Four Paths to Happier Travel

We’ve all heard the old adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” but rarely does anyone tell us how to appreciate the journey, especially the more unpleasant parts.

I couldn’t think of a better person to address this topic than Sharon Salzberg. A major influencer in the mindfulness revolution, much of Sharon’s life is spent traveling the world to teach classes, lead retreats, and promote her books (most recently, Real Happiness at Work). Here are her thoughts on how to enjoy all the little steps we take between point A and point B in our lives.

1. Wait with lovingkindness.

That’s not a typo. Sharon is one of the world’s great ambassadors of lovingkindness (aka metta)—what she describes as “a sense of benevolence or recognition that our lives are connected and that everybody wants to be happy.” I recently returned from one of her retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, where we practiced lovingkindness every waking hour for a week. While it was profoundly transformative, such rarified conditions are not necessary. Applying the principles of lovingkindness can transform any experience, anywhere—even the time we spend in airports.

Waiting and rushing seem to be common modes of being when we’re in transit. While many of us waiting to get through airport security will fret, fume, or fiddle with our phones, Sharon uses this time to practice lovingkindness toward her fellow travelers by repeating, “Be happy and safe and get to where you want to get to”—in her head—as each person in front of her passes through the full body scan. She does this again before takeoff on each flight she takes. Many travelers experience anxiety during this time, and lovingkindness is a powerful antidote.

As Sharon points out, offering phrases of lovingkindness for someone does not require that we like them or approve of their actions (e.g., screaming at airport employees who are simply trying to perform their job). In addition to being a good and simple reminder that we all deserve recognition and respect, this practice also reinforces our interconnectedness.

Practical Tip: Try practicing lovingkindness whenever you find yourself waiting in your travels. A bonus tip from another one of my teachers, Winnie Nazarko: Avoid making eye contact when you’re offering lovingkindness to someone, as it can make them uncomfortable.

2. Be where you are.

It’s an obvious suggestion, right? Be where you are. Yet consider how often our attention drifts to worry when we’re traveling. Did we remember everything? How will we get there, and will we be on time? What will this unknown place be like when we arrive?

In order to relate more mindfully to your experience when you’re en route, Sharon suggests paying close attention to what’s happening around you—and within you. Look out the window. Listen to the sounds you hear. Home in on the tension spots in your body and, as you notice them, take a few deep breaths and see how much you’re able to relax. “Even if [the relaxation] doesn’t last,” says Sharon, “it’s going to be a respite.” When your attention is focused on where you are, you’ll arrive at your destination in the best possible state of mind.

Practical Tip: Meditation is a powerful tool for knowing and being where we are. If you’re interested in starting or deepening a meditation practice, Sharon’s book, Real Happiness, is a great resource.

3. Adopt a “travel mantra.”

When we’re faced with a disruptive experience while traveling, a flight cancelation perhaps, the mind can become overwhelmed by negative hypotheticals. I’ll be late. I’ll miss my connection. I’ll end up in Portland after midnight. There will be no cabs. And so on.

Anxiety happens. Even Sharon, who has practiced meditation for more than four decades, still feels it. It’s how we relate to this anxiety that makes all the difference.

Sharon developed a mantra to help herself cope: “Something will happen.” Attempts to control what is out of our control heap needless suffering atop already stressful situations. Reminding ourselves of the simple fact of uncertainty helps us avoid what Sharon describes as “the tendency to get lost in an unpleasant world of our own creation.”

For instance, during a recent travel experience, all the passengers on my flight were asked to change planes after boarding because of technical difficulties. As I walked to my seat on the new plane, a grumbling passenger advised me to hold onto my boarding pass because we would inevitably be asked to change planes again. While that woman was living in a negative delusion, the plane took off and took us safely to our destination. Something will happen.

Practical Tip: If there’s a practical action to be taken when setbacks occur, such as booking a new flight, then do that. If there’s no productive action to be taken, see what it’s like to not act out of anxiety and trust that the situation will be resolved in its own time.

4. Remember to keep things in perspective. 

I often encounter people who characterize meditation and, by extension, people who meditate, as passive. Sharon, a true New Yorker, is perhaps the best one to dispel this notion.

As Sharon puts it, “travel is like a contract.” Many of us have experienced the breakdowns of this contract: lost luggage, last-minute gate changes, missed connections, canceled flights. But it’s the manner in which we confront such difficulties that defines our character. Sharon believes it’s important for travelers to remember that “our needs and frustrations can be expressed without [assigning] personal blame.”

Start by asking yourself, “Do I want resolution, or do I want to tyrannize?” When the passengers on my flight were asked to change planes, I saw a number of people choose the tyranny route, which only delayed the resolution of their problem and compounded their agitation.

Practical Tip: If you find yourself in a stressful situation, keep in mind the resolution that you seek. During the negotiation, see how much it’s possible to remain true to that deepest intention without falling into the blame game. If you drift toward shaming behavior, see if you can return your focus to your pursuit of a resolution.

Jared Gottlieb is a storyteller and meditation teacher. Follow him on Twitter at @JaredGottlieb.

Do you have tips for how to be mindful and present when you’re exploring the world? Share them with the the Nat Geo Travel community by leaving a comment below.

> More from Jared:


  1. Jared Gottlieb
    June 1, 2014, 3:52 pm

    Right on, Glory B.

  2. Jared Gottlieb
    May 16, 2014, 6:06 am

    Virginia, thanks for the reminder to respond to Molly S.

    Molly S., I’d intended to respond to your comment, but it got away from me, glad to be able to respond now. A deep bow to your practicing meditation in such stressful circumstances. I’ve found in my own experience, self compassion practice is the most effective response when immersed in such challenging situations. Putting my hand to my heart or my cheek, physically expressing self-care, and then sending the message inwardly, “darling, it’s okay,” or “may this suffering pass with ease.”

    Wishing you well with your travels and meditation practice.

  3. Glory B.
    May 13, 2014, 3:53 pm

    Lovingkindness may not always help; but now in my middle 70s, my mantra is “attitude is everything.”

  4. Virginia Gaines
    New Mexico,USA
    May 13, 2014, 11:56 am

    I notice, Jared, that you have nothing to say to Molly S. who had a devastatingly difficult time in Shanghai with the authorities. What about lovingkindness? What about finding something to say to her from your heart? I have noticed this before–you “lovingkindness” people are not so loving toward those who present you with difficulties. Your vaunted “lovingkindness” is just complete mush.

  5. NinaK
    May 12, 2014, 3:25 pm

    I travel internationally with my kids. I have learned that impatience is contagious and if I become anxious or angry, then my kids follow suit.
    There are ALWAYS delays or “issues” with travel. I have learned to take it all in stride and to show my kids that we can have fun no matter where we are, even stuck in a customs line. Life is an adventure, and sometimes, the best ones happen on the way there!

  6. RIchard Levine
    May 12, 2014, 3:15 pm

    I’ve been a meditator for 23 yrs. Long flights are the most stressful thing I can think of. Unruly screaming kids and their apathetic parents? Add a cramped sleepless nite too. Bose QC-15’s are the best and are worth every penny. Fellow passengers have offered to buy them from me. I see more and more people flying with them on. So tune out all irritants and tune in classical/new age.

  7. Jared Gottlieb
    April 29, 2014, 10:49 pm

    Thanks, Claire. I can appreciate how that would be a powerful practice for staying in the moment.

  8. Claire Algarme
    April 25, 2014, 1:30 am

    I like your article. I sometimes stop myself from posting too many photos while on travel because I want to savor the moment and take everything around me in. Only when I get to the hotel or when I’m done with my travel that I upload photos or blog about it.

  9. Molly S
    United Kingdom
    March 31, 2014, 2:46 am

    I wish I could say I could put my love for meditation into practice when stuck in a pressured, travel situation, but I found recently when transferring in Shanghai that it’s easier to say then do. Currently on the first leg of a solo, 6 month travel adventure I am residing in New Zealand and moving on to Australia in May. Whilst on the way to NZ Chinese immigration refused to let me through onto my transfer flight due to the fact that I did not yet have an electronic visa on my passport for Aus. I tried explaining that the free visa is only valid for 3 months so if applied now then it will have run out by the time I was actually in Aus so I was going to put it on before I left NZ (this has made logical sense to EVERYONE ELSE I have spoken to since the incident) but it was not enough for the lady behind the desk. I can now say that I have been to Shanghai and have a new stamp in my passport; the only resolution was to pay to use a computer, with terribly slow internet, outside the confines of the airport and then pay again to have an instant electronic visa on my passport for longer than I needed. It cost me time and money and a lot of high blood pressure for immigration to be happy to let me back through and I can tell you, the last thing I was thinking whilst running around trying to find help from staff with broken English, with no local currency and believing I was going to miss my transfer because I had committed an immigration felony and was now stuck in Shanghai… was sitting in a lotus on the floor and going ‘Aum’ or chanting in my head. And I’ve been studying the art of meditation for 2 years… the most I could muster was a breathing exercise where I put my head between my knees during a panic attack! Sure a delayed flight is annoying but at least you’ve got the time to kill. I got to my gate with a half hour before the flight… only then could I stick my ipod in (to drown out the screaming child) and put on my meditation playlist.

  10. robertus chandra
    March 30, 2014, 9:13 pm

    artikel yang sangat bagus, saya juga mulai menikmati perjalanan dimana tujuan wisata bukan yang nomor satu, namun perjalanan itu sendiri yang bisa kita nikmati untuk makin memahami hidup dan kehidupan. beretmu dengan banyak orang, budaya, adat kebiasaan, makanan khas, agama dan masih banyak lagi yang lainnya.
    salam dari kami.
    tuhan memberkati kita semua

  11. Jared Gottlieb
    March 29, 2014, 3:24 pm

    Andrea, great points. I’ve often noted how my girlfriend’s crafting projects are an expression of lovingkindness. She’s often cross-stitching a design for someone, and each stitch is infused with care for the recipient of the pattern.

  12. Jared Gottlieb
    Washington, D.C.
    March 29, 2014, 3:21 pm

    Kathy and Melanie, I appreciate you sharing your experiences with lovingkindness in transit. Melanie, inspiring to hear how potent the practice has been for you. The conversation about the crying baby challenge made me think of another aspect of lovingkindness: wishes of unconditioned goodwill for ourselves. When there’s agitation present, often I find it helpful to direct the lovingkindness inward: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I live with ease.” or a phrase of compassion: “May this suffering pass with ease.”

  13. Andrea Johnson
    Oakland, CA
    March 27, 2014, 5:34 pm

    I learned at an early age that life is full of waiting, so it’s best always to carry something with which to occupy myself while waiting. When I find myself delayed in travel, I’ll see if there’s anything I can do to mitigate the delay, such as finding an alternate means to get where I’m going. If all I can do is wait, I have something to read or some knitting or other handwork to occupy and calm myself while waiting. Either way, I always try to be courteous and sympathetic with everyone involved. There’s no point in blaming the gate agent if my flight was delayed by bad weather, for example. Likewise, even though the sound of a crying child grates on my nerves, I feel sympathy for the parent, because I remember when my own child was small and sometimes cranky for no reason.

  14. Kathy Cormack
    Huntington Beach, CA
    March 27, 2014, 1:47 pm

    Melanie, you must be a saint! Although I do try to practice “lovingkindness” in my now retired life, (bad drivers, cheating golphers, etc.). But while travelling on business, I always wished the airlines would have had assigned seating in one area for travellers with children so other travellers could choose to sit near infants & seat kicking kids, or at least be prepared before boarding.

  15. Melanie Bernstein
    Washington, DC
    March 27, 2014, 8:48 am

    Great post, Jared! As a frequent business traveller, I find the “lovingkindness” meditation a real help in stressful airport situations. And when there’s a crying baby on the plane and I’m irritated and annoyed, I find that wishing the baby well and happiness has a way of banishing my own irritation.