Finding Peace Amidst the City Buzz: Practicing Mindfulness in the City
By Marielle Samii
Growing up in a small town in rural Nevada never seemed like a luxury to me. Often times, my family would travel to Southern California for periods of time, and during these periods, I would remember feeling completely liberated when I got to the city. I craved the diversity of people and the hundreds of unexplored gems that lied in the nooks and crannies of the city. Perhaps a stranger craving, I longed for the congested city streets packed with people — yes, even writing this sounds a little weird, but when you live in a place that resembles an abandoned ghost town, you begin to long for this type of scene — at least I did. By the time I was 18, well, I was ready to escape. It didn’t matter where as long as it was a city. So naturally, I came to settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four years later, I’m content; seriously, I love what Milwaukee has to offer, but many times, I find myself longing for the dry desert breeze, the views and scents of forest pine, and the 365 views of mountains.
Home is far away, and while I am only able to return to these sights for a couple days out of the year, I consider these places my happy place. In the context of mindfulness meditation exercises, I always feel that in order to be in a totally serene location, I need to be home or in a place surrounded by nature to truly decompress.
Coming from a background where I have the resources to travel and escape city life and go somewhere with nature is a luxury that many individuals do not have. With living in the city, pollution is around in every form: noise, water, air, light, and thermal — to name a few. These factors are beyond an individual’s control and affect everyone’s daily lives. This is especially true for cities like Milwaukee where neighborhoods are geographically segregated by race and socioeconomic status that affect the resident’s quality of life. Environmental pollution is only an after-thought of the many daily social and economic stressors many must live with. Politics aside, living in a city can be stressful for anyone. Recognizing this, I want to bring the topic of mindfulness into the conversation. While practicing mindfulness can be accessible to everyone, individuals may feel like there are barriers to practicing it because their immediate environment does not provide serenity that is associated with the type of calm we envision when we think of peace. This is understandable, especially in urban environments. While some may recommend taking a peaceful commute to work, or retreating to nature more often, these are luxuries many simply do not have the resources to access in their immediate environment. Besides, if an individual can only retreat to a place of serenity a few times out of the year, how is this able to unpack the small stressors that accumulate on a daily basis? Stress is felt psychologically and physically; there is evidence that highlighting detrimental effects that chronic stress has on our physical and mental health over time. Practicing mindfulness is an effortful practice. Finding calm amidst the distractions of a chaotic environment is something that does not come immediately. For the present article, I wanted to briefly introduce a couple mindfulness exercises that carry physical and mental health benefits to help unpack some of the daily life stress we experience.
The premise of mindful eating is built on the premise that as individuals prioritize their goals for what they would like to accomplish in the day. In prioritizing future tasks and activities, we fail to recognize what we are experiencing in the present moment. Eating is one activity that many do without thought. In recognizing the colors, textures, individual flavors with each bite, individuals are less likely to scarf food down for the sake of feeling satiated. An article on Harvard Health mentions the mind-gut connection. Evidence suggests that when eating, hormone signals are sent between the gut and the nervous system, these signals come to our brain and signal satiety; interestingly, it takes our brain about 20 minutes to consciously register this information. After scarfing food down without taking the time for our minds to process how much we have eaten, many of us overeat and this, in turn, affects our digestive system (Harvard Health Letter, 2011). With that being said, here are some tips Harvard Medical School recommends:
Start with smaller portions
- This is to avoid overeating. Remember the mind-gut connection!
- Take a brief reflective moment to appreciate the food that is before you, and the present environment that surrounds you.
Take small bites and chew
Engage your senses
- Notice the different scents, textures, colors, and individual flavors incorporated into every bite
- Again, it takes 20 minutes for our minds to register whether or not we feel satiated. Give the body time!
This exercise is so simple and can be practiced anywhere at any time. As mentioned above, becoming fixated on future plans often creates a barrier that prevents us from recognizing our present environment. In addition, stress activates the fight or flight response, that feeling when our heart begins to pound is a part of the system that helps out bodies prepare for potential threats in the environment. However, consistent activation of the fight or flight response has detrimental physical effects on the body. Experiencing chronic stress puts us at risk for a number of later health issues and shorter life expectancy (Harris, 2015). For more information on the detrimental effects of chronic stress on the body, I recommended watching Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s TedTalk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. While mindful breathing is not the golden cure to the detrimental effects of stress, slowing down the breath, inevitably begins to relax the body. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center suggests that by practicing mindful breathing on a daily basis, we can train our bodies to relax in situations where we feel anxiety or stress. To practice mindful breathing, bring your attention to the breath. Inhale and exhale progressively slowing down the breath. While you do not need to be seated to practice this, it helps us attend to how slowing down the breath relaxes each part of the body. Noticing what our body does while we breathe — perhaps we notice the air flowing in and out of our nostrils, or the rising and falling of the belly — mindful breathing helps to center our minds in effort to prevent it from wandering.
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