Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

How to Vacation Better

Is it better to fill up on experience, or to empty your head?

One day in the not-so-recent past, Linda and I dropped everything, turned off the computer, called the cat-sitter, packed our bags, and boarded a flight to Mexico. It wasn't quite that spontaneous: We had made the plans several weeks before but since we worked right up until the day of the flight, it seemed kind of last minute. It felt to me like the vacation actually began after we boarded the plane, put our carry-on bags in the overhead compartment, buckled our seatbelts, held hands, and said "Yes" to each other. That was the moment that I felt my breath get slower, my mind start to quiet down, and my body sink into the seat.

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Linda and I spend a lot of time on airplanes, but there's something that feels different about boarding a flight for a vacation. Maybe it's because we bring a different intention with us when we go on vacations than when we travel to teach. When we take vacations, our intention is to fully honor the true meaning of the word. Vacation comes from the Latin vacatio, which means "freedom, and release from occupation," and the word vacare, which means "empty." For us, a vacation is about emptying our minds of the concerns, plans, and considerations that usually occupy our consciousness during the rest of our lives. Our intent is to vacate our mind of its occupants and temporarily evict the tenants who live in our mental space. In emptying our minds in this way, we get the full benefit of the experience.

Going away, whether to Mexico or to the beach a few blocks from our home, provides a change of both the outer and the inner scenery. And emptying out the contents our mind for a while provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to not only see things from a different perspective, but to get restored, replenished, and rejuvenated physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It may seem like it's grabbing a lot of ground to describe a vacation as a spiritual experience, but that is how I have to characterize anything that provides me with a deeper connection to my own heart and soul, as well as those of all of my relations, human and otherwise.

Our idea of a vacation isn't quite in sync with the idea that most people have. Typically, vacations are seen as times in which people don't empty out, but rather fill up

They fill their days up with activities and entertainment—and their bodies with food and drink—in an effort to fill their time up with pleasurable experiences. These kinds of vacations can be fun, and we've had a few of them ourselves, particularly when our kids have accompanied us. But we have sometimes come back from high-activity, high-stimulation trips feeling like we needed another vacation to recover the energy we just exhausted. When it's just the two of us, we opt for a different kind of experience, with a different agenda and purpose. 

In our book, 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married, Lesson 38 is, "Vacations aren't luxuries, they are necessities." Like most of the lessons in the book, we learned this the hard way. Although Linda had gone on a lot of family vacations as a kid, I never went on any. Since you can't miss what you don't know, I never knew what I was missing. Consequently, in the early days when Linda would suggest vacations, I never could get behind the idea. Mostly it just seemed like a waste of money we couldn't afford to "squander."

Because I hadn't yet learned another crucial lesson—that your partner is your teacher and your student—I spent a lot of time resisting Linda about vacations. I had the "your student" part down, but it took me a while to internalize the "your teacher " piece. Fortunately, due more to her persistence than my openness, Linda’s will prevailed and I finally came to see what the big deal was about vacations. It wasn't long before I was not only a convert, but a pillar of the church!

In those days, our lives were so jammed with family and work-related commitments (sound familiar?) that when we took vacation time for just the two of us we mostly just slept or took things very, very slowly. Over time, we learned more about the art of vacationing. We came to understand that vacations could be a time for something other than round-the-clock indulgence or crashing from an exhausting life. They can be times of creativity—not simply "recreation," but actually re-creating your life from a fresh perspective that can only come from being removed from one's ordinary living environment and disengaging from the concerns that preoccupy our consciousness most of the time.

In this space we get to see things we are normally too busy to notice, or moving too fast to give our full attention to. It was on a vacation that we became clear of the power and potential of bringing a conscious intention to experience. We saw how when we were willing and able to glimpse our lives from the broad overview of the eagle's eye, rather than from the perspective of the mouse that lives close to the ground, we could recognize the places in our lives where changes needed to be made.

Questions came up that related to our deeper needs and longings that didn't even occur to us in the daily spin of things:

  • Am I really living my own life or someone else's version of what it's supposed to be?

  • What are my true values and do my priorities and choices reflect them?

  • Am I really using my time well?
 Am I nurturing my friendships?

  • Am I honoring my physical needs and taking good care of my body?

  • Am I spending enough time doing the things and being with the people that really matter to me?

  • Do I have my work in its proper place?

  • Do I do and say enough to make sure that the people in my life that I love and appreciate know that I love and appreciate them? 

  • Is there enough play and fun in my life?

Things like that.

Asking these kinds of questions isn't necessarily comfortable, particularly if we have neglected certain aspects of our lives. It's easy to write them off as being unrealistic or too abstract, but when we have slowed down our pace a bit and quieted our mind by letting it rest, we don't have to dig the questions up; they arise to the surface of our awareness because we've allowed them to emerge. They invite our compassionate attention, and creative responses to unmet needs and unfulfilled longings we hadn't even acknowledged. And out of this growing awareness, effortlessly, naturally, change often begins to occur. Not because we set our mind to it, not necessarily because we made a conscious commitment, or because we resolved to do things differently, but because we have seen the truth and can't help but begin to honor it.

Whether your vacation is for a day or a year, on a cruise ship or in a campground, on the other side of the world or at a local park, it can be transformative. It can be a work of art. It can be life changing. Take one soon—you can't afford not to.

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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