This past August, my phone rang as I was sitting at an outdoor café in the charming capital city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. I was enjoying a strong coffee and the picturesque view of the winding river, lined with medieval bridges, pastel-colored buildings and softly swaying branches of weeping willows and bougainvillea. My friend was calling from New York City with a problem; he’s a freelance creative who suddenly found himself with two work-free weeks at the end of summer. “I’ve been questioning what I should do with this extra time,” he told me as he began listing off different travel options to various beaches in the northeast, family down south, or far-flung islands around the world. As he ended his list of possibilities, he said, “So, I called the only person I know who has become okay with doing nothing.”
Well, I’m certainly not totally okay with doing nothing, but I have recently taken a time out from life. Nearly 11 months ago, my partner and I quit our jobs, packed up our apartment and left the Big Apple for a yearlong journey around the world. In leaving behind the frenetic pace of corporate America and the nonstop energy of the City That Never Sleeps, I’ve been given a firsthand education in slowing down, finding contentment amidst the chaos and reveling in the moments of stillness that come during a year of travel. Here are three tips I’ve picked up along the way:
If you’re like I was previously, you’ve spent years rushing from place to place, lost in to-do lists and maybe-one-days, hoping for that next vacation to quickly arrive and yet, when it does, becoming restless and unnerved by the quiet. In our harried lives today, getting reacquainted with being still will take some getting used to, so I found it helps to start small. For instance, try setting an alarm for just five minutes earlier than you’d normally rise to allow yourself a few minutes of solitude before jumping into your day. Practice a short meditation (Headspace is a favorite), read something positive (ideally in book form, not from your newsfeed), or heck, just lie in bed with your eyes closed before moving a muscle (some might call this hitting the snooze button).
Traveling the world, nearly every single day is different, and I sometimes struggle with the absence of routine while on the road. Taking a few minutes each morning to center myself has allowed me to prepare for whatever adventure lies ahead, and as I’ve been practicing being still, I’ve started to crave more and more of this meditative and reflective time, bumping my alarm up 10, 20, and now 30 minutes earlier than I need to in order to relish the morning quiet. And don’t worry if you’re a night owl, it doesn’t have to be in the morning (or even once a day), but start small and ease in. As you learn to embrace the stillness, I bet your inner-You will begin to yearn for more.
We all have those irritating life triggers that can cause us to lose whatever calm we might have already attained, whether it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, airport security lines, or hold times on customer service calls. Personally, I tend to lose my cool whenever I feel trapped by long hours of sitting uncomfortably still without an end in sight, a literal animal in a cage. You can imagine how I’ve been forced to face this fear as I’ve spent this past year traveling to faraway and remote places, and to help me overcome the tension, I’ve found that podcasts keep me composed through these sometimes-painful moments of idleness. The soothing sounds and lessons of shows like “Meditation in the City” and “Oprah’s Supersoul Conversations,” the infotainment of “This American Life” and “Nerdist,” or the serial reporting of “S-Town” and “Missing Richard Simmons” have allowed me to refocus my anxiety into hours of enjoyable stillness while I bump down dusty mountain roads on an overcrowded bus.
What’s the book you’ve always wanted to read but never had the time? Audible is a great solution—listen to it on your commute or carry the book in your bag for whenever you have a spare moment. Is there a subject or topic that you’ve been meaning to explore a little more? There are so many podcasts today that cover both broad and niche topics from news and politics to health and technology and everything in-between. And less we forget the positive memory-associations that come with music, which can take us back to our childhoods, our first dances, or our college dorms. Spotify and Pandora are infinite tune-filled options. The brilliant thing about these particular tools is that they are (mostly) free and come with download capabilities, in case you’re going to be offline or don’t want to use your mobile data to stream.
And while so far, I’ve recommended texts, apps and streaming services as aids for finding peace, sometimes (and hopefully more often as you begin to reconnect with yourself) it is satisfying to put the phone or e-book down, take the earbuds out, and just sit with yourself. I now see the value of those introspective moments of my past, staring out the car window on family road trips or daydreaming during a lecture in the classroom (sorry, Mrs. Towns!). Today, mindfulness experts teach the importance of observing thoughts and returning to the breath as they pass like clouds in the sky, and while I don’t debate the importance of recognizing and noting when you’re adrift, I also believe that allowing some time to ponder life’s big (and small) questions can be healing, creative and productive.
Because of limited connection, low batteries or lost service, there have been numerous times this past year when I’ve been forced to sit with myself and watch the rice paddies go by. It’s not always easy—and at times, I can no doubt become like a restless child in church—, but the lesson I’ve come to learn is that embracing these moments of stillness brings contentment and peace of mind for both the blissful times of travel and those beyond my control. While at this time you may not be on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world, we are all on our own individual journey each and every day. Giving yourself the gift of stillness, whenever and however you may find it, will allow you to reconnect with yourself, and in that equanimity, you’ll be better poised to face whatever lies ahead.
And as for my friend back in New York? He decided to stay put, to sit still and enjoy the freedom of doing nothing while the city roared on around him.