Ways to explore the world mindfully without going far.
Posted March 24, 2020
The Center for Disease Control advises against travel right now. Attending gatherings is not permitted, and people are advised to stay home. Who knows how long these restrictions will last, but in the interim, we need to create a life to live that includes some pleasure but without much risk.
Tabling vacation plan opens up some newly acquired time but doesn’t satisfy your wanderlust in the least. I know first-hand. The booked snorkel trip to the Caribbean took place without me—an over 60 traveler with a history of respiratory ailments! Now I’m thrilled that I didn’t get stuck on a cruise ship searching for a port that would let us dock.
What’s a travel lover to do? Enter the staycation, a local jaunt, or arm-chair journey. If travel via plane, train, or ship can’t happen in your near future, then enjoyment might come from shaking up a daily routine or environment. It’s an antidote to the boredom of sameness in everyday life that travel promises to cure.
Finding freshness in the unremarkable requires only a change in perception, in what you focus on. To the extent allowed these days, leave your home—as long as you maintain your distance from others, and don’t go far, but do something uncharacteristic. New ways of seeing the same scene actually shake up the sameness of repetition and create a whole new experience.
Start by locking your front door with your non-dominant hand. Then, instead of looking straight ahead in the direction you usually go, look to the right and left, look down at the ground or gaze up toward the sky—either with your naked eye or a telescope. Notice anything interesting? Do any novel thoughts or associations surface?
Head for the nearest patch of flowers, weeds, tree, shrub, rock cluster, forest path, or another of nature's miracles. Spend a minute looking at whatever your eyes land on and see what sensations or observations surface. What do you see that you didn’t notice before? Touch its surface. Note its texture and temperature. Listen to the sound of leaves or bark crunching beneath your feet.
Next time bring a magnifying glass. Get close up the way a two-year-old or your dog, who are both closer to the ground, might explore an object. Any interesting insects nestled into crevices? Stop and notice. Track their movement, note their color, shape. In our normal routine, we focus broadly, with eyes toward the destination not on the moment-to-moment experience. It’s easy to bypass the small objects that dot our path. At this point in time, there’s no distant destination that we can safely explore, but our minds still crave stimulation. Think micro not macro when you next sit on your balcony or in your backyard.
Extend this practice a bit farther. Identify some nearby place of interest and enjoy visiting it until monotony sets in. Then challenge the status-quo by visiting the very same location at a different time of day, in different weather conditions, or branch out to someplace similar. You might consider a nearby garden where seasonal transformations seem magical. This may satisfy your curiosity and hard-wired, primordial yearning for novelty—without going far.
Take an alternative route on a favorite walk. Choose a new grocery to heighten the awareness of choosing vegetables, which until very recently was a mundane task done without much attention. Drive instead of biking or the other way around. Pick a different day of the week or time to run a necessary errand to pick up food or a prescription. What do you observe?
It may sound minor but changing even a small detail can positively alter a habit or make something quite ordinary feel exciting. And you don’t need to stray very far from home. Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century naturalist and philosopher, lived in his cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts for two years noticing minute changes in the environment—even the tiniest daily progression of a flower bud was a cause for his wonder and joy. According to Thoreau, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”
Or spark wanderlust vicariously. Travel through imagination has always been intriguing and one way to provide a time-out from everyday life—especially when actual travel isn’t possible anytime soon. Since the invention of the printing press, we’ve found ways to learn about the world through vicarious experiences—and travel the world without leaving home. Sometimes it’s a choice, but it’s a necessity right now.
Being creatures filled with curiosity about our surroundings and beyond, books in various forms like print, eBooks, audiobooks, and stories transmitted orally offer a key to the unknown and exotic. It’s a way to nibble at the boundaries of a new place without having to fully immerse, a chance to try out a way of life or an alter-ego without commitment. Start by looking through your own library and rediscovering travel books that you took on previous vacations but never found time to thoroughly peruse.
You can explore the world mindfully in so many ways—without going very far. It’s not where you go but how. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog coming soon. It focuses on virtual travel.