On finding your inner zen in big cities

Coping with crowded places when you’re used to peaceful villages

 29 August 2013
  braindump learning' zen

Originally posted on Medium.

There have been a lot of love letters to big cities here on Medium recently. I never really understood the love for those busy places, but that should not be a big surprise as we grew up in a relatively small village in Belgium. Our country must be one of the smallest in the world — you can drive from one edge to the other in less than 2 hours (excluding traffic jams of course).

And yet Brussels, the capital city of Europe, lies within Belgium. When I worked there, I used to hate that city — but for the wrong reasons. I was one of the thousand usual daily train travellers, taking the same route to and from work every single day. When you pass the central station, you need to work your way through a relatively dirty street with beggars and a lot of puke pools (horray for late night city clubs). I actually did not know Brussels at all, until I started exploring the center on my own at noon.

Every large city has it’s multicultural neighbourhoods which you might not want to pass at a certain time, but limiting yourself to only those areas narrows your vision of the city. So I found an organic bakery which only sells sourdough bread (an exception to the rule in Belgium). I discovered little tea shops or jummy places to eat. I actually started to enjoy strolling through the center.

Sensory input overload

As much as I liked discovering special places in Brussels, I was also very glad I could go home at 17H PM, and enjoy the peace of the environment where we live. It’s not exactly easy to describe, but I sometimes have the feeling that visiting a large city drains me in some way. There is so much to see, there are so many people in such a small place, after a while it’s difficult to concentrate. It feels like I’m getting a sensor overload, and I need to retreat, to a silent hotel room or back to the office. And I’m not the only one feeling that way, as my girlfriend actually made me think about this while she explained there was “too much info coming at once”. That might sound reasonable as she grew up in the same neighbourhood as I did.

100 meters from our home, following a hiking trail. 100 meters from our home, following a hiking trail.

Curious. My sister currently lives in Australia and loves big cities and a skyscraper view. Her opinion on our local (little) town completely changed as she’s used to something much bigger now. When she visits us, she’s usually bored quite quickly — even if there’s enough to do locally. Of course everything has to be seen in perspective.

I do admit living in a big city makes things a lot easier (and more difficult) but I’d miss the peace and quietness. As much as I like Steven Johnson’s concept of “liquid networks” from “where good ideas come from”, I still think I wouldn’t be fit to live right in the middle of it.

Maybe it’s my introvert part speaking. Most people who know me well would say I’m an extravert who isn’t scared of saying what he thinks. I’ve been thinking about these personality stereotypes a lot lately, and a colleage gave me another piece of the puzzle. She suggested that I spend a lot of energy on my extravert part at work, and to regain that energy I need my quiet, peaceful time. I call it being “work sociable” — in my spare time I’m not social at all, it drains too much energy. I don’t have the feeling that I’m required to behave like that during the day, but maybe my work as teamcoach requires me to do so without me even noticing.

So maybe I could conclude that the way I see big cities shifts as my job changes? Never thought about that. Thank you Medium!