What is it about vacations that we love so much? Traveling someplace different? Meeting new people? Participating in a favorite hobby or past-time? Seeing a monument we’ve been dreaming about? Hearing a different language or accent? Trying locally ethnic foods? Smelling the ocean? Or do we love vacations because they are a way to separate ourselves from the hum-drum monotony of our daily lives for a unique experience, at least for a little while? To go a step farther, is going on vacation less a way to look for an adventure or relaxation, and more a distraction from the stresses of the bills, work-load, and run-around that weigh us down in our daily life?
All of the above, probably. Now, let’s think again about what we just said: we go on vacation to travel, meet, participate, see, hear, eat, and smell. In our experiences we desire to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell. We go to engage. We go to engage ourselves. We go to engage our senses.
Anybody who has ever gone to Disney World, will know that the whole experience is about engaging the senses and pulling us into their magical world so we can forget about the hum-drum of life back at home. And they are very good at it too. While there, a person can meet and touch the popular characters; see the lights and colors on the rides and shows; hear the constant, happy music; taste the exotic world foods (especially at Disney’s Epcot Center); and smell the spices, flowers and humid Florida air.
Unfortunantly, no one can afford to go to Disney World every day, unless they work there, and most of us do not even live close enough to visit on a regular basis. But, there’s good news: anybody can go on a mini-vacation in their own home – for free. And it’s really easy, very little practice necessary. All that is required is to be present.
What does that mean? How does one be present? All you have to do is activate your senses. That simple.
When you sit and rub a puppy’s soft belly, you are practicing presence both with the puppy and with your own tactile sense. When you admire a beautiful sunset or full moon, you are practicing presence with your visual sense. When you notice the songs of the first spring birds arriving, you are being present with your auditory sense. When you go to an Indian restaurant and try a delicious spicy curry with a side of warm naan bread, you are engaging your sense of taste, or gustatory perception. And when you sniff a bag of coffee, you are being present with your olfactory sense. Many of these activities I have described we would usually do quickly, as most of us would not sit for ten minutes smelling a bag of coffee (unless you are 3-years old). But what is to be learned from that 3-year old? That engaging those senses – and often – leads to happiness. And that is powerful.
Why aren’t we then taught this from age zero on up? Popular Western culture has branded much of Eastern classical knowledge that would include ritual and meditation as out-dated or new-aged hippy stuff, or disregards it altogether. Also, the advent and rise of TV engourages us to zone out while watching passively. Technological advances have encouraged us to connect to the world via internet or texts, but the irony is that we are then disposed to disconnect from those we are with and the place we are in as a result. Lastly, it can honestly be tiring to be present for long periods of time, because essentially, being present is being focused, and it’s easier to just not be. Never the less, I encourage you to give it a try because of the wonderful the benefits returned to you in the form of feel-good hormones and knowing that you are not just letting your life pass you by, but instead living it and taking advantage of the time you have.
At first you, while you are practicing presence, you may find your mind wandering. Know that that’s ok, as long as it’s not back to the hum-drum stuff you are trying to mini-vacation away from. Remember also that practice makes perfect and it may take a few tries for you to actually complete 10-minutes of presence.
Now, to the practice! How does one go about practicing presence? First, we can learn important techniques from the major religions of the world: prayer. Prayer is being present with God. When many people pray, oftentimes they bring in their worries and desires, when the foundation of prayer is just to be present with your diety and letting that diety be present with and in you. The parallel of this in Buddhism and yoga would be meditation, in which you practice present with yourself. As Janice Gates states in her Yoga Journal article, ‘Presence of Mind’, “Meditation is ultimately a way of being with the present moment, exactly as it is, with an open heart and an open mind.” The same is true for prayer. Try by closing your eyes and just feeling your body, explore the feel of whatever you are sitting or laying on. Then open your sense of smell and hearing and pay attention to the smells and sounds around you. If you are wanting to connect to your diety, allow your mind to open, but keep your mind free of worries and desires and just let yourself feel. Another method would be to keep your eyes open and focus on one thing, a common practice is candle meditation in which you focus on the moving flame of a candle.
Don’t be spooked away from practicing presence if prayer and meditation are not your thing, there are a few other activities you may choose from, and I heartily believe that there is one that will suit every personality.
The next method would be to go outside. I know that for myself, birding really engages my senses as I have to listen and look carefully to my immediate surroundings. What is normally background noise suddenly comes to the forefront when I’ve got binoculars in hand. If birds don’t excite you, you can prefer to draw on that old adage, ‘stop and smell the roses.’ Go ahead, stoop down and smell the flowers. But do more than that! Take the time to admire the hues, count the petals, listen to the hum of pollonating insects, and trace the leaf veins with your finger while you are at it. Just observing one flower can engage 4 of your senses. (If it is an edible flower, it may engage all of them, but be sure you know it’s edible before you try it!) Any green space out of doors can suffice for an outdoor mini-vacation experience.
Eating also engages the senses. When you eat you engage your visual, olfatic, and gustatory senses. If you are eating hot fajitas at a Mexican restaurant, the sizzling of the vegetables on the cast iron skillet will engage your auditory sense as well. For me, cooking is an adventure, and I get to do it multiple times a week! I love to cook world foods and share them with my family (although I’ve come to realize that my extended family sometimes wonders at my creations…). When I sit down for a meal, all of my senses are engaged. Over the past few years, I’ve found that my favorite vegetable is Swiss Chard because of the rainbow colored stems, and tough, tender, and crunchy textures all thrown into one dish. So, slow down, try a new food, or one with a different texture from what you would normally eat. As you enjoy your meal, take the time to smell your food, savor all the flavors, count the rainbow of colors, listen to the crunch as you munch, and let the textures of the food roll over your tongue (and your fingers if you desire).
Physical exercise is absolutely another way for a person to practice presence. If you are accustomed to counting every second until your time is up on the treadmill, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the pure joy of attending a Zumba Fitness class and being disappointed when it’s over. A class might be too long for you to fit in, but a mini-vacation could be merely free dancing in your living room with the volume blasting and just letting go of all your inhibitions and thoughts and just concentrating on moving your body to the beat. There is plenty of scientific literature that states that mulitple chemicals are released into the body during exercise, such as the “happy horomone” seratonin, oxytoxin, and endocrinal hormones. Some of these chemicals are released only from physical exertion, and anybody who regularly exercises knows of the “natural high,” felt upon completion.
A last way one could be present is with their kids, or someone else’s kids. Kids love to have attention shone on them, and if you spend your mini-vacation with them (though they may not even realize) they get to feel speical, it is a win-win situation. Sit with your child, or play a game, and while you do, notice their movements again like you did when they were learning something for the first time. Take in every detail of their face, down to their little upturned nose. Hold their hand and feel how soft and young their skin feels, how small their fingers are. Smell their hair, or a baby’s sweet breath (one of my favorite things). I don’t know about tasting the child, although if it were my daughter, she’d love it, but then she’d lick me back (no thanks)! Children are inherently open and honest so they are easy targets for practicing presence. They are also constantly moving, which might make focusing on them for 10-minutes easier than observing a stationary flower. A newborn baby is the easiest thing to focus on because it is so beautiful, soft and sweet, and it is acceptable to stop and admire them. Note also that these will be moments that you will never regret, taking time with your child to see them as they are.
I always find that after my own mini-vacation, I feel content. If I’ve meditated or done yoga poses, I feel limber and relaxed, in both mind and body. If I’ve gone outside to bird or observe nature, I feel elated and whole, I feel connected to the world. If I’ve cooked a new recipe, I feel exotic and healthy. If I’ve exercised, I feel strong and accomplished and free. If I’ve just watched my kids closely, I feel like all the sacrifices I make are worth it and I can forge ahead through whatever was bringing me down. So the next time you need to get away, don’t. Instead be right where you are, present for 10-minutes, and it might just make all the difference in your day.
Find out more at:
How Exercise Increases Feel-Good Hormones at Carol Whitaker: Transform Your Life to be Ridiculously Happy and Fit Today! <www.carolwhitaker.com>
Presence of Mind article at Yoga Journal <http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/2718>