Mindfulness Abroad

womanYou may have noticed that I’ve written a fair number of blog posts on the subject of mindfulness so far.

And if you’re an expat or international student following this blog, you may be wondering what mindfulness has to do with your experience of living abroad.

Good question!

While the practice of mindfulness can be helpful for almost anyone, those of us living outside our comfort zone for a period of time may find it especially helpful for a number of reasons. We’ll talk about just 3 of these reasons today.

1. Mindfulness helps counter the physical and emotional impacts of stress by teaching us balance.

Mindfulness practice can help lessen the negative impacts of stress on the body and mind.

In fact, for the past 35+ years, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have been studying what they call Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and finding consistent positive benefits.

Whether you recently moved abroad or have been living in your new host country for some time now, life abroad can be quite stressful. Language differences alone can make everything challenging. Throw in culture shock, administrative hurdles, and being far away from friends and family — and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Furthermore (as we’ve discussed before) even exciting or positive things can be stressful if they require a lot of adjustment. So even if you’re loving your life abroad, you may find that you’re more tired than usual, or small things can push you over the edge more easily.

This is because you’re having to adjust to so many changes all at once. The ground has shifted under your feet. Things you might normally take for granted can’t be taken for granted anymore. Everything requires more effort.

And all these changes equal stress on the mind and the body.

Practicing mindfulness can help us gain a bit more equanimity — the quality of stability, steadiness or balance while under stress. The world may continue to spin around us, but we can keep our feet more firmly planted on the ground.

2. Mindfulness teaches us to have “beginner’s mind.”

child dandelionBeginner’s mind” is a concept in mindfulness practice that goes along with the idea of non-judgment.

When we practice beginner’s mind, we practice looking at the world through the eyes of a child. Or through the eyes of an alien from another planet — which is sometimes not far from how we feel when we’re living in another country!

We leave behind our expectations, our preconceived notions, our assumptions of what things are and what they mean and observe them just as they are — no more, no less.

We often think of judgment as negative,  and it may be clear why judging something negatively can be detrimental. It often makes us feel negative (sad, angry, irritable, anxious…), and it closes us off to possibilities. However, judging things to be positive can be similarly limiting when it causes us to jump to conclusions without fully taking in the present reality.

Judgement also leads us to label our experiences as “good” or “bad,” causing us to want to either avoid or grasp after more of these experiences. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, these reactions to our reactions (judgments) are often a source of distress, either causing anxiety, sadness, anger, etc. — or making it hard for us to fully appreciate the joy in the present moment.

When we practice beginner’s mind, we cultivate curiosity about everything. We’re interested and open to all possibilities of the present moment.

3. Mindfulness teaches us to have self-compassion.

Self-compassion is hard for a lot of us. Most of us are our own worst critics. We talk to ourselves in our heads in a way that we would never talk to our friends.

Self-compassion means acknowledging our struggle and offering ourselves some kindness, even as we continue to work toward our goals.

While self-compassion is important for all of us, it may be especially important for those of us who are living abroad. Life abroad challenges us in unique ways. Basic things, like a trip to the grocery store or a phone call, can feel incredibly challenging. We make mistakes. We say the wrong thing. We’re misunderstood. We kick ourselves, wondering why we’re struggling so much to do something so basic. We feel incompetent.

Even at home, we may find we’re so worn out and exhausted that we struggle to do things that would normally be a breeze. After a day of dealing with administrative nightmares, or miscommunications, we wonder why we struggle to even do the laundry. Or why it’s hard to keep up with friends back home. Or why we’re more impatient with our family.

worn out puppyThat’s when self-compassion needs to kick in.

So it might mean recognizing our exhaustion and impatience, and then choosing to calmly let our family know that we’ve had a hard day and we need some time alone tonight.

Or a hug.

Or it might mean just acknowledging that exhaustion with kindness (just to ourselves) and then taking a deep breath and trying to get on with what needs to be done. But that kindness we offer ourselves can make a big difference. We’re still tired, but we aren’t beating ourselves up inside.

Life abroad can be challenging enough. It can also be a wonderful, exciting, enriching adventure! But it’s challenging, no doubt. Let’s not add to it even more by criticizing ourselves as we try to make our way.

Want to Learn More about Mindfulness?

If you want to learn more about mindfulness, you can check out this Introduction to Mindfulness — and stay tuned to the blog for future articles!

You can also check out some of the books I’ve listed among my favorite resources on mindfulness here.


p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.

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