A thought or two on mindfulness

“There’s no time like the present.”

It’s a phrase we hear a lot.

Funnily enough, it can be taken one of two ways.  These days, it’s often issued with a dose of pressure – the emphasis on there being “no time” left, and the implication being that the thing you haven’t done yet should be being done now.  That’s quite a heavy thought, right?  Leaves you feeling a bit rushed?  Inadequate?

Let’s turn this on its head.

If we put the emphasis on “the present”, the sentence changes all meaning.  It could now be read as “nothing beats the present”.  Or, “the present” is the best time to be in.  Personally, I like it better this way.  Why?  Because it captures the very essence of mindfulness.

I’m probably shooting myself in the foot a little here.  Mindfulness is a tricky thing to explain – particularly when you consider the nuances of the English language and its constant bending of semantics.  Traditionally, the word “mindful” could be considered synonymous with “considerate”.  As an example, “You should be mindful of their feelings”.  It can also be used in the context of “pay attention to”; i.e. “please be mindful of the gap when alighting from this train”…words I am not particularly fond of, I’ll admit.

The term “mindfulness”, when applied to mental health, takes on a different shape – albeit, a shape which still centres around the concept of awareness.  From a medical perspective, mindfulness is the practice of purposefully bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgement.

Sounds complicated, right?  Let’s think of it in simpler terms.  Mindfulness is about learning how to appreciate the feeling of being present in a moment, and allowing the sensation to cancel out external thoughts.  Simpler still, it’s about finding peace by learning to be present.  Turns out, there is really is no time quite like it.

The practice of mindfulness has grown in popularity over recent years, but has origins right back to early Buddhist manuscripts.  Today, it’s often praised by psychologists as being a popular way to help patients overcome, or better manage, mental health difficulties.  It’s particularly helpful for treating anxiety – something I can attest to through my own experiences over the years.

As lovely as it would be, I’m afraid there’s no switch which can be flicked to turn your brain into mindful mode.  I can only imagine how horrendous it would be to share with your doctor that you’re finding things difficult, just to be sent out the door with a prescription to “go home and be present”.  We all know it’s not as simple as that.

The good news is that there are lots of easy-to-follow techniques which can help introduce mindfulness into your life.  Many of them might sound simple, but don’t let looks deceive you; the effects can be huge.  A good counsellor – particularly with knowledge of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) – will certainly be able to advise you if you’re really struggling.  As a starting point though, a few things that I’ve found really helpful are:

  • Focus on your breathing.  If you’re feeling particularly panicky, try this simple exercise to help regulate and calm the nerves: Breathe in through your nose for 3 seconds, hold the breath for 6, and then release through your mouth for 9.
  • Take in the world around you.  When negative thoughts get too much, tell your mind to start focussing on the various sights and senses around you.  What colour is the sky just now?  Can you pick out three different sounds?  What can you smell?
  • Meditation apps.  I was really skeptical about how well these would work, but decided to give these a go after I’d been having trouble sleeping at nights.  Calm has audiobooks with particularly soothing stories, and after just a few minutes of listening to some, the outside world had vanished and I was snoozing soundly!

Different techniques will work for different people, so it’s worth having a read through some of the information online and trying a few strategies to see what works best for you.  Mind are a particularly helpful organisation, and have put together this fab document for anyone looking for a starting point on their mindful journeys.

So what does all of this have to do with travel?

I’m glad you asked.

It took me several years – and a certain little global pandemic – to really understand why travel was important to me, and what it brought to my life.  It kept me well.

Travelling improved my life on so many levels.  It gave me an appreciation of other cultures, languages and heritages.  It took me out of my comfort zone.  It challenged me to teach English to children in Thailand and to swim with turtles on the Great Barrier Reef.  It let me dance through monsoons and experience the joy of real pizza.  It took me to corners of the world I didn’t know existed and it even found me love on the streets of Budapest.

Sea kayaking in Dubrovnik

Fundamentally, it taught me to appreciate the world around me.  To learn how to absorb my surroundings and to just enjoy being.  This is the very essence of mindfulness.

To me, travel and mental health will always be linked.  Of course, that might not be the same for everybody.  Sometimes a holiday is just a holiday, right?

I guess it depends what you’re travelling for, and what you hope to take from the experience.  I reckon you’d be hard-pressed, however, to find a single person en-route to their destination who didn’t hope to feel a certain emotion.  Relaxed?  Happy?  Enlightened?  Of course you can achieve all of these things and more without ever wilfully bringing mindfulness into the picture.  Whether it sneaks on in there unintentionally is another story…

My argument here is twofold.  First, that mindfulness can enhancement your enjoyment of a place or experience.  Second, that being mindful can make you a better traveller.  After all, we all have a duty of care to ourselves, but also to the world around us.

Let’s have a look at some of the ways you can become a more mindful traveller.

#1 Bring your regular exercises with you

If you’re someone who regularly experiences anxiety, or who benefits from mindful practice on a day-to-day basis, why should your travels be any different?  Travelling can be a stressful experience even at the best of times with the potential for delayed flights, hotel mishaps and daunting new cultures ahead.

It’s important to treat your mental health with the same level of self care you would asthma, diabetes or physiotherapy when travelling.  Take mindful practices with you wherever you go.  You’ll enjoy the experience all the more, while bossing any challenges that come your way.

Practical steps: If you find breathing exercises helpful, make sure to take a note of them with you.  Download any apps or meditation videos that have helped in the past. If you find essential oils soothing, take some with you for the hotel room.

The world is good at throwing hazards into the mix.  Be equipped for any setbacks and you’ll always stay two steps ahead.

#2 Cut down on screen time

We’re all guilty of spending too much time on our phones these days.  I’ll admit that I find it tricky when I’m abroad too, particularly if I’m on a writing job somewhere.  It’s a tough balance to get right; you want to record your experiences, but that’s hard when you’re trying to focus on the here and now.

The odd snap or tag is absolutely warranted when you’re somewhere special and want to share that with the people you love.  However if you spend more time looking at a rectangular screen than you do admiring your setting, it’s got to beg the question: are you really engaging with the environment around you?  If you find yourself thinking about Instagramming about a place while you’re still in it, the answer is probably no.

Of course our obsession with phones is not just about getting the perfect photos or adding fuel to the social media fire.  For many, it’s also about staying connected to the outside world. Family updates and world events are important, yes, but do you really need to know what Gwen from down the road had for dinner last night?  Is it genuinely important information, or are you just scrolling for the sake of scrolling?  How about the present world, right in front of you?

Mindfulness is about learning to focus on the current moment, and zoning out external thoughts or worries.  It’s next to impossible to be fully present in your current surroundings if your thoughts are back home.  Habits are hard to break, but this is an important one if you want to create memories that’ll last longer than a twitter feed.  Put the phone away.

A person looking at a phone

#3 Spend time outdoors

No matter what the climate, never underestimate the benefits of Vitamin D.

It can tempting to spend all of your time abroad rushing about between activities.  With all of the museums, galleries, bars and restaurants to explore, it can be easy to fall into the trap of planning a trip which leaves little time for taking in fresh air.

Make sure you set aside a little time every day – even on the coldest, bleakest or rainiest of days – to get some oxygen into your lungs and to enjoy the outside world too.

#4 Record your surroundings

One of the best ways to increase your sense of consciousness is to really acknowledge your surroundings.

Remember what I was saying before, about taking in the world around you?  Absorbing the sights and senses?  This is something that folk often struggle to get to grips with.  A common battle is that people can identify the things they need to see in order to notice them, but they’re not really absorbing the moment or taking calmness from the process.

A fun way round this is to make notes about the place that you’re in.  For some people, that might mean just a simple few scribblings in a journal, as they sip on coffee in an outdoor piazza – a mind map, or the like.  For others, that might be making a wee sketch.  Recently, I’ve been playing about with haikus (17 word poems, which follow a 5-7-5 structure).  You could even write a creative postcard for a friend!  The choices are unlimited.

Not sure where to begin?  Try closing your eyes and see what sounds you can pick up – from the sound of waves lapping the shore to enthusiastic vendors at a bustling market place.  Think about the smells that are different to home: pine trees, hot tarmac, new foods.  If you’re eating something, what ingredients can you pick out?

You don’t need to be a budding wordsmith to have a crack at this, nor do you need to show it to anyone.  This can be purely for you.  That being said, it can be a fun challenge to share with pals, and a great way to help kids connect to new and exciting environments!

Describing places is a brilliant way to connect your mind to your environment.  It increases your sense of place, and helps block outside thoughts or worries.  It also gives you a record of your experiences to take home, which can come in handy if you want to put together photo albums with fun captions!

Eating Pierogis in Krakow

#5 Put the itinerary aside

It can be tempting to draw up endless lists of things-to-do when you’re heading somewhere new, particularly if you’re short on time and want to pack a lot in.  Will this make for the most relaxing experience?  Will you really get to experience the culture of somewhere new if you’re rushing around?

Over time, I’ve really come to enjoy the benefits of slow travel.  There’s no shame in putting the guidebook away for a day and allowing yourself to get lost in the sights and sounds of a place.  Some of my best travel experiences have been the unplanned ones.  Well, apart from getting lost in a Thai jungle.  That one was a bit iffy.

#6 Look into mindful behaviours of the country you’re visiting

Every culture has its own ways of invoking feelings of peace and contentedness.  Do a little research before you set sail.  Find out about calming spiritual practices or cultural traditions which invoke a sense of wellbeing.  See whether you can participate in these, or learn a little more about their principles while you’re visiting.

Some of my favourite travel experiences to date have involved immersing myself into other country’s mindful practices.  In Hungary and Iceland, this meant unwinding in natural thermal pools.  In Thailand, it was finding a quiet spot in the gardens of beautiful temples, enjoying the smells of incense and reading the messages of positivity carved into wooden signs.  In southern Spain, it was savouring every mouthful of food as I indulged in the bustling late-night tapas culture.  In Denmark, it was getting cosy with all things Hygge.

Swimming in natural pools

#7 Stick to all things local!

If you really want to immerse yourself in a place, focus on doing just that.  Avoid the international chains and corporations and support the local grassroots businesses.  Shop at the markets.  Buy local art to bring back home.  Try new dishes and embrace the traditional experiences on offer.  Engage with people and ask about their lifestyle.  Make an effort with the local language, even if you have to struggle your way through pronouncing your pleases and thank yous.

Soaking up the true energy of a place can leave you feeling enlightened and rewarded for life.  A Starbucks, on the other hand, wears off pretty quick.

It’s also important to bear in mind that being a mindful traveller is more than just being aware of your surroundings, it’s showing awareness.  Be respectful of local customs and practice gratitude everywhere you go.  Remember that whatever you take from travelling, it’s important to give too.

#8 Leave only footprints

If you thought mindful travelling was all about individual wellbeing, think again!  The implications could – quite literally – be global.

One of the perks of increasing our mindfulness is that the more people begin to appreciate their surroundings, the more it encourages responsible travelling.  The more responsible we become, the better the impact on the environment.

Travelling as it stands inevitably leaves its mark. There’s a long way to go to counteract the impact air travel has on our carbon footprints.  While we’re not even close to offsetting this yet, the science is beginning to turn, and efforts are being established.  We can all play our part in becoming greener in our adventures.  For a few simple tips to help get you started, check out my recent articles:

10 easy tips to help you travel greener

10 must-have eco-friendly toiletries that belong in your suitcase

By adopting some of these simple techniques, you can actively play your part in showing your appreciation for the world around you.  Happy minds = happy hearts.

Well, there you go.  A few of my musings on mindfulness and what it means to be a mindful traveller.  We all find our own ways to bring calmness into our worlds, so please keep in mind that these are just suggestions that I’ve picked up through my adventures over the years.  If you’d like to talk more about the link between travel and mental health, or you’re having a difficult time and don’t quite know where to turn, please drop me a line.  It’s important to keep the conversation going, and to find ways we can all enjoy and manage the experience of living in the present.  Turns out there really is no time quite like it.

Suggested reading: 

The Untethered Soul, Michael A. Singer

Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well , Mark Wiking





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