Hannah McKinlay: How to practice mindfulness while traveling

One stop on the list of many tourists in London is Abbey Road, where they stride across the famous crosswalk in a single file line to recreate The Beatles 1969 album cover. Among these tourists was the Miranda family of four enthusiastic travelers from Barcelona. 

Sandra Miranda, the mother of the family, described their process of researching the sites they want to visit in order to gain as much from their travels as possible. She emphasized the importance of living in the moment.

“Sometimes when the day is over, we haven’t made all the visits we wanted, but we enjoyed each moment,” Miranda said. 

This begs the question: how does one “enjoy each moment” while traveling? For me, the answer has been mindfulness. 

According to Breathworks, mindfulness is a form of meditation rooted in Buddhist philosophy that has been scientifically proven to reduce psychological distress. Breathworks defines mindfulness as “a special kind of awareness meaning you can be fully ‘awake’ to life in each present moment; fully alive and vibrant.” 

When social worker and therapist Tonya Miller teaches mindfulness to her clients, she tells them to bring their attention to each of the five senses, singling out individual things they can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. She says this method is meant to ground oneself in reality.

As I’ve practiced this technique, I’ve thought of it as a detailed consideration of my environment and how I interact with it. The moments in which I’m truly mindful tend to stick in my mind as fond, peaceful memories. In a way, I can choose to make a moment last long in my recollection— I can take mental pictures.

This practice has been especially useful when I travel, when I have rare opportunities and want to soak up as much of my surroundings as possible. 

Here are some of the mental pictures I’ve taken:

A Demonstration in New York

When The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, hundreds of people gathered in Washington Square Park to protest. As I moved slowly with the crowd, I talked to some of the people around me: a young woman who worked at an abortion clinic, two women in their 70s who had fought to legalize abortion in their day, a woman whose sign read “I’m alive because of an abortion.”

When the excitement of being around so many people began to fade into an understanding of the gravity of the occasion, I started to feel overwhelmed. To ground myself amongst the chaos, I decided to be mindful. 

Instead of listening to the cacophony of voices, I zoned in on individual conversations. I paid attention to the pace of my breath and the force of the pavement on the soles of my feet. I looked above the sea of heads and took a mental picture of the Washington Square Arch against the gray sky.

Lightning in Siena

As two friends and I lay out on the slanted Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, gazing up at the single slim tower standing tall against the night sky, the sublimity of the moment urged me to turn on my mental video camera once again. 

With my head propped up by a claw clip on the cobblestone, I watched flashes of white spread across the blackness; occasionally, a bolt would strike and elicit oos and awes from everyone on the plaza. 

I noticed a mild breeze rolling over my body, and soon the sensation of cool raindrops exploding across my skin. When the droplets became more frequent and we started to hear the shouts and footsteps of others running for shelter, we decided it was time to head back to the hotel. 

We scurried to one of the tunnels between the buildings that outlined the plaza, where we weaved through a crowd of people. There seemed to be a giddy energy pulsing through all of us and bouncing off the tunnel walls– or maybe it was just the bass of the music blasting from someone’s boom box.

When we reached the edge, we stood with wet hair glued to our cheeks and watched sheets of rain fall in the glow of a street light. On the count of three, we held hands and ran into the storm, screaming and laughing the whole way home. 

A River in Verona

I was standing knee-deep in cool, turquoise blue water with pants rolled up to my thighs. With a clear, sunny sky over my head and a dusty red castle bridge as my background, I knew I needed to capture this scene too. 

So I dipped my fingers into the water and drummed my fingers lightly on my stomach to add yet another tactile sensation to the moment, to be even more present. I can still feel the cold taps waking up my skin.

It was nearly silent, except for the sound of the river gently trickling by.

Traveling often brings once-in-a-lifetime moments that cameras simply can’t do justice. Practicing mindfulness can make these moments even more extraordinary and capture them in the memory.

Categories: Europe Travel, Opinion, Personal Blogs

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