“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” ~Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes
Ever been lost in thought? I imagine that is most times on most days. Songwriters love to play up the romance of daydreaming but I would argue that your present moment, the one that you are in right now, is much more precious than dreams of the future or replays of the past.
As a meditation and mindfulness novice myself, I have dabbled in mindfulness practices over the last few years and found the initial results to be compelling enough to continue on the journey. I have attempted to incorporate some of the basics into my own life – more awareness, presence, and compassion.
What is Mindfulness?
According to Oxford Mindfulness Project, a leading researcher on the subject, “Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgment.” Mindfulness is the intention and practice of being present wherever you are, as you are. I love the quote below that breaks it down to its simplest form: it’s about being here, now. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it. ~Sylvia Boorstein
Why is Mindfulness important when you travel?
Travel doesn’t become adventure until you leave yourself behind. ~Marty Rubin
When you travel, you are out of your routine. You are outside of your day-to-day schedule that keeps you in habitual patterns of rituals. For that reason, travel is a spectacular teacher. It gives you the opportunity to learn more about the world and the people around you. It is also the newest and fastest growing form of consumerism. Where previous generations bought cars and homes, the millennial generation invests in “experience”. And what is an experience? Is it just the mere going somewhere and photographing it for your Instagram feed? Or is it something deeper – perhaps internalizing the sights, sounds, colors, and fragrances of the place, seeking to understand and findings opportunities to connect?
Mindfulness can be a conduit to that connection and to having experiences that are truly meaningful and life-changing.
What Mindfulness isn’t
Before your eyes glaze over thinking this is a new age fad that requires you to spend half your day on a meditation cushion or tucked away at an ashram somewhere, let me assure you that mindful travel is not about that.
Mindful travel is about experiencing the present moment in all its fullness, finding opportunities for authentic connection and learning, and approaching situations with compassion and kindness.
Yes, having a regular meditation practice can help you access more presence and mindfulness in your life, but even without that, you can practice certain habits and mindsets that will allow you to be more present when you travel.
Here are 10 tips for more present, meaningful and mindful travel in a digital age.
1. Anchor to your intention
Why do you like to travel? To escape routine? To have new adventures? To meet people from around the world? To see the seven wonders of the world? To feel the freedom of not being chained down to any one place? To see as many countries as possible before you die?
Whatever your reasons are, know that they will dictate the kind of experience you have. When I first started traveling avidly, I found myself more determined to visit as many countries as possible rather than immerse myself in the local culture and understand it. I was more content to check the boxes than to connect the dots.
These days, I travel differently, with the intent to connect and explore; explore more about myself and the world. I don’t have to see everything or go everywhere but just make the most of what I do get to see and do with greater presence. When I lose myself in the chaos of travel, I try to center myself back to that intention, to remind myself why I am traveling.
What is your travel why? Think about it. Close your eyes. Take yourself to a place where you had an incredible experience when you traveled. Place yourself there. What do you see around you? What do you smell? What does the air feel like? What sounds do you hear? Now turn inward…what are you feeling in that moment? Excited, curious, inspired, happy? That is the nature and experience of your true intent. Access that when you lose yourself.
2. Plan a little, let go a little
Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans. ~ Allen Saunders
It’s always a good idea to do your research about the place you are going to, and the things you know you don’t want to miss when you get there. Beyond the “must-sees”, keep it fluid. Get lost in a city, find places you didn’t know existed, stop for an unplanned snack at a street vendor, have an off-the-cuff conversation with a stranger at a coffee house or a bar. It is perfectly ok not to have every minute of every day planned out (that’s right, you Type A folks out there, it is ok).
Here is a tip: when you are researching a new country or city to go to, find the 3-4 things you know you HAVE to see or do when you get there. Things that you know you are particularly interested in. Keep the rest of the time flexible. If nothing else, ask around for recommendations for restaurants from locals, spend an afternoon just wandering down cobblestoned streets or maybe an evening listening to street performers by the ocean.
3. Go beyond the guidebook
Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. ~ Miriam Beard
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to wake up early and hit the streets before the city wakes up. You get to witness the city stirring, people heading to work, vendors opening up their stores displaying their wares, children spiritedly heading for school, calls of prayers emanating down the streets. You get to hear, smell, see and feel the pulse of the place the way a local would as they go about their day.
In bigger cities like London or Paris, look beyond the Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower. Tip: find those neighborhoods and sites that show you a different side of the city; maybe a grungier side not frequented by tourists; maybe it tells you something about the immigrant history of that place. It might take you deeper into the inherent tensions and struggles of the place. Go beyond the postcard-ready attractions to find a special place – a doorway, a cafe, a community garden, a street vendor that really speaks to you.
4. Find some screen-free time
You can take all the pictures you want, but you can never relive the moment the same way. ~ Audrey Regan
While it’s certainly not a crime to want to document your trip for social media, it can be truly special to set aside all screens: google maps, cameras, Instagram, to be truly present in the place around you. The time I was traveling in Estonia and inadvertently left my smartphone in another country, I found myself much more inclined to ask kind strangers for help rather than bury my nose in google maps. While photographing a beautiful place can be truly special, so can carrying a small book to write down your experience of the place. Photos fill your senses but words capture your heart.
5. Keep a daily journal
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say. ~Flannery O’Connor
Having a daily journaling habit has changed my life in many ways but it can be especially powerful when you are traveling. Take time at the beginning or end of each day to jot down a few thoughts. Go beyond just making a list of what you did, write down how you experienced it, things that captured your imagination or intrigued you. Maybe something someone said, a prayer call you heard, a unique dish that flared up your taste buds, a scent that evoked something in you. Or perhaps it was the feeling of watching the sunset over the ocean or feeling of raindrops against your skin. It might seem trivial then but the joy of reading back and remembering those moments through the record of your sensory experiences is priceless. Think about it; if you don’t capture your own memories, who will? They will be lost forever.
6. Maximize interactions with locals
The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings. ~ Martin Buber
When I first started backpacking solo across Europe, I did my share of hostel-hopping. More often than not, no matter where I went, I would be surrounded by the same group of people- Australians on gap years, Canadians on an RTW trip, American couples planning an extended honeymoon. I could leave a country without having had a single local interaction outside of the waitstaff at a restaurant or a cashier at ticketing office. It took me a few trips to start to question the point of it.
These days, at the very least, I will find opportunities for homestays or staying at an Airbnb so I get a bit more immersed in the local culture. Or perhaps I will strike up a conversation with a local tour guide to find out more about her experience living in that country. Instead of heading to the tourist-friendly restaurant that I know has an English menu, I might opt for a restaurant recommended by a local even if that means I bumble through ordering off the menu in a different language.
Fifty countries deep into traveling, I have found that almost everywhere, local people are kind to strangers and will offer up stories or help. Who doesn’t want to talk about themselves? Wouldn’t you? And people love being asked for their opinions. Recently, I even got into a healthy debate with a restaurant owner in Singapore about American exceptionalism and the corruption that is seeping into Singaporean politics. All over a hot meal and a cold beer.
7. Keep an open mind
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. ~ Mark Twain
When you travel you are inherently out of your comfort zone. You are stepping away from all the things you take for granted back at home and are exposing yourself to other ways of living. Maybe the place you are visiting is more chaotic than your hometown. Maybe the streets are dirtier, maybe the locals dress more conservatively. Maybe they eat things you wouldn’t dream of eating. Remember that the rituals and traditions of the place have been developed over many thousands of years to suit the land and its people, not you. If it means you have to dress a bit differently and sidestep litter on the street, so be it. You are there to experience their world. Ask questions, seek to understand. If something doesn’t sit right with your morals, that’s ok but there is still a difference between recognizing your choices are different than assuming that the people who live there are uncivilized or uncouth for living that way.
Some of the hardest things for me to deal with when traveling are cultures that eat things that make me squeamish. As a lifelong vegetarian, it’s tough for me to really immerse myself in some cultures that have very meat-heavy cuisines. I have to constantly remind myself that these foods and preferences have developed over centuries of survival with things that were available to locals to feed themselves. It might not be suited for my dietary choices but it’s their way of life.
8. Be patient when things don’t go your way
It’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them. ~ Pico Iyer
OK, I will admit it up front, this might be the hardest thing for me on this list. I am inherently an impatient person. When people are slow or keep me waiting, I take it as a personal affront. When you are traveling, you are in even more number of situations where things don’t go your way. Maybe the receptionist at the hotel doesn’t speak great English or your taxi driver misunderstands where you want to go or the line at the site you want to see is moving extra slow. Each of these is either an opportunity to get frustrated (and as an impatient person I can totally relate!) and make a judgment about the people and place around you, or to take a step back and decide whether you want to let this affect you or you want to use this as an opportunity to learn something.
As I have mentioned before, traveling is your opportunity to step outside your habitual patterns to try on a different way of life, one that is developed by and for people bred under different circumstances. And no, you don’t have to be Mother Teresa and never get angry. The idea is to create space between the circumstance and your reaction with greater mindfulness. Don’t underestimate the power of deep breathing to slow down your time to react; check out some deep breathing exercises from Chopra Center that promote greater mindfulness.
The trick of taking 5 deep breaths before saying anything is an oldie but goodie. This will make it much more likely that you will realize things will be just fine and you can just relax into whatever isn’t going your way.
9. Practice empathy travel, not sympathy travel
Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection. ~Brene Brown
It can be heart-wrenching to go to certain places and see people in extreme poverty without access to basic things like clean water, food or a roof over their heads. But if you just leave a third world country thinking to yourself, “Wow, I am so lucky to have the life I have, and gosh, poor [insert country’s] people for having to live that way”, you have missed the point.
Traveling is a privilege; it gives you exposure and perspective on different ways of living and being. It shows you that there is a vast amount of inequity in this world, but every day, all day, people survive and thrive in spite of this fact. Rather than just thinking about how terrible it must be to live in that country without certain conveniences, seek to understand what their lifestyle is about. Walk a mile in their shoes. People don’t know what they don’t know, so rather than look at it from your perspective, seek to see it through their eyes. People rarely just want your sympathy, the “poor you”. Not sure about the difference between sympathy and empathy? Check out this video by best-selling author Brene Brown that lays out the difference very simply.
Sympathy begets guilt; empathy builds compassion.
As it turns out happiness shows up in varying forms; where the underdeveloped world might be plagued with issues of inequity and basic needs, the developed world has its own societal ailments.
If you feel particularly touched by a cause and want to do something about it, find a local NGO to contribute to. But notice if this desire is coming from sympathetic guilt or empathetic connection.
10. Savor the journey
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust
In our instant gratification world, where there is an app for everything, it’s easier than ever to get whatever we want wherever we want it. My challenge to you is to make the journey your destination (coincidentally, this is also the tagline for my blog :)).
Often we are looking for the fastest way to get from point A to point B. We check the box and move on. If you have been dreaming about visiting the Taj Mahal all your life, you likely can’t wait to get there. Rather than rush to get there, maybe you can make the journey part of the experience. I chose to travel to Agra by train which took more time but was an adventure in of itself and allowed me to truly immerse myself in the local environment. I traveled around most of Sri Lanka by public transportation (buses, trains), and what a difference it was in my connection with the place than if I had just chosen to get everywhere in an airconditioned car or by flight.
Create some space during your next step to just look out of the window, watch the places and faces that pass by you. Perhaps take the longer route to get somewhere. Because that route is full of infinite possibilities for mindfulness, connection, and understanding.
Do you have other tips for mindfulness? Tried any of these out? Leave a note and let me know!