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How To Be a Mindful (Not Mindless) Traveler

The following is adapted from David Axelrod’s Get Away!

Most travelers are mindless, not mindful. Mindless travelers are pillagers of places. Think of the boorish, cliche depiction of a cruise ship tourist: they storm in, get their angles just right, snap their pics, and leave. They try on cultures like outfits to buy and wear once, without taking the tags off, only to return later for a full refund. They want new experiences but only if those experiences require neither effort nor further education.

Better to be mindful.

Mindful travelers give more than they take. They move through the world as ambassadors rather than pirates. They reflect on why they’re going instead of obsessing about where they’re going. They prepare and educate themselves about their destination’s culture and customs and make intentional choices about how to interact with local people and inhabit foreign spaces.

It’s my goal to get you to consider the difference, and land on the side of mindfulness. I’ll share how to shift your thinking from that of the typical, instant gratification type of tourist to a traveler whose joy comes from staying in the moment. You’ll walk away understanding the “work” of leisure and will change your trip-taking mindset for a lifetime.

Take a Trip, Not a Vacation 

Although vacations can certainly be mindful enterprises, I prefer the connotations of “trips.” Trips are riskier in the sense that comfort is not their primary aim, but their transformative upside is greater. Unlike vacations devoted solely to R&R, trips aim for deeper cultural immersion and produce memories that never expire—memories worth far more than the resources expended to attain them.

These days, everyone wants instant gratification. But instantly gratifying experiences don’t feel as good as ones we’ve worked and waited for. Think about how you feel when you order something you love online, but the package takes a few weeks. Anticipation builds. When it finally arrives, it feels even better to finally open it.

When you have a trip planned and booked in advance, with a bespoke itinerary and every detail accounted for, your investment starts paying dividends instantly. And the more skin you have in the game, the more determined you become to reap the hedonic payout of your investment.

The Payout of Planning

Excuse me, did you say payout? Taking a trip (rather than a vacation) will make me rich?

Yes. Rich in perspective, awareness, and appreciation.

A psychology professor at North Carolina State University pinpointed an additional benefit of planning your own travel experience: “proactive coping.” All stress stems from a perceived lack of control or uncertainty about the future, but gathering information—for example, about how to get from Houston to Antwerp in no more than two flights with the shortest possible layover—and accumulating resources like approved vacation days or money, dissolves stress. 

Proactive coping is about goal management more than risk management. By being proactive, travelers can ward off stressors, thoughtfully allocate their funds and energy, and commit to conquering challenges. It’s empowering.

The goal is not total immunity from bad luck or lousy circumstances. But when you mindfully and thoughtfully take responsibility and control what you can, you’ll forgive yourself when fate intervenes, knowing you did your best to prevent calamities.

Time Is Scarce, So Use It Wisely

Most people treat time as limitless and money as scarce. I have the privilege of believing the opposite is true: money is limitless and time is scarce.Your vacation time is undeniably scarce. That’s the beauty of it.

Part of being a mindful traveler is creating a contract with yourself. You carve out the time—a duration neither piddly nor unreasonably long—and you invest your care and attention into maximizing that time. You honor every minute of your trip through the effort you put into planning it and the quality of your awareness while you’re living it. You trust that the quality of your days and the quality of your planning will be proportional.

If the only way your trip transforms you is by causing you to honor “ordinary” time (your everyday, non-exotic, non-bucket-list time) with the same zest you honor travel time, that’s a win.

Learning The Work Of Leisure

“It’s quite a wonderful thing,” E. M. Forster once said, “the possession of leisure.” But what is leisure? Most Americans tend to think of it as the opposite of work—a state of non-activity.

This conception of leisure is misguided. Thinking of leisure as an escape from work and a means to an end makes it impossible to possess and enjoy it fully.

Leisure is work, just a different kind of work. It’s the work of wonder and mindful contemplation.

German philosopher Josef Pieper described it as “the restoration of man’s inner eye…the point at which the three elements of leisure come to a focus: relaxation, effortlessness, and superiority of ‘active leisure’ to all functions.”

Relaxation alone is not enough. Lazing on the beach all day is not enough. We’re talking about the total rejuvenation of the spirit by means of essential and sometimes uncomfortable contemplation. We’re talking about inner harmony.

According to Pieper, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”

Come Home Transformed

So, you’ve considered the work of leisure. That’s a new perspective, right? Hopefully you now see time as your most finite resource. And you’ve learned that unlike the typical vacation, a bespoke mindful trip is considered, and immersive. 

Celebrating with locals, rather than watching them celebrate; thanking people in their language, not yours; adapting to the rhythm and pace of a place rather than imposing your rhythm onto it.

So if you see a procession of sauntering Greeks taking their sundown stroll known as a volta, join them. Climb stairs in the morning; eat pistachio gelato at night. Be open to surprises. Look for glimmers of shared humanity. Seek solace in nature. Tap into the spiritual dimension. Embrace episodes of isolation.

If you make an effort to stay mindful both in the planning stage and during the actual trip, you’ll ultimately leave the place better than you found it. A worthy goal, certainly. But you’ll also come home a transformed person. And that’s truly priceless.

For more advice on mindful travel, you can find Get Away! on Amazon.

David Axelrod is a seven-continent explorer and professional globonaut whose lifelong travel obsession has taken him to over fifty countries. Regularly featured by travel and hospitality brands such as AFAR, Fodor’s, Exclusive Resorts, Matador Network, and Relais & Châteaux, he published his debut essay collection in 2014. David fuses art and travel as an internationally collected fine art travel photographer and Creative Director of 2STRAWS Print Shop. A sought-after travel consultant, speaker, and leisure champion, he helps freedom-seekers design their ideal trip at davidaxelrod.co. When he’s not planning getaways, he’s making smoothie bowls and frolicking with his Bernedoodle in Seattle.

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