Being there

We traveled for 24 days. We were gone so long that the days ran together and the routines of home were completely displaced. The opportunity to travel is such a gift—the planning, the preparation, and being there–that I always forget that it also includes discomfort and stress. Tummy trouble, a lumpy bed, changes affecting sleep patterns, and very little time alone. Constantly surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds and customs, at the end of each day I feel both exhilarated and exhausted.

In a depleted state, I am vulnerable to an old habit of mind: judgment. Initially my thoughts are overwhelmingly positive—beautiful churches, interesting museums, and wondrous natural beauty. But as time passes, and the stresses mount, negative judgments increase. I’ve often joked that my life’s ambition is to learn to say, “Pay attention,” “Keep moving,” and “Single file,” in all the world’s languages.

“Come on, it’s a narrow two-lane bridge with even narrower sidewalks. Must you stroll arm-in-arm even if that means I have to step into oncoming traffic? Single file please!”

“I know you are entranced by the tile work in the palace but there are 200 people waiting in line to see it. Keep moving!”

“Yes, it’s delightful to visit one of the world’s great cities but the streets are packed and everyone’s maneuvering around you as you stand there talking on your phone. Pay attention!”

I can tell myself that fatigue induces impatience and impatience results in a sour view of humanity. But that’s not the whole story. To the extent that I am fixated on other people, I must ask myself, “What in me is disturbed by their behavior?” I see that they are taking their time, walking aimlessly, looking relaxed and at ease. In contrast, particularly during international travel, I’m constantly on guard, fearful of making mistakes, of embarrassing myself. Watching other tourists makes me more self-conscious and my ego fights back with negative judgments.

When I finally grew sick of that crabby voice in my head, I tried to counter it. Each time my eyes settled other people I identified something positive about them. But it was still all about judging. I finally remembered my favorite practice: non-judging awareness. I don’t want to use my energy to make irrelevant, inane, mindless assessments of the world around me. But as a client once wisely asked, “What am I supposed to do with my brain?”

Observe, observe, observe. Describe, describe, describe. And avoid using evaluative language. What a relief! The world was so much more interesting. Out walking in the swirling crowds I just noticed people. Naming their features—balding, tall, green shorts, I felt like a crime novelist providing descriptions of characters. I started asking myself, “What’s that person distinctive feature? One that can’t be easily changed?” You know, in case they had to go on the lam. We were in small enough places that I often saw the same people later and recognized them because I’d so closely observed them. I also brought this practice to art and architecture, museums and cultural attractions. I realized how limited and superficial my assessments had been. “Yeah, yeah, another beautiful church” which is so dismissive, was replaced with, “I notice that almost all of the iconography in this church is of female figures.” As I paid more attention to guides than to the behavior of other people in the group, I asked more questions. I wasn’t trying to become a bigger nerd than I already am. I was trying to eliminate toxic negativity and shallow positivity.

I can go to the most interesting places, learn things that sharpen my understanding of the complexity of the world we share, meet kind, funny, clever people from all over the world. But I have to take myself along for the ride and that turns out to be the biggest challenge. With each and every thought I can either defend myself against my own discomfort and anxiety or open myself to the present moment and just be there taking it all in.

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