During a recent trip I took to Portugal, there was a moment when my body was sitting in a park in Cascais, but my mind wasn’t present at all. Ducks paddled on a pond in front of me, children’s laughter echoed from a nearby playground, and a warm breeze drifted through the trees, but I wasn’t aware of any of it. Instead, I was staring at my phone—practicing the complete opposite of mindful travel.
If you’ve ever been similarly distracted while on vacation—checking your email, worrying about catching a flight, rushing through one activity in your hurry to get to another—you, too, might benefit from these mindfulness tips from an expert.
What Is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is paying attention to our present-moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is,” says Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Centre. “[It’s] the capacity of our mind to not be lost in the past or future, but to be more present, to be less reactive.”
While most people associate mindfulness with meditation, it can be as simple as catching yourself when you’re zoning out and redirecting your focus onto the here and now.
Winston says a mindful traveler is receptive and curious, someone “who’s respectful of the culture, who are not trying to impose their own culture, and who’s willing to view the experience through a beginner’s eyes rather than coming into it with expectations.”
The Benefits of Mindful Travel
Mindful travel involves being completely present for the experiences you’re having in a new place—without distracting yourself with thoughts about what might be happening back at the office or where you’re going to eat dinner later that day. By devoting your full attention to each travel experience as it happens, “you appreciate the moment more,” says Winston. “Mindfulness helps us be more open to our senses and more open to our inner and outer experience instead of living on autopilot.”
Winston notes that this benefit of mindful travel often happens naturally, because being in a new place jolt you out of your ordinary routine and puts you into unfamiliar situations that require more focus and attention.
The other primary advantage of mindful travel, says Winston, is less instinctive: “Regulating our emotions—particularly emotions like anxiety that comes up a lot when we travel. … When your thoughts get caught up in fear or worry—’What if we can’t find our hotel?’—you can recognise that it’s just a thought and you don’t have to take it so seriously. You can then come back to the present moment, where you’re usually okay. Feel your feet on the ground and come into the present, and you won’t get carried away by thoughts that can sabotage a good experience.”
Studies have shown mindfulness to be effective in reducing stress, improving focus, and lessening emotional reactivity, according to the American Psychological Association—all of which can contribute to a more relaxing and rewarding trip.
Tips for Mindful Travel
Winston recommends using the acronym “STOP” to remind yourself to be mindful. The S stands for “stop,” while T stands for “take a breath.” O stands for “observe,” which involves taking inventory of both your inner and outer experience, and P stands for “proceed with more mindfulness.” Though the whole process takes only a moment, it’s an easy way to get yourself out of your head and into the concrete reality of your present experience.
Rushing from one tourist attraction to the next makes it difficult to focus on your experience of each one. “Slowing down is a big piece of being more mindful as a traveler,” says Winston. “Ask yourself: How can I hold this [experience] with awareness as opposed to with a jaded attitude?” Allow a little breathing room in your itinerary to appreciate each activity.
This doesn’t only apply to sightseeing. Eating is one of travel’s truest pleasures, so try not to rush through meals on the road; instead, take time to savour the flavours and observe the locals sitting around you.
Use Your Senses
One way to ground yourself in the present is to focus not on what you’re thinking but on what you’re experiencing with all five senses: the sound of voices speaking a foreign language, the glimmer of sunshine off the ocean, the smell of salty air, the feeling of cobblestones beneath your shoes, the taste of a spicy curry. These sense impressions can linger as memories long after your trip is over.
Put Down Your Phone
In your hurry to snap photos and document your vacation on Facebook or Instagram, you might be missing out on the experience itself. Sure, take a picture or two, but then put down your phone and simply soak up that scenic view or colourful market for a few minutes.
Similarly, don’t let the incessant chimes of text messages or app alerts distract you from your vacation. Turn off all but the most important notifications during your trip, and give yourself permission to take longer to respond than you normally would at home.
Keep a Journal
Some travellers find that the daily act of writing in a mindful travel journal helps them tune into their surroundings in a more meaningful way. That might mean bringing a small notebook with you to jot little notes during the day or writing about your favourite experiences each night before bed.
Start Practicing Mindfulness at Home
You’ll find it easier to practice mindful travel when you’ve already got a foundation of mindful thinking in your everyday life. One of the best ways to practice mindfulness is through daily meditation, which you can do both at home and on the road.
UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Centre offers free guided meditations in English and Spanish, ranging from 3 to 19 minutes, as well as mindfulness podcasts and videos. The free mindfulness-based stress reduction course from Palouse Mindfulness is an eight-week introduction to mindfulness that includes readings, video lectures, meditations, and yoga routines.
There are also plenty of mindfulness and meditation apps you can download on your phone. A few of the most popular include Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace. For a more in-depth look, consider books such as Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life or Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.
Try a Mindfulness Retreat
For the ultimate in mindful travel, consider spending a few days at a retreat centre where you can focus on meditation and cultivating deeper awareness. For options in France, Thailand, Hawaii, and beyond, see this list of the world’s best meditation retreats.