Playing those mind games

Think Piece: Meditation for Travel Writers

When people ask me what meditation feels like, I tell them to imagine that moment at the end of the day when they switch off their desktop computers. I mean that precise moment when they reach to the back of their machines (or wherever the switch is located) and push the “power off” button. The computer almost seems to gasp in relief and then there’s total silence.

In this analogy, the computer is a person’s brain and the power supply the steady stream of thoughts that bombard the brain every second of every day, without a person scarcely being aware of it.

It’s a state of stillness (or hyper-awareness), where the mind is no longer preoccupied with its own wall of thoughts and can focus, instead, on the more subtle sounds of the surrounding environment: the ticking of a clock, the whir of a fan, the sound of a passing car.

Another way to imagine meditation is to picture a time when you’re relaxing and your mind is roaming, and then suddenly, off in the distance somewhere, you pick up the faint pitch of a train whistle or the call of a bird. At that moment, without any conscious effort on your part, your thoughts slow down and your mind starts to focus on that sound to the exclusion of everything else. It may only last a couple of seconds, but that’s what meditation feels like.

How I Began Meditating

As I wrote in the intro, I fell into this mindful-meditation thing by accident. I’d been having problems sleeping, and on the advice of a friend consulted a behavioral psychologist and hypnotherapist who was practicing out of his house, not far from Prague. “John” had some good ideas for how to help me sleep, including asking me to keep a sleep diary and a log of my thoughts and actions throughout the day.

This was not Sigmund Freud stuff. As a “behavioralist,” John was not interested in hearing about my past or my upbringing. In fact, he could not have cared less. His perspective was to help me to understand the link between my present thoughts and actions, with the idea being that once I understood that relationship, I could make helpful modifications.

John based his approach on the writings of Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford-based neurosciences professor who created a splash in the '90s with his book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” The book was essentially an indictment of the effects of stress in our lives, and the physical and mental damage that stress can cause.

On one of the early sessions, John asked me, almost in passing, if I knew anything about “mindfulness” as a way of coping with stress. I confessed I knew very little about it. That’s when he took a few minutes to teach me some mindfulness techniques that I’ve been able to build on and personalize for myself since then.

His advice was pretty generic in retrospect but revolutionary for me at the time. I'm sharing it here in case any readers would like to give it a try.

This was his suggestion: I should devote 10 minutes each morning to doing nothing but focusing on my breathing. Find a comfortable chair somewhere (or prop up my head on a pillow), close my eyes (but don't fall asleep), and simply breathe in and breathe out. As a focal point for my mind, as I breathe I should concentrate on the spot just between my nose and upper lip where the air feels a little cooler as I breathe in (we all have this spot, not just me).

I pushed back pretty hard on the advice. I told him it all sounded fairly ineffectual. How could anyone stop the flood of thoughts from entering their mind and, anyway, there was no way I could sit for 10 minutes a day and do nothing but think about my nose.

John’s answer will be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to pick up basic meditation. The trick, he said, is not to stop your thoughts (that would be impossible), but rather to allow them to flow into your mind and then flow back out. Or as he said: “acknowledge the thought for a moment, and then let it go and return to your breathing.”

He said it's something of a knack and I would find it easier over time. And he was right.

Counting My Breaths

Ironically, I can’t say John ever really helped me with my sleep issues (it turns out my troubles are physiological, not psychological), but he did give me a useful tool for dealing with day-to-day stress and anxiety. Daily meditation leaves me feeling more relaxed and in control of my mind and actions. It's also helped me in countless ways to deal with interpersonal relationships, my work, regrets about the past and worries about the future. It's not that I'm always happy or never lose my cool anymore -- and I'm still a bit queasy around blood and needles -- but I'm in a better place.

I used John’s early introduction to mindfulness to create my own daily routine. After a couple of months, I found I wanted more than 10 minutes of meditation. I slowly increased the amount to 20 minutes a day and then on some days to 30 minutes when I have the time (though 10 minutes can be enough to clear the mind).

As I became a little more sophisticated, I found Bhante Henepola Gunarantana’s book “Mindfulness in Plain English” to be an excellent beginners' meditation manual. It’s here where I learned the habit of counting my breaths as I meditate. Following Gunarantana’s advice, in my mind I begin by counting "one" on the first inhale through my nose, and then "two" on the exhale, "three" on the inhale, and so on until I reach 10. I then start the countdown back to zero again. When my mind inevitably starts to wander (something everyone has to deal with), I find it especially helpful to focus on these numbers as I draw breath.

Once my brain has settled and the flow of thoughts has eased, I listen for sounds in the background (maybe a car passing or a person’s voice from a neighboring apartment). I try to “hear” these things simply as sounds and not to make any conscious associations with them. In his book "Why Buddhism is True," author Robert Wright illustrates this technique by using the example of a buzz saw. He wrote that he was trying to meditate at a conference once and was constantly interrupted by an irritating sound of a buzz saw somewhere in the distance. He realized that his mind was automatically associating the sound with unpleasant mental images of the saw's teeth cutting into the wood or something like that. When he tried to "hear" the sound without that image (in other words, merely as a sound), he found it to be neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It was simply a sensation. We make and react to hundreds -- if not thousands -- of these automatic associations every day without realizing it.

Lots of people like to meditate to music. I do that too, sometimes, though I find it to be occasionally distracting. Moby’s album of “Long Ambients” (available for free over the web) seems rhythmically timed for long breathing.

To supplement the meditation, on the advice of a Romanian friend, a couple of years ago I picked up a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now” (and have now read some of his other books as well, including “A New Earth.”) At the core of Tolle’s thinking is to remain conscious in the present moment, where life actually takes place, and to be wary of allowing your mind to dwell too long in either the past or the future.

Tolle is a bit too pop-psychology for many people's taste, though I find some of his concepts to be useful and applicable to my own life. In his books, he has redefined the psychological idea of the “ego” to mean a kind of automatic and harmful projection of our identities into all kinds of everyday interactions -- something we all do without thinking about it but which ultimately hurts us in the process. To paraphrase Tolle here: our angers, resentments, hatreds, and fears often result from these false notions of the self that are embedded in our minds, but which exist apart from our true selves. This true self he calls “being.”

It all sounds like a bit of undigested psycho-babble as I write this, and readers are naturally free to accept or reject any of these concepts as they see fit (I’m no expert myself). My main takeaway, though, is this: it’s useful and comforting to realize we always have a choice in how we react to things that happen to us; and that ultimately it is we who control our own feelings – and not our feelings (or our egos) that control us.

Work and Meditation

I titled this post “Meditation for Travel Writers,” and I’d like to tie this up with a few words on how this has helped me in my work.

As I mentioned earlier, the most noticeable change has been in coping with low-level anxiety, which always seemed to plague me on long research trips. Readers may remember an earlier post here from December 2017, when I was caught up in the Atlanta Airport electrical failure and shutdown. During that trip, I was stuck on a plane on the Atlanta tarmac for six hours (after a nine-hour flight across the pond from Amsterdam). That’s exactly the kind of claustrophobic nightmare that might have sent me over the edge in the past. This time around, though, I had the tools at my disposal to cope.

That episode was also the kind of travel event – an example of institutional incompetence that delayed my holiday by a day and forced me into an unscheduled night at an Atlanta hotel -- that might have provoked a dose of indignant (and unhelpful) rage in the past. On this trip, though, I checked my ego in the hold (along with my bags) and tried to accept without judgement what was happening around me as something I could not have foreseen or changed.

So why not take a deep breath and go along for the ride?

It’s also helped me to appreciate some of the places I visit and write up for my books and articles. I won’t belabor the point too much, it’s time to wrap up, but I always had a hard time in the past, for example, grasping and understanding sights like churches and monasteries (when you write about Romania and Bulgaria, as I do, you visit a lot of these). I’m not very religious in the conventional sense, and once I acknowledged a church’s history or architecture, it was usually time to move on.

Since I’ve started on this modest spiritual journey, though, I’ve come to appreciate these types of places in a completely different way. Once I’ve nailed down the details of a church’s or monastery's history, instead of heading for the door, I might now find a seat somewhere at the back for a few minutes of quiet contemplation.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker