Learning about mindfulness has encouraged me to approach problems in a different way.
It’s taught me how to look at my negative thoughts from a different perspective but it’s also reinforced what I already knew; that travel is good for me and shows how having no judgement and mindful travel go hand in hand.
I talk about some of these methods in my book ‘Becoming Stronger through Mindfulness’ – (click on this link for your copy), but in this article I want to show you the similarities between travel and mindfulness and demonstrate how both can help you grow as a person through some of my travel stories.
Mindfulness isn’t simply about meditation and living in the now. It’s also about being open to new ideas and not being judgmental.
Be open to new ideas
One of the best things about travel is meeting new people and being exposed to different cultures and customs. To get the most from your experience in a different culture, go ahead and embrace the differences. Be inquisitive about the things that seem to make little sense to you or that previously may not have interested you and learn.
Whilst there are some things that it’s perfectly acceptable to discount out of hand – such as eating cows intestines or jumping off a bridge with an elastic band tied around your ankles – at other times it pays to listen and learn and maybe understand a different point of view.
And if you stay in a hostel while you are travelling you increase the chances of meeting people from all around the world, each person with a different story to tell and a new perspective.
Everywhere I go I try to learn something new, and I learn because I’m curious and nosey and open minded.
Having no judgment
I already knew that most Sikh men don’t cut their hair but I never knew that the same applied to Sikh women too. I have learnt how in this modern world many Sikh women have a dilemma between ancient teachings that tell them that they shouldn’t alter their bodies by shaving armpit hair or plucking their eyebrows and wanting to be fashionable or cutting their hair which can actually give them headaches if it grows too long and heavy. It’s only a small thing to learn but it changes how I think in yet another small way.
I have also learnt how difficult it is to be gay in Singapore and how problematic it can be for a Muslim woman to decide not to wear a hijab in certain parts of Malaysia against the wishes of her family.
In rural Borneo I sat on the floor and ate dinner with my fingers from a communal bowl set out on a grass mat with three generations of my host family. We discussed the death of the rain forest but I also understand a little bit better the contradictions that the local people have to deal with in the face of the large palm oil companies. It’s all very well to get up on our moral high horses and condemn the practice of large scale agriculture but we must listen to the other side of the story too from the people who live with the consequences.
One of the best places for learning about new things was sitting up on the roof terrace at Ringo’s Foyer Hostel in Melaka. I spent a couple of months volunteering here where it was quite usual for groups of travellers and volunteers to sit and chat into the small hours of the morning. Over the course of a couple of weeks it became the habit that one person would talk about something that they knew a lot about and field questions from the rest of us.
Just some of the topics that were covered up on that terrace were Irish politics, the Muslim faith in Tunisia, crypto currencies, becoming vegetarian and cycling across continents. For my part I have explained about my experiences in Catalunya on the day that many people tried to exercise their right to vote, whether it was ethical to visit Myanmar and of course, building up self-esteem.
Whether we practice mindfulness or not we should still be respectful of others and open to the idea that there are not only two sides to every story but many shades of grey in-between.
We must also stop our judgements. Who are we to decide whether a person is good or bad or a threat to us based on their appearances?
There is a short story of a woman on a train who jumps to the wrong conclusion based on what she sees happening around her. There is a link between my book and my short course Learning to Believe in Yourself which you can listen to by clicking here.
This tale is a really simplistic demonstration of how most of us leap to conclusions and things becomes really interesting once you become aware of the judgy thoughts in your head. When you go a bit deeper and you start to realise why you might be instinctively attaching certain labels to certain people, and you come to understand that it shouldn’t matter how a person acts towards you because YOU have a choice about how you react to them – and well wow – a different world opens right up to you.
When I said that I was going to travel in the interior of Java, along the east coast of Malaysia and into the Kingdom of Brunei which are predominantly Islamic, several people suggested that I change my plans. They told me that the people who lived in these places were closed and more difficult to get to know. But you know me; I’m not one to follow the herd so off I went for the east coast and to find out for myself how the culture was.
OK, so it was a bit more difficult and more expensive to get hold of booze and out of respect I didn’t wear my short shorts or skimpy spaghetti strap tee-shirts and I picked my times when to wear a bikini and when to go swimming in my clothes but I had so much fun and most people were so lovely that I certainly am glad that I went.
And just like everywhere else in the world, it wasn’t a homogenous experience. People were still different and individual and they all know how to have fun. I got to know a ‘ladyboy’ who was working in one of my hostels who was a very strong character and in the same hostel I got to know a lady from Saudi Arabia who wore a full burkha so that I could only see her eyes. We had a strong connection due to many similarities in our past and we chatted for several hours – but I wouldn’t recognise her if I passed her in the street!
For a couple of weeks I lived in a small guest house which was owned by an adorable older couple. Like nearly all houses in these regions there was a prayer room and I soon got very used to tiptoeing past the open door to the bathroom whilst one or both of them were praying and I was very happy when one day I was invited to cook and share a traditional meal with Mama Zeke.
I can recount numerous experiences like those above but if I were closed or judgmental some of these experiences may never have happened. So what, I may not recognise my friend in the burkha if she approaches me again in the street (if we were not in a public place she would have removed her covering), but that doesn’t mean that she is someone to be feared or mistrusted. She is a woman with feelings, wishes and dreams just like the rest of us and I feel privileged that she felt able to share some of her story with me.
How much damage do we do to ourselves and to others by leaping to conclusions and making ill-informed judgments? I speak from experience and I can give you an example by looking at something that has happened to me from several angles.
You will know if you have been following my personal story that my children have estranged themselves from me for several years.
I ASSUME that they have chosen to distance themselves from me because of something that they have been told or that they believe is true; because of an assumption that they have made about me. I KNOW that they have made this decision without knowing all of the facts (and I know this for a fact because they have never approached me for my side of the story).
So herein lies the first point.
They have made a judgment about me without gathering the truth and without knowing all the facts.
Now let’s look at how each of us can make differing assumptions about the same situation. From another perspective I have spent hours and hours trying to second guess why my children refuse to speak to me and my family. I ASSUME that it is because of the stories that they have been told and I ASSUME that they don’t care enough to find out the truth for themselves. But I don’t know the truth either – although in my own defence I have done my best to find out – because I don’t like to judge or make assumptions.
The third point here is that if I try to place myself in their shoes then I am looking at the situation as if they were me. And as I have never walked in their shoes I will never know the truth unless they sit down and talk about it with me. I can and I have almost driven myself mad with the endless thought process of trying to make sense of the whole situation and trying to place myself in their shoes and it is impossible.
So to take another leaf out of the mindfulness book I have taken a step back. I acknowledge my emotions and I know why I feel as I do. I acknowledge that my children are dancing to a different tune and whilst the situation can make me sad I won’t allow it to make me mad – so I accept it for what it is and I live in the moment.
Of course I think about the past but I am getting better at managing my emotions and of course I make plans for the future but I don’t get hung up about either. I appreciate and I fully enjoy the present. What will be, will be! I know my own truth and I can’t invest any more emotional energy into trying to second guess my children’s’ motives.
And on the plus side, I have the experience and the motivation to support and to mentor other people who may be going through a bad experience. I believe that the capacity to be strong is in each of us but we can all do with a bit of extra guidance and encouragement to be the best that we can be; which is why I now offer mentoring sessions with people who want that little bit of extra help.
And travel. For me, travel is what reminds me to remain open-minded and non-judgmental. It reminds me that each of us is unique and it reminds me to find out the truth for myself. It proves to me that I am capable of dealing with a drama and reminds me that I can forget the negative beliefs that I carried around in my head for so many years. It has introduced me to many different people, ideas, food and beliefs and it has helped me to understand how to become grounded in the ‘now’.
If you want to find out more, you can get my introductory guide to mindfulness click here and then read on for another couple of stories from my travel experiences.
Don’t jump to conclusions
I have stayed in a couple of hostels where everybody was glued to their social media. Headphones in and absorbed in whatever was playing on their mobiles or laptops people tip-tapped away at keyboards, seemingly deep in conversation with somebody far away yet not engaging with the present.
It has only been my experience a couple of times when everybody behaved like this all at the same time, and because I was ready to socialise and make friends I hated it. However I very quickly jumped to the defence of this behaviour when it was slated in a travel forum that I occasionally contribute to.
In an online discussion a very famous (elderly) travel writer was attacking modern day travellers who use their phones and social media. She claimed that travel wasn’t like it was in the ‘olden days’. She stated that travellers are missing out on the excitement of getting lost, of meeting people and that they had lost the art of keeping a journal or making memories. She said that they live in their own electronic world and observed that they don’t interact with others.
In many of her travel books she describes how after arriving at her hostel for the night she would often curl up in a quiet corner away from other guests and write up her travel notes. Well I write up my travel notes – just as she did – but I simply use a different medium – my laptop, and many other travellers keep a journal – they just happen to use a laptop or a tablet – in part because pictures are now digital.
And here are some more reasons why you shouldn’t jump to conclusions and to do your best to have no judgement, or at least, suspend judgement until you know all of the facts.
A lad in Quito once asked to borrow my laptop and skype his family because he needed to find the quickest way to get back home before his granddad died whilst a group of girls were looking up a recipe that they were going to cook for everyone in the hostels communal kitchen. Other people were simply lounging around and chilling and listening to music through headphones after a gruelling day as volunteer tree planters in the jungle.
And I met a really shy guy who was avoiding contact with others and constantly walking around with his headphones on….but after a chat with him it turned out that this was his method of coping with extreme anxiety attacks. I told that he was very brave to leave the comfort of his own home town and travel solo – and shame on anybody who was condescending about his coping method.
Many travellers take advantage of the wifi in hostels and use the time to upload their photos so that friends and family can know that they are safe and happy whilst others use online maps and timetables to plan their journeys.
The world is changing and it’s becoming more and more difficult to get hold of paper copies of maps or timetables but people still go hiking or visit cities and they still arrange to meet up with friends but they communicate via messages on social media rather than using a telephone.
Here’s another example of making a quick judgment.
I was hiking with a new friend that I had met in the Cameron Highlands. We had followed one of the mountain trails and we had reached the top of one of the hills when we had to make a decision. It would soon be getting dark so we had to choose between continuing on our circular route (although we had been warned that the path got a little dodgy), or to make the decision and return the way that we had come.
As we stopped to take on water and think about our options we heard voices and loud music. Just over the hill a group of teenagers were hanging about. just messing about and being teenagers, however I did think how vulnerable the two of us could be in the middle of nowhere with a group of loudmouthed guys especially because we hadn’t seen another soul on our hiking trail all afternoon.
Some of the lads swaggered over to us trying to impress but we excused ourselves and told them that we had to move quickly and continue over the top before it got dark. As we moved away some of the lads ran after us – my initial reaction was to feel startled and I was on alert – but then they told us that we really should return the way that we had come. They told us how they had all promised their mothers that they would never continue over the top because the route wasn’t great and they made us promise the same!!
Whilst of course it’s always sensible to be alert and aware of your surroundings, it’s also good to suspend judgment until you know all of the facts and not to assign preconceived ideas to a situation. In this instance, my friend and I ended up sitting and chatting with the lads for twenty minutes before all taking photos of each other and setting off back down the hill along the safer route.
A final reminder of mindful travel
One of the best things that you can do if you want to practice mindfulness is to keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions. Remember, everybody has a story and you are in no position to judge others because you are not perfect nor have you ever walked in that other person’s shoes.
If you travel, take the time to connect with others. Be curious, ask questions and find out what makes other people from a different culture tick. If you don’t travel, well the same applies to you but in your immediate environment. Remain open minded and go and approach that somebody in your office who dresses differently or who you assume comes from a different background to your own. Maybe they have different values and ideas that you could learn something from or maybe you will discover that they are not that much different to you.
Do you have a story to share of a time when you judged somebody or a situation too quickly? If so, I would love to hear about it and let’s all learn and change the quality of our lives and those around us together.
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