Vacations ideally consist of a good dose of excitement and adventure, but most importantly a healthy serving of rest and relaxation. At the end of the year, most of us are desperately counting down to the day when we can get away from the hubbub of school concerts and holiday parties.
This year we traveled to Kenya. Our first stop was camping on the Masai Mara Reserve. Our tents were pitched on the banks of the Mara River, facing a hippo hideout. There was no running water or electricity, translating to early bedtimes for all. Here was my opportunity to unplug completely. I trusted that I would immediately transition into total relaxation mode upon arrival. Alas, it was not so.
To start, I woke frequently during the night from jet lag and the very loud calls from the hippos across the water. Then, there was the pursuit of seeing the Big Five - the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The morning and afternoon schedule of game drives was more taxing than I anticipated. In the midst of bumping along in a Landcruiser, experiencing the anxiety of perhaps failing to see what we came for, my mind continued to ruminate about either the past or the future. My thoughts ranged from rehashing unresolved disagreements and things left undone before going on holiday, to unexpressed emotions and our next travel plans. I was stuck in the thought loop from early December.
It took me twelve days to still my mind. Ironically, it was in the second destination on the Laikipia Plateau that I was able to unwind. The retreat offered more familiar accoutrements of relaxation: a pool, a gym, and a spa. Our pace slackened. The game drives became more leisurely, since we had seen our fill of wild animals on the Mara. We had checked off the Big Five as well as a plethora of exotic birds, warthogs, giraffes, crocodiles, and cheetahs. The goal of our outings was now to simply be out in the wilderness, enjoying the clear blue skies, the huge white clouds, and the handful of animals that do not exist on the Mara. Relaxed at last, my mind wandered no more.
I felt like I could really take it all in: the delicious food, the laughing children, and the cadence of nature's sounds. It was here, in this space and time, that my eyes were opened to a different level of being in the now moment. The conduit to this experience was our young nature guide. While climbing across rocks to a waterfall one afternoon, he heard the song of a black-headed oriole. He stopped to listen and prompted me to pick it out by softly whistling its tune. He said that this bird was his favorite precisely because of its crisp, melodious song. He smiled widely and said, "Honestly, when I hear that bird, I just feel good inside." I was stunned. There was so much joy and passion in that statement. I was jolted by its most obvious message: "Be present!"
As we enter a new year, remember that being present moment-to-moment removes the anxiety of every day. It literally carries you away from the never-ending train of thoughts about yesterday or tomorrow, things beyond your control, and more. Gratitude for the simplest things creates immediacy. Stop and listen to the chirping birds, smell those roses, and be here. Now.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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