By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Fatigue sets in, rigidity applies, and all creativity and innovation are lost — both of which need time away for other activities to increase the probability of new ideas. Unhealthy overwork costs companies money for healthcare and creates stressful and unrewarding lives, both of which detract from the good work they are supposed to be furthering.” – Lotte Bailyn
The Buddha taught that we should follow the middle way. He taught that an instrument’s string, if it is too loose, it doesn’t produce a note and if it’s too tight it will break. It is best in the middle, producing beautiful music. So it is with us. To be successful in almost anything, but especially in our spiritual practice, we must follow the middle way. We should neither meditate too little or too much, we should neither work too little or too hard, we should not relax too much or too little, we should not eat too much or too little, etc. We should find the happy medium in all things.
Unfortunately, Americans do not follow the middle way. In their careers they work far too hard. Hard work is laudable and productive if balanced with sufficient rest, relaxation, exercise, and being with family and friends. But for far too many Americans, work has been overemphasized and has become over weighted in their lives’ balance sheets. One clear example of this is vacation time. It’s gotten so bad that America has been dubbed the “No-Vacation Nation.” Fully 41% of Americans took no vacation at all in 2015 and another 17% said that they took fewer than 5 vacation days. In other words, approximately 2/3rds of Americans took less than a full week of vacation in the entire year.
It is estimated that half a billion days of vacation that were available to Americans are not taken each year. In addition, many of the vacation days taken were used not for rest and relaxation, but for other work or medical needs. To make matters worse, Americans when they do take real vacation bring their laptops and cell phones with them and continue working even while supposedly relaxing on a beach somewhere. It is no wonder that Americans are so overworked, stressed, and unhappy. It is no wonder that Americans suffer from stress related diseases. As the Boston Globe commented “we are a nation of vacation-deprived, work-obsessed, business casual-attired zombies.”
Under the conditions of stress, overwork, and lack of sleep experienced by most Americans, vacation becomes terribly important. It can begin to rebalance life by increasing rest and replenishment. We have to give vacation a much higher priority and not only take our available vacation, but use it as it was intended. In addition, it is important that we not only prioritize and take vacations, but also that we take them mindfully. This means that we should invest vacation time in reconnecting with our world, ourselves, and our families. We should rest, relax, and have some fun, but do so totally in the present moment, without distraction.
To reconnect we need to disconnect; that is, we need to remove all of those distraction that so occupy our time and attention, that we end up without connection to those things that really matter. On the death bed there is no recorded incident where the person regretted not working enough or not making enough money, or sending enough emails, or not making more tweets or social media posts. What they regret is not having spent enough time with family and friends, not investing in their own happiness and that of others, and not being themselves and letting their emotions out. These are what we must reconnect to. This is what vacations are designed to do.
It’s really important to disconnect. Get away, staycations involve far too many distractions. Leave the computers and cell phones at home. Go somewhere where you can disconnect from the net. Go somewhere that you enjoy and where you can rest, the beach, the mountains, the wilderness, etc. Go there with the people you are closest too. It would be useful if TV and radio were unplugged; nothing to stand between you and a real vacation. This can be difficult to do as many vacation spots pride themselves in providing you with all of the things that distract you at home. But make the effort to either go somewhere where these things are absent or turn them off when you get there. In this way you can truly spend time in the present moment. Get to really know yourself and perhaps your family.
You should begin with sleep and rest. Before you set an agenda to do anything, first get physically rested. So many people in the modern world are actually sleep deprived and don’t realize it. When they go on vacation the first things they do is dive into activities and exhaust themselves further. The first step in having a vacation should always be to start letting your body rest and recover. Take my word on it, your vacation will be so much better if you do this. Sleep late, take naps, don’t schedule much on the first couple of days of vacation. There is a tendency to feel that vacation time is precious, which it is, and shouldn’t be wasted on doing nothing, but actually it should. This is much more important to the quality and effectiveness of your vacation than you can imagine. Prioritize it and you’ll be amazed at how much more you get out of your vacation.
Once you’ve disconnected, it’s time to reconnect. Spend some time just being still and quiet. Just look carefully and mindfully at your surroundings, hear the sound, smell the aromas, connect totally with your environment. Don’t feel that you need to finish and move on to the next thing, you’re doing the next thing. Recognize how hard it is for you to do this and see how conditioned you are to constantly return to those things that you’re trying to get away from. Watch your thoughts. See how they keep looking for something else other than what is right in front of you. Notice how they return again and again to work and your daily distractions. This may not be easy but it can be a revelation. It can show how much you need to reprogram yourself to achieve balance. If you stick with it, slowly, ever so slowly, it will begin to take hold and you’ll begin the long process of becoming truly mindful.
Spend time with you family and friends. But, do so without distractions. Don’t watch TV, go to a movie or send each other text messages. Really be with them. The most important thing that you have to give them and they you, is undivided attention. Once again, it may be hard to do. We’re so programmed to be with people while doing something else. Drop out the something else and you can truly be with people. Practice deep listening. As someone else is talking, don’t be thinking of your response or the next thing you’re going to say, simply listen, really listen, deeply listen, to what it is that they’re trying to communicate. Then, when it’s your turn, you’ll be continuing on the same theme they were. You’ll truly be responding to them, not showing how smart or clever or funny you are, but how compassionate, understanding, and caring you are. This also will take time. Your conditioning is deep and strong. But, if you stick with it, slowly, ever so slowly, it will begin to take hold and you’ll begin the long process of becoming truly connected to those you’re closest too and they to you.
Next, mindfully watch yourself. Take note of when you feel happy and when you don’t, when you feel relaxed and when you don’t, when the people around you are happy and when they’re not. Feel what it feels like when you happy at a visceral level, not in your mind, but in your body. Let theses explorations reveal to you what is really important for making yourself and others happy. Don’t look at peak moments, those are obvious. Rather look at the little moments of contentment and happiness. These are the ones that make up most of your life. If you can learn them, you can begin to arrange your life to promote happiness. If you stick with it, slowly, ever so slowly, it will begin to take hold and you’ll begin the long process of becoming truly happy.
Finally, don’t leave what you’ve gained on vacation behind. Try to take it with you as you return to work and everyday life. The lessons that you’ve learned need to be practiced there as well to insure that vacation has a continuing effect. It’s hard to do and probably shouldn’t be tried all at once with everything. Just see if you can incorporate some of what you’ve learned occasionally into daily life. Try listening deeply at least sometimes with some people, try getting a good night’s sleep as often as you can, try to notice how you feel at times when you’re happy, and try to occasionally be mindful. Give it a shot. The positive effects it has will reinforce it and slowly, ever so slowly, it will creep more and more into your life.
These are my recommendations for a mindful vacation. But, everyone is different. You’ll need to explore for yourself what works for you and what doesn’t. There are no rules and no mandatory processes or activities. Learn from your experiences and experiment with new experiences. Look at it as an investigation which is based upon what produces well-being and happiness in yourself and the people around you. In other words, vacation mindfully.
“The benefits are huge. Not only is the society measurably happier, but workers are more rested and productive, relationships are closer and people are healthier.” – Terry Hartig
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies