“Mindfulness” is perhaps the buzzword of 2013, having been applied—and reapplied—to medicine, education, psychology, corporate culture, and our collective relationship to food. It’s in danger of losing any meaning it might have had back when it was a simple spiritual concept, batted about by individual practitioners of yoga or meditation, or just regular folks trying to dial down the noise in their lives.
Mindfulness can be, if taken seriously—but not too seriously—applied to travel as well. The way we approach visiting new places, physically getting to them, and the experience of intersecting with otherness, speak volumes about who we are as travelers. Here are a few suggestions to consider for revising next next year’s travel routines:
- Do your homework. If “the world is too much with us” (as the Romantic poet Wordsworth posited), which speaks to the dichotomy between nature and the constructed artifacts that surround us, then the contemporary application of this argument is to immerse yourself fully in the natural and cultural history of your destination, which can speak as much to who contemporary people and places are as history and politics. The other stuff—transportation, best restaurants and hotels, shopping—will iron itself out. Because the goal is to really to experience your destination with all your senses, not just to see it from a distance.
- Don’t forget to breathe. There’s a reason it’s a cliché: From the rigors of travel on the body, to the psychological effects (both positive and negative) of encountering the heretofore unseen, traveling is stressful. Breathing—which, of course, you’re doing—can become shallow and compressed, and this affects your entire body—muscles, joints, circulation, everything. Conscious breathing works on the autonomic nervous system, which operates independent of consciousness, to help regulate blood pressure, digestion, and even emotions. Here are three conscious breathing techniques, discussed by Dr. Andrew Weil, to get you started.
- Hire a local guide. It’s great to take a specialized architecture tour, or to enlist an expert in local food traditions, to put you on the fast-track to insider status at your destination. But often, a longtime resident with deep general knowledge of his or her home can prove more rewarding, especially in places where you are an obvious outsider or have no truck with the language. Finding the right guide can be challenging, but the Internet-at-large is probably your best resource. Spend some time researching, perusing discussion boards about successful experiences with local guides. Chambers of Commerce and guidebooks can be helpful, but other travelers who’ve gone before you can provide the kind of detail you need to choose the best guide for your trip.
- Embrace the idea that you don’t have to see everything. We once hired a driver to take us about 100 miles, from Chengdu to Leshan, in China’s Sichuan province, to see the biggest carved-stone Buddha in the world. As we entered the city, we ran in to a tofu-maker setting up his stall to sell his famous ma po tofu (soft bean curd with spicy, fermented chilli sauce), and the friend who was our fearless—and fluent—leader, struck up a conversation with him. Next thing we knew, we were walking up a small mountain to the man’s house, where we spent the day making tofu with his family, starting with pulverizing the soaked soybeans with a giant, old stone grinder. Am I sorry I didn’t see the giant Buddha? I was, for about five minutes. Then, I realized that, unbeknownst to me, making tofu is what we’d actually come to do.
- Prepare for your return as carefully as your departure. This is the least sexy of the resolutions on this list, and in some ways the most difficult, as it involves setting the stage for the return of your exhausted, overwhelmed self, the one who has to go back to work soon, the one you don’t want to think about when you’re on your way to some exotic place. Making the transition back to daily life deserves a little padding. If possible, save enough time at the end of your vacation to recover from jet lag, and return to your home time zone. Prior to your departure, take the time to attend to the smallest details that will make the difference between comfort and misery on your return. For me, that means making sure I have coffee beans and unsweetened, condensed milk (which, unlike fresh milk, won’t spoil during a long trip) in the pantry, and clean sheets on the bed. Taking the extra time to properly welcome yourself home allows you to use your energy to reflect on your experience, take it fully in, and make it last.