Living Mindfully in an Urban ‘Jungle’

“We live immersed in a sea of information. The new technology has made this an information age. Are we not exposed to a steady “diet” of information, which we take in daily through newspapers, the radio, and television? Does it not influence our thoughts and feelings and shape our view of the world and even of ourselves much more than we are apt to admit? Does not information constitute, in and of itself, a major stressor in many ways?” – Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, 414.

“When we drive through a city, our eyes see so many billboards, and these images enter our consciousness. When we pick up a magazine, the articles and advertisements are food for our consciousness. Advertisements that stimulate our craving for possessions, sex, and food can be toxic. If after reading the newspaper, hearing the news, or being in a conversation, we feel anxious or worn out, we know we have been in contact with toxins.” – Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching (1999), p32.

“…troubled by various delusions and defiling passions as dense and entangling as a jungle.” – Japanese
‘Soto Zen’ Founder Master Eihei
Dogen, Shobogenzo (Translated
by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p96.

“The question for us, living today, is how to view the city, and we may be ambivalent in our opinions. Is it a concrete jungle; a place of pollution and pressure, sleazy theatre of the exhausting rat race and to be avoided at all costs? Perhaps we dream of living at the end of a lane in the country, or somewhere with trees and open fields, or on a remote island with only half a dozen neighbours. Alternatively, could the modern city be seen as a potential urban utopia – a place rich with possibilities for enlarging the human spirit?” – Buddhism teacher Adam Ford, Mindfulness & The Art of Urban Living: Discovering The Good Life in The City (2013), p16-17.

When we sit down to meditate, our busy thoughts can disturb and irritate us like annoying flies or howling monkeys. Our body can ache and itch as if we have been bitten by mosquitos, and we can feel hot and begin to sweat as if we have a fever. Where do these emotional and anxious reactions come from and why do they happen? Anxiety can easily be triggered by an intimdating person who sits next to us while we feel trapped on a bus, or by the
rude unchecked behaviour of someone else’s kids, and these events can be carried with us from the ‘urban jungles’ in
which we live – carried in our minds and bodies, as we try
to resolve the trauma associated with them when we sit down in a more peaceful, less emotionally-engaging environment. In this way stressful experiences are practically unavoidable in a city and can colour our day for many hours following the event.

Reacting emotionally to potential threats is only useful to us when we are trying to survive in environments which are particularly wild and unpredictable; where individuals lack necessary skills to manage the threats and need to instinctively fight, freeze, or flee, or urgently group together to support one another, as Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School Ronald D. Siegel points out in his book The Mindfulness Solution (2010), p21:

“A human infant wouldn’t last more than a few minutes in the jungle or
on the savannah without a parent. Luckily, we have evolved powerful
emotional responses that prompt parents to take care of their kids and
prompt kids to seek care from their parents. Related feelings connect
sexual or romantic partners to one another. These emotions bind us
together in couples, extended families, tribes, and larger cultural
groups. They enable us to nurture and protect one another, dramatically
increasing our chances of survival.”

However, this emotionally-driven survival instinct – on it’s own, without deep reflection
and attention, will only perpetuate the stressful situations if we cannot overcome them with skill, because emotional
reactions colour our judgements with cognitive distortions which
undermine our ultimate goal of seeing our situations clearly. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says the following about this in his book Understanding Our Mind (2001) with reference to the Buddhist term ‘manas‘, p174:

“Earlier, I mentioned the function of manas as our “survival instinct.” Because it is attached to the idea of self, it always acts to preserve the self. When we are sleeping and something startles us, that reaction is due to manas. When someone tries to hit us and we move to avoid the blow, that rapid self-protective response belongs to manas. Mind consciousness has not had enough time to consider the situation and set an action into motion, but manas behaves automatically, instinctively. This capacity of manas is akin to what biologists call the “primitive” brain, which functions solely in the interest of survival, of self-preservation. Whenever we are in any situation of great danger, manas works hard, persuading us to run or to do whatever is necessary to save our life. But because manas is blind, because its nature is obscured by delusion, it can often take us in the wrong direction. To describe the potentially self-destructive aspect of the “survival instinct,” modern psychology uses the image of a snake that has a mosquito on it. In order to get rid of the mosquito, the snake lies in the road so a car will drive over it—killing the mosquito but also the snake. Human beings also act like this. We want to punish someone, so we destroy ourselves in order to make the other person suffer. Manas is the force behind this kind of thinking.”

In order to begin to deal with our potentially severely destructive emotions we need to understand the evolutionary history of the psychological mechanisms which can trigger them. Siegel illustrates our basic yet daunting situation in The Mindfulness Solution as follows, p21:

“So here we are: smart monkeys who are instinctually programmed to seek
pleasure and avoid pain, trying to enhance our rank in the troop, living
in a world in which illness, aging, and death, along with myriad
smaller disappointments, are unavoidable. On top of this we have the
capacity to imagine things going wrong all the time. It’s a wonder we
don’t find life more difficult than we do.”

for Dummies
(2010) highlights how constantly imagining things going wrong is perfect for survival in a jungle where ambushes from predators are always a strong possibility, p189-190:

“The human brain is designed to remember things that go wrong rather
than right. This is a survival mechanism and ensures that you don’t make
the same mistake again and again, which may be life-threatening if you
live out in the jungle and need to remember to avoid the tigers.”

In order to be more skillful and reduce the stress we must remove ourselves from the stressors – the jungle dangers – and then work with the origin of our warped judgements; our thoughts. Fearful thoughts can be actively countered with gratitude – to rebalance the perception of life being an overly negative fear-driven experience by emphasising gratitude for life acting in our interests where it can:

“If you don’t live in the jungle, focusing on
the negative is a problem. The antidote for the human brain’s tendency
to look for what’s going wrong is gratitude. And gratitude has been
found to be very effective.”

However, even if we make a big effort to focus on the positive as we go about our business, there is still the advertising, imagery and symbolism present in a city flowing into our nervous systems, bypassing our conceptual filters – appealing to our basic instincts and triggering emotional reactions. It is impossible to avoid it, as mindfulness teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in , p415:

“…all the advertisements we are exposed to are taken in. You notice this when you meditate. You begin to see that your mind is full of all sorts of things that have crept into it from the news or from advertisements.”

One way to avoid this ‘sensory pollution’, of course, is to not live in a city. This can be a powerful way of gaining some inner peace and emotional resilience, as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book The Sun My Heart (1988), p37-38:

“A beginning meditator may want to leave the city and go off to the countryside to help close those windows that would trouble his spirit if left open. There he or she can become one with the quiet forest, and rediscover and restore himself or herself, without being carried away by the chaos of “the outside world.” The fresh and silent woods help you remain in awareness. When awareness is well-rooted, when you can maintain it without faltering, then you may wish to return to the city and remain there, less troubled. But before you reach this point, you must be very careful, nourishing your awareness moment by moment, choosing the surroundings and sustenance that assist you the most.”

However, for those people who lack the time, resources, and teachers to be able to do such a thing, they remain trapped in the urban jungle and have to find other ways to cope – they have to resort to their private spaces, or if even those are lacking, their internal world as a last remaining bastion of personal influence and refuge. While remaining in those refuges, watching one’s emotional reactions and becoming more attuned to the more subtle physical ‘warning’ sensations that precede them is an essential step. As Siegel states in The Mindfulness Solution, monitoring internal muscle tension is the key, p192:

“…our evolutionary heritage sets us up for anxiety. Our
fight-or-flight system, so well suited to dealing with emergencies,
becomes stuck on “on” because of our nonstop thinking. You’ll recall
that one aspect of this arousal system involves muscle tension. We (and
other animals) tense the muscles in our body when we perceive danger,
preparing to fight, freeze, or flee. You may also recall that this
tensing occurs not only in response to external threats, such as the
tiger in the jungle, but also to internal threats—the tigers
within. This is Freud’s signal anxiety, the tension we feel when an
unwanted thought or emotion threatens to surface.” 

In order to become more sensitive to internal tension, however, one must find a way to bring more habitual calmness into one’s life. This most often requires a peaceful meditation space where one feels safe and will not be disturbed – an oasis of tranquility within  the urban jungle. Eventually, however, we can carry the peacefulness of this space within us wherever we go. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this in The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, p27:

“Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a precondition for healing. When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days. They don’t think about food or anything else. They just rest, and they get the healing they need. When we humans get sick, we just worry! We look for doctors and medicine, but we don’t stop. Even when we go to the beach or the mountains for a vacation, we don’t rest, and we come back more tired than before. We have to learn to rest. Lying down is not the only position for resting. During sitting or walking meditation, we can rest very well. Meditation does not have to be hard labor. Just allow your body and mind to rest like an animal in the forest. Don’t struggle. There is no need to attain anything.”

Taking shelter from a thunder storm, if even for a short time, is not cowardly but is often necessary and sensible, and similarly taking shelter from the potentially traumatizing ‘social storms’ whipped up by the pace and proximity of city life is apparently also necessary. Kabat-Zinn gives the following instructions using the imagery and conditions of a lake to guide meditators to a more peaceful place, in

“Breathing with the lake image moment by moment, feeling its body as your body, allow your mind and your heart to be open and receptive, to reflect whatever comes near. Experience the moments of complete stillness when both reflection and water are completely clear, and other moments when the surface is disturbed, choppy, stirred up, reflections and depth lost for a time. Through it all, as you dwell in meditation, simply noting the play of the various energies of your own mind and heart, the fleeting thoughts and feelings, impulses and reactions which come and go as ripples and waves, noting their effects just as you observe the various changing energies at play on the lake: the wind, the waves, the light and shadow and reflections, the colors, the smells. Do your thoughts and feelings disturb the surface? Is that okay with you? Can you see a rippled or wavy surface as an intimate, essential aspect of being a lake, of having a surface? Can you identify not only with the surface but with the entire body of the water, so that you become the stillness below the surface as well, which at most experiences only gentle undulations, even when the surface is whipped to frothing?”

Over time, if allowed to, this disturbed body of water and any sediment caught up in it settles. Professor Mark Williams relates one MBSR’s practitioner’s experience of this in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011) as follows, p86:

“Seeing her mind as a lake, Hannah saw how often it had become disturbed by a passing storm. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘the water becomes murky and full of sediment. But if I am patient, I can see the weather changing. I can see the lake in all its beauty gradually becoming clear again. Not that this solves all my problems. I can still feel discouraged sometimes. But it helps if I see it as a process that I
repeat time after time. I can see the point of practising every day.’
Hannah was discovering something profound: that none of us can control
what thoughts rampage through our minds, or the ‘weather’ they can
create. But we do have some control over how we relate to it.”

Without actively practising tethering our flighty ‘jungle’ mind to our bodies (for example to our breath), however, we will not be able to remain in the peace of the present moment enough to settle like a calm lake. This is something American Zen teacher Jan Chozan Bays refers to in How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p14:

“The Buddha pointed out that when a wild elephant is first captured
and led out of the jungle, it has to be tethered to a stake. In the case
of our mind, that stake takes the form of whatever we attend to in our mindfulness practice — for example, the breath, a mouthful of food, or our posture. We anchor the mind by returning it over and over to one thing. This calms the mind and rids it of distractions. A wild elephant has many wild habits. It runs away when humans approach. It attacks when frightened. Our mind is similar. When it senses danger, it runs away from the present. It might run to pleasant fantasies, to thoughts of future revenge, or just go numb. If it is frightened, it may attack other people in an angry outburst, or it may attack inwardly, in silent but corrosive self-criticism.”

Our urban jungles can often feed and encourage this “wild elephant mind” in us. We can be quick to follow the intoxicating perfume of a flower – our minds drawn off into fantasy realms, and in the body, twitchy irritation can manifest as if one were being bothered by persistent rainforest mosquitos or flies, p85:

“…as soon as there is a small itch, the hands fly up to scratch it.”

If, while we meditate, we manage to catch ourselves and notice the habitual emotional or daydreaming responses, we have time to alter our behaviour and reframe the situation. Itches and any other discomfort can often be a psychosomatic echo of the busy urban jungle in which we as city dwellers are immersed most of the time. However, merely reframing our experience and applying a conceptual label is not enough – one must go beyond concepts and explore our sensations with full acceptance. In this vein, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams advise to investigate any discomfort peacefully rather than react in any way, and therefore allow the possibity for deeper insight to occur, in The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p101-102:

“This distinction between thinking about the body and directly
experiencing the sensations in the body is critically important. Often
we see the body as if from a lofty citadel in the head. We look down on
the body (physically and metaphorically) and think “Oh, yes, there’s a
bit of a pain there, a bit of an itch there-I must do something about
it.” But there is a different possibility. We can learn to bring the
mind right into the body and inhabit the whole of it with awareness.”

Jan Chozan Bays’ relates something similar in How to Train a Wild Elephant, but beginning with physical posture, p86:

“When we relax our hands, the rest of the body and even the mind will
relax, too. Relaxing the hands is a way of quieting the mind. We also
found that when the hands are quiet in our lap, we can listen more

Working with small irritations such as itches in this way can allow one to identify a process of acceptance and resilience which unfolds the more one practices. Kabat-Zinn and Williams relate a story illustrating this in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p149:

“After a day or two, the stings had stopped being painful but had become intensely itchy. Anthony had been
told emphatically not to scratch, but he could hardly bear it, so
strong was the itch. He decided to experiment with bringing his
awareness to the itching and discomfort, “breathing into it” to
investigate it more closely. He noticed that the itching was not just
one sensation but many. What’s more, this bundle of sensations changed
from moment to moment, some of the sensations shifting rapidly, some
more slowly. Later, Anthony was able to apply the skills he had
developed in dealing with the physical discomfort of itching to
discomfort related more directly to emotion. When his body felt tense,
rather than getting fed up or trying to ignore it, he was now able to
stay inside the tension, breathing with it, moving up close to it, in
intimate contact with the various sensations associated with it. He
found that he was able to bring a greater sense of compassion toward his
body and a more accepting attitude toward himself.”


By regularly finding a peaceful environment to take such a step back from the urban jungle, and by tethering our wild elephant minds; thus allowing the itchy mosquito bites and suffocating feverishness of the mind and body to become less significant and even heal and fade away, we begin to experience our city life as less overwhelming. But this can only happen if we can stop the itching and scratching which keeps our ‘jungle adventure’ wounds open and unhealed. In this way mindfulness helps us to overcome anxiety regarding the inherent dangers in our environment – giving us more comfort and options, as Kabat-Zinn relates in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p73:

“A calmness develops with intensive concentration practice that has a
remarkably stable quality to it. It is steadfast, profound, hard to
disturb, no matter what comes up. It is a great gift to oneself to be
able periodically to cultivate samadhi over an extended period of time. This is most readily accomplished on long, silent meditation retreats, when one can withdraw from the world a la Thoreau for this very purpose.”

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