Mindfulness is having a moment of popularity, but the research supporting it is anything but dubious. According to over 20 research studies, when we take the time to slow down, notice, and draw awareness to our senses, it’s healthier for our brains and our bodies. Of particular importance for travelers, researchers have also found that mindfulness enhances memory function and the vibrance of recall (read the study here).
What traveler wouldn’t like to have more travel memories that are vivid and easy to remember?
Most of us who are drawn to leave behind what is familiar to venture out and explore the world do so partly because we know how short life is. We understand that a time will come when we are unable to travel. Someday- hopefully far in the future- our memory (and perhaps a few photos or travel journals) will be all we have to remember our season of travel.
So how can we make those memories as strong as possible? Mindfulness.
Nostalgia as an Amplifier of Travel Memories
It’s a common experience (and perhaps even near-universal ) to find ourselves enjoying the nostalgia of remembering a trip more than we actually enjoyed the trip. For some of us, this happens because during our trip we’re so worried about missing out on certain travel experiences that we overfill an itinerary and don’t leave space for mindful moments. Other travelers may be so excited about the next destination, the next photo op, or the next travel thrill that they’re rarely really “there” in the moment.
Whatever the cause, adopting travel habits that include intentional mindfulness practices can help.
5 Ways to be a more Mindful Traveler
In this article, I’m dusting off my training in the mental health field and reviewing some of the research-backed strategies to practice mindfulness while traveling and to be mindfully present to everyday experiences in the destinations you are visiting.
1. Plan, but don’t over plan
Not having any sort of itinerary can be anxiety-provoking for many people- and that anxiety can rob them of the capacity to be mindfully present. On the other hand, having an itinerary stuffed with things to do, places to be, and transfers to manage can leave us without a moment to breathe and notice our surroundings.
For many travelers, it may take a trip or two to find what amount of planning feels right. For every traveler, the optimal balance of planning vs spontaneity will vary.
Many travelers, including myself, find that a day with planned activities but punctuated by a midday nap, period of rest, or a journaling session provides structure while also leaving space for the rest and mindfulness needed for sustainable travel. Try it by planning one thing to do, see, or explore in the morning, taking a midday rest, and then venturing out in the late afternoon.
2. Be more present to your travel by learning to Micro-Meditate
Meditation is often seen as the original form of mindfulness, but that’s a misconception. Mindfulness, when defined as open-minded sensory awareness of the here-and-now present moment, is a human experience as old as humankind. You don’t need to take a course in meditation or learn to center yourself for hours – or even minutes – at a time in order to get the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
Instead, create a habit of pausing for a few moments as you travel. To begin, pause where you are and quiet your body, take a few deep breaths, still your mind, and notice what your senses are telling you about the place and the moment you find yourself. You don’t even need to sit or close your eyes, just taking in the details of what you can see, hear, smell, and taste can help your mind form memory and help your body ground itself into that moment, fully present to the experience.
These micro-meditations can look different for everyone. Sure, you might take a moment to meditate in a quiet garden while exploring an ancient monastery, but you can also take a few seconds while having coffee in a coffee shop, exploring a street market, or even sitting on a bus.
Remember, meditation is an investment in your travel – not a chore to be accomplished. Good travel doesn’t just mean exploring, adventuring, and being on the move constantly, good travel also includes slamming on the brakes once in a while to take time for rest and mindfulness.
3. Travel journaling for active mindfulness
If you’re like me, mindful meditation while traveling is really challenging. My brain that enjoys going, doing, thinking, and exploring has a lot of trouble sitting, resting, and being still. For me, travel journaling has been a scaffold can use to enter and engage mindfully without getting distracted.
As my pen scratches across the page of a travel journal, I’m forced to slow down and slow my thoughts to the pace of my own pen. As I journal about what I sense, feel, and notice about a place and my experience in it, I am both creating a record of my travel and engaging in a powerful form of mindfulness.
If you are interested in getting started travel journalling, download my free guide to getting started.
4. Urban sketching as an alternative to travel journaling
Urban sketching, or art journaling, can be thought of as a visual form of travel journaling. It doesn’t matter if you’re a skilled artist or can only draw basic figures, slowing down to draw can help you find moments of mindfulness and rest for your body. Sitting in a café or on a park bench drawing is a way to give your body some much-needed rest while still actively engaging with the destination that surrounds you.
As an additional bonus, sketching, drawing, or even painting engages different parts of our brain than those that are typically dominant during a travel day. By integrating the parts of our brain that are activated by studying the form and contours of an object and then translating that shape, through our hand, to paper, we can actually get more of our brain involved in the experience- which can help form a more robust memory of our travel.
5. Don’t overuse headphones
Many of us actively avoid quietly being alone with our thoughts, and as long as we are distracted or entertained it’s much harder to be mindfully present to a place or a moment. When you’re traveling, avoid using headphones too often. Rather than a podcast on your next bus trip or ride in a colectivo, try going audio-free to be more present to the moment. As a bonus, and not using headphones keeps you more aware of your surroundings, which is an essential solo travel safety practice.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by a Masters Degree In Counseling Psychology, previous work as a research assistant, and decades of experience growing up on the road with a traveling family. When she’s not writing Seattle-focused content from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and HuffingtonPost. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.