Why the Present Moment is a Crucial Tool for Successful Travel

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Why the Present Moment is a Crucial Tool for Successful Travel

It is unfortunately hard to recall our quasi-permanent concern with the future, for on our return from a place, perhaps the first thing to disappear from memory is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come; how much of it, that is, we spent somewhere other than where we were.
— Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Staying present is a key skill for any traveller to develop. I’ve written about it before in related posts (check out my lengthy articles on Mindfulness and Slowing Down) but I think it’s so important that I thought I’d reemphasise, and risk belabouring, the point here.

The more I reflect on it, the more I come to see the discipline of being present on your travels as the only way to reap the full rewards on offer.

That’s a big statement. So, let me try to explain...by means of many more big statements.

Many More Big Statements About the Present Moment

The present moment is a magical fragment of time that constitutes the here and now. To remain situated there-in is to be free of worry, grounded in the reality around you and unconcerned with the trivialities of life.

To be present is to be aware of, focused on and available to whatever circumstance arises in the environment at large. It allows experience to be absorbed and entered into fully; a feeling of connection and oneness reigns where disconnect, apathy and indifference can otherwise prevail and run riot.

Where memory of an event relies almost exclusively on an awareness of it (what is life and who are we if not a system of memories?), turning ourselves on to the present becomes central to truly internalising travel (and life) and coming away from it with more than just a large hole in our bank balance.

With the fuzzy memory that accompanies someone who has failed to make presence a priority, the potential impact of travel that’s presented to anyone who embarks upon it is, at best, cut, and at worst, forfeited.  

At a personal level it’s a little ironic that the thought of travel often serves as a great distraction from the present moment of home life. Presence is as important at home as it is while travelling, but where travel is usually far more fleeting, it becomes notably more significant.

Those were my big statements. Hopefully they convinced you that being present while you travel is a good thing.

Entering into the present moment is like turning the wifi on. Suddenly, there’s access to something outside of you. Ironically, in real terms, it often takes turning the wifi off to become present in the moment.

To illustrate my point, here’s a scenario I invite you to imagine.

You’re sat on a beach. It’s the beach you always dreamed of while suffering through those endlessly long, dreary days at work or uni. Now though, free at last, you’ve swapped the desk chair for a deck chair.

 An example of the beach you'd spent so long imagining!

An example of the beach you'd spent so long imagining!

The sun shines high in the sky above you. Light glints from the crests and troughs of the surf that laps rhythmically nearby. The air is warm but not uncomfortably so- a breeze blows gently across the bay, cooling you down and rustling the palm fronds that sway over head. Heat shimmers the sand in the distance, rising in waves and blurring the lines of sea, sand and sky into a hazy combination of contorted colours. The atmosphere is one of varying shades of blue and gold.

The remnants of the freshly cut coconut purchased from a beachside vendor sits in the sand at your side, close to hand. A book, bought at the airport, rests half read on your chest as you gaze through weary eyes and tinted sun glasses at the other oiled and tanned beach dwellers that sunbathe, swim and generally enjoy the day around you.

It’s just how you’d imagined it.

Except you’re not actually there.

The whole time this perfect scene unfolds you’re ruminating over the incident on your last day at work, when you heard two colleagues bad mouthing you around the water-cooler. You can’t remember whether you filed that confidential document properly, or if it’s still on top of the photocopier. Did you lock the house door properly behind you and shut all the windows? What about the bank- did you tell the bank you were going away, or are they going to cancel your card when they see all these foreign payments? Then there’s the stack of emails that will greet you on the computer upon your return, or the meeting with your boss you’ve scheduled to discuss a pay rise.

 Mentally you're still stuck at work...

Mentally you're still stuck at work...

It goes on like this and before you know it the sun’s gone down, clouds have come and it’s a little chilly. It’s late and you’re hungry, so you get some food at a restaurant. But, before you know it the same thoughts have trickled back and you’re sat eating a beautiful plate of food in the same mindless, disconnected manner that you experienced the beach.

Experiences that could, and perhaps should, have been prioritised, get irrevocably lost to a mind stuck in past and future. Though we’re present in a physical sense, the pesky little monkey mind that’s constantly tick tick ticking away is plonked firmly back at home, amongst the stresses of work and daily life.  

It’s important not to beat ourselves up about this. Our brains are simply doing what they have evolved to do- that is, to protect its host (us) from harm.

Thousands of years ago, this same capacity to stop, think and fear would have spared the hapless caveman meeting an inadvertent premature demise at the jaws of a sabre tooth tiger. It was (and is) helpful.

Though the environment (and the challenges that went with it) has changed dramatically since then, this deep seated neural programming remains. The consequence? That incessant internal chit chat and worry that loosens our grip on the present moment.

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We know what gets lost, but what do we stand to gain by staying in the moment?  

Well, among many benefits it bestows a revelatory sensory acuity on the beholder, which often goes amiss when we’re lost amongst the clattering of mental machinery. Really pay attention though and the environment takes on an impressive novel form, as if seen through with a new filter.

Colours enhance, lines focus, shapes take on a new form- tiny details become obvious and striking. And of course, these are just symptoms of being aware of what’s external to us; presence also has the potential to reveal our true thoughts and emotions, which can easily be lost or occluded otherwise.

At a very basic level, being present is an awakening experience- lights are turned on after endless time spent in the dark.

 Being present alters our perception of focus- lines sharpen, forms become clear. 

Being present alters our perception of focus- lines sharpen, forms become clear. 

It isn’t easy. We’re so used to being ‘absent’ that presence is difficult to sustain. However, it definitely improves with practice- it’s a skill. You may only get a fleeting break from those internal workings, but this is a good start. Hopefully it will whet your appetite.

Over time, you come to recognise when you’re anywhere but the present moment and decide whether to continue on the current path, or bring yourself back to the present. It is a process that gets easier over time.

Equally, the aim isn’t to be constantly present. Indeed, like a caveman walking inadvertently into the jaws of the sabre tooth, being present isn’t always what a situation calls for. Far better to stop, think and plan for the potential danger.

It’s the balance we’re after, and the capacity to recognise our thinking and claw ourselves back to presence when that’s the most appropriate thing to do.

When you travel, it’s unlikely you’ll be willing and able to be present all the time. You’ll often be tired, which never helps, and equally, there’s a level of thought and preparation for risk-aversion that is necessary to stay safe and well on the road.

However, for every moment where it’ll beneficial to be lost in thought, there will probably be ten where presence would be a preferential state- especially as presence/alertness is often a vital ingredient in the recipe of staying safe while travelling.

Ultimately, the joy of travelling is that it lets you write the script. Thus, you should travel in the way that feels most appropriate for you. For some, travel is a means to think and reflect; the cultivation of time and insight, not presence, is the goal. That’s awesome and travel can be just the ticket.

Just know that it’s often moments of space (presence) that elicits flashes of insight and genius. Paradoxically, it can take a mental step back to achieve a creative leap forward. And, where the benefits of presence are so abundant, I’d argue that being present can be a hugely positive practice in anyone’s adventure.

I’ll conclude by admitting that I’m being a definite hypocrite here! I’m impressively adept at being lost in thought and forever have to drag myself back to the present moment. Some days are easier than others and often I’ll resign myself to over thinking- sometimes it’s easier that way. It’s just that now, having experienced and appreciated the benefits of present moment awareness I endeavour to be there more often- especially when I travel.

Go ahead and try to stay in the moment. Practice before departure and make the effort to maintain the discipline on the road. And, let me know how it goes! What did you notice when you were truly present while travelling?