Slow travel is the best medicine for your stressed out brain.

Pedestrians on the streets of Kyoto, Japan.

People have been taking vacations as escapes from their day-to-day stress since forever, and a cocktail with an umbrella served on a chaise lounge looking at the ocean is one way to clear your mind. Except, not really. Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel about learning how regardless of where we are, we’re still harboring all of the stress, guilt, worries and billions of other thoughts in our head. Our bodies might be drinking Mai Tais with the sound of ocean waves in the background, but our minds are still somewhere else. So if you’re a normal human and you’re carrying around real emotional problems, your mind has carried those problems across the world to your vacation destination much like how you packed your socks and underwear. Your brain is like the largest carry-on bag, but instead of socks, it’s filled with a lifetime of preconceived ideas, stresses and billions of other thoughts, ready to deliver from any vantage point in the world. That’s wonderful, until it isn’t.

So how do you clear your mind from all of the thoughts, ideas and worries that it seems to bring wherever you go? Maybe this is what those trephination people are seeking when they drill holes in their skulls. Probably not something you want to explore in your living room, with that Home Depot cordless drill you got for Christmas. Most might agree that nothing clears the mind like meditation. The entire act after all, is focused on eliminating thoughts from your skull, so that you can be more in the moment post meditation. You put in a few minutes now, and you’ll be present later in the day, when your girlfriend really needs you to be. Maybe there’s another way.

I’ve often said that I’m only home when I’m somewhere else.

This mostly nonsensical phrase means something to me in my heart and mind. I never really understood how or why, but I’ve always been at peace when I’m in a place that’s foreign and far away. I’ve started to think about this a lot in the last year, having traveled to more places than usual. Some destinations cleared my mind, and others allowed my brain to bring all of the problems I was having before I left to be unpacked in the new location. Why?

It’s not the Mai Tais, although they’re certainly good at killing some of those brain cells. I’ve discovered something fascinating about my brain, and I’m guessing that yours might work in the same way. When I’m traversing to a far away land where everything seems foreign, my mind goes through three stages: confusion, acceptance and being. Here’s how I believe this works:

Passengers waiting for the U-Bahn in Berlin

State of Confusion. You first arrive in a foreign land, and are taking everything in. It’s so overwhelming for your brain because it’s working overtime. If trying to beat jet lag wasn’t hard enough, you’re surrounded by signs, notices, and conversation that you can’t comprehend. Everything is new, everything is hard or impossible to understand, and your brain is doing it’s best to take it all in and present it to you in the most discernible fashion. If you’re like me during this stage, you’re constantly exhausted. You’re not accustomed to having your brain work at this level, as you’re not used to being surrounded by content and social cues that you can’t understand.

State of Acceptance. If you stay somewhere long enough, and settle into your new environment, you accept that I don’t speak this language. Your brain has made this mental leap toward acceptance, and can begin to ignore the street signs, store signs, posted notices, and conversations that are taking place all around you. At some point your brain figures out that since I can’t understand this language, I’m going to stop attempting to translate each and every thing that I come across. And once your brain gets into this stage, everything around you begins to blur. This is dramatically different than when you’re walking behind someone on the streets of your hometown. You can understand them, and no matter how hard you try to ignore their boring conversation, your brain is still picking it up, taking it in and processing it. Alternately, when you’re an English speaker walking the streets of Tokyo, all of the conversations around you are incomprehensible. And eventually your brain learns to push them to background noise status. When you get to this stage, the conversations your brain hears work a lot like that white noise machine you have back at home, that helps you sleep on those overly stressful nights.

The State of Being. Maybe this stage is like enlightenment for vagabonds. When you’re in an environment and your brain is automatically pushing every distraction around you to the background, you’re in the moment. You are present like a seasoned meditation yogi. Even in the loudest, distraction-ridden environments, you’re able to push it to the background. That blaring tv in the office lobby isn’t so distracting when your mind is auto-tuning it from existence. It’s like magic. You’ll notice the things that are most important to you in new ways. You’re focused, mindful and present. Seeing things in new perspectives. Appreciating the beauty in the smallest of things.

I’m no scientist, neurologist, philosopher or meditation yogi (and still trying hard to understand my own brain), but I believe this to be the true magical moment of slow travel. When we get far enough away from home and stay there long enough for our brains to relax but not long enough to actually learn a new language, we experience the power of now. It’s incredible. And that’s more rewarding than the tastiest Mai Tai on the sexiest beach in the world.