As the latest pandemic wave seems to be easing, I am again thinking about traveling. I love to travel on vacation. A staycation can be nice, especially if there’s a lot to do around the home, whether that’s working on my home (decluttering and organizing anyone?) or just getting all the little things done that I usually don’t make time for. A break from working, but still at home.
Those homestay vacations give me a sense of accomplishment and relief from all the tasks I know need to be done, as well as the day-to-day stress of practicing medicine. But, they don’t cause my perspective to adjust. They don’t rejuvenate my joy for living.
I prefer to take restorative vacations, where I come back refreshed and recharged and really ready to get back to work. A friend asked me the other day, what makes a vacation really great, what makes it restorative? It’s not the activity per se, but how I experience it.
Am I present or am I mentally visiting the recent past or future? Am I thinking about what to do next or am I enjoying each moment that occurs? Am I worried about patients back home or how much I will have to do when I get back there?
Am I rushing around Florence, ticking off sights in a Rick Steves guidebook, climbing the steps of the Duomo to get to the top, treating the vacation like a series of tasks to get finished, or am I noticing during the climb that all the narrow stone steps have a dip in the middle where centuries of people have climbed before me?
Am I observing the rooftop gardens that people have built? The architectural and cultural blend of the historical and the modern. Can I still taste the buttery crust of the croissant from that little place on the plaza (I can)? Because I took the time, I took the attention, to experience it fully when it happened.
That being said, my favorite vacations are ones where being present is so easy that it happens without being intentionally mindful about it. For me, that usually involves a vacation where the activities are set and/or the location/experience is all-inclusive. That way, I don’t have to consider, “What to do today?” I don’t have to plan, but instead, just enjoy the adventure before me.
I don’t have to think about where to eat or how to get there; those decisions are made for me. Then I can just relax and let it unfold. One of the astonishing things about this type of vacation is that they invariably feel like I’ve been gone for a month rather than the actual 7 to 10 days or so. And they are definitely more restorative.
The other thing these vacations do is adjust my perspective. About family and friends, work, and life in general. It allows me to review what in my life is serving me and what needs some attention and what outright needs to change. It also forces me to realize where I am in the grand scheme of things. This in turn helps me take myself and my perceived troubles less seriously. This quote really sums it up.
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
– Gustave Flaubert
And that is why I have gone back many times to safari in Africa or to do a walking tour on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The arrangements are set. There’s no thinking to be done. There is just experiencing. There is just living in a temporary place out of normal time. And while it feels familiar because I’ve been there before, it is far from boring. Because the present is so compelling when you’re actually in it and not having a busy mind about some past or future concerns.
I also usually have minimal, if any, contact with work. I don’t check into the EMR or email and risk my time away being hijacked by whatever is going on there. I set out-of-office replies, so people know I was away. There is a coverage system that I trust, so I knew problems would be handled. And the coverage knows how to reach me if it is critical. This separation also provides clarity for other people, as well as myself, that my focus is on the present time, location, and activity.
So when you’re next on vacation, whether it’s at home or away, allow yourself to really sink into the present. Focus your attention on the five senses in turn. Notice what each one is telling you about where you are. Consider what emotions you’re experiencing. Unplug yourself from the work back home in whatever way you can. Keep your mind in the present by taking these moments multiple times a day to become aware of both your physical and emotional state.
See if that brings you home in a more rested state. And more ready to resume work.
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