Mindfulness and Travel: What, Why and How?!
Mindfulness. It gets talked about quite a lot these days- and for good reason. In a fast-paced, worry filled world, it has become an important tool in the daily lives of many of us looking to live more fully (and with less anxiety) in the present moment.
Mindfulness is great at any time and for almost everyone. However, I think it has the potential to be a particularly useful trick up the sleeve of travellers hoping to fully experience their trip, while remaining grounded in what can be a trying and tumultuous way of life.
So, I thought I’d write a piece exploring the role of mindfulness in travel. I’ll begin by trying to define it, before having a look at why (I think) it could be useful to travellers and how it might be put into practice while travelling the world. If you’re an expert mindfulness practitioner or a complete newbie to the concept, I’d love to get your thoughts! Drop me a comment below!
Okay, so, mindfulness. I became somewhat familiar with the term when I worked in mental health, but, though it’s becoming increasingly popular in every day society, it may still be a novel concept for many. From personal experience it’s also an easy term to misconstrue and mix up. So, let’s start with a definition.
What it is:
Mindfulness is a form of meditation characterised as
That might sound technical and boring, but let’s break it down.
Meaning no judgment. None. Nada!
There’s no right or wrong way of being mindful. We’re all too used to beating ourselves up when we don’t feel we’re doing something correctly- “we aren’t good enough”, “we’re a failure”, “what a stupid fool!” We’ll have none of those thoughts with mindfulness, thank you very much.
The general approach and entire ethos is one of acceptance. Whatever’s there, whatever comes up and however you are is absolutely fine. Don’t judge. And remember, if you do judge that’s fine too- it’s all about acceptance!
The here and the now. Not yesterday, not tomorrow- this very second.
Strictly speaking we’re all very literally fixed physically in the present moment, but mentally we’re not that used to it. We’re often caught replaying, reflecting or remembering something in the past, or planning, worrying and anxious about something in the future.
If, as they say, depression is based in the past and worry/anxiety is in the future, then the present represents something of a safe haven.
Have you ever noticed the internal dialogue going on inside your head?
That poxy chitter chatter that constantly buzzes away, often at the periphery of conscious awareness such that we may even be unaware of it happening? Clock onto it and it becomes apparent that we’re not actually as present as we’d thought.
In fact, we’re off in our own little worlds the majority of the time. It serves its purpose, sure, helping us plan and protect ourselves from danger in the environment and so on. But it’s also distracting and leaves us one step removed from what’s actually happening.
In the words of Alan Watts, “we’re addicted to thought”. And, where the absence of thought often catalyses creative thinking and ideas, it’s a valuable skill to be able to switch that chitter chatter off.
To be truly rooted (“grounded”) in the present moment is an important and helpful skill to cultivate.
Whether it is noticing the thinking going on- that interminable chit chat I mentioned above, or attending to what is actually happening externally and internally, awareness is a crucial aspect of mindfulness. I reckon to be truly aware is to be truly present, so it’s arguable that ‘present moment’ and ‘awareness’ are one and the same.
But, also not.
It’s a little confusing but I think awareness is worth talking about in its own right. It’s actually seeing what you’re looking at and hearing the sounds that reach your ears- acknowledging sensory experience. Awareness allows us to tune in to life and what’s actually happening, as opposed to letting it slip by.
There you have it then: Non judgmental present moment awareness. Combine all three and bobs your uncle- mindfulness!
It can take the form of a structured exercise, where you might sit (in a group or by yourself) and for a set period of time focus on the present moment (usually through attending to something sensory). Or, it might be more individual and relaxed, where you simply utilise it in everyday life.
However, I’ll go into all that in the ‘How’ section.
If it still doesn’t quite make sense, here’s a great little video from Headspace (more on that in resources, below) that might help.
Mindfulness in Mental Health & Daily Life
So, hopefully we have a better idea of what mindfulness is. But, what does it look like in practice?
Well, like I mentioned, mindfulness is common in mental health circles and is used as a therapeutic treatment for all sorts of mental conditions. It was first used in the field as a chronic pain treatment, but has steadily spread into all areas, being said to support all manner of mental unwellness.
My experience of mindfulness is generally to do with helping alleviate anxiety. I read an analogy about it once in a mindfulness book, which I’ll paraphrase here.
The Rock analogy
Imagine you have a problem.
Maybe you’re under a tonne of stress at work, school or uni- exams are coming up, or you’re being bullied, or under pressure to reach targets. Whatever it is, it feels big and all consuming. It sucks.
Now, picture the problem as a rock on a table in front of you.
You have a hammer too.
A common approach to tackling our issues is to come into conflict with them. We hammer the living hell out of them. We come into conflict with the problem- bang them, smash them, crush them and ultimately try to pulverise them out of our life.
In reality, this might look like beating ourselves up, calling ourselves stupid, ruminating over the issue, desperately searching for a solution or, conversely, trying to escape from them. It’s aggressive, full of conflict, distressing and at the end of it the issue (the rock) doesn’t disappear- it’s just in smaller fragments on the table.
Mindfulness takes a different tack. So, your problem is still a rock. But now you can forget the hammer. Instead, imagine your rock under running water- a tap, say.
The rock remains there with water running gently over and over and over it.
What happens with time? It wears slowly away.
Compare the hammer and water approaches. It’s true that it may take longer to see an effect and be less direct, but the water (mindfulness) is far gentler, less aggressive and counter-conflict. Ultimately, just as the rock erodes under the waterfall, the problem disappears- there’s nothing left on the table.
When it comes to anxiety (or other mental ill health) and mindfulness, we’re after the same outcome.
It isn’t all about mental health though.
No, mindfulness can be for absolutely anyone as a general practice that supports well being. It can be a powerful tool in everyday life (check ‘The How’ section for examples).
It seems silly. Just to be present and aware (non-judgmentally) of what’s going on- don’t we do it all the time anyway? I realised that, sadly, I really do not! So caught up in my head am I that I don’t see what’s around me, hear the sounds in my environment, feel what’s going on physically or emotionally. It has been revelatory to actually attend to these things using mindfulness!
A life outside my head! Who knew?!
So, you don’t have to have a problem to be mindful. Ironically, in my experience it’s actually harder to use mindfulness in this way, especially if it hasn’t been practised regularly beforehand.
This leads to another important point. Mindfulness is a skill. And, like all skills it takes practice to get better at. It isn’t easy to begin with, requiring a high level of focus and effort. Our monkey minds really aren’t used to being censored and controlled in such a way.
Thus, it takes a bit of practice to get it under control. With time though, it gets easier. The more you do it, the more natural it feels and the simpler it becomes.
So, we know what mindfulness is, but it’s also helpful to note what it isn’t. So, what isn’t it?
Being mindful doesn’t mean eradicating thoughts from your head.
It’s almost the opposite. It’s just being present and aware enough to recognise the thoughts that come up and leaving it there.
No harsh judgment, no criticism or slap on the wrist for doing it wrong or thinking something weird. Have the thought, recognise it- full stop.
2) A chore
If you’re doing an actual mindfulness exercise, or going about it in daily life, and it isn’t working, well, it isn’t working.
It's true that people have different approaches and some will suggest you carry on regardless of struggle, as best you can. Others (myself included) recommend stopping and trying again tomorrow. There’s no point flogging a dead horse.
Really and truly though, it comes down to choice and personal preference.
Play around a bit and see what works for you- it might be that you need the continuity of pushing through a tough session, or perhaps you’re better when you stop and come back to it.
When something sucks it is far harder to stay motivated. And, where mindfulness is most helpful as part of an ongoing routine, motivation is key; lose it and suddenly all manner of things will seem more important.
Bye bye mindfulness practice.
So, that’s mindfulness. I hope that lengthy section made some sense! Having covered the definition, let’s take a look at why I think it could be especially helpful in the life of a traveller.
There’s a lot going on when it comes to travel.
You’re surrounded by new sights, sounds and smells to experience; fascinating friendly people to meet and breathtaking places to visit. You’re unwittingly thrust headlong into an emotional whirlwind of novelty and excitement, with a fair share of fear and trepidation thrown into the mix.
Comfort zones become a thing of the past, forgotten for the time being as you plunge ever further into the adventure that unfolds around you.
It’s a buzz, a torrent, an undercurrent that tugs, pulls and pushes you physically, mentally and emotionally into spaces that are at once frightening and fun.
And sometimes, when frantic beginnings smooth into familiarity and initial excitement fades, old anxieties and neuroses of home tap you on the shoulder (“remember me?”, they ask), as well as tiredness, loneliness, homesickness and any other of the plethora of troubling factors that commonly burden a weary traveller.
With travel, life is full, challenging and vivid. It’s a life squeezed dry of all it has to offer- like an orange, pressed for its juices. Of course, this is real life- the way it should be lived, in my opinion.
Yet, the intensity and vibrancy of travel is a mixed blessing and isn’t necessarily easy to navigate.
Really, with both the ups and the downs of travel, it’s often hard to remain grounded in it all. Understandably, we get swept up in the constant emotion and practical aspects of the experience.
In this way, I see a potential three fold advantage to using mindfulness in travel:
Truly attending to the experience prevents the days just slipping by in a constant blur of activity (similar to the benefits of slowing down when you travel).
It keeps you grounded in the present moment when it’s easy for things to feel out of control.
It helps alleviate some of the tricky emotional aspects of travel.
Let's go through one by one.
1 ) Truly attending to the experience prevents the days just slipping by in a constant blur of activity (similar to the benefits of slowing down when you travel).
Instead, you’re actually aware of the incredible stuff you’re doing, seeing and living through.
You really taste that sugary liquid concoction in the street food market in Cambodia, notice the heat of the sun on your face on a beach in Australia; hear the blast of falling waterfalls in New Zealand’s Milford Sound, or the quiet of the mountains in the French Alps.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, being mindful of it all will enhance the experience enormously, helping to engrain it ever further into memory too.
2) It keeps you grounded in the present moment when it’s easy for things to feel out of control.
At a very basic level, taking the time to be mindful is a great way of slowing everything down. With the electrifying hubbub of travel it’s easy to feel out of your depth and a little lost.
Thus, stopping and making the effort to be present helps to regain some perspective, stay centred and gather your nerve.
3) It helps alleviate some of the tricky emotional aspects of travel.
Being mindful starts at a point of recognition and (non judgmental) acceptance. Simply acknowledging what’s there and knowing that it is okay can be disproportionately helpful at resolving the issue.
Not that mindfulness prevents the tough stuff happening. It’s just that whatever you’re feeling, the mindful approach is to notice it, recognise its normality and then allow it to pass (as opposed to half acknowledging it, freaking out and wanting to get away from the emotion as quickly as possible, which, of course, helps heightens the initial state of arousal and consequently perpetuates the issue. Nice work brain).
If you’re on the road and stressed out, lonely, tired, homesick and hating life, mindfulness could help.
At this point we’ve covered ‘the what’ and ‘the why’. All that’s left on the agenda is to go through how it looks in action. How might a traveller utilise mindfulness while adventuring overseas?
So, some practical points.
There are two types of mindfulness: guided and non-guided. Both can be done in a group or individually, for a period of time of your choosing, in a structured setting (such as an official mindfulness group with a leader/guide) and/or throughout your day as part of daily life.
For a structured session (alone or in a group) when you first start practising, people usually find guided mindfulness easier and less is more in terms of time (5 to 10 minutes, or even less). Repetition and routine are key too: being mindful once in a while is awesome, but its influence is far greater if part of a daily practice!
I’ll reemphasise that mindfulness isn’t about ridding your mind of thoughts- a task that’s almost impossible when you try. Instead, notice what’s there and if your attention drifts, just bring it back gently to what you’re doing.
The notion of the ‘pregnant pause’ is also important.
Sometimes when we turn our attention to a particular thing, whether that means the way we feel in the moment or a physical sensation in a certain body part, initially it can be difficult to recognise anything at all. Often, all it takes is to wait a moment- to pause- for the sensation or feeling to emerge, such as holding your finger out to feel the wind. What was once absent is suddenly revealed.
There’s a general ethos of ‘allowing’ when it comes to mindfulness. Whatever’s there you just sort of, let it to happen.
You can be as distracted and unfocused as you like- it does not matter. Honestly, in a structured mindfulness exercise it’s ridiculously easy to drift off into your thoughts and some days that will be all that happens. Other days you’ll feel more focused and it’ll be a breeze from start to finish.
The point is that however it goes, it’s all good. Try not to make a snap judgment that you’re doing it wrong as that a) that’s not impossible and b) this sort of negative self-talk is likely to make you feel rubbish such that you’ll stop altogether. After a difficult session it’s easy to tell ourselves we can’t do it and that it isn’t for us.
If you’re trying to be mindful and your attention drifts, gently bring it back to the goal- whether that’s your breathing or whatever you’re focused on. Over time, I promise it will get easier.
With all that out of the way, let’s consider structured and daily mindfulness in turn.
Actual mindfulness sessions can take many many forms! However, they usually focus on something sensory in order to place you in the present moment and keep you there.
For example, a structured session (in a group or alone) might begin with what’s called a FOFBOC routine- feet on the floor, bum on the chair. Here, you simply take the time to notice the sensations in the soles of your feet (is there any tingling? What’s the temperature like? Can you feel anything at all?), slowly moving up your legs to notice those in your backside.
Or, another structured session might place an object in your hand. The task here will be a steady series of questions about the object for you to reflect on- what does it look like? What does it smell like? How heavy does it feel in your hand? How does the light change its appearance? What is it like to run it between your fingers? How does the texture change as you continue to hold it? And so on!
Or, ever witness people making strange slow movements in parks of city centres? Well, it’s called Tai-Chi and it’s awesome- well worth looking a little silly for. Tai-Chi is essentially a form of mindful movement, where focusing intently on the sensations of each move allows the individual to enter a mindful, flow like state.
Try it out! For some people moving in this way is a far simpler way to switch off the monkey mind and enter into a mindful state compared to traditional sit down methods.
When you travel, the techniques could be exactly the same: taking 10 minutes in the morning to do the FOFBOC exercise, or finding an object to hold and feel in the hostel you’re in- or any other of the million and one mindfulness exercises that exist (check out this positive psychology program article for a list of 22). Almost all of them could be used on the road.
Aside from structured exercises, how does it work in daily life? What does mindfulness look like outside of a structured session, led by a practitioner? Well, it can literally be anything. Honestly, mindfulness in daily life really is just about being aware in the present moment. This might mean:
- Focusing on the heat of the water hitting your body in your morning shower
- Hearing the sounds in your environment (letting them come to you as a if you’re a living microphone) and noting elements of pitch and volume etc.
- Making an effort to taste you food rather than wolfing it down- hear the crunch between your teeth, note the different flavours on different parts of your tongue; the contractions of the muscles in your throat as you swallow a mouthful...)
- Notice the temperature of your tea as you take a sip, the sharp burn on your tongue and the ensuing tingling.
- On the bus, or tube, feel the movements of your body as it sways to those of the vehicle, or notice how it feels to hold on to the bar in front or above you- the temperature, the placement of the fingers, the pressure of the grip. What’s it like to hold on less or more tightly? How does that change the way you move?
- As you walk, feel the muscles moving in the feet, legs, bum, back and arms. Notice your neck muscles work as you nod and shake your head. Feel how your muscles rapidly contract and relax as you maintain your balance.
- Or, pay attention to your emotions. What’s that feeling in your stomach? How is it manifesting? How does your head feeling and how do your thoughts match the emotion involved?
So long as you’re present, aware and non-judgmental. It’s mindfulness.
Okay, want to give it a try? Here’s a link with a 5 minute guided mindfulness exercise. Get yourself settled comfortably and check it out! (Let me know how it went in the comments section below!)
A point about legitimacy
I like the person guiding that video.
His voice is calm, professional and makes me sleepy. But, I wonder if some people would listen and get the impression that mindfulness is a little woo-woo and new-agey. Depending on who you are, this may or may not be a bad thing!
But I think it’s important to mention as many people dismiss any form of meditation for this reason. It’s perceived as a pseudoscientific hippy therapy with no scientific backing that obviously won’t work unless accompanied by camp fires, communal humming, headbands and Class A drugs.
I assure you, it isn’t so! In fact, it’s almost the opposite.
Mindfulness practice is backed up by legit, recent, empirical scientific research. It’s now a recognised and widely endorsed approach to supporting all manner of mental and physical health related issues, as well as general well-being.
If the guided video above wasn’t for you, find one that works! There’s a tonne available for free out there on the web.
Let’s sum up this beast of a blog post!
As we’ve seen, mindfulness is about living in non-judgemental awareness of the present moment and can be used to dramatically enhance well-being. Through time and a bit of effort, building mindfulness into daily travel life can be a useful tool in all of our lives.
And, where travel is full of excitement, intensity and potential challenges, for all the reasons I’ve explored above mindfulness is arguably a technique with a special potential for travellers, living out on the road.
This is a great mindfulness mobile app that gives you access to 10 free sessions of ten minutes each. It’s a good introduction and if you enjoy it enough the rest of the app can be purchased for a fee. I have personally used headspace in the past and think it’s great.
Not only does it walk you through everything step by step, but the full app also has guided sessions of varying lengths of time, all the way from 2 minutes to an hour.
Here’s a video with more info: