Surviving the City

Staying true amid chaos

The City

The city is alive. Powered by the beat of a million reverberating hearts. Noise is constant, an undercurrent of stress pervades. It’s easy to be swept along by the dramas of those who are bashing into the walls of life.

The city can be tiring.

It also has much to offer if you can ride its waves.

A love story brought me inside these city walls. I learnt to manage with a smile. Now I’d like to share my experiences with other city-souls in the hope that some ideas may resonate and bring you harmony.

Do You Want to Survive?

Looking through the bars of a park boundary at a man feeding pigeons

It’s going to take time and courage to make changes. That’s okay as long as you’re determined to rise out of the chaos and find peace.

The first step is to accept your situation. Whatever the reason for arriving in this busy place, you can be upset by it or you can get on and enjoy life. It’s a simple choice that you have the power to make.

There are a lot of ideas and strategies here. Trying to master them all in one go could be overwhelming. Take one idea each week and focus on that. There’s a list of directives at the end of this guide to help you put things into action.

One important point. These techniques are accumulative. Try to do them every day and just keep going. If you fall, get back up again. Be gentle with yourself — you will get there. Days, weeks or months from now you will find you’re a much happier and settled person.

No Resistance

A demolished building with only the lift shaft and stairwell remaining

Our annoyance at the city is of our own making. The city isn’t directly causing us anguish or anger, it’s ourselves, our reaction to what’s going on around us that we find so unsettling. Think about this and decide how you would like to respond when faced with annoyances. Do you want to be harassed by the chaos or be calm and collected like the individuals we most admire? It is a choice you can control with some practise. Keep noticing your reaction to daily events and replay them in the way you would prefer. This will help to train you into responding positively.

With practise you can see yourself losing your grip on calm and straying into chaos. As you witness this, ask yourself, “What would the best version of me do right now?”. The answer is always immediately clear and becomes an option you can take. I find it’s usually a small change in direction that comes naturally and gives a sense of freedom. Be conscious and present enough to ask the question. Finding just enough peace to get your head above the water is enough.

Often, it’s events from the past that are racing through our minds and influencing our reactions. The only thing keeping these events alive is the tangle in your mind that holds them there. Visualise and isolate particular problems and take time to solve them. Stop going around in circles. Stop resisting change. Move on.

Expectation and Perception

A road with the word LOOK painted on it

Sometimes, we’re just waiting for something to pop up and annoy us. Perhaps we’re looking for an excuse to cry out for help so loved ones will notice the anguish in our lives. But this ever watchful state turns your focus onto the very thing that upsets you. On some level you’re constantly expecting your nemesis to arrive. It’s a bad habit to enter into. What you really want is to tune out of those annoyances. Yes, you know the problem is present but you can’t stop or control it so let it be. You don’t need to engage or enter into it.

Become aware of the good things around you. Swap your grumble about litter on the street to a focus on the bright shop sign that someone painted with a passion and a dream. Swap your fear of pollution to thoughts of the pure air up high in the clouds. The simple act of looking upwards will reconnect you to the simplicity of the real world outside the human-made city.

Be ready to catch yourself as you drift into negativity. Say “no” to that train of thought and raise it up.

Your perception is everything.


An abundant city garden

There are over 4,000 people per square kilometre here. That’s a lot of people in a small space. Many of those people are wrapped up in their drama, over-stimulated, anxious, distracted. It’s a big ask for us all to be this close together.

How can we alleviate the effects of the crowd? Ideally, find the sparse places. A green, natural space is always best but anywhere quiet and lesser populated will help. Go to those places often for comfort and relief. There is no thing and no one to upset you there. A good map can help in finding footpaths where some peace may be found. Rivers are a good waymarker. I found a riverside walk not far from home that brings me peace despite still being very much in the city. The flow and fall of water drowns out modern noise and resets the tired mind. I always find myself smiling there.

Most cities have cycle paths away from busy roads. Some of these paths head straight out of the city and into countryside. They’re a good escape route — relief for walkers too but a bicycle will get you even further.

Calming music is helpful when you’re constantly distracted by city noise such as sirens — this made a big difference for me. It doesn’t have to be loud, just being there gives you a new background theme.


A hot air balloon rising above rooftops

The concept of freedom is important to anyone looking to transcend city chaos. I remember the heavy feeling of being trapped — it’s common for city dwellers to feel this way but the truth is we are free. Whether it’s in thought, feeling or movement, we are free. It is this freedom that allows us to choose how to feel — we can feel trapped, we can feel free, we can feel annoyed, we can feel peace. Yes, there are steps to get from one state of mind to another but there is always the freedom to do so. Begin with a remembrance of your freedom.

Here’s a freedom-inducing exercise taken from the Alexander Technique. It’s known as Constructive Rest:

  1. Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent, feet flat and head propped up slightly on a book (a firm surface is required to relax into).
  2. Think about what you’d like to get out of this rest.
  3. Let go into the ground — feel gravity pulling your relaxed weight down onto the Earth’s surface.
  4. Allow thoughts and feelings to come and go freely. Try to make the distinction between feeling care-free and being free to think and feel whatever you choose.
  5. Make some declaration about your freedom such as “I am free”. I find it relaxing to address each part of my body, “My neck is free, my shoulders are free, my back is free, my forearms are free…”.
  6. Let your muscles release - big sensations at first then smaller micro-releases as you go deeper.

Practise 15 minutes a day for a surprising difference to your happiness and posture — you can even start with 5 minutes if you’re struggling with time commitment.

Allow these thoughts of freedom to touch all aspects of your life. Don’t restrict or cage yourself. Exploring liberation is a transformational part of being human.

Your life in the city is truly free if you declare it.

Be the Rainbow Sheep

A street performer dressed as a pink dog with a clapping jaw

When you do find yourself in the thick of things, be aware of how you may be affected by those around you. Are you feeling stressed or is it the feelings of other members of the flock?

I used to call myself the black sheep of the family because I was different. One day, a friend told me, “No. You’re the rainbow sheep”. Be the rainbow sheep of the flock by taking your own path. Feelings of irritation are your cue to come back to your own thoughts and feelings. Thinking of what you’re grateful for is a good change of tack. A smile, even a fake one, helps to change your mindset too. Change takes time. And that’s okay — keep trying your best.

While we’re here, let’s think about the nature of an actual rainbow-coloured sheep. I think it would be light of heart and laugh easily as it gambles over lush meadow. Practise these good qualities to prevent seriousness taking a hold and weighing you down. Let’s just enjoy life.

Slowing Down

House boats on the river with a financial district in the background

Life in the city runs fast. The relentless river of business cascades down into all our lives making demands on where we should be and when to be there. Even if you’ve chosen to swim in a different stream, you will still be surrounded by many others rushing to meet these demands. It’s easy to be swept away.

Consciously slowing down your pace is a powerful skill to hone. It will give you a chance to be aware of your reactions and stop things you don’t like. A helpful place to begin is with your speech. Talking slightly slower and making time between spoken thoughts will help you hear your own stream of consciousness. You will have a chance to express things differently, more positively or not at all.

Try observing your posture throughout the day. Check in to see if you’re hunched over, off balance or feeling tense. Literally say “no” to tension when you feel it. Make little changes, relax muscles. Going for a simple walk will alleviate most tension. Think about breathing. Keep trying to see your behaviour. The more you try, the easier it’ll become until it’s a healthy new habit. Be patient with yourself.

Your situation may make you a slave to the demands of time but that doesn’t mean you have to rush. Leave early. Everything is easier when you have time to spare. Where possible take the smart option and travel at quieter times.

The madness of the city is laid bare on the road. It’s a real training ground for rising above other people’s stresses and finding a calmer self. Be kind to other motorists, we don’t know their story. Don’t be offended or riled by their mindlessness — you’re only hurting yourself by entering into that fight. Try driving slowly. I was surprised by how much calmer I felt when choosing to drive in a more relaxed manner. It was a revelation for me. Try it.

Keeping your head in chaotic traffic is a real skill. Playing slow music that gives you a sense of peace is an effective antidote to the intensity. It makes sense and it works.

Find the Good Bits

Looking down on pathways in an ornamental garden

The city is full of treasures. There are wide open green spaces, ancient monuments, hidden chapels, watchtowers, vibrant eateries and vantage points. We all have places that excite us and lift our spirits. Explore your city on foot, by bike, bus or tram. Start with a map. Some cities have an alternative tourist guide that highlight special places to go.

Find the city of gold you didn’t even know existed.

The Power of Sound

Vibrant city graffiti of a bear and a costumed character zapping aliens

Sounds of the mechanosphere are far removed from the soundscape of our natural heritage. Noise from large vehicles and machines are unnaturally loud and can easily unsettle us. The high velocity, grating and deep tones can bring chaos to the mind and pull us away from calm and clear thinking.

Sometimes I find it too much to bear. In those times the best antidote is to mask the noise with more noise — calm, gentle and bright noise. It’s okay to hide from the outside world with your headphones on if it means keeping your smile and your clarity. But choose your soundtrack wisely. The aim is for an uplifting and slower soundscape. It doesn’t have to drown out the external noise, just give you a more immediate focus. Plus, the headphones themselves will shield you from the outside sonic attack. Remember to take particular care when crossing roads whilst wearing headphones — the dangers are real.

If you’re feeling agitated, often it’s not you, it’s the chaos around you. You can’t change that but you can take refuge in softer sounds.

Your Tribe

Graffiti of characters from the book, The Gruffalo

A benefit of so many people in one space is the opportunity to find your like-minded tribe. People who understand your world view, who enjoy the same things as you, who help each other to feel like they belong. Life is far richer with beautiful friends. There are lots to be found out there so be open and engage with everyone you meet. Being polite and super-friendly will open doors and reward you with smiles from people who understand. With this attitude, even a quick visit to the shops will be a happy and nourishing experience.

There are groups and gatherings for all amongst the diverse communities of the city. Go and be a part of your unique clan. Meetup is useful here. As are the notice boards found in alternative shops and cafes.

Nature the Healer

The side of a house entirely painted with a vibrant jungle scene

Consider the importance of nature to the human being. Life is simply better outside. True healing and emotional balance come swiftly when we choose to move around in nature. And nature is everywhere. Even in the human-made city, little shoots of green can be found pushing their way through cracks in the pavement. All elements of nature remind us we are a part of life on earth and each element has qualities that can help us come away from the madness and into a place of harmony.

So schedule a time to go out and walk or run or cycle in nature. Be aware of the nature around you and make a natural connection.

Birdsong has clear calming qualities. It can often be heard in the most unlikely places. Listen for it. Keep some bird feeders well stocked and the birds will sing to you personally. It makes a difference.

As does tending to nature and growing your own flowers or food. Taking a space in an allotment or joining in with community farming are good causes. It’s deeply satisfying to take part in this cycle of growing and harvesting.

An often forgotten place to find a large expanse of nature is the city’s main cemetery. It can seem like a solemn place to some but the peace and beauty found there will more than make up for any unusual feelings you may have. Cemeteries also serve as a good reminder of our limited time and how it should be relished and used to fulfil our potential.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement speech


A colourfully painted house between two drab ones

Try this as an exercise. Walk or cycle around your local neighbourhood. Make it your mission to only see and hear the good things, however small. It may be a tree or birdsong, a friendly smile between two passers-by, a happy child. Keep on seeing and hearing these good things so there is no room for negativity. Keep a mental list.

You are starving depressive forces by flooding your mind with goodness. It’s an accumulative process.

Generosity and Charity

A cat stretching out on an ornamental rug

Compassion is a gift that drives us to purpose and meaning in life. Society is at its best when we help each other without relying on government. Buying someone in need a warm drink or nourishing food or donating to a local food bank are positive actions that help all involved. Those with plenty can be there for those desperate enough to ask for help.

You may find more of a connection with animals. There are plenty of dogs and cats who would love to be walked or stroked. Lending a hand to be with animals will take your mind far away from normal city humdrum.

The Mirror

Bronze statue of a monkey looking up

When the city shows you its ugly side it’s helpful to see it as a mirror. When you see negative things it’s because you’re in a negative frame of mind. Likewise, when you’re in a bright mood, you will see the bright side of city life. The mirror gives witness to your outlook and offers you a chance to take action and remedy.

See your reflection. And prepare to battle with yourself to turn things around.

You might also find that certain parts of the city bring out the worst in you. I discovered that some areas set my mind into chaos and negative thoughts. Returning to these places had the same effect, even on bright days. Can you notice similar patterns in the places you visit? Be strong enough to protect yourself from this upset or avoid these environments altogether.

Vibrant Body

A sunflower in a crowded city garden

Care for your body so it may carry you better through the city. Here, more than any other place, it is vital to be at your healthiest, your strongest, your most awake. Your body is your armour — keep it clean and shining.

Put good natural food in. That means no sugary drinks, no processed food, no toxins, nothing lifeless. If that means a big change in diet then go for it. Be consistent and reward good progress. You will get there and you will feel the difference.

Get more sleep. In this fast-paced environment you need the recovery time it brings to detox and energise.

Breathe in through your nose so you can filter out pollution particles — especially important around busy roads. Give your lungs a treat by occasionally taking deep breaths of the cleanest air you can find.

The more you move your body, the more alive you will feel. Do your favourite exercise. Maybe it’s running, weights, yoga, a gym session, a swim. Block out time in your diary for it often. Your blood will move and you will feel better.

All these things together will make it easier for you to live a full, calm and happy life in this challenging place.

Run to the Hills

Overlooking trees, the city and the hills beyond

Some of us need regular time away from the city so we can be happy when we are there. Taking a break beyond the city walls will give you time and space to gather yourself. I have found profound peace and recuperation when retreating to the countryside. Natural surroundings are good for us.

When making your retreat, it’s important to transition smoothly out of the city and back in again for the best results. There’s no point having a calm day in the countryside if you come back into the city at rush hour with a deadline to meet — all the good work will be undone in an instant. Similarly, when leaving, it can be hard to break through the layers of the city and out into the open. Don’t let that trial upset the rest of your day. Calm music and a dream on the destination will help you to wait patiently for your turn to leave.

Sometimes the city is so deep in our psyche that the only way to recovery is a long time away in the healing arms of nature. The slower pace, the peace and the calm will allow your body to fully let go. You’ll notice this true relaxation is more than you could ever manage in the city. On returning, the reasons behind your upsets will be clearer and solutions will rise from this clarity.

Information Underload

A mesh of festive lights

Cities are overrun with adverts and news banners. They have been cunningly designed to attract our glances and enter our minds, often with a message of fear and doubt that drives us into buying. It’s only when you leave the city and then return that you realise how pervasive this info attack is. We have become desensitised to the presence of adverts but are still often a slave to the attention they demand. All this information adds to the cognitive load on your mind and distracts you from being present and aware of your true position in the world. It all adds up to raising your tension and keeping you down when what you need is an uplift and a clear mind.

Whenever you find your attention drawn to a news banner or a large billboard or an advert-strewn bus going by, immediately look away to something natural like a tree or the sky, even the beautiful architecture that is probably nearby. Break the spell!

The goal is to reach the nirvana of Information Underload.

Early Morning

From a hill overlooking the sunlit, misty city

Adding a morning routine to my day made a massive difference in my life. It’s my launchpad. A routine at the same time of day ensures that you’re ready when you need to be without a mad dash. It’s important to begin early so there’s plenty of time and no pressure. An early rise is an easy place to begin. It’s worth going to bed earlier or sleeping a little less to get off to a good start every day. A sunrise alarm clock is a worthwhile purchase for the darker months. Your reward for getting up earlier is a much quieter city, with a slower pace, cleaner air and birdsong all around.

Begin at roughly the same time every day and follow the same sequence so you can fall into a habit. Your routine could include going outside to give thanks, a warm shower with a cold blast to finish, meditation, a home exercise routine, a walk or cycle ride, a healthy drink — anything that feels nourishing to you.

These things may seem unattainable from a distance. Just begin. Start with one thing. Expertise follows determination.

Save Me!

Silhouette of an angel statue in a cemetery

Everything is going to be okay. You may be upset by events happening around you but, often, things that don’t make sense now will do some time later when looking back. So don’t fight. Find the flow of the river and go with it — it’s liberating to let go.

Be honest with those who love you. Don’t hide your distress, don’t try to cope — that house of cards will collapse eventually. Let out your troubles and emotions. Your friends and family want to help. But first you must be honest with them.

If you’re in a panic then 4-7-8 breathing will help you. This easy breathing technique brings immediate relief to a mind in turmoil. Simply breathe in through your nose for a silent count of 4, hold your breath calmly for a count of 7, then release all your breath slowly through your mouth for a count of 8. One round is usually enough to alter brain state and relax tension — keep going until peace is found.

The Teacher

Graffiti of a magnificent lion with a pink hue

Ultimately, the city is your teacher. The relentlessness of the city makes it a good training ground. It will show you things you may not like about yourself. It’s your opportunity to see your reactions to the environment and how that makes you feel. You will see patterns in your behaviour, stuff you don’t like. The antidote is to slow down and accept things as they are without disturbing your true nature. What is your true nature? Become adaptive and dynamic. Become excellent. Make that your focus.

There may be some bleak days. It can happen even when you’re on a good path. It’s just one day, not forever. Every dawn is a fresh start. I see those wonky days as a sign to slow down. Hit pause, relax, take some good air and get a good night’s sleep. Things can turn around quickly. When you’re feeling frustrated, be mindful not to lash out and hurt anyone else. Call out and explain your feelings to release the pressure.


A row of wooden eco-houses

Perhaps you have outgrown the area you reside in. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing okay where you live. It’s only after you move on that you realise how difficult it was for you there and how much effort it took to cope. Avoid this stress and the stagnation by embracing the change of moving home even if it’s within the same city.

There’s no need to accept unhappiness if your environment is not right for you. Be brave and find a place where you fit in. A place where you feel like you belong. Home. Then put your intention into making that move. Walk around your favourite areas. Get out there and talk to people and see what’s around. De-clutter your home just as if you were already moving. Make preparations, begin packing up. All these positive actions will set you in motion. Simply begin.

An Ending, a Beginning

Sun refracted through the clouds

And now it is my time to leave this city. It was as if the game was completed and the door to freedom unlocked by resolving each of these issues. Away to a green paradise, a calm space. For now at least.

To all people coming and going in the city, go well.


Twilight over city lights

Here follows a recipe for city stress relief. If you’re feeling like this then try that. Follow the links for the full story.

Peace and harmony are a choice away…

Feeling defeated

Finding everything abrasive

Regretting your overreactions

Hear yourself moaning too often

Annoyed by all those around you

Feeling trapped

Overstimulated by constant noise

Hectic, distracted mind

Feeling numb and disconnected

Feeling light-headed and unsettled

Tired, sick and weak

Caught up in the whirlwind

Seeing only concrete and the artificial

Isolated and lonely

Getting stressed in the car

Always playing catch up


Seeing ugliness everywhere

Everything’s broken