What is Mindful Travel Anyway?
Mindful travel might just sound like another buzzword or empty slogan, but in my opinion, it is a way of moving through the world that really matters.
Mindfulness means being aware of what is happening in a clear and open way. It is a quality of presence that allows all thoughts, feelings, and judgments to enter awareness without avoidance or resistance.
As we practice mindfulness or seeing clearly, we also must develop some skills to help us process what we see, especially if it is tough. This is where cultivating resilience comes in. Both practicing mindfulness and developing resilience can be integrated into our day-to-day lives. However, traveling gives us a more potent opportunity to practice.
As I see it, mindful travel encompasses both how we show up in the world and how well we are able to maintain our own composure. Both take practice, humility, and intention, and when truly embodied, both have the potential to change the world.
If our end goal is to impact the world in a positive way, we must first start at home. Learning to resource ourselves and create a felt sense of safety in our own nervous systems is the foundation for positive change. As we each continue to support our individual healing processes, we can show up in the world more composed, open-minded, curious, and better able to contribute to larger systemic issues.
While this practice certainly isn’t easy, it is reciprocal and contributes to a greater collective purpose. The more we learn about other places, people, and cultures, the more we soften, expand, connect, and feel deep inspiration and purpose. In short, we become better human beings. Travel changes us for the better, and in turn, we have more to offer back out to the world.
I am fortunate to have spent a lot of time traveling around the world and living abroad. Here’s how I have learned to be a more mindful and conscious traveler.
Mindful Travel Tips
Slow Down and Pay Attention
Let less be more. It’s ok to cover less ground while you travel and really let a few special places soak in. Find a nice place to sit, get the local specialty to drink or eat and watch the day unfold around you. You can get a good sense of what people value in a new place by simply observing. Is it time, companionship, cappuccinos, faith, siestas, cervezas? Pay attention to your surroundings and get lost in the present moment. Don’t rush or feel hurried, rather slow down and observe. By covering less ground, you also reduce fuel consumption and contribute to more sustainable travel practices.
Scratch Beneath the Surface
While guided tours, cruises, and luxury accommodations are certainly nice, they also shield you from a more authentic experience. Find ways to get off the beaten path and learn about the place you are visiting beyond the brochures. Learn some of the history and a bit of the language, and seek out opportunities for cultural immersion. Find some locals-only spots, explore a random part of the city, read local news online (with Google Translator, of course), or take public transportation.
Meet Real Humans
Prioritize cultural immersion by seeking out opportunities to connect with real people wherever you go. Ask for their perspective on things you want to better understand, like history, culture, or current events. Say yes (within reason) to any invitations you receive for tea or food or company. Trust that most people are good and remember that we share a common humanity and desire to be safe, happy, and healthy. Always be curious, open to learning and understanding, and practice cultural appreciation.
Be willing to have your perspectives and opinions challenged in order to learn more deeply. Accept and embrace all that you don’t know and have not experienced. Allow yourself to feel small in the grand scheme of the world. Set hierarchies, stereotypes, and judgments aside for the sake of learning and connecting.
Know what practices help you stay grounded when you are feeling stressed out or outside of your comfort zone. Yoga, meditation, movement, and breathwork are a few practices that can be helpful to have in your tool belt. Continue to cultivate resilience as a daily practice so you have these tools when you need them.
Spend Money Intentionally
Support local businesses and people. Only buy what you need and don’t be greedy or entitled or overly attached to buying stuff. Support artists, vendors, small businesses, and family-owned restaurants and hotels. Explore ways you can continue to support the places you visit even after you return home. Connect with local charities and support causes that enrich the community and practice ethical and sustainable tourism.
Respect local customs and culture to the best of your ability and always ask if you aren’t sure about something. We are all guaranteed to make some faux pas here, but the important thing is to try to be sensitive and open to learning. Respect local customs even if you don’t agree with them or would not observe them at home. For example, in Morocco, non-Muslims are not allowed into mosques, and in Turkey, women are expected to cover their shoulders and hair inside mosques. Observing these practices shows that you care and are respectful. Always remember that you are a guest.
Privilege and Positionality
Consider where you have privilege and understand how it intersects with the places and people you meet when you travel. Are you from a country that has or had colonies or whose military intervenes in other countries? Has the place you are visiting been impacted by slavery, colonialism, imperialism, war, or natural disaster? How does your citizenship grant you certain privileges, including the privilege of ignorance? Remember that practicing mindfulness allows us to see clearly and cultivating resilience allows us to be with hard truths.
Be Impeccable With Your Words
Educate yourself to the best of your ability about what language is preferred in the places you visit. Generally speaking, calling any country a “third-world country” is offensive and outdated. Have names and borders been assigned according to an imperialist power? What do the local people prefer? For example, in Morocco, the native Amazigh (meaning “free people”) were called Berbers, a derivation of the word “barbarian” by the Romans and French. Another good question to ask is why a particular country might be “developing”? Have they historically had access to their own natural resources or has an imperialist power? Learn about post-colonial frameworks and the power of language, and always ask people what terminology they prefer and honor their preferences.
Get Underneath Propaganda
Recognize the gaps in your own education and work to understand any internalized propaganda or fear-mongering. For example, in America, we are often taught that we are the center of the world. We don’t typically grow up receiving a strong foundation in world history or challenge the narratives of our so-called supremacy and exceptionalism. As educated, critical thinking adults, the onus is on us to fill in the gaps and seek out more well-rounded narratives and perspectives. Notice how often the rhetoric we receive is fearful, apocalyptic, and “othering.” Fear-mongering makes us feel unsafe, distrustful of those who are different from us, and overly reactive. Practicing mindfulness and cultivating resilience creates safety in our nervous systems. Learn to see clearly and use your resources as you unpack facts from fiction.
Notice Your Senses
Find a sense of awe when you travel. Notice all of your senses and delight in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of your new place. Drink it all in and appreciate each moment as it comes.
Have a Light Footprint
Be mindful of noise, garbage, fuel and water consumption, spending, and shopping. Leave no trace. Be nice to people so they remember you well. Don’t take more than what you need. Be a model of sustainable and responsible travel.
Traveling can sometimes be pretty stressful. There are lots of things outside of our control that could go off keel. We also may not have the language skills to understand what’s happening around us or to communicate our needs. Expect some stress to happen and try to roll with it. Use your resources, slow down, and recognize your opportunities to practice mindfulness.
Be kind to those you meet and to yourself. Give people the benefit of the doubt when you can, see our common humanity. Give yourself grace when you are stressed out or make a cultural faux pas. It happens and it’s ok. Tell yourself, “I’m just human and this is a learning moment for me. Everything is ok.” The important thing is that you are trying your best and are willing to learn. There is no need to expect perfection.
Rest and Relax
Build in time and space to do nothing and rest when you need to. Rest is the best way to integrate and process your travel experiences and to cultivate resilience. It also ensures you are taking care of yourself and moving at a pace that is sustainable and kind.
Let It Change You
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Anthony Bourdain, “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. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Practicing mindful travel is all about letting travel change you. Get out there and allow yourself to be awed by all you don’t know and all that you can still learn. Your experiences will likely be challenging, heartbreaking, inspiring, and empowering all at once. Say yes to it all and use the alchemy of all that you feel to fuel you to be better and do better. Find a sense of purpose, put in the work to resource yourself, and in turn, become more valuable to the world.
I try to incorporate all of these thoughts as well as a strong sense of purpose into my yoga retreats. You can learn more about them here.