Delayed flights. Crowded busses. And traffic – oh, the traffic. Traveling around the holidays can turn even the jolliest elf into a stressed, bitter grinch – muttering curses at ticket agents and wishing the unhappiest of holidays to other travelers. Not this year. 'Tis the season for letting the other guy merge into your lane, for celebrating airport gate changes as exercise opportunities and for traveling stress-free so you can arrive to your holiday celebration calm, collected and hopefully not terribly late.
To achieve this level of peace on earth in your car, at the airport or in any other stressful situation, follow these tips from meditation experts Catherine Kerr, director of translational neuroscience for Brown University's Contemplative Studies Initiative, and Victor Davich, author of "8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life."
Get grounded. Literally, and we mean you, not your plane – that certainly wouldn't help your travel stress. Simply focus on whatever surface you're standing, sitting, walking or running on, Davich says. If you're in a car or taxi surrounded by traffic notice how the seat feels and the sensation of sitting. Kerr tries to focus on the sensations of the soles of her feet – a perfect exercise for, say, standing in the ticketing line. "If I have trouble focusing on that, I even sway slightly to activate that sensory experience in the bottoms of my feet," she says, adding that the swaying is subtle enough that others won't notice and shoot you odd looks. Another option to activate this feeling in your feet? Shift your weight from one foot to another.
Walking meditation is another technique in which you shift your focus to the feet, and it's ideal for waiting at the airport or train station or when stretching your legs at a rest stop. Kerr explains this technique in the article "3 Meditation Techniques for Beginners."
Breathe. When we're stressed, we often fall into a repetitive loop of negative thoughts. (Why is the plane late? Where's the crew? Why won't they upgrade my seat?) When you find yourself in this inner dialogue, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, and concentrate on your breath. "See if you can notice the fact that you're breathing," Kerr says. "That simple act of shifting away from the story and the emotions that it's provoking can be really helpful."
Note the rising and falling of your breath. Focus on where in your body you feel the physical sensation of your breath entering and leaving, whether it's your lungs, abdomen, tip of your nose or elsewhere. "Your mind is going to wander back to the story of 'when does my plane arrive,' and when that happens, you can notice that and just smile, because that's what the mind does," Kerr says. At that point, gently bring your attention back to your breath, Kerr says, adding that you might have to redirect your focus 10 to 20 times in an eight-minute period.
Ideally, you'd do this breathing exercise for eight to 10 minutes and set a timer with a gentle noise on your phone, Kerr says, but you can feel an effect starting around three minutes.
Smile. "This is a funky thing we've taught to medical students," Kerr says, "It's called the inner smile." As you focus on your breath, slowly shift your attention to your jaw and try to relax any tension you feel there. Now try the slightest of smiles – one that likely no one else will notice. Observe how you feel as you practice this smile for a few minutes.
Acknowledge anger. If you find yourself uncharacteristically snapping at your kid in the backseat, or imagining yourself telling off a ticket agent, stop and notice that anger and how you feel, Kerr says. "You're not blaming anyone; you're stepping back and saying, 'Oh, that's anger.'"
Recognizing your anger is another way to break free from that cycle of unproductive, negative thoughts about, say, where this traffic came from, and why you didn't leave earlier, and how you're going to be late for dinner, and everyone will be mad at you. Sure, at certain points in your travel these are important thoughts to consider. In this case, you may have to call and break the news to Mom that you'll arrive later than expected. But you may hit a point when you're stewing and even obsessing. "One thing that happens when you get hyperfocused on a difficult situation is that you start to lose the big picture," Kerr says. "At a certain point, that becomes counterproductive. You want to notice that, and when you do, that's mindfulness."