If you have spent any time in therapy, or if you’ve read any self-help books in the last decade or so, you’ve probably come across the word “mindfulness.” It’s a fairly simple concept: basically, “mindfulness” is the practice of staying focused on the present moment. It’s useful in combating mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, or addiction because those illnesses are often fed by the mind’s tendency to fixate on problems or to unconsciously wander in the direction of worry and stress.
The concept is Buddhist in origin but has exploded in the past several decades because of its practical benefits. Too many of us are in the habit of letting life slip us by while we get lost in our heads, and mindfulness is an extraordinarily simple practice to keep ourselves focused on our actual lives and experiences.
2017 was a huge year for the travel industry — consumers these days often want “experiences, not things,” and that, combined with some pretty crazy cheap flights, has meant that more people are traveling than ever before. But choosing an experience over a thing can still be just another form of consumption. It can still leave you feeling unsatisfied and empty inside. As more people travel, more will realize — wherever you go, there you are. You can’t escape yourself. Which is why in the next few years, “mindful travel” will become a much bigger deal.
What would mindful travel look like?
When I was on my study abroad program, I took a poetry class. I am not a poet, but I figured that, since I wanted to be a writer, I should try things that were out of my comfort zone. Since we were abroad, our teacher suggested that the next time we were on a day trip somewhere, we should find a place that was quiet to sit with our notebooks, and then describe what we were feeling with all five senses.
The reason, he said, was that we could not write about an experience that we weren’t present during. He didn’t call what we were doing “mindfulness,” but that’s what it was — we simply had to take notice of what was happening around us by putting our full attention on the present moment.
My poetry, for the record, was still complete garbage. But my writing improved. Travel writing relies heavily on setting, and I hadn’t realized until then just how little I focused on the world around me when I went somewhere. I was more often concerned with what I was going to do next, with whether I was having a good enough time, or with whether the cab driver was trying to scam me. The sensory practice forced me to put a stop to all that.
I don’t write poetry anymore, but I’ve remembered the lesson about the senses and, when I go someplace new, I try to notice what my senses are picking up on, what I’m feeling, and what’s going on around me. It has made travel much more memorable and enjoyable.
Why do we need mindful travel?
Many people of my generation (the dreaded millennials) have grown up seeing that materialism has not helped our parents’ generation in living happier, more fulfilled lives. There is no point at which a materialist ever has enough. And so, when I left home, I decided that my life wasn’t going to be spent acquiring things, but that, instead, it was going to be spent acquiring experiences. This, I figured, would make me a happier, more fulfilled person.
But that didn’t pan out. Travel did not solve all of my problems. If I didn’t like who I was, and then decided to go to a new country to try and chase away that feeling, I would quickly find that I was still the same person I didn’t like, only in a new setting.
What I hadn’t realized, as a young man, was that acquiring experiences instead of things was still a form of empty consumerism. I could go to all 200+ countries and still hate myself, just as I could make a billion dollars and still hate myself. When you eat a sandwich, it doesn’t mean you’ll never be hungry again, and when you do something that makes you happy, it does not mean that happiness will be staying permanently.
When we watched our parents growing up, we saw that new shiny things did not fix our parents, and when our kids watch us, they will see that visiting new exotic places did not fix us. At that point, they’ll have to ask themselves — is it possible that the problem it isn’t with what we’re consuming, but with consumption itself?
Mindfulness is the healthiest way out of that trap. It emphasizes non-attachment, and it does not put a premium on some emotions (like happiness) over others (like sadness). Travel will still be a part of mindful lives, but it will be slower, more thoughtful, and more fully lived. If we want to break the cycle, then mindful travel is the future.