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Sometimes travel hands us lemons. Learn how to make lemonade by following Sharon Salzberg's advice. (Photograph by Jonathan Brooks, Alamy)

Four Paths to Happier Travel

We’ve all heard the old adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” but rarely does anyone tell us how to appreciate the journey, especially the more unpleasant parts.

I couldn’t think of a better person to address this topic than Sharon Salzberg. A major influencer in the mindfulness revolution, much of Sharon’s life is spent traveling the world to teach classes, lead retreats, and promote her books (most recently, Real Happiness at Work). Here are her thoughts on how to enjoy all the little steps we take between point A and point B in our lives.

1. Wait with lovingkindness.

That’s not a typo. Sharon is one of the world’s great ambassadors of lovingkindness (aka metta)—what she describes as “a sense of benevolence or recognition that our lives are connected and that everybody wants to be happy.” I recently returned from one of her retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, where we practiced lovingkindness every waking hour for a week. While it was profoundly transformative, such rarified conditions are not necessary. Applying the principles of lovingkindness can transform any experience, anywhere—even the time we spend in airports.

Waiting and rushing seem to be common modes of being when we’re in transit. While many of us waiting to get through airport security will fret, fume, or fiddle with our phones, Sharon uses this time to practice lovingkindness toward her fellow travelers by repeating, “Be happy and safe and get to where you want to get to”—in her head—as each person in front of her passes through the full body scan. She does this again before takeoff on each flight she takes. Many travelers experience anxiety during this time, and lovingkindness is a powerful antidote.

As Sharon points out, offering phrases of lovingkindness for someone does not require that we like them or approve of their actions (e.g., screaming at airport employees who are simply trying to perform their job). In addition to being a good and simple reminder that we all deserve recognition and respect, this practice also reinforces our interconnectedness.

Practical Tip: Try practicing lovingkindness whenever you find yourself waiting in your travels. A bonus tip from another one of my teachers, Winnie Nazarko: Avoid making eye contact when you’re offering lovingkindness to someone, as it can make them uncomfortable.

2. Be where you are.

It’s an obvious suggestion, right? Be where you are. Yet consider how often our attention drifts to worry when we’re traveling. Did we remember everything? How will we get there, and will we be on time? What will this unknown place be like when we arrive?

In order to relate more mindfully to your experience when you’re en route, Sharon suggests paying close attention to what’s happening around you—and within you. Look out the window. Listen to the sounds you hear. Home in on the tension spots in your body and, as you notice them, take a few deep breaths and see how much you’re able to relax. “Even if [the relaxation] doesn’t last,” says Sharon, “it’s going to be a respite.” When your attention is focused on where you are, you’ll arrive at your destination in the best possible state of mind.

Practical Tip: Meditation is a powerful tool for knowing and being where we are. If you’re interested in starting or deepening a meditation practice, Sharon’s book, Real Happiness, is a great resource.

3. Adopt a “travel mantra.”

When we’re faced with a disruptive experience while traveling, a flight cancelation perhaps, the mind can become overwhelmed by negative hypotheticals. I’ll be late. I’ll miss my connection. I’ll end up in Portland after midnight. There will be no cabs. And so on.

Anxiety happens. Even Sharon, who has practiced meditation for more than four decades, still feels it. It’s how we relate to this anxiety that makes all the difference.

Sharon developed a mantra to help herself cope: “Something will happen.” Attempts to control what is out of our control heap needless suffering atop already stressful situations. Reminding ourselves of the simple fact of uncertainty helps us avoid what Sharon describes as “the tendency to get lost in an unpleasant world of our own creation.”

For instance, during a recent travel experience, all the passengers on my flight were asked to change planes after boarding because of technical difficulties. As I walked to my seat on the new plane, a grumbling passenger advised me to hold onto my boarding pass because we would inevitably be asked to change planes again. While that woman was living in a negative delusion, the plane took off and took us safely to our destination. Something will happen.

Practical Tip: If there’s a practical action to be taken when setbacks occur, such as booking a new flight, then do that. If there’s no productive action to be taken, see what it’s like to not act out of anxiety and trust that the situation will be resolved in its own time.

4. Remember to keep things in perspective. 

I often encounter people who characterize meditation and, by extension, people who meditate, as passive. Sharon, a true New Yorker, is perhaps the best one to dispel this notion.

As Sharon puts it, “travel is like a contract.” Many of us have experienced the breakdowns of this contract: lost luggage, last-minute gate changes, missed connections, canceled flights. But it’s the manner in which we confront such difficulties that defines our character. Sharon believes it’s important for travelers to remember that “our needs and frustrations can be expressed without [assigning] personal blame.”

Start by asking yourself, “Do I want resolution, or do I want to tyrannize?” When the passengers on my flight were asked to change planes, I saw a number of people choose the tyranny route, which only delayed the resolution of their problem and compounded their agitation.

Practical Tip: If you find yourself in a stressful situation, keep in mind the resolution that you seek. During the negotiation, see how much it’s possible to remain true to that deepest intention without falling into the blame game. If you drift toward shaming behavior, see if you can return your focus to your pursuit of a resolution.

Jared Gottlieb is a storyteller and meditation teacher. Follow him on Twitter at @JaredGottlieb.

Do you have tips for how to be mindful and present when you’re exploring the world? Share them with the the Nat Geo Travel community by leaving a comment below.

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