A Zen life: what a lofty goal to strive for. There are so many elements that comprise such a balanced and enlightened approach to existence: diet, exercise, purposeful labor, romance, family and friends being some of the most obvious. Yet there is another important component of a Zen life that often gets overlooked: where you choose to live.
We choose our city of residence based on a simple expectation; that where we live will provide our best chance at happiness. Of course, as we all know, there is no perfect place for anyone to spend their days. Instead, choosing a city to live in is about trade-offs. To live in a big city filled with culture & opportunity you must be willing to take on noise pollution, increased competition for everything and usually higher prices. Inversely, to reside in a quiet, nature filled area you will likely sacrifice options for jobs and entertainment. There isn’t an all-inclusive city in the world that will meet your every need.
Lately, I’ve started to care a great deal more about where I live and why I live there.
Four years ago, my close relative and uncle, Ken turned 50- the same age as my dad at the time. Soon after his birthday, he took a trip with my aunt to South Carolina to celebrate their anniversary. Then, in a freak accident in the ocean he was gone. His life ended by a wave. The incident shook me up. I had never lost someone so close to me and certainly not in such an abrupt and unexpected manner. The reality that life can end in a flash became vividly real. Was I really living the version that I dreamed of? What was I waiting for? Two months later, I left the comfortable, yet uninspired lifestyle I had established for myself in Minneapolis and swapped it for the hyperactive, highly intense playground of ambition known as New York City.
As a social, driven and adventurous single professional, raised in the modest bubble of Wisconsin, Manhattan seemed to be the ideal location for me to challenge myself. I was determined not to let a day pass without living to the fullest. I attacked each moment trying to exploit my surroundings and take what I could get from them: concerts, theater, sporting events, world-class dining, lectures, festivals, nightlife…New York had everything I could possibly want and I indulged in it all. There also seemed to be an endless number of career options, so I started freelancing rather than taking full-time work. Eventually I launched my own business. I was young and free. I answered to no one. I began taking drum lessons. I took writing classes at the New School and started to pitch pieces to major publications. I dated. I explored. I traveled. I was in the prime of my twenties and had nothing to lose. There was nowhere else on the planet that I wanted to be. Yet, I wasn’t entirely happy either. I was always fighting. I was exhausting myself trying. Something about New York left me always wanting more than what I had. Something about New York felt like I was treading water rather than swimming.
Then, at 27, I lost it all. Over the course of a few strange weeks, I began to feel ‘off’ physically. My body began breaking down. I justified each scary sign with excuses: it was probably just due to the high level of stress that came from running my own company, or the new relationship I was in that had me spreading myself thin. I told myself it was the habits I had formed of not sleeping enough, eating out too often and drinking socially too many nights a week. All I knew was that it was a product of the city I was living in and just part of the life I chose. Everyone sputters and runs out of gas at times. I just needed to refuel.
It’s possible that none of these justifications were the cause… or perhaps, all of them were. No one will ever know for sure. Finally, when things became worse, I walked myself into the ER believing I was about to be given a prescription and advised to get more sleep. Instead, I didn’t leave the hospital for 36 nights. They poked, prodded and tested me. A few days later my life changed forever. I had leukemia- a treatable, but entirely nasty and potentially terminal disease of the blood with causes unknown.
Fast forward 17 months later and I am now 100% cured thanks to my incredible doctors. Mentally, I am still trying to understand my new post-cancer reality. There was a stretch where I thought I was losing my mind trying to cope. My incredible therapist Kristin is helping me get my feet back on stable ground. Physically, I am rebuilding with an inspirational trainer at my gym, Rodney. I moved apartments- from living with 3 roommates to living alone so I can dictate my days better. Work has been difficult. Developing new client relationships is hard when you’re constantly fatigued or taking doctor’s appointments. My friends have all evolved into the next stage of their life. They rarely have time to go out. I find myself feeling stuck and falling behind. For the first time, I am seeing New York in an uncertain light. It has caused me to completely reevaluate every relationship and second guess every decision.
What was once the city that could do no wrong now seems like a place where nothing can go right. Facing mortality alters your perspective and, whether you want it to or not, you begin to see your surroundings with a less optimistic filter. The trade-offs and sacrifices no longer seem to equate to the payoff. Rent doesn’t seem worth it. Taxis seem to always drive right into traffic. Pedestrians are constantly in your way. The subway is perpetually under construction. Family feels further away than ever. Friends seem too occupied and self-focused. Having a healthy love life feels impossible. Goals seem twice as hard to achieve as they need to be. Even nature starts to kick your ass: including heat, hurricanes and snowstorms. The funny thing is, my life was this way before I got sick. I was just too enchanted by the romanticized version of New York City that I had been raised by media to believe in to notice.
There is a lesson to take from this. When your environment no longer allows you the comfort of positive energy, you must reevaluate what matters. With trauma must come change. To live a full, healthy and happy life we must listen to what our world is telling us; if it is speaking in negative terms then it is necessary to adapt or relocate. You cannot stay trapped by your environment. It will suck the air out of you. It will render you useless. And so, this is where I now find myself: juggling between the choice to find a new geographic location to call my home or to completely renovate my approach to living in New York to accommodate my newly transformed self.
At one time or another, we all face raw, unavoidable speed bumps in our plans and have to remap our path in order to keep moving forward. It might come after losing a job or a loved one, a difficult break-up or a major health crisis. The cause isn’t relevant. How you respond is all that matters. Some people never change and let their environment, with memories of a difficult past, haunt them. Others reshape that environment back into a sanctuary for vitality. Still others choose to leave it behind them and establish a new start on fresh ground. With my lease up in 5 weeks, I must determine where my happiest self can thrive. A better life awaits my decision.
Jeff Tomczek is a freelance writer & entrepreneur who lives in New York City where he runs the consultancy C2Bseen, LLC. His interests include meditation, punk rock, hot sauce, sports and film as well as travel, design and psychology. He's quietly proud of his inner geek. Follow him on