I’m sitting, staring blankly into space, my fingers drumming absently on the armrest.
My mind is elsewhere and I’m failing to notice what’s happening around me. The electric hum of the fluorescent lighting in my closet goes unnoticed. The ash falls from the pine-scented incense and quietly disappears. My mouth tastes like coffee, but it’s shuffled beneath the weighty layers of time. I lean forward to write, and my chair squeaks.
But I heard nothing but the sounds inside my head.
No, my mind was in the past. In India, as I stood naked but for a Gandhi vest and a purple sheet, called a lungi, wrapped tightly about my waist. I was talking to the 68-year-old Scottish Lord of Castle Stewart, who took me under his wing for four days and shattered my unfounded sense of Self and Place. (Which I wrote about here).
I was in the moment then, which is why it is so deeply branded into my memory.
And because I’ve been doing a lot of living in the past lately, I’ll probably have a hard time remembering the present (or the future past). Which makes the practice of being present so integral to experiencing not just travel, but life.
Here are five techniques I find helpful for reining in my mind and getting the most out an experience.
1. Cut the Strings
Strings tie us down and pull us in every direction. There are the debt strings that keep you thinking about money and whether you remembered to pay that last bill (sign up for automatic bill-pay). There are the relationship strings that keep you thinking about those you’ve left behind. There are the itinerary strings that cause you to worry about making it to your next planned destination. There are the unfounded fear strings that keep you worried about what might happen instead of what is happening.
There are even strings that tie the other strings together, forming one hell of a convoluted mess.
However, most of these strings can be cut, at least for the moment, with no major consequences. So, think about what strings can be severed, and which ones should be wound up neatly for later.
2. Manage Expectations
We expect so much out of life.
We expect to get what we ordered. We expect our bus to be on time. We expect our room to not smell like feces. But sometimes, the room does smell like feces.
Which is why you have to learn to manage your expectations of the future, and roll with the punches of the present. They are inevitable, so you might as well have a positive mindset, otherwise you may find that you are becoming an increasingly angrier human being.
3. Utilize the Senses
Our senses are our best friends for reining in our wandering minds.
Observe life as it unfolds around you. Smell the faint whiff of curry coming from down the street. Listen to the children playing in the square. Feel the cobblestones beneath your feet. Taste what you are eating.
Utilizing your senses forces you to enter the flow of the present where you will be able to enjoy the ever-changing feast for the senses that is the Now.
4. Get Uncomfortable
It’s easy to sit on the couch and watch a movie. It’s not as easy to go down some street you’ve never been and try to order some food you’ve never seen in a language you’ve never heard. But chances are you’ll get more out of it.
Uncomfortable situations aren’t always fun, in fact they rarely are, but they do have an uncanny way of shaking you up like an 800 pound gorilla.
The discomfort you feel when you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation makes you face the present, nothing else matters because Now is the only time you can deal with what is happening. And you grow — your experiential boundaries pushed deeper into the realm of the previously unknown than ever before.
5. And Breathe
Feel the oxygen fill your lungs and feed your blood as you breathe from your belly. It’s one way monks meditate (another good way to learn how to be present).
If you forget to breathe deep you get tight, and nervous and maybe even a bit panicky. So, if you find yourself lost in the past or worried about the future, focus on each breath, in and out, and your mind will have no choice but to resurface to the present.