Let's face it, meditating in a big, noisy, polluted city like London isn’t easy. A couple of years ago, when I first started practicing, I was living in an apartment above a Bashment club in Hackney that backed onto one of the noisiest roads in the borough. It was, to put it mildly, one of the most un-zen environments you could have imagined.
Over time I tried my best to make it zen: I’d dim the lights, light some incense and surround myself in just the right amount of cushions. But it didn’t work. Every time I’d close my eyes and start to drift away, I’d be jarred back to reality by the roar of the 55 bus or a collective cry of “back it up”.
Far from reaching a state of inner peace, meditation was leaving me more irritated than before I started - the total opposite of what was meant to happen. But I persisted, and over time I made a discovery that turned out to be the biggest gift I could have asked for in my meditation journey.
Here’s the thing. Often when we think about “finding peace” we focus way too much on our external environment. We wait until the next holiday to finally relax, for example, or we buy into the idea that without an expensive retreat in the Himalayas, zen-ing out isn’t possible.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, the perfect environment just doesn’t exist. And secondly, even if you can create the perfect environment, what are you actually accomplishing? It’s a lot easier to forget about your worries when you’re sitting on a beach with a Pina Colada and no emails than it is in the middle of a packed tube when you’ve just had a dressing down from your boss.
In other words, by searching for the “perfect environment” we tend to remove ourselves from the contexts where meditation is actually needed in the first place. And that means, as soon as we get back to our normal lives, we have no idea how to cope.
In my view, real meditation is about learning to control our internal environment to find inner peace regardless of what is going on around us. The outside world can be hard to control but through meditation we can learn to react to anything it throws at us with understanding calmness and love.
Whether it’s you desperately searching for that perfect retreat or me obsessing over cushions above the bashment club in Hackney, the solution is learning to find peace inside no matter how noisy things are outside. Instead of seeing our loud, busy city as an obstacle to meditation we need to see it as a gift. We need to embrace the noise, dive head first into the chaos and let this crazy city be our meditation mat.
Five tips for meditating in the city
1. Focus on one sound - Pick one sound to tune in: the rumble of cars; the murmur of voices; the sound of the wind. It’s really hard to focus on more than one thing at once, so focussing your mind on a sound will bring the focus away from your thoughts and calm your mind.
2. Load a five minute guided meditation onto your phone - Next time you are waiting to meet a friend, pop your headphones in and steal a moment of calm. Get one here.
3. Take the escalator - A standard escalator gives you time for 10 deep breaths - tune in to your breathing and watch your thoughts float away.
4. Don’t be afraid to shut your eyes - No one on the tube is looking at you and second of all they don’t care.
5. Put away your phone - Next time you have a short walk, resist the urge to whip out your phone and instead walk in silence focussing on the feeling of your feet on the ground. Focussing on your body takes the focus away from your thoughts, bringing more peace to your mind.