Urban Mindfulness

Finding peace in the middle of it all.

Mindful in the City

Being Emotional (and Mindful) in the City

Living in the city can be a pretty intense experience. Sometimes it seems  like everything is a "step-above" what it might be elsewhere: we walk faster; we talk louder; we work harder; we drive crazier. This same kind of intensity can also develop with our emotional experiences. We can have anxiety, anger, sadness, joy, disgust at such high levels that it can feel overwhelming.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with "being emotional." Emotions are a natural and normal aspect of human experience. When something tragic happens, we're supposed to feel sad, for example. In addition, getting "swept up in the moment" is part of what makes life so enriching and meaningful. Further, being in touch with emotions (or "gut instinct") helps us make judicious decisions. Marsha Linehan, the creator Dialectical Behavior Therapy, has proposed that the integration of our "emotional mind" and "rational mind" produces wisdom.

However, occasionally, our emotions can become problematic. Taken too far, we can experience debilitating depression, mania, or crippling anxiety, which require professional help. At lower levels of intensity, we can still experience troublesome results. We might be angry and say hurtful things we don't really mean. We might feel sad or anxious, and avoid friends, even though it would help us feel better. Sometimes, we also develop a tendency to feel a particular way, despite the variety and nuances in our experiences. For example, we might typically feel angry relative to many different situations. While valid and real, this emotion might be based on a biased interpretation of the world around us.

Mindfulness can help us navigate through these troubled emotional times. We develop an ability to watch and observe our feelings without getting caught up in them. We can identify the external cues associated with a particular emotion as well as our internal experience of it. As we become aware of the thoughts, actions, and physical feelings associated with an emotion, we also cultivate our ability to get some distance from it. This process promotes a grounded equanimity, as opposed to a reactive liability or disconnected apathy.

Here's an example. Let's say that you are prone to anger (a very common feeling in the city). Some people might say that you "have a short fuse" or tell you to "chill out". Sometimes, these comments can be accurate or helpful. More typically however, they are simply annoying. So, what can mindfulness do? Mindfulness can help you...

  • Become better aware of the triggers for anger--both externally and internally. Being in a hot, crowded place is stressful and can often provoke anger. Similarly, there are particular "trains of thought" that can lead to anger, such as focusing on "what's right" (or the way things "should" be) or personalizing what people do or say ("he did that awful thing to me on purpose"). Once you know these triggers, you can prepare for them. You can avoid being in the subway during rush hour or make a point to take off your coat or scarf. Similarly, you can question your automatic thoughts in response to a situation. Maybe the cab driver didn't cut you off maliciously. Maybe he simply didn't see you and made an honest mistake.

  • Stop judging your emotional experience in the moment. When you feel angry, you likely tell yourself that you should (or should not) be angry. Whether your judgment is validating (and thus feeding the fire) or invalidating (and thus frustrating), it doesn't really matter: you're making the situation worse. And, it might not preclude your ability to deal effectively with the situation at hand.

  • Recognize that emotions come and go. Like ocean waves, emotions rise and fall. Sometimes, they rage like the waves in the film, "A Perfect Storm." Other times, they might be imperceptible, like still, calm seas. In both cases, it is important to recognize that the ocean--that is, you--is better characterized by its depth (and what's happening underneath) as opposed to tumultuous activites at the surface.

These are just some of the ways in which mindfulness can help us get through our daily emotional lives while living in the city.

Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D., has been practicing, teaching, and writing about mindfulness for over a decade. He maintains a private practice in New York City.

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