Three months ago, my morning routine was inviolable. I woke up, ate breakfast, checked emails, finished my coffee, went to the bathroom (if we’re being honest), and then meditated for ten minutes. One time I sank so deeply into meditation that it felt like I was observing the glittering surface of reality from a quiet place in my subconscious. Most of the time my meditation went like this:
MONKEY MIND: Inhale. Focus only on your breath.
MONKEY MIND: …but why didn’t he text though.
MONK MIND: Ok, we know how to handle this. We just had a thought. Thoughts aren’t good or bad. They just are. We observed a thought, ergo, we are meditating.
MONKEY MIND: …it’s been, what, 36 hours? The last text he sent was Monday night, but that was just an “OK,” so it doesn’t count. The last substantive text he sent was on Saturday afternoon. Saturday to Sunday is 24 hours, Sunday to Monday…
MONK MIND: Wow, the thought is getting more intrusive. Um, let’s use imagery to return to the present. Imagine the thought is a leaf. Envision the leaf floating on a stream, gently bobbing away. The thought is ephemeral.
MONKEY MIND: Oh there are many more leaves where that came from.
My meditations were inconsistent in quality, but they were sufficient enough in quantity — owing to my daily habit — that I began to notice more of my own mind every day. I began to recognize chariots of anxiety racing around my head, and in recognizing them, slowed their pace. I began to notice my breath after climbing stairs, and in noticing, appreciated my physical health. Most of all, I began to see: The coat buttons of my fellow commuters; the frayed orange carpet of the metro floor; the oyster-shell color of the winter sky when I left the office.
As I began making plans to quit my job and traipse through Europe, I knew travel would force me to change or abandon many of my daily habits habits. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for the excuse of travel to give up exercising, eating healthy, and flossing. I didn’t think, however, that travel would interfere with my meditation practice. Just the opposite.
If mindfulness caused me to see new things, I hypothesized, seeing new things would cause me to be mindful. I imagined my seven weeks abroad as a long honeymoon with the present. Between catching glimpses of cake-frosting cornices in Paris to wandering between ochre walls in Rome, how could there be any space in my mind for “Why didn’t he text”?
Well, after a four-day fling among Paris’ cake-frosting cornices, guess what I was wondering while wandering between the ochre walls of Rome …
I had confused cause and effect. Mindfulness facilitates seeing, yes, but the inverse is not true. Mindfulness hinges on habit.
On the road, I no longer adhered to my routine of breakfast, coffee, bowel movement (if we’re being honest), and meditation. Every morning brought a new jumble of biscotti, hostel bathroom run-ins, and blaring Italian talk shows. To keep up with my mindfulness practice, I needed to yoke meditation to a new habit. But what? I searched my journals for clues to things I did consistently, even while living out of a suitcase.
The answer: Gelato.
I’ve had gelato almost every day since arriving in Italy. To bring my monkey mind back to the present, today I challenged myself to study my daily gelato and the experience of eating it. To be fully present with my scoop of pumpkin chocolate chip gelato; to feel it melt on my tongue like a sweet, cold slipstream; to appreciate the contrast between an icy lick and the warm afternoon sun on my face and the mild breeze tickling the back of my neck; to enjoy the echoing shouts of an Italian toddler terrorizing pigeons in the piazza while I crunch through a sugar cone.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t mean for this story to make you jealous. But that’s a secondary goal. My primary goal is to share that traveling is not the shortcut to mindfulness that I — and perhaps you — thought it was. Rejoice: You don’t need to survive on plastic-wrapped Air France croissants and sleepless nights in eight-person dorms to be truly present. You just need to relate meditation to a habit you already have.
How sweet is that?