Since my earliest memories, I have always yielded to the clock. Punctuality is the implacable force guiding my daily life. Any deviation – any lateness – and my cortisol levels shoot up in sync with my ire. Each morning as I wake up and get ready for the day, my mind drifts into the future: the plans we have tonight, the happenings of the weekend, just 20 days until I leave for Argentina, etc. And all around me everything is a ghost, unnoticed and unseen. The only experience is one of expectation, a continuous yearning for the future. What a horrible affliction for a traveler.
I wonder, is it my German heritage? My Western culture? Some fear of experiencing the unknown? I want to change. I want to enjoy the moment. I want to forget about what’s next, what’s after, what’s later.
So I married a woman who sometimes seems surprised that the concept of time exists (just kidding Sarah!). In truth, I’ve been wrestling with this characteristic throughout my life and the life of Traveling Savage. Perhaps stupidly, I thought this was a personal demon of mine, rare to the outside world. As serendipity would have it, however, I heard the term “mindfulness” in the course of a discussion about the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh on a recent Random episode.
And it immediately triggered some long-dormant recognition. Yes, mindfulness was what I lacked.
After some Googling and a trip to library I came home with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like my kind of book. But in the course of breezing through its 130 pages I found a name for the state of mind I seek (i.e., mindfulness) and a philosophy for combating my “future sickness.” I’m sure many of you are familiar with the practice of mindfulness, but, for those who aren’t (like I wasn’t), simply put it is a central component of Buddhism that focuses on the awareness of one’s body and consciousness.
As I prepare for my trip to Argentina and subsequent one month trips over the next two years, perhaps my greatest fear is that the people, places, and experiences will flow past me undocumented. Here are three super simple practices that I believe will help me catch those moments and could help you appreciate your own travels even more:
“In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts.”
- Stop. Stop moving, stop creating things to do, stop thinking. Sit still and, well, be. Our world is buzzing with a trillion distractions. Nhat Hanh points out the incredible juxtaposition of the West’s goal-oriented go go go nature and the Buddhist quest for “aimlessness.” The idea is to take a moment (or an hour, or a day) and simply appreciate. Pay attention to each of your senses. What do you smell? What do you hear? Stopping and doing “nothing” reduces the mental load and brings our attention back to all the things we take for granted. Like clouds or double rainbows. These details will sing in my memory and bring life to my writing long after the trip.
- Breathe. For Nhat Hanh, this is where it all begins. Pay attention to inhalations and exhalations, which brings the mind into sync with the body. It’s a clever tactic that quickly dials back the inner monologue and brings you into the moment. It also puts me in a drowsy stupor which I assume to be some meditative stage. Over time the goal is to be aware of your breathing at all times. In other words, always in the present.
- Smile. The foundation of mindfulness is happiness, and one could argue happiness doesn’t exist unless you’re consciously aware of being happy. Smiling, even when not necessarily happy, can trick the brain into giving you little blasts of happy neurotransmitters. I really like one section of the book where Nhat Hanh ties smiling and happiness to art. He says “Can you imagine an angry painter giving birth to such a smile?” [in reference to the Mona Lisa]. I’ve never written anything worth a damn while angry.
Reading the book has been a revelation and a timely addition to my travel arsenal. I’m eager to use these new-found tactics as I embark on the journey to South America.
Do you practice mindfulness on your travels? Are you one who naturally stays in the present, or are you distracted by the infinite possibilities of the future? I’d love to hear how you deal with it.
Listening to: Eluvium
Original photo by matthileo via Flickr under Creative Commons