How to travel mindfully and learn to enjoy the view

For Allison Green, travel is a form of exposure therapy – with each repeated episode of dealing with the present, she is finally learning to enjoy being in the moment.

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Confession time: I used to be obsessed with trying to control the future. Whether it was trying to shape the trajectory of a relationship to fit a mould it was never meant to or planning the itinerary of an Instagram-perfect vacation down to the minute, I was fixated on every detail within my control.

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Focusing on the future so much distracted me from a present I wasn’t comfortable with. Micromanaging the minutiae of my life allowed me to temporarily exit the present to exist in a hypothetical future.

Tierra Atacama Hotel

The future was a place where nothing could hurt me. Living in the future also allowed me to destroy the past: to erase pain, to ignore the need for forgiveness, to avoid doing constructive work on myself to heal.

But while living in the future can save you from pain, it can also rob you of joy. After all, the only moment we can experience joy is in the present: neither the past nor the future hold that for any of us.

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How does travel push us out of our comfort zones?

Travel – especially if you’re travelling solo – forces you to live in the present. When you’re in a foreign land, eating food you’ve never tasted, trying to make out words you’ve never heard before… there’s absolutely no way you can plan for that. Sure, you can learn a few words of the local language. Maybe you’ll buy a guidebook and map out a few sights you’re dead-set on seeing. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few recommendations from a friend or a local to point you in the right direction.

But there will be a moment when you’re standing in the middle of a city you don’t know, with no idea where to go, what to see, where to eat, or what’s next. For anxious people, losing the ability to plan ahead can be terrifying. I’ve certainly had my fair share of travel-induced meltdowns.

But somewhere along the way, I realised that I was becoming more unflappable. Things that would once have sent me into a downward spiral of angst and anxiety became like mild rain instead of a torrential downpour: annoying, but not the end of the world.

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It dawned on me that for me, travel was a form of exposure therapy when it came to my fear of living in the present. For those unfamiliar, exposure therapy is the idea that a fear can be overcome through repeated safe exposures to the feared object or idea.

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body
Anthony Bourdain

The classic example is someone who has a deathly fear of spiders. First, perhaps they’ll talk about spiders with their therapist, or see pictures or videos of them. Once the arachnophobe is comfortable with that, then the next step is to share a room with the spider: first 10 feet away, then 7, then 5, then right next to them.

The idea is is to conquer fear bit by bit, by showing that the perception of the fear is far worse than the fear itself. And much like the hypothetical spider in the room, over years of travel, I too began to conquer my fears, primarily my fear of not being able to control the future.

Solving your own problems can be an adventure

As I travelled, I got used to sharing a room with unpredictability. At first I squirmed as any perceived disaster entered the room. Finally, I could breathe even when that theoretical disaster stood 10 feet away, then 7, then 5. Eventually, I was able to look the unknowable present square in the eye. I was no longer afraid.

Travel taught me that things not going as planned was not the disaster I imagined it to be. Quite the opposite, in fact: each failure became an opportunity to break out of my future-oriented mindset and experience the present.

It helped that each perceived disaster was not nearly as catastrophic as I imagined it to be. Once, I was stranded in Albania with an Australian couple in the middle of a village market that we were told was also a bus stop. Ominous storm clouds were edging the horizon, and I was anxious to make my way over the border to Kosovo before it unleashed its fury.

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An hour passed and no bus came. Old me would have had a panic attack. Old me would have gotten angry with herself for not having planned better. Old me would have collapsed into a pile of tears. New me saw it was an opportunity.

Through the therapeutic process of trying, failing, and repeating, as I stood in that foul-smelling market waiting for a non-existent bus I didn’t cry, wail, or weep. I improvised. The Australian couple I had met the day before and I rigged up a little sign and hitchhiked our way across the border to Kosovo.

Had this never happened, I wouldn’t have got to taste a traditional corn cake from the tiny town of Milot. I would never have learned about the guys who picked us up, who drove 300 kilometres to Tirana and back in a single day, multiple times a week, to attend college. I would never have appreciated the masterful way the young man drove his Audi through the mountains of Albania, hugging each curve with the knowledge of a driver who’s done this many, many times before.

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Another time, two other newly-minted travel companions and I arrived at our Airbnb in the small market town of Chichicastenango, Guatemala. One problem: our host was nowhere to be found. After an hour or so of waiting around, we met our next-door neighbours, who kindly let us borrow their WiFi so we could contact our host.

That chance encounter turned into a personal tour of an off-the-radar museum, a mini-lesson on the religion of the Mayas, an impromptu potluck, and a singalong over some enormous beers into the chilly Guatemalan night.

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Yes, I’ve been saved from disaster countless times –not always in the deus ex machina of the kindly stranger. Often, I had to pick up the pieces all by myself and figure out what was going on. I had to stop the prickle of tears and find my way, decipher a foreign menu, or flub my way through interactions in a creole of broken languages.

Things not going as planned are detours, not catastrophes

Bad things did happen along the way: an over-friendly Berber in the Sahara Desert, the time I managed to lose both my debit card and my iPhone on the same island in the span of 48 hours, days when despite my best efforts all I wanted to do was sit in bed and have a good cry.

But each failure taught me the same lesson, over and over again. The only thing you have the power to change is the present moment. We can’t control what happens to us: what we can control is how we react to it. Things not going as planned are detours, not catastrophes. The kindest thing we can do for ourselves is enjoy the ride.

Photos by Allison Green

How do I stay in the moment while travelling?

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Less is more

Drop one tourist attraction off your list. Instead, use that time to sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and observe the people around you. Again, do your best to not use your phone as a crutch – leave it at home or in your bag and practice being fully present and observant.

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No cameras please

Stop trying to Instagram everything. Challenge yourself to leave your phone behind from time to time. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t document every moment of your travels, and you’ll stop feeling pressure to always get the perfect photo so that you can properly enjoy the moment.

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Great start to the day

Meditate for 10 minutes in the morning – even while travelling. Apps like Headspace and Calm can help; guided meditations are also available on Spotify. A simple 10-minute check in with yourself can resonate throughout the rest of the day and remind you to be present so you can get the most out of your travels. If you’re not into meditation, making time for yoga or journalling can have a similar effect.

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Take it all in

Look up, not forward. We can get so distracted by what’s going on around us – people rushing down the street, chaotic cars, activity everywhere – it mirrors and creates a certain chaos in our heads, allowing us to hide in our thoughts rather than experience the moment. Instead, look up. Look up at the roofs of churches you’ve never seen before, the architectural style of a foreign city, the way even clouds look different in a foreign sky. Appreciate the difference and allow it to help you re-enter the present.

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Don’t be shy

Go out of your way to make connections with others while travelling. Whether it’s starting a conversation in a bar with a stranger, chatting with people on a walking tour, or interacting with some locals, nothing is more powerful than human connection when it comes to making you live in the moment.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 3. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.

In The Moment Magazine issue 3