5 Ways to take a Vacation Day right now

In Washington, some of the bars opened early yesterday so that people could come and drink while watching James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. All around the country people took the day off from work so that they could stay riveted to the TV. It’s a crazy world when this is how we’re spending our days off!

Instead of sitting on a barstool, however, I turned to my “52 Lists Project” journal for inspiration and distraction (although I confess to a few sneak peeks at the testimony). List #22 asks us to think of favorite places we have been and what made them so appealing. But that’s not the end — the next step is to think of places in our communities that could “transport” us the same way. In other words, can we bring the vacation experience to our everyday lives? Can we transport ourselves for a little while away from all the chaos of recent times?

When I list my favorite vacations, in places like Croatia, Hawaii, Seattle, Yosemite or Australia, here are some of the characteristics that pop out:

  • Simplicity
  • Scenic drives
  • Grandeur
  • Friendly people
  • Fresh food
  • Connections to the past
  • Bringing the outdoors in

How do I replicate that at home?

1. Simplicity & fresh food:

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When I visited Croatia, I was impressed by the beautiful national parks, the simplicity of people’s lifestyles, the ability to eat a meal where every bite of food came from the farm we were on. Here at home the next best thing is to make a meal based on what comes from the farmer’s market or my yard:

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2. Bringing the outdoors in:

Poipu Beach Park

In Hawaii, the thing I liked best was the way the boundary between indoors and outdoors was so blurred. Nearly everyplace I went was open to the outside; there wasn’t a big reliance on artificial air conditioning.  This is hard to achieve during summer in DC, but I could spend more time on the roof of my building, eat at more outdoor restaurants, and open my windows when the temperature allows:

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3. Grandeur. I haven’t been to Yosemite in years, but the grandeur of the park is something one can never forget. Its sheer rock faces, memorialized by Ansel Adams and countless photographers since him, are familiar even to people who haven’t been there. It’s a place that is just jaw-dropping in all seasons. What my area offers:

Great Falls_3Great Falls Park – the rocky passage of the Potomac down the Mather Gorge, accessible by way of the Olmsted Island bridges, provides a pretty awe-inspiring outing that I never tire of.

IMG_2318The monuments, while man-made, have a whole lot of grandeur about them.

4. Connections to the past:Rome - Colosseum, Forum, Palatine (12)In America, we can’t compete with the Greeks or Romans on the ancient past, but we do have the advantage of recent history here in Washington:

Arboretum_20120407_13The original columns from the U.S. Capitol can be seen at the National Arboretum.  The way they rise up out of nothing, in the middle of a huge expanse of green, is spectacular.

5. Scenic drives:

Great Ocean Road_226In both Ireland and Australia, I took breathtaking drives along coastal roads. That’s tougher to replicate here where we’re inland, but how about the cherry blossoms in spring:

Cherry Blossoms (2)

In some ways, this prompt is very much like a values exercise we do in stress management. It asks you to imagine your perfect day and what it would include, then compare it to your typical day. How alike are they? Is there a way to make more days perfect, by incorporating more of what you value?

The columnist Earl Wilson once said that, “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” As much as we might value watching important Senate testimony, a steady diet of it isn’t good for anyone. If you can’t take it anymore, perhaps it’s time to take a real vacation day.

 

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Spacious hearts in a big country

Generosity has been an important presence in my life this month. So I looked up the definition of the word, and I saw that two of its meanings are “readiness or liberality in giving” and “largeness or fullness”. I like those definitions, because truly, being ready and willing to give to others enlarges us beyond measure.

I’ve spent the past 2-1/2 weeks traveling in Australia, and I have been the beneficiary of countless acts of generosity. In Sydney, a business acquaintance invited us to his home for a relaxed and convivial family meal, because he knew that eating in restaurants night after night gets old. In Brisbane, a woman I met at dinner one night offered to drive me to the koala sanctuary I wanted to visit — and then paid for my entry once we got there. Volunteer guides at botanic gardens and art museums freely and pleasantly shared their knowledge and their passion for the treasures they oversee. The cheery people in the many small cafés and B&Bs always greeted us with a smile and an eagerness to talk about what they had to offer us.image

Sally Kempton writes that practicing generosity challenges “our trust in abundance” as well as “our ability to empathize with others”. Believing that we have enough for ourselves makes it easier to give to others, as does the perception that the person to whom we are giving has the same needs and desires as we do. The great gift of the people I met was their willingness to share, whether it was information, food or friendliness, without reservation or frugality. They acted on the assumption that our commonalities were greater than our differences, and didn’t hold back.

The connection that occurs between people when we are generous with each other is what brings fullness to us. The more we give, the more we have. It’s an expansion of the social network that takes us out of our narrow perspective and allows us to glimpse the web of possible interrelationships in the world. It enlarges our potential at the same time that it makes the world seem incredibly small and intimate.

Acts of generosity color our view of life, whether they are the kindnesses of strangers when we travel or the simple things we do for our friends and family every day. When we receive generosity, the view is as bright as a rainbow; and when we don’t, it can be as dark as a storm cloud. I saw a real rainbow one day during my trip, but I also like to think of it as a symbol of what I received.

In the zone

Comfort zone, time zone, twilight zone, euro zone, green zone, in the zone? As we traverse in and out of various kinds of zones, how can we keep as balanced and true to ourselves as possible?

I just came back from a trip to three different countries in 11 days. While this trip sets no kind of record for whirlwind travel, it still demanded an expenditure of energy in both mind and body to find some kind of equilibrium each day. Stepping into another country takes me to the borders of my comfort zone, at least at first. Then I add crossing time zones, and life definitely takes on a twilight zone feel!

While the body can be helped by following good travel advice like refraining from caffeine and alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and exposing oneself to sunlight every day, how do we handle the mental stress?

I love having new experiences, seeing unfamiliar places, learning new things – but such growth doesn’t happen in my comfort zone. So I had to think about how best to navigate the challenges of meeting a lot of new people, learning my way around strange cities and communicating in places where I don’t speak the language.

On my trip, I happened to be reading Search Inside Yourself, a new book by Chade-Meng Tan about the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum he started at Google. In the book, Meng describes the emotional competencies that (according to Daniel Goleman) make up self-awareness: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Meng, who describes himself as a shy person, discussed how he prepared for a speech to a large audience by using these competencies of self-awareness. He made his ego “small enough that my ‘self’ did not matter,” and big enough that he “felt perfectly comfortable speaking alongside” the luminaries at the event. He also kept in mind his strengths and limitations so that he could focus “on adding value where [he] could contribute most.”

I realized that by bringing mindfulness and self-awareness to my experiences on my trip, I was better able to deal with the challenges and turn them into positive events. I’m not the bravest or most out-going person in the world, but by staying present and paying attention to people and situations, I was able to increase my self-confidence and to use my strengths to my advantage. For instance, as a spouse at a dinner with people in an industry in which I do not work, sometimes I might feel inadequate or not “high-powered” enough. But by focusing on my strengths in my own field of stress management, and being mindfully engaged with each person I met, I found that I had plenty to contribute to conversations.

In a similar way, as I navigated streets and neighborhoods, I relied on my strong sense of direction, my curiosity and my desire to see everything to give me the confidence to explore on my own. But I tried to stay emotionally aware so that I would know when I needed a break in the “comfort” zone of my hotel room.

The British writer Lawrence Durrell once said, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” In that spirit, I’m still tapping into Search Inside Yourself at home now. I plan to use some of the book’s tools, such as journaling and body scanning, to build even greater self-awareness. After all, we never know when the next trip outside our comfort zone will happen.

Transition Time

I’m getting ready to leave on a trip out of the country, and I find myself looking forward to the airplane flight. Is it perverse to look forward to 8 hours stuck on a plane, with uncomfortable seats, so-so food and potentially irritating fellow passengers? Maybe, but the reason I’m anticipating it is because of the time it will give me to shift my perspective from the hustle and bustle of home/work/pre-trip preparation to the rhythm of days spent seeing new things and mastering unfamiliar cities.

Skipping transition time can make it more difficult to change tasks. From the toddler who has a tantrum when a play date abruptly ends, to the adult who has to go from meeting to meeting all day, everyone needs space to process change. When we don’t leave enough time before and after each activity, stress is often the result, either because we can’t stick to our hectic schedules, or because we just don’t have time to think.

When we experience stress in the emotional center of the brain, other executive functions of the brain are affected almost immediately. It’s harder to focus, we have trouble making decisions, and our ability to engage in abstract thinking is compromised. Some people can recover more quickly if they are psychologically resilient, but that usually is a result of a temperament you’re born with, or practicing stress management.

That brings me back to transition time as part of a stress management plan. It provides a psychological break between one thing and another that can allow us to process what just happened and to organize our thinking for what’s about to happen. It can also nurture our creativity. The Japanese chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa travels all over the world regularly. He said in a recent interview that, “I actually prefer a longer flight to a short one. That way I have time to read a book, watch movies, and think about new dishes.” If he didn’t have that time to just relax and think, would his restaurants be as successful as they are?

In this era of 24/7 availability, it is also welcome to have time on planes to be quiet. Although the advent of WiFi on planes has made it easier (and perhaps expected) that people will work during a flight, at least there are still no ringing and buzzing cell phones. We can all have a short break from immediate access.

My time during the flight will be spent with a book, maybe a game of Sudoku, and I hope, some sleep. I will enjoy hearing the accents of the Scandinavian flight attendants, adjusting my ear to the voices I will hear when I arrive. I’ll have time to breathe, to re-set my brain, and get ready to discover what the days ahead hold for me.

Finding my balance

After two long weekends in a row away from home, I am still struggling with a feeling of disequilibrium. Don’t get me wrong – both weekends were a lot of fun, and I don’t regret going away. It’s just that I feel off-balance from having so little time at home in between.

In the language of stress, this is what is called “eustress”. It’s the good kind of stress, the kind that comes with a happy event or something else that is desirable. But it still throws us off balance in a way that is similar to negative events. It knocks us out of our usual routines, and makes demands on our bodies and minds.

For some people, travel might be routine, but for me, not so much. The first thing that goes off-kilter when I travel is exercise. My careful routine of running, yoga, and weight-training two times a week is out the window. If I’m lucky, I get in one run and maybe some quick yoga.

Eating also changes. Sometimes the food choices aren’t so healthy, or the mealtimes are erratic, or there’s too much or too little of something. Fruit is something I don’t eat nearly enough of when I am away from home.

Sleep habits might also suffer. Strange or uncomfortable beds, noisy rooms, and time changes can all cause problems.

Mentally, the demands can be more subtle. If we’re traveling for pleasure, we try to shift to vacation mode, but work might still be on our minds, especially if we think about all the things that aren’t getting done while we’re away. If the trip is business-related, we might feel like we are missing out on family time. So we are not fully present in the place we’re supposed to be.

Then, just when we’re getting used to the place we’re in, it’s time to go home!

Now we’re faced with the work that is undone, the people who need our presence and the myriad details of our lives that need to be dealt with. Sometimes it can take days to catch up. Essentially, we are trying to regain “homeostasis”, our steady state.

David Agus, who has a new book out called The End of Illness, argues that to be healthiest, people need to keep to a regular daily schedule of eating, exercise, sleep and relaxation. Most people might find it difficult to eat meals or exercise at the same time every day as he suggests, but I can see how it might be very helpful during times of stress, whether that stress is eustress (good) or distress (bad).

When I get back from a trip, my sense of focus is poor. I don’t know which task to tackle first. The temptation is to skip exercise or sleep, and to use the time to catch up on all I’ve missed. That’s probably the worst thing that I could do. Getting back to my regular schedule will ultimately make me more productive.

Here’s what I’ve observed during my first days back:

  • Right before I left for my first trip, I started doing a 21-day meditation challenge on the Chopra Center web site. Although I missed a couple of days while I was away, I have been pretty diligent about doing the meditations once or twice a day since then. That has helped to keep me grounded and calm.
  • I’ve gone back to reasonably healthy eating, although I find that I am unusually hungry at odd times of the day. That’s probably the result of not eating on a regular schedule while I was away. But I’m expecting that in a couple more days, I’ll be back on track.
  • The exercise habit is kicking back in. It helps that the weather is warmer this week and I’ll be able to run outside over the weekend. That will also help with sleep and appetite.
  • By tomorrow, I’ll probably be caught up on my work, and I’ll feel good about that.

Am I looking forward to my next trip? Yes, but I’m glad it won’t be for at least a month. While I relish the challenge and stimulation of travel and new experiences, I’m happy now for the comfort and well-being of home and habit.