Car Free Day London 2019 Meditation Teacher and Mind:Unlocked founder Niraj Shah shares his experience of travelling from London to Greece this August and gives practical advice on how to stay calm and grounded if you choose vacation over a staycation this year.
Travelling in the times of pandemic! Was it a trip you booked in advance or a last-minute decision?
We made a late decision for this particular trip, but not a reckless or rushed one. My wife and I had booked three different fully cancellable short flights in July, August & September, but then decided that it made more sense to base ourselves in one place, to live and work from for a month. We can both work remotely and it’s normal for us to combine work and travel. We went from idea to rapid research to securing the ideal villa and flights in 36 hours!
Did you feel anxious at all?
No. We’re very experienced, regular air passengers and pre-pandemic plane travel wasn’t a stressful experience for us. We had already travelled once in the pandemic – to Mallorca, Spain in early July – so we also knew that our regular airline had good COVID measures in place. Importantly, we don’t have any other health conditions to consider or kids to look after. Either of those would have likely stopped us travelling by plane.
Additionally, we’re staying in a quiet part of a remote island (Rhodes, Greece), so we’re naturally distanced from crowds too. We’re aware of the worst-case scenarios in terms of lockdowns, quarantines and potential illness and have taken precautions that we feel comfortable with. Risk-based decision making with incomplete information is a regular feature of our business lives, that we also apply to our personal lives.
How was the vibe on the plane, at the airport – could you feel the intense energy or was it mellow, as usual?
We travelled on a Saturday morning in August, so Heathrow airport was busy! That said, the vibe felt pretty good to me. Airport staff seemed happy to be back at work and fellow passengers looked generally quite relaxed, all things considered. I have heard anecdotally that not all airport experiences in the pandemic have been as pleasant, so we may have got lucky.
You prepared really well for the trip. What exactly did you take with you?
For years I’ve travelled with a high quality 100% blackout sleep mask, earphones and a light hoodie. I see planes as one of the last bastions of WiFi free rest! The mandatory COVID face mask pleasantly completed the cocoon effect in a way that didn’t feel claustrophobic. I’m used to meditating on planes, but this combination helped me to internalise even faster and deeper. It was the closest I’ve felt to meditating either in a significantly quieter environment or a flotation tank, without actually being in a flotation tank. I’ll be continuing with it long after this pandemic is a distant memory.
And of course, you meditated! Did you focus on anything in particular during your pre-travel practice? Has meditation helped to relax on the plane too?
I LOVE meditating on planes. There’s no WiFi so that takes a major life distraction away, and it’s a really good way to zone out and journey inwards. Meditation undoubtedly helps to relax on planes, and I like the juxtaposition of turning what could have been a stressful experience into a deeply nourishing one. It’s incredibly freeing to learn and know that we have huge power over how we shape our subjective experiences.
In terms of my focus, in my experience as a teacher and guide of multiple meditation styles, the best meditation styles or techniques for each individual vary greatly based on each of our own lifestyles, goals, cognitive histories and preferences, so I don’t think sharing my focus on this occasion will be very helpful.
Meditation is as unique and individual as we are, there’s no one size fits all meditation style! For meditators or meditation learners, just try to do whatever it is you are practicing or learning at the moment and be kind to yourself.
Remember that a major brain growth opportunity in most meditative styles actually happens when you notice that you’ve become distracted and then you gently bring your focus back to whatever it was you were intentionally doing. That’s the opposite of the unhelpful idea that we need to clear our minds or try to think of nothing!
Bringing our focus back is doing a rep in the mental gym, it’s training our minds to go where we tell them to. That’s not an abstract “woo woo’ statement, it’s how our brains physically develop new neural networks that lead to new behaviours (in this case, increasing our ability to intentionally focus).
For those who are choosing vacation over staycation, but still feel anxious, what would be the solutions to bring more calmness to the experience of travelling in 2020?
- If someone is feeling very anxious about air travel, I think it’s better not to do it. There are so many beautiful places in our home countries, that we often overlook, and now there’s a chance to discover them by road or rail.If someone is really determined to travel by plane or they are in a situation where they decide to go along with it, then the following things can all bring more calmness to travelling in 2020:
- Get to the airport early, leave plenty of time for unexpected delays. It sounds so simple, but for most people just giving ourselves that gift of a little bit of space and time can take so much of the stress associated with travel away.
- Be mindful that you may encounter others who are feeling stressed, and more importantly that their behaviour has nothing to do with you. Everyone is being triggered more than usual, so it’s more important than ever to have the intention to diffuse situations rather than escalate them. This is a good thing to keep in mind whatever we’re doing and wherever we’re doing it.
- Have a plan for food. Know your airline’s current food and drink policy – particularly for longer flights – and take some of your own anyway so that you aren’t as susceptible to last-minute changes.
- Have a plan for your mind. That plan could be meditation, it could be reading a book, it could be writing. My plan is generally meditation and sleep, and perhaps reading or watching a movie depending on how long the flight is. It doesn’t matter what your plan is, it matters that you have a focus for your mind that takes you away from the fact that you are in close proximity to strangers, as it’s been credibly suggested that it’s that close proximity to strangers which feeds most of our air travel anxiety.
- Smile – everyone can clock a smile, even through face masks. It alleviates our own tension, it helps alleviate others’ tension. Everything we do has a ripple effect. What’s your ripple effect going to be
Niraj is known for his science-led, practical and personal approach to meditation; helping people around the world to integrate this powerful mental well-being habit into their modern, unique lives. He combines his interest in brain health, emotional well-being and technology with a love of travel and snowboarding. You can connect with him via Instagram or Mind: Unlocked.