Playing those mind games

Think Piece: Meditation for Travel Writers

Robert Sapolsky's breakthrough book on the dangers of stress -- both to the mind and the body. Why don't zebras get ulcers? You'll have to read to find out (and, no, they don't have to meditate). Courtesy photo.
A very helpful book for people just starting out and wanting to learn some of the basic mechanics of meditation, plus a little bit of background on the practice's Buddhist roots. Courtesy photo.

When people ask me what meditation feels like, I tell them to imagine that moment at the end of the working day when they switch off their desktop computers. I mean that precise moment when they reach to the back of their machine (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 nearly every second of the 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 it 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.

Robert Wright's popular 2017 book was a very good mainstream take on the many benefits of meditation, though I don't like the title and have the feeling it may turn a lot of people off. Courtesy photo.
In December I was stuck in one these planes on the tarmac in Atlanta for around six hours. In the past, I've had mild claustrophobia and would have found this to be a very unpleasant experience. In fact, it didn't bother me at all. Photo credit: Fox10.

As I said 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, I 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.

He was also a fan of 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.” It was essentially an indictment of the effects of stress in our lives, and the physical and mental damage 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 useful 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 of my 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, 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. He was right.

German-born spiritual author Eckhart Tolle's 1997 book, 'The Power of Now,' may be the most popular and influential book on mindfulness ever written. I find his distinction between 'ego' and 'being' highly useful in understanding behavior. Photo by Mark Baker.
Tolle's follow-up to the 'Power of Now' will not be everyone's cup of tea. I thought it was inspiring but also a little bit repetitive and simplistic in parts. Photo by Mark Baker.

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 much 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 is really 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 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, and then "two" on the exhale, "three" on the inhale, and so on until I reach ten. Then I 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 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 little more than a year 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 many 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 pernicious projection of our identities -- something we all do without thinking about it, but which ultimately harms us in the process. To paraphrase him 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 and reject any of these concepts as they see fit (I’m certainly no expert myself). My main takeaway, though, is this: it’s useful and comforting to realize that 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 that control us.

One of the beautiful 'Painted Monasteries' of Bucovina, in northern Romania. Meditation has helped me to appreciate these places beyond merely the history and pretty architecture. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of the contemplation rooms of the Cherepish monastery in northern Bulgaria. I found it to be incredibly peaceful here. Photo by Mark Baker.

I titled this post “Meditation for Travel Writers,” and I’d like to tie this up with a few words on how all of 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 those long research trips. Readers may remember an earlier post here from December, 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 almost six hours. 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.

It’s 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 double dose of indignant (and ultimately 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 couldn’t have foreseen and couldn’t change.

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 see a lot of these). I’m not very religious in the conventional sense, and once I acknowledged a place’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.

As usual please let me know what you think in the comments section. MB

Comments

  1. I enjoyed your reflections on mindfulness. It looks like “John” introduced you to it through mindfulness-based CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I have been using mindfulness with my clients and practice it myself. I find that what is even harder than mindful meditation is being mindful in our daily lives. It was only through mindfulness that I realized how rare it is that I am truly present in the moment. By the way, I know Eckhart Tolle but I am interested in reading the book about zebras and stress, sounds interesting… I recommend YouTube videos by Jon Kabat-Zinn (mindfulness guru) and the movie “Peaceful Warrior” with Nick Nolte (I use it with my young clients when introducing mindfulness and I really like some parts of it). I am glad that practicing mindfulness helps you get through some difficult situations… Take care of yourself! 🙂

    • Hi Bozena, Yes, you’re exactly right, it was CBT. Part of the benefit of meditation in this type of therapy approach is that it helps you to make a distinction between when your mind is thinking about something and when it is not. It sounds like common sense, but we all simply accept the steady stream of (often pointless) thoughts to be the normal state of things in our minds. In fact, of course, it’s not. We usually have the power to decide which thoughts to latch on to and which ones to let go of. Thank you again for reading and I’ll take a look at the video and movie! Mark 🙂

  2. I received some feedback on this post through social media. I’ll include a few of the comments here to convey their flavor. It seems that my professional problem with long road trips struck a chord with other travel writers, at least in a small way.

    Guidebook writer and colleague Luke wrote on Twitter: “Hey Mark, it’s funny, without ever inviting it, I have recently got a lot of gigs writing about wellness and meditation, and I have to say it’s really changed my perspective on it. I now actually regularly do breathing exercises etc. – makes you feel even physically better!”

    He added: “The anxiety/bordering on depression before long research trips, certainly [strikes a chord]. Once there, loving it, but the build-up and the journey out – [are] often a downer, and for no rational reason because I obviously do love travelling.”

    Another fellow guidebook writer, Alison, responded to Luke’s comment on Twitter: “I hear you [on the anxiety] — figuring out where to start is stressful. Mark, I’m going to use your tip to concentrate on the cool spot between the nose and lip – fascinating!”

    A friend, Irena, wrote on Facebook that she actually tried the 10-minute method that I outlined in the post (with mixed results): “I tried the 10-mins method and fell asleep right away. It’s so hard not to think of anything, gosh …”

    Another friend, Simona, a practicing psychologist, basically said that she enjoyed the post, but had a few critical comments. Her first reaction was that she thought the post was going more personal than it was (after my introduction) and was disappointed when I tried to balance out the text with a more generalized perspective on meditation: “My impression was that you were starting saying [more personal] things about you, then you changed a bit the direction, so I was a little frustrated … [And] I don’t like Eckhart Tolle.”

    Psychologists never agree on anything :))

  3. Cornelia, a career coach, saw the post on LinkedIn and wrote the following:

    “I also use meditation on a daily basis and encourage my coaching clients to engage in this practice! And, after experiencing it for a month or so, they all see the great value that mindful meditation brings! Patience and everyday practice are essential.”

  4. I recorded this video, where I talk about striking a balance between Eckhart Tolle and Jocko Willink. In other words, a balance between meditation and working your ass off to crush the competition. You can meditate yourself stupid (I view meditation as a benign drug.

  5. I was a little nervous in advance of publishing the post on meditation. It was more personal, in some ways, than maybe I want to go with this blog, but on the other hand, why have a blog at all if you can’t share ideas that are important to you?

    This morning I woke up to an email in my account that I’d like to post here (deleting the name and personal information to protect the sender’s identity). You never know where these stories are going to go, and messages like this make you think somehow you might be on the right track. Mark Baker

    ———-
    Hi Mark,

    Thank you so much for the meditation blog, it [was] much needed and [a] ‘right time’ read for me. I could so relate to it; [I’ve] also have ordered the books you recommended and [am] now determined to focus on inside health than outside chaos.

    From last 2 weeks, I am getting really bad anxiety attacks and did not know at that time that they were anxiety attacks.

    It took two doctor visits, one ER visit, all the tests (blood, EKG, Brain CT and chest X-ray) and a huge bill to figure out that I am getting anxiety and panic attacks 😐

    I am on some anxiety reliever tablets too; hoping to recover fast. Thank you for the inspiration for meditation.

    Best,

    XXXX

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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