If you’re like me living in a concrete jungle, as the summer heat rises, the asphalt sizzles, trash piles reek an urban potpourri, a cacophony of horns and sirens jars my sleep and I think of a wilderness escape. A tranquil cool mountain environment preferably, with lush undergrowth and cool moss beside a running stream would be nice. We want to escape. Nothing wrong with that. Mountain or seaside escapes are an essential part of our practice, stepping outside of our daily, hectic city environment to contemplate and recharge.
But wilderness escapes are not always practical or attainable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the time or opportunity to have a contemplative or recharging experience in the urban environment.
How are ways that we can find contemplative experiences within the urban environment? I think of it as an Urban Inscape. An introspective process of waking up to my urban reality.
A few examples:
Find a fountain and sit on a nearby bench and spend 10-15 minutes in silent observation and contemplation of the movement of the water. See how focused you can be on a specific drop or splash of water.
Sit on the metro/subway/underground/ one or two more stops than is normal. Use that time and your return trip back to your stop to just observe the people around you. Take deep full breaths and send compassion to each one of them. Take time to notice the people sitting around you.
Go to an art gallery or library with a favorite painting and sit/stand in front of it for 10-15 minutes noticing every detail of the painting. Watch how others interact with the painting. How can you be both fully present to the art and fully observant of those passing by? (For those in DC, an example might be Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life”).
Sit at a local coffee shop. Don’t read your smartphone/laptop/book/newspaper, just sit there for 10-15 mins and observe the people around you. Take deep full breaths and send compassion to each one of them. Take time to notice the people sitting around you.
Take a walk in your neighborhood for only two-three blocks early in the morning. See how slow you can make the walk. See what details about the yards/flowers/trees/plants you can see in that slow walk. Force yourself to have slow steady breaths as you examine a tree or a blooming flower.
Go to the zoo. Seriously, it’s not just for the kids! I meet weekly with a small group of men for meditation in our national zoo. Pick an animal (monkeys or chimpanzees are always good) and sit and watch them for 10-15 minutes. Be fully alive and present with all of their actions. Notice how others react as you watch them come and go. Can you be both engaged with watching the animal and detached in your own internal reflection?
These are just a few examples that might be useful, some from my own experience and some from other’s recommendations (hat tip to Kyle for the initial suggestion). When I lived in New York City briefly, I would try and use my 45minute train commute as a meditation. Rather than reading (or even sleeping) I would try and have a focused meditation on those around me. Not trying to think about them with my mind, but rather feeling compassion with a much deeper awareness.