. If you’re using public transportation, you can spend a few minutes trying to notice whatever has the color purple. This exercise is not meant to make you paranoid, but rather prompt a playful re-engagement with your surroundings.

    4.  Breathe before you honk! Often when driving, we use the horn in anger as opposed to a simple “Toot! Look! I’m over here!” message. So, when you find yourself about to lean on the horn to let someone else have it, take a few moments to breathe deeply and notice the stress and anger that you’re holding in your body. Rationally, you know that blowing the horn is not going to make you feel any better, and it can actually create a more significant conflict with one of your fellow drivers. So, instead of venting or stifling it, observe how it manifests in your body. This can be incredibly difficult to do, but keep trying.

    3.  Just drive (or ride). When I was a teenager, I would drive simply for the sake of driving, feeling the burst of speed when pressing the accelarator, anticipating movement of the traffic, leaning into turns, etc.  Sometimes, our efforts to distract ourselves while driving or riding can be problematic. Not surprisingly, research has shown that talking on the phone or texting while driving do increase the risk of accidents. At such times, we can passively listen to something (like the radio or even college lectures), but the act of generating a response takes too much of our attention away from driving.  So, why not just drive?  If you’re riding public transit, you can meditate a little bit (see #8 above).

    2.  Convert a normally stressful experience into a reminder to de-stress. In his delightful book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh describes using red lights as cue to notice our breathing. This can make the process of stopping and waiting more pleasurable, or at least an opportunity for practicing mindfulness. We can apply the same approach to times when we see brake lights or just waiting. Even noticing how the stress, frustration, and annoyance manifest in our body, mind, and heart can be an incredibly helpful--if not necessarily relaxing--experience.

    1.  Finally, if you’re looking for more tips like these, check out my book, Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence, and Purpose in the Middle of It All. It has many practical suggestions and exercises for mindfulness when you’re on the go. And, it’s the perfect size for reading on the train. Just don’t read it when you’re driving though: mindful car crashing is not something you want to experience!

    It Isn't Always Pretty

    By Jennifer Egert, Ph.D. (after her retreat!)

    Two weeks ago, I came back from a 9-day intensive training in MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a program begun by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the UMass Medical School in Worcester (link). And yes, ‘intensive’ is the right word! The first half was an immersion into the practice of mindfulness, working in a group of 108 participants, including two teachers, on mindful breathing, gentle yoga, mindful walking, mindful communicating, mindful eating… The second half was immersion into professional training, and what it is to teach MBSR.

    There is something about putting oneself in a situation of facing oneself 24 hours a day, 9 days in a row that yields invaluable insights but also can feel pretty unpeeled and raw. And returning in that state to the city with the sensory assault of horns blaring, the speed of the cars going by, the rattling of the trains and crowds sharing the sidewalk can be jarring. For me, it also raises the question as to why I have chosen to live in this kind of high intensity environment. Of course I know there are amazing aspects to city life. I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t. But it struck me hard this time.

    Maybe I had some idea that after 9 days, I would have achieved some amazing state, that I would have “arrived” someplace… not really sure where that place is. But I just arrived back home in NY, back to work, facing the pile of mail and messages. Sometimes people talk about mindfulness practice as if it were some "blissed-out state” or the ultimate in “positive thinking.” A puffy cloud to cradle weary heads and bodies. I think these ideas are what often bring people to meditation or yoga or other contemplative paths. It is what brought me initially. But as you practice, pretty soon you learn. That’s not it.

    At this moment, it seems to me that mindfulness is about facing things as they are with intention and clarity and an attitude of curiosity even if it is a taxi driver leaning hard on his horn because you are not mowing down the woman with the triple-wide stroller crossing the street (who, by the way, has the crossing light to her advantage). It is about facing our inevitable reactivity, confronting the sometimes tough stuff and uncovering our own unique truth... until it changes… as it always does… and then going with it.

    In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (and Zorba the Greek’s) words, it is about embracing the “full catastrophe” of it all… the joy, the suffering, the 100+ emails, the frustration of the line at Trader Joe’s after work, the early signs of spring, a really great joke, the scary potential medical results, the new love blossoming, the argument from the morning, the washing of dishes, the old recipe, a great first chapter of a new book, the sneeze, the cold on your skin when you walk out the door in the morning, and the simple feeling of being tired at the end of a long day. It is all life.

    It isn’t always pretty, but hey, it is yours. Live it.

    Keep Quiet

    Submitted by Jennifer Egert, Ph.D. (before her retreat!)

    I’ve been deep in reading to prepare for a 9-day intensive practicum in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. Finishing Jon Kabat’s Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living,” I was struck by the poem that ended the book by Pablo Neruda, beautifully articulating the call to silence:

    Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda

    Now we will count to twelve

    and we will all keep still.

    For once on the face of the earth,

    let’s not speak in any language;

    let’s stop for one second,

    and not move our arms so much.

    It would be an exotic moment

    without rush, without engines;

    we would all be together

    in a sudden strangeness.

    Fishermen in the cold sea

    would not harm whales

    and the man gathering salt

    would look at his hurt hands.

    Those who prepare green wars,

    wars with gas, wars with fire,

    victories with no survivors,

    would put on clean clothes

    and walk about with their brothers

    in the shade, doing nothing.

    What I want should not be confused

    with total inactivity.

    Life is what it is about;

    I want no truck with death.

    If we were not so single-minded

    about keeping our lives moving,

    and for once could do nothing,

    perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness

    of never understanding ourselves

    and of threatening ourselves with death.

    Perhaps the earth can teach us

    as when everything seems dead

    and later proves to be alive.

    Now I’ll count up to twelve

    and you keep quiet and I will go.

    Urban Mindfulness in Chicago

    Submitted by Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

    This week, I'm in Chicago to do some TV interviews about practicing mindfulness in the city.  Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Phil Ponce who asked very interesting, discerning questions about mindfulness and meditation (I'll post the link as soon as it's available).  Today, I go to WGN-TV to do a segment.

    For folks in Chicago, today's snowstorm is a nice opportunity to walk slowly and mindfully.  Pay close attention to patches of snow and ice and make sure that each footstep is placed solidly on the ground before shifting your weight.  Notice also what--if any--judgments come to mind about the snow (e.g, "Enough already!" or "It's beautiful." or "This isn't snow!  You should have seen the Blizzard of '67!").  And, as always, thanks for your support and encouragement.
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