I really struggle to live in the present moment. I notice that my mind is often preoccupied with either the past or the future, and often stressing about things that are outside of my control. If you’re like me, you will often do things on autopilot and never really pay attention to the details of your actions. You will forget entire sections of your day, because your brain was focused on things outside of the present moment. This is why mindfulness is so important, and I find especially that incorporating mindfulness in travel is essential.
Travel is a multi-sensory experience that can excite, overwhelm, stress, delight, and fill you with wonder. However, if you don’t devote energy to being purposely mindful and reflective on the experiences you are having, then it is easy to lose them in the sieve of memory.
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” (Source)
I struggle with being mindful because of my mental illness, which is always trying to make my brain stress about impending doom, ideas of failure, or worrying about past events that have traumatised me in some way. Depression in particular makes it hard to be mindful, because it suspends me in a state of feeling useless and like time is stretching endlessly in front of me on a road that leads only to failure and misery.
I know that others struggle to be mindful because we are bombarded by constant distraction during the day. Social media is one of the main enemies of mindfulness. Constant validation from ‘likes’ on Facebook, checking your phone constantly for updates on your friends, and the ability to be contacted at any moment suspend you in a state of distraction . I often flick between social media sites when I am in a manic state and can’t concentrate on anything in the present moment.
My therapy teaches that there are 3 ways to be mindful: through observing, describing, or participating in a present activity. Observing involves sitting in a situation and looking at the things around you without making judgments on what you see. Describing is about making lists of characteristics, often of emotions, without passing judgment on them. Participating is about engaging in an activity without letting your mind wander to other thoughts.
Focus on taking fewer photos.
Although photos are a great way to make lasting memories, they also take you out of living in the moment by putting you behind a camera. By focusing on aesthetics, angles, and wondering how you are going to show things on social media, you are not involved in the moment which you are living in.
I took this to the extreme in Vietnam, and only took 25 photos for the entire 3 weeks that I was there. I regret that in some ways, because it means that I don’t have visual evidence to supplement my memory. However, it did mean that when I encountered something interesting or beautiful, I wasn’t thinking about how to capture it on my camera.
You should absolutely still take photos, but also take time to put your camera away and just enjoy the sensory experience in front of you. Focus on visual, aural, tactile, and smell-based experiences to fully appreciate the moment.
Waterfalls are especially good for this. You can sit down next to it and as well as the visual experience, focus on the feeling of the spray on your skin and the sound of the water thundering into the river. You can find an inner feeling of peace by submitting completely to the experience of the waterfall.
Walk to your destination instead of taking a bus or taxi.
Although taking transportation can be more convenient, it is not a very mindful way of getting around. It allows you to sit back and let the landscape just fly by you, while you are free to focus your attention on anything else.
Although it’s not feasible in every situation, walking is a great way to engage with the present moment and with your surroundings. While you are walking, take time to notice all the details of the landscape around you, and observe them without judgement or comparing them to things back home. Focus on the way your body feels as it exerts itself over the terrain, and what emotions arise as you look at the sights around you.
Go out for a meal alone and savour the experience.
I used to be extremely anxious about eating alone in restaurants. I worried that other people were judging me, or thought that I was a lonely loser. However, I have come to love eating alone, and feel like it is the time when I most enjoy my meal.
Eating with new friends is great, but it distracts from the sensory experience of the meal. You are expending energy on entertaining another person, and may feel pressure to keep up constant conversation. This means that the process of eating can often take a back seat to the social experience.
Go out for a meal alone, and focus on the mindfulness of the culinary experience. Order the food that appeals to you the most, and admire it visually before consuming. Don’t use your phone or read during the meal, and focus instead on the smells and flavours of the food. Truly appreciate every aspect of the meal, and live in the moment of eating.
Engage in a physical activity and dedicate all of your concentration to it.
Participating with mindfulness is one of the easiest ways for me to remain in the present moment. I notice that if I am focusing on the way that my body is interacting with its environment, then I am less likely to get caught up in negative thoughts.
A dance class or going out dancing in a club are really effective ways to participate mindfully. Focus on the way that your body moves, and the emotion that arises from the music. Focus on executing the steps properly, and don’t become judgmental of your own abilities. Try not to be self conscious of your perceived abilities, and just enjoy the rhythm of the dance.
Engaging in adventurous activities like whitewater rafting, paragliding, or rock-climbing can also be effective ways to participate with mindfulness. When your brain is focused on the strain of your muscles, the rush of adrenaline from the risk of danger, or the feeling of accomplishment from crossing off a bucket list activity, it leaves little room to think about what will happen in the future. Throw yourself fully into the activity and focus on the way that it feels inside of your body.
Use a real map instead of Google Maps.
Google Maps and Maps.me have honestly saved my life on various occasions. They have shown me the way back to my accommodation when I am completely lost, and I would never suggest completely forsaking them. But sometimes it’s just a little too easy to have the route completely laid out for you.
Reading and following a real map allows you to fully engage in the navigation experience and have to problem solve on the go. It forces you to pay attention to your surroundings and the way that different streets and landmarks intersect. It forces you to read street signs and constantly re-orient yourself on the map.
Using a map isn’t always a plausible idea, and sometimes it is safer and easier to just use Google Maps. But when you have an opportunity, take the time to engage mindfully with the experience of navigation and find the destination manually.
Mindfulness is all about practise.
The very nature of mindfulness is that you won’t be good at it at first. The human brain is constantly trying to process a variety of different emotions and experiences, and hence it is extremely difficult to remain grounded in the present moment. No one is perfect at being mindful when they start out, and it takes constant practise to even be mindful for a few minutes at a time.
Every time you pull your attention back to the present moment and focus on it, you are training your brain to be more mindful and present. The process in itself is how you can improve your quality of life and learn to live more in the present.
What strategies do you use to incorporate mindfulness into travel and you everyday life?