• Paula Cristina Azevedo, PhD

Three unexpected lessons about mindfulness while on vacation


A couple of months ago my husband, the dog, and I spent a few days at the beach. We love going to the beach right before summer break when few people are visiting the beach and the weather is comfortable. In the morning on the second day we took a short walk to the beach, set up our beach towels and chairs and just relaxed. We watched people walk, dogs jump up and down as the waves rolled in, but mostly we were mesmerized by the ocean’s rhythm. Gerardo and I didn’t say much that day on the beach. We were so enchanted by the sounds of the ocean. However, our attention was captured when a pod of whales was near the beach. We could clearly see their dorsal fins, tails, and even watch the whales surface the water for a breath and see water expel out of their blowholes. I couldn’t stop watching. We were both fully immersed in the experience and audibly “giggling,” “oohing,” and “ahhing”. As if that experience wasn’t cool enough, a small pod of dolphins appeared feeding and playing in the ocean. Again, Gerado and I were enchanted with what the ocean had to share with us that day.

Of course we noticed other people on the beach stopping what they were doing to look up at the whales and dolphins. As we were watching the dolphins play a woman approached us asking Gerardo and I if we captured a photo on our smartphones of the whales. I thought what an odd question to ask. My phone was in my bag and I only used it to snap a couple of photos of Zoe when we first arrived. We both shook our head. She was disappointed by our answer and proceed to explain that she had to get a photo of the whales or her friends wouldn’t believe her when she shared her whale watching experience. I said to her, “Well, I’m sure when you tell your friends they’ll believe you.” “Oh, no they won’t. I need a photo of it,” she replied a bit frantically.

I was so curious by her response while also feeling a bit sad for her. At this point it appeared that the whales had already moved on and were too far away for us to see them, but the dolphins were still visibly around. I tried to comfort her and said, “Well, the dolphins are here right now why don’t you watch them and maybe you can get a photo of them.” She scoffed at my response and said she didn’t need a photo of the dolphins she’s already seen them before. “What I need is a picture of the whales.” She turned away and walked to the next person and asked her, “Did you get a good photo of the whales?” “No, sorry,” the beach goer replied. And once again the woman was disappointed. Gerardo and I just looked at each other in disbelief of this interaction. “How sad she can’t just enjoy what is right in front of her right now.” I said to him as we both turned our gaze back to the calming ocean.

I share this experience because it highlights a few lessons about mindfulness. First, it reminds us to be in the moment. Many people have the misconception that mindful practices is about being zoned out or in a constant state of bliss. However, this is further from the truth. Mindfulness practices remind us to be in the moment. It also reminds us that each moment is new. Practice by sitting still, closing your eyes and listening to the sounds that enter your space. You may at first notice nothing, but then hear a car passing the street, a child talking, an airplane flying over head, or birds chirping. Pay close attention to that sound and follow the waves of the sound. You may notice that as you listen to the sound it gets louder and as soon as it reaches it peak level the sound begins to dissolve and perhaps even disappear. That is a simple example of how each moment is new. Bring in new experiences and sensations. So, to be mindful means to be fully awake and aware of each moment. Of course we’re human and we’re not always in the moment, but as you travel further on the path of mindfulness you’ll recognize those mindful moments and enjoy those moments longer and deeper.

Second, this experience of the beach goer seeking a photo of the whales is the perfect lesson on suffering. We too often create our own suffering by living in the past or future, regretting, and/or obsessively wanting. Living in the past or future is not being in the moment. As the great, wise Oogway from Kung Fu Panda (2008) said to Po: “You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.’” As a result, as we live in the past we replay the same stories, reliving the same moment, and regretting words or actions that cannot be redone causing more suffering. Living in the future also does us no good since we can’t control everything that will lead to what we believe we want or anticipate in our future. Lastly, seeking or wanting more can cause displeasure. This tends to be a big problem in Western or Westernized societies where people are seeking to have more wealth, to buy bigger homes, to own expensive cars, and luxury items. Such possessions, though not the problem itself, can cause suffering for people who are seeking such riches or experiences when it’s beyond their means. This is especially true for people who have everything and perhaps even more than what they need, but are seeking more without it being a necessity.

The beach goer was suffering all the ways described. She was living in the past and regretting that she didn’t capture a photo of the whales. She was also living in the future and telling herself that her friends will not believe her when she told them about the whales especially if she didn’t have photographic evidence. She also was wanting that photo so deeply. She couldn’t relax and be in the moment watching the dolphins play because she was looking for the photo.

Finally, this experience was a lesson about living in the reality of the physical world rather than living in the virtual world. We’ve entered a time when the virtual has become more real than the physical world. When only moments captured and posted on social media are “real” events. Teenagers are even feeling this pressure of posting every moment of their lives on social media. Having conversations with their peers only on snapchat and never interacting with them in the school hallways and classrooms. The beach goer was seeking to make a magical moment in the physical world equally or perhaps even more magical in the virtual, but many times we cannot capture or recreate the beauty of the physical into the virtual.

The lesson is be still, be fully immersed in your body, and sense the beauty and magic in and around you. There is no moment like this one.

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PEACE

#mindfulness