Going on ‘holiday’ via mindfulness

One of the losses many people have been feeling most keenly since the start of the COVID pandemic has been that of overseas, or at times even interstate, holidays. Unable to hop on a plane and escape to a different place, we may start to feel trapped in the humdrum of home and work and yearn for a change of scene to reignite the spark in ourselves and our lives.

The fact that a break from the regular is healthy for us has been honoured by traditions and customs throughout the ages and around the world. Before community and religion declined in significance in the West, ‘special times’ like ‘holy days,’ public ceremonies, festivals and celebrations, ritual fasts, pilgrimages, and retreats frequently interrupted normal life with ‘extra-ordinary’ experiences, from which people returned to their everyday routines not only refreshed but ideally also more at peace with themselves and reconnected with their group and the dimension of the sacred that gave their lives meaning.

Today, holidays away from home fulfil for many people some of the functions that those ‘special times’ had in the past. Allowing ourselves to relax and do new things, we may reunite with normally neglected parts of ourselves; travelling with our partner, family, or friends can revitalise and strengthen our bonds; and a trip to a beautiful location in nature is an opportunity to open up to a sense of awe and rediscover our love and reverence for the life we are a part of.

So it’s understandable that current travel restrictions have left many people feeling deprived of an important element of their lives. However, the good news is that we can bring aspects of holidays into our everyday lives by practising mindfulness. Indeed, when we look more closely, we will find that, fundamentally, what made our favourite holidays such special times is the fact that we were much more mindful during those ‘most precious weeks of the year.’

That’s because holidays foster a mindful state that has been called ‘being mode.’ In our society, we spend most of the time in ‘doing mode,’ which is characterised by goal orientation, thinking and problem solving, a focus on getting from ‘here’ to ‘there.’ When in doing mode, we are mostly focused on the past or the future and live in our heads, as our minds busily analyse, evaluate, compare, and plan in order to close the gap between where we are (for example, facing an empty fridge or wanting a promotion) and where we want to be (choosing goodies from a well stocked fridge; sitting in the corner office). In the doing state, our sympathetic nerves are revved up and we narrowly focus only on what is directly relevant to our goals. Rushing to finish a report on time, or talking on the phone with a difficult client, we don’t notice that we are dehydrated or hunched over, and we don’t see that the peace lily on our colleague’s desk has produced a flower.

Even though necessary and useful a lot of the time, doing mode with its sympathetic arousal needs to be balanced by being mode, or we suffer a decline in our physical and psychological wellbeing. So how do we access being mode? The quickest way is to pause and pay mindful attention to our senses. When we open our focus to become aware of sounds and what we see around us, when we allow ourselves to notice tastes, smells, and what we feel on our skin and inside, we reconnect with our bodies and activate the parasympathetic part of our nervous system, which is responsible for ‘rest and digest’ processes, cell maintenance and repair.

But even though it’s highly beneficial for our mental and physical health, paying attention to our physical experience from moment to moment is something we tend to reserve for the holidays. Soaking in an outdoor onsen surrounded by early morning forest greenery and mossy rocks, we are far more likely to allow ourselves to become vividly aware of our sense impressions – the warmth and sense of relaxation throughout the body, the gentle sloshing in the silence when we move, and the unfamiliar bird calls coming from the trees – than when we take a hurried shower at home while mentally going over the presentation we are about to give, or planning the dinner menu for Saturday.

This is why the memories of our favourite holidays are so vibrant – we were really present in those moments, which is usually not the case during our ‘normal’ life. When we step out after dinner to drop the garbage in the bin, the sudden impact of the sharp air on our warm body, the thin sliver of the moon high above, bright and precise against the black winter sky, the gleam of the streetlight sliding across the surface of a parked car as we pass it, and the intricate pattern of shadows on the pavement will be no more than a barely noticed backdrop, if we’re composing an email in our head or rehashing a conversation.

This kind of everyday absent-mindedness is partly due to our species’ survival oriented evolutionary past, which equipped us with a brain that tends to pretty much ignore our surroundings, even our bodies, in the absence of novelty, urgent needs, or signs of danger. Being in a new place and doing something different, however, brings our attention back to the moment. There’s so much to explore and discover when we’re travelling, so many new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes! And we also move more, and perhaps move in new ways, when we are on holiday. Snorkelling and surfing, hiking, climbing, skiing, or simply doing a lot of walking are all activities that tend to keep us absorbed in the moment. We feel alive and animated – and perhaps dread returning to our ordinary life back home.

But we are not condemned to dullness and lethargy when we are in our usual surroundings, and we don’t have to wait for the next holiday to experience novelty. If art makes the familiar strange (Viktor Shklovsky), so does mindfulness. Paying attention to our senses moment by moment allows us to find newness in the same old, same old. If we approach the present as a place we’ve never been to before, we are free to get curious again. This fresh inquisitiveness will transform our experience of the things that our brain dismisses as not deserving our full attention since we already ‘know’ them. The daily shower, the walk to the café, our regular meals, contact with the people we see every day – each of these moments has never happened before and is unique, complex, and rich, if, instead of tuning out, we bring mindful attention to them.

So if everyday life seems less ‘special’ than our holidays, it’s not just because of our brains’ tendency to withdraw attention from our physical experience if there’s no urgency to stay alert. As everyone knows who’s ever suffered from the ‘holiday blues,’ just being in a new place and doing ‘fun’ things does not guarantee happiness or greater attention to the present. What makes moments special is also the way we approach them. How would our lunch taste, for example, if we put the phone away and started paying as much attention to every bite as we would if we were sitting at a small table outside a family run café on the island of Ortigia, having the traditional Sicilian meal of Caponata for the first time? By not paying attention to the moments of our everyday lives because they are just ‘ordinary’ we may actually prevent them from being special.

Without being fully conscious of it, we rank the moments of our lives and typically regard only those at the top of our hierarchy (like the ‘most precious weeks of the year’) as worthy of our attention, while dismissing large chunks of our time as not deserving any attention at all. In fact, we treat a lot of moments as best to be ignored. Standing at a traffic light in a cold drizzle, feeling bloated after a disappointing lunch, trucks and buses thundering past, and an afternoon full of boring chores ahead – we might not want to be present to that.

But the practice of mindfulness challenges this attitude. Everything the Buddha taught is concerned with respect for life, says meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg. Yet, as he points out, we usually pay respect in the form of attention only to some things but not to others. We may be fully switched on during an important meeting at work, but don’t listen when our kids tell us something – or vice versa; we may give our full attention to a music video, but don’t hear the birds when we walk to the station; and while we relish our good moods, we tend to flee from unhappy mind states straight into costly distractions. This habit of escaping from our experience makes us miss a large part of our lives. However, the practice of mindfulness reminds us that ‘everything is worthy of our attention. The ant walking across the floor. The piece of fruit you’re eating. Each breath. These things are our lives, moment by moment. If we don’t notice them, we don’t make contact with the full vividness of life.’

If we tend to be more tuned in to the rich and detailed vividness of life while we are on holiday this is not just because we pay greater attention but also because of the way we pay attention while travelling. Not all holiday moments are wonderful, but once we’ve entered a more relaxed state of body and mind our judgemental attitude tends to soften and our tolerance level goes up. As a result, we become more interested and curious and willing to stay present even to experiences that, at home, would’ve pushed our ‘Escape’ or ‘Turn away’ buttons. In other words, while on holiday, we often adopt more of another important element of mindfulness – a nonjudgmental or accepting attitude.

For example, rather than swearing and hating what is happening when we get completely soaked in a sudden downpour in Nadi, Fiji, we may feel excited and alive, as we notice the smells and sounds of the rain all around us, the reflections in puddles, the sight of people running, the sensation of water trickling down our back, and the funny feeling of our toes squelching in wet sandals. And if you and your friend arrive in Lucerne too late for the last connecting train to Grindelwald, and your tight budget won’t allow for an unplanned stay in a Swiss hotel, you may experience this as part of the great adventure of travelling, rather than as a total disaster. So instead of sulking till the morning, you stay open and curious and, as a result, have a memorable time full of fascinating sights, sounds, and experiences as you roam Lucerne’s streets and forest at night.

Of course it’s easier to bring this kind of curiosity and openness to experience and even unpleasant events while travelling. Not having to work through to-do lists and meet deadlines means we can take things like getting soaked or missing a train more comfortably in our stride. Being stuck in a queue in the supermarket and finding ourselves next to the onion armpits of a burly guy in a singlet who keeps inching closer, while our eardrums are being pierced by the outraged screams of toddler who dropped his lolly, feels very different when we’ve just spent a leisurely afternoon exploring London’s Kew Gardens, than if we’ve had one of those days when our work kept being interrupted, we spent the lunch break holding the line of our telco, and our boss reprimanded us for something that wasn’t even our fault. If we are relaxed, we may even see something funny in those moments in the queue, instead of experiencing them as the last straw.

Fortunately, we don’t need to wait till we are on vacation before we can access being mode. We can do it anywhere and anytime. And if we consciously switch from doing mode to being mode by paying close attention to our sensory experience, opening up to the moment just as it is, and accepting it as part of the journey, we can create ‘holiday moments’ right in the turbulence of our regular days. Practising mindfulness won’t stop the noise, end lockdown, extend the deadline, or make the queue move faster, but it will allow us to meet difficult or unpleasant moments with greater calm. It will also add an abundance of pleasant and interesting moments to our lives that we would never have experienced otherwise. And as we nourish and refresh our body and mind throughout our ordinary days with ‘holiday’ moments by taking a break, slowing down, and being curious about what is here, we may discover behind the veil of familiarity a whole new world of wonder.

© Gesa Brennan 2021