Soul in the City: How to Stay Calm in the Big City

Big city living got you down? In a recent issue, Forbes magazine scrutinized six key quality of life indicators — housing affordability, unemployment rates, gas prices, air quality, number of sunny days and population density — to narrow down the top ten most stressful communities in America. With its skyrocketing unemployment rates and high gas prices, Chicago edged out New York for the number one slot (leading miffed Windy City-zens to inundate the Forbes comment boxes, claiming the creators of the study were “smoking something”). The Big Apple was a close second (thanks to untenable population density and unaffordable housing), followed closely by Detroit (9.4 percent unemployment rate and high pollution), Los Angeles (the most polluted city with expensive homes and low income) and San Francisco (high gas prices and even higher housing expenses).

So what’s an enlightenment-seeking urbanite like yourself to do? Quit the evil capitalist job, buy a healing drum and run naked to the sticks while clutching energy crystals? Going AWOL (or OM-WOL as the case may be) is not the answer, says American Zen master Genpo Roshi, author of Big Mind Big Heart: Finding Your Way. In fact, being too om’d-out can lead to a dysfunctional lifestyle. While we need inner peace and balance in order to be integrated functional human beings, we also need the competitive side that gets the job done. “If you can’t be calm and tranquil in the middle of the city,” says Genpo, “then what good is it if you can only do it beside a river?” The process of struggling to maintain your balance amidst urban angst, he adds, can be good mind/body training.

But how? We lined up a range of experts from across the country — everyone from yogis to psychologists, spiritual teachers to our friendly local bartenders — for their strategies on how to maintain balance in the face of whatever chaos city life throws your way.

City Stressor No. 1: Overcrowding is driving me up the wall

Forbes had it right that the sardine-like density in big cities foments stress. “The lack of parking, having to deal with street sweeping and living in a 480-square-foot apartment,” were some of the main reasons green business owner Katherine Racine-Jones recently fled San Francisco (home to the ninth highest population density in the country, according to Forbes) for the outskirts of Portland. Racine-Jones certainly doesn’t miss the hassles of shoulder-to-shoulder living. She describes her friends who still live there as high intensity people who don’t have time for balance.

Beyond just the physical discomforts, living closely among stressed-out friends and neighbors takes its psychic and emotional toll too, says Asha Praver, disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda and co-director of the Ananda meditation and yoga center in Palo Alto. “If you cut onions all day, your hands will smell of onions,” she explains. “Most people tend to accept what’s going on around them, and when the collective gets more tense, they become vulnerable.”

RX: Make time to chill. Schedule it into your CrackBerry, if that’s what it takes!

Praver recommends city dwellers seek regular doses of solitude in nature. Head right to the nearest body of water or hiking trail, any place where there’s more birdsong than traffic noises. A consistent meditation practice can be an even more effective stress-buster — as long as it’s done the right way. (Apparently, even meditation can cause anxiety for the beginner.) Says Praver, “Most people find it unbearable to sit down and shut your eyes in a quiet room. If ‘meditation’ is a word that sends you running for the hills, it may be beneficial to get some instruction.”

As a nice entry point for the meditation-curious, Roshi recommends putting the go-getter mind aside every once in a while and saying aloud to yourself, “I am the mind that is non-seeking and non-craving.” Our brains are like cars, explains Roshi, always in gear, always seeking and craving. Pausing for this type of mindful meditation serves to enhance your awareness, allowing you to respond wisely instead of hastily to stressors. “Instead of checking the BlackBerry, or reading the newspaper,” he advises, “take a couple minutes to take the brain out of gear.”

Just as tight living quarters and elevated psychic energy of others can adversely affect our stress levels, seeking and achieving a healthy emotional balance can ease the stress levels of those around us. A better, more blissful you will resonate positively throughout your relationships, your friends, your family, your business — even people you don’t even know, says Eugene Cash, a teacher at the Bay Area’s Spirit Rock meditation center. “Life is short,” Cash asserts. “We are the stewards of our own lives; how do we want to live them?”

City Stressor No. 2: The economy is plummeting, and it’s taking me down with it

Jay Michaels, a bartender at Monsoon Bar & Café in Santa Monica, CA, says that in these days of rising unemployment and faltering economy, money worries are topping the list of typical bar woes. “Bartenders for the most part feel like financial advisors; the focus has moved away from meaning or esteem needs having to do with relationships to more economic or safety needs.”

Gabriel Scheer, Executive Director of Seattle’s popular Green Drinks social networking events, notes the same. But in the Emerald City (which escaped Forbes’ top ten list) people are looking at the economic crisis as a chance to put ideals into practice. “A lot of people see it as an opportunity to change how the current systems operate,” says Scheer. “The financial crisis is a chance for us to reassess and look at new opportunities to do things differently, a time to rethink our energy use, the banking system (where do I put my money, what is it used for?) … pretty much everything.”

RX: Act to avoid reacting

In this economy, says Los Angeles-based eco-broker Jeffrey Fritz, it pays to have a financial plan in place for any kind of “just in case” scenario. Fritz sees countless clients in foreclosure situations behaving like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. “They don’t really want to deal with what’s happening in their life because it is extremely stressful,” Fritz explains. In the case of economic emergencies, Fritz recommends facing the music by seeking help from a trusted financial planner and methodically, logically strategizing your steps for getting back on track.

Even if you’re not in the red, staying on top of finances in a rocky economy requires a lot of situational awareness, long-term budgeting and saving. When it comes to housing, Fritz gives the plain and simple advice not to spend to your limit, but instead live below your means and save the rest. Avoid stressful surprises by knowing what your house is worth, or when and how much your rent is going up.

Of course, as our bartender Jay notes, “understanding that dark muddy line between the things you want and the things you need” is easier said than done. For guidance, Roshi points to the teachings of Buddha: “In Buddha’s final teaching, he made eight points and the first two are very important: Have few desires, and know how to be satisfied with what we have.”

City Stressor No. 3: The J-O-B is G-O-N-E

Los Angeles, with a whopping 7.5 percent unemployment rate, clocked in as the 4th most stressful city in America. Henry Cong, owner of organic coffee spot Infuzion Café in Santa Monica, sees a direct correlation between unemployment rates and the stress levels of his customer base. So does Bay Area-based career coach Britt Bravo. Says Bravo, even the laid-off CEO who is rolling in severance package dough “can still experience stress if the majority of her self-esteem came from her work.”

RX: Develop a game plan and stick to it

Unless you have a sloth-like fight or flight response, it’s nearly impossible not to stress out after losing a job. There are ways, however, to maintain your sanity while hunting for the next gig. Bravo suggests the following steps:

1) Get advice from a career counselor, or create your own support network with friends.

2) Break everything down into small tasks. “Part of the fear people experience when looking for new work comes from being overwhelmed. For example, if ‘update my resume’ has been on your to-do list forever, break it down into smaller steps, so it feels easy to achieve.”

3) Make a strict schedule. Decide how much time you are going to spend each day looking for work, and stick to it.

4) Make a fun to-do list of the things you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t had time; once you’ve completed your looking-for-work day, go enjoy yourself.

5) Network, network, network. The best way to get your resume to the top of the pile is by knowing someone at the place you want to work. Go to networking parties and join social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.

City Stressor No. 4: Dirty, smelly, smoggy city living is skeeving me out

Some of the worst air quality in the country shot LA to the top of Forbes’ top ten list. But no city is free from pollution’s perils, which in and of themselves are major contributors to the stress of city living.

RX: Do what you can, and let the rest be water off a duck’s back

While significant policy changes are needed to decrease urban pollution, you can reduce your exposure to environmental toxins by using eco-cleaners and nontoxic interiors in your home, eating organic food and filling your home with potted plants that improve indoor air quality.

When noise pollution gets to be too much, celebrated yogini Cyndi Lee, founder of Om Yoga in New York City, likes to sit and relax her senses, so that noise moves by as if in a soundscape. “Sit quietly and go through each sensory organ, breathing, imaging your skin softening, relaxing the inner ear, jaw and temples, relaxing all of the muscles around your eyes,” instructs Lee. “We need to take sensory organs out of acquisition mode.”

City Stressor No. 5: I’m multitasking my way to mental breakdown

Pile money woes on top of our jobs, family and social life, mix in iPhones, IMs and email, and top it off with the holidays, war, the economy, global warming and the rush to make it to yoga class on time, and you’re left with a surefire recipe for multitasking misery. But shoveling everything on your plate into your mouth at once is guaranteed to give you mental indigestion. Not being present in the moment puts you at risk of being caught off guard when an unexpected situation arises.

RX: Practice the art of single-tasking

Dr. Jonathan Ellerby, Spiritual Program Director for Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, suggests that we “let go of the idea of always being productive, or the guilt that says you don’t deserve to rest. A better you makes a better world.”

Spirit Rock’s Cash jokes that he teaches the art of single-tasking at his meditation center. While he agrees that multitasking can be helpful at times, it can be more beneficial to slow down, gather oneself, and just do one thing in order to bring back the simplicity of life.

“If we’re stressed out all the time,” says Cash, “we can’t be our best. If we are more here, then we can react appropriately.” He recommends taking time for activities that allow you to breathe deeply, concentrate and relax all at once, such as yoga, meditation or swimming.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, notes Lee, it’s easy to bump “find balance” right off the list, just as you need it most. Don’t. “When the shit hits the fan,” says Lee, “come to yoga.”

Summer Bowen strives to stay centered as a green business owner ( and writer living in the fabulously smoggy City of Angels.

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