This summer, I had the odd experience of having two family vacations. I went to Disney World and Universal with my family for our typical family trip, and then my husband and kids tagged along for a trip to Colorado Springs for a conference with the FDCC where I taught a mindfulness mini course for my fellow lawyers.
Spiritual teacher/standup comedian, Ram Dass, once famously said “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Applying this wisdom to my own life, my ventures this summer gave me not one, but two, chances to prove something I already know: after a decade of meditation practice and lots of training, I still am not enlightened.
Traveling in the summer with your family means traffic, long lines, intense heat, whiny and ungrateful kids, and bad moods all around. On the flip side, though, it also presents the opportunity to explore new things, have some fun, and reconnect with your loved ones. How do those of us who remain unenlightened avoid option number 1 in pursuit of option number 2?
Even though it can’t make family vacations easy, mindfulness sure can help. Here are the five ways that mindfulness helped me this summer while traveling with my family.
1. Managing Expectations
We all have these idyllic images in our head of a life-changing and mind-expanding family trip that we can remember fondly for years to come. The cold, harsh reality, however, is that traveling with family is hard. First, traveling is a lot of work. It involves planning and effort and many activities that involve deferred gratification.
For instance, we spent a day at the Magic Kingdom on my first family trip this summer. Kids love amusement parks and Disney is an expert at contriving whimsy and fun. My weather app, however, told me the experience would be brutal because the temperature would be in the mid-90’s.
My plan? I had no plan. I just accepted that the day would be miserable and exhausting. As I walked into the park with the overtures from Disney staff to have a “magical day!”, I internally set the goal of survival and trying to make the best of it. My priority was basic needs: keeping us as cool as possible, managing hydration and blood sugar levels, and monitoring sun screen applications.
Was this magical? Probably not in the traditional sense. But we got out of there with any major meltdowns, we rode some rides, and joked around while waiting in line. Given the circumstances, I’ll call that miraculous.
2. Staying Cool – Literally
Did I mention that heat? It was super hot on both trips. Sometimes we were standing around in full sun just waiting. In a word, it sucked. This is where my mindfulness and yoga training really came in handy. Two practices in particular really helped. The first is sheetali breath (a pranayama practice), which my kids love because we call it “taco tongue.”
Sheetali is a cooling breath. To do it, you curl your tongue lengthwise to form the shape of a taco and stick it out through your lips. Then you breathe in through your tongue, pull your tongue in your mouth, and exhale. Essentially what this does is turn your tongue into a fresh air collecting device and it produces a cooling sensation in your mouth.
I also stole a trick from yoga nidra practice. Yoga nidra is a practice intended for deep relaxation and sleep. It’s dynamic and includes several different strategies in one practice. One helps in challenging times: exploring the opposites. As I stood waiting in line for the Haunted Mansion in full sun, I avoided diving deeper into the fiery hell that was my current experience. Instead, I tried to focus on anything cool. If a breeze came, I savored it. If I took a drink, I leaned into the feeling of the cold water. If I got a few minutes in the shade, I absorbed it like a sponge.
Do these practices really and truly cool down the body in intense heat? I’m not sure if my body temperature changed, but the cool sensations were pleasant. In addition, breathing deeply and monitoring my attention helped me stay calm. I’ll call that a win.
3. Common Humanity
I’ve written before about my youngest daughter. She comes by her stubbornness honestly, but daresay I think she may be more stubborn than me. When she doesn’t get her way, watch out. Though she is very good-natured and loves to have fun, her mood will shift drastically toward defiance, obstinance, and even recklessness when she’s mad.
On our trips, this happened a few times in front of large crowds of people. The bad thing about this is that I had the added pressure of looking like I was a “good mom” in addition to being a human trying to deal with an angry kid. So, what’s the move here?
The thing that helped me was common humanity. When your kid is throwing a fit in front of others, it’s easy to assume everyone is looking at and judging you. Maybe some are, but most people have had to deal with kids being kids before. If we are being honest, most of us have been that kid before.
When I remember that a kid throwing a tantrum in public is something all parents have experienced at some point, my little one’s leverage disappears. I no longer have the time pressure to stop the tantrum at all costs because I’m not worried about my status as a good mom. Instead, I can let my stubborn girl know where she got her stubbornness, not with anger, but instead by taking my time. This lets me help her understand the consequences, make the choice to calm down, and get to the bottom of what her problem is, so we can all move on.
By remembering that all of us parents are trying to do the best we can, I dodged the harsh sting of perceived judgment, focused on the issue, and got back to having fun more quickly.
4. Savoring Good Things
I may have made these two trips sound like all work and no play, but that’s not how it was. There were a lot of great things about the trips and many memories were made. How are memories made? Memories are made from experience and attention.
Given all the work I was doing as a parent to plan the trip and help my kids cope, I made a point of savoring the good things that happened. A few days after our visit to Magic Kingdom, we spent a day at Universal Studios. I really don’t enjoy theme parks that much, but my oldest daughter is a Harry Potter fan so we couldn’t avoid it.
And you know what? The weather was not so hot, Butterbeer was so much tastier than I expected, and I was surprised to find myself having a magical moment when we first stumbled upon Diagon Alley. Did this completely offset the heat or my kids fighting while standing in line or the motion sickness I sometimes experienced on the rides? No. But it sure helped, and it allowed me to watch my daughter’s reaction to the experience, which was the whole point.
Likewise, in Colorado Springs, the scenery offered a built-in stress management tool. Half of my family, including me, experienced physical side effects from the altitude. Even so, it was easy to understand the effort while taking a tour in Garden of the Gods (a place so beautiful that even it’s divine name doesn’t do it justice). Perhaps my kids were fighting while driving from place to place, but I just had to look up and see the mountains across the horizon to change my mood.
Noticing these good things didn’t take the bad aspects away. It wasn’t a practice of avoiding the work and the frustration and fatigue of travel. Instead, savoring the good helped me remember why I had decided to travel at all.
5. Seeing the Good in Hard Situations
The last test for my mindfulness skills was the return trip home from Colorado Springs. My husband had joined us on the trip but flew elsewhere for another event the day before. This means that I was left to travel alone with two girls. We had to get up early, drive an hour to Denver, drop of the car, get through security, and onto our flight home.
The first few steps went well and we ended up in the line for security a little less than two hours before our flight. I thought we were golden and was already imagining the breakfast and coffee I’d be ordering while waiting at our gate. Then I saw the security line. And when I say “saw,” I mean that we kept walking and walking to try to find the point where the line started. I had never seen a security line so long and I felt panic creep up on me.
In fact, the man behind me started to verbally panic, saying things like “I should have gotten here at 5 AM” and “there’s no way we are going to make it.” If I was by myself, I admit that I might have succumbed to this too, but I had my daughters with me. If I freaked out, they certainly would. So what did I do?
I did the only thing I could do: wait and see. I told the girls (and myself) let’s get in line and watch how it moves. To my astonishment, it moved quickly. Within 15 minutes, we were in the actual line. We celebrated with a big “yay” when we got there. Within 30 minutes, I could see the TSA staff herding people along. I celebrated by feeling grateful for their efforts.
We arrived at our gate with only a few minutes to spare but we had time to get some protein and a cool drink on the way to make the flight more comfortable. The best news is that we all ended up on the flight in a reasonably good mood. As I’ve said before, seeing the good didn’t take the bad away, but it offered me (and by extension my kids) balance so we could stay steady.
I’m not sure anything can make traveling with family a breeze. There are emotions and history and challenges in store for anyone who travels long distances with their loved ones. Mindfulness practices and strategies, however, go right to the heart of your experience as a human. By helping you manage your body, heart, and mind, mindfulness may take some of the fear and loathing out of family vacations.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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