Enriching Travel Through Mindfulness

by Keith Savage · 30 comments


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

AndiNo Gravatar November 3, 2010 at 8:57 AM

I definitely practice mindfulness. So much so, that I don’t even need to take any notes. I seriously remember everything!!!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 3, 2010 at 10:58 AM

That’s pretty incredible, Andi! Photographic memory?

Julie TrevelyanNo Gravatar October 25, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Ha, I wish I could naturally stay in the present. Instead, I work at it. I practice yoga daily (except for the last few weeks during which I was too sick) and try to meditate. I used to meditate more often, when it was an integral part of a job I had, but fell away from it after I left that job. However, when I think back to my days of meditating more regularly, I believe I really did live in the present a bit more. A bit more, I say! My brain is hard to turn off. Something that also works for me is daily (or as often as I can) journaling. Getting the future and past thoughts out of my head and onto paper leave more space for my mind to simply be.

Nice article. Best to you in applying Thich Nhat Hanh’s principles when you travel, and throughout your life. His writing is wonderful and, oddly enough, always timely to those who find it.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 3, 2010 at 11:25 AM

Interesting to hear your tactics, Julie. I haven’t been one to practice meditation or yoga, though I’ve dipped my foot in a couple of times. I’m really glad to have this mindfulness practice in my back pocket – very timely find just weeks before I leave for Argentina.

BrooksNo Gravatar October 25, 2010 at 11:14 AM

Great post, really struck a chord. Like you, I’m almost always conscious of time and admittedly it brings me some pain at times. I have often been in the middle of some activity (concert, diving, etc.) that I’ve looked forward to for a long time and caught myself glancing at my watch to see how much time is left. I’m thinking about the future and skipping out on what’s around me. There’s an old saying; One leg in yesterday, one leg in tomorrow and pissing on today…

In preparation for my upcoming trip, I’ve been trying to sit in different places and just be and observe what’s happening to try and get a greater connection to what’s going on around me, but also to try and help my writing…which could use it 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 25, 2010 at 12:49 PM

Hey Brooks, as much as I don’t love that saying, it’s apt. I’m working against my natural tendencies as well. I figure it’s a step in the right direction at least being aware of these things. Good luck with your writing!

GrayNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 10:20 AM

I have a hard time (ha!) forgetting about time, just “being”. Sometimes I can do it when I’m traveling because I’m faced with new things and I get totally absorbed in them. At home, everything is familiar, so they’re not as engrossing and it’s hard not to be thinking about all the things I still need to do that day. About the only time I really do lose track of time completely is when I’m writing. I’m often shocked when I finally look up from what I’m writing and realize how much time has passed. I suppose you might say writing is my form of meditation.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 11:05 AM

Me too, Gray, me too. Though I don’t usually lose myself in the writing as deeply as you do, so it sounds. Wish I did. Interesting idea, that writing is your meditation. I like that.

Ted NelsonNo Gravatar October 23, 2010 at 12:52 PM

Some great tips not only for traveling, but for life.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 10:48 AM

Definitely, good point.

Steve | SomeoneInTheRoadNo Gravatar October 23, 2010 at 11:47 AM

Great post – and definitely a book I’m going to check out. Very good advice as I prepare for my first significant solo travel experience, and reminds me a lot about some great advice I got on photography: ‘Walk slower’. I’ve always gone about life quickly, hurrying from point A to point B and not noticing anything in between.

As soon as I started to walk more slowly, I started to notice infinitely more about life. The interactions of people on the street. The light and shadows. The weather. The sounds. It was certainly the best advice I’ve ever been given, and one that applies to life as well as it does to photography.

Thanks for sharing.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 11:04 AM

Steve, sounds we’re a lot alike. All the details that pop out when I slow down really astound me. I’ll keep this in mind in regards to photography as well. Thanks for the comment.

AbbyNo Gravatar October 22, 2010 at 6:07 PM

So happy to hear when others start studying these philosophies! I would never have survived my crazy years in NYC without retreats, books and yoga/pranayama classes about this — and I picked it back up while in Costa Rica. Love it, Keith! And omg 20 days????!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 10:49 AM

Hey Abby, that’s interesting to hear. Time is flying, no question. I think it’s closer to 15 days now!!

Christy @ Ordinary TravelerNo Gravatar October 22, 2010 at 3:36 PM

That sounds like a book I would be interested in. It’s like a form of meditation and something that I think a lot of people can grasp. Sometimes meditation alone can be frustrating because people have a hard time eliminating thoughts and they end up giving up on it. I love the smiling exercise. I feel like I could benefit from that immensely when I’m having a bad day.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 10:48 AM

I think finding difficulty in meditation (which I do) is exactly the reason to try and do it. If it’s difficult to eliminate the constant stream of thoughts running through your mind, how will you be able to focus on your surroundings and enjoy the moment? I’m just at the tip of this idea, but I think there’s a lot to be gained from it.

visitorNo Gravatar February 6, 2015 at 5:05 AM

the idea that meditation is about stopping thoughts is a common misconception. trying to do so will not only fail, but often only add more thoughts regarding frustration, guilt, and so forth. simply observe thoughts and sensations arising and passing, recognizing them for what they are without getting involved with them. in other words, stop feeding the thoughts, rather than trying to stop or eliminate them. it’s about not getting hooked by them, rather than conquering them. this is really only the most basic introduction to meditation. i highly recommend finding a teacher to show you the ropes if you are really interested. there are a lot of funny idea about it floating around. wishing you well.

SarahNo Gravatar October 22, 2010 at 2:03 PM

A great read and some wonderful tips. It is always a fear of mine that I am not fully appreciating the ‘now’ whether that be during my travels or in the lead up to them. It is so much easier to focus on the future and to crave what you don’t currently have. What’s really tough is to sit back, relax and take stock of the circumstances you find yourself in in the present. As much as I feel that I can’t wait for my travels to begin, I know I’ll miss the memories of home once I’m away. So I shall make sure to stop, breathe and smile as the next six months pass by…

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 24, 2010 at 10:42 AM

Hey Sarah. I, too, take for granted what I have. It’s funny how we’re programmed to keep seeking more. I have a feeling that’s part of our western culture, capitalism and so forth. But it’s true that if you stop and think about the present moment, there’s always some good to be found. For example, I’m sitting at my kitchen table drinking yerba maté on a Sunday morning while it slowly rains outside. I will miss these times while I’m on the road.

Michael HodsonNo Gravatar October 22, 2010 at 9:14 AM

Great post. I find this feeling most when I am in in-route. One reason I love overland travel is the long, long times it takes to get places. On a bus or train, I tend to float off like you are describing. Perhaps with my iPod on (music helps me wander) or perhaps not. Just watching the world go by — with a notebook and pen at hand for the inevitable insights that seem to just pop up.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 23, 2010 at 11:52 AM

Michael, long-distance travel is absolutely a great time to contemplate and focus on being mindful. How can we make this type of mindfulness possible in the middle of hectic days? That’s the spot I’m in.

AudreyNo Gravatar October 22, 2010 at 4:05 AM

I definitely agree with stop and just stand or sit still to take in the scene around you. How the vendors interact and greet customers at the market, how the customers handle the produce, how kids play together in the park, how adults greet each other (kisses, handshakes, hugs, facial expressions), etc. Sometimes we’re rushing to get to X sight or meet X person and we forget to pay attention to everything happening around us.

There’s an added benefit to smiling when traveling. You’ll find that people you meet are often more open, especially if you don’t share a verbal language, if you greet them with a smile. Having positive and open body language can really get a local interaction off on the right note.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 23, 2010 at 11:38 AM

Audrey, definitely. Those details you point out are really important to internalizing the experience (and writing about it). Good point about the smiling. But we’re talking normal half-smiles not Joker-esque smiles. 🙂

EkuaNo Gravatar October 21, 2010 at 8:14 PM

I love a lot of what Thich Naht Hahn has to say. When I was traveling in Vietnam, I took a motorcycle tour and ended up visiting a Buddhist monastery where he once studied. That was the first time I’d heard about him. Since then, I bought one of his books (Be Free Where You Are) and refer to it from time to time when I need a mindfulness refresher… which always happens when I’m at home as opposed to when I travel. Mindfulness seems natural for me when I travel, especially when I spend enough time in the places I’m visiting and don’t feel the need to rush around!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 23, 2010 at 11:34 AM

Hi Ekua! You bring up a good point. Perhaps we’re more likely to gloss over our surroundings at home because they’re familiar and we’ve “seen” them. Travel forces us to pay attention to our environment simply to make it from place to place. At home, I know I often phase out the familiar so I can focus on other things, and that can be a shame.

I enjoyed Peace Is Every Step, but I’m most excited at finding books on the topic of mindfulness. Great story about finding out about him while touring Vietnam.

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