"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." ~Shunryu Suzuki
This year I turned 46 and started thinking of things that I have wanted to do for a long time but have not done. I thought about why I hadn’t done those things and decided to make a list and start checking a few things off.
1. Travel out of the country – alone.
I love to travel and I have traveled out of the country, but never alone. At 46 I found myself single once again and wanting so much to go someplace new to me. Previously, I have always had a partner to travel with or would look to a friend - or just not go if there was no one to go with me. This time, I decided I was just going to go – alone. I didn’t even give thought to asking someone else to travel with me. I no longer wanted to put me on hold just because there was no one by my side. I started investigating places and settled on the island of Caye Caulker, Belize. 5 miles long, sleepy, and quiet – I thought it would be perfect for me (and it was).
2. Learn to ride a horse
All my life, I have had a love of animals but especially horses (don’t tell my dogs). I remember when I was young, we moved to Champaign, Illinois, and lived across the street from Prairie Farms Petting Zoo. On the outer part of the zoo there were horses, so I could walk across the park and sit by the fence next to the horses. Having had a biking accident before the move (flipped over my handle bars and knocked my two front teeth almost out, so they had to be wired in), I wasn’t allowed to run around and play that summer, so I would take a book with me and sit by the horses and read most afternoons. To me, there was nothing better.
When I lived in Tucson, I volunteered to clean the corrals and stables at Equine Voices Rescue and Sanctuary. I would get up early in the morning and drive 45 minutes to shovel horse hockey, but I still felt there was nothing better. I remember how fast my heart started beating the first time I stepped into the big corral with 15 horses. At one point, some started to run and I stood there watching these magnificent creatures, strong and beautiful, running around me – I felt alive.
So this year, I decided to take lessons and now I’ve had 6 so far.
What’s the point? This: learning or doing something new awakens the brain.
In my day-to-day life, I work hard to keep my eyes open - to be aware of even little things happening around me. When traveling to a new place, I have no choice. On my trip to Belize, it was like I could feel the neurons firing in my brain as I took in all the new sights and smells, touched and tasted new things, saw and talked to new people. It was a challenge to not have access to Google maps and to actually have to make connections about where I was on the island in relation to something else. I learned to use the sunrise and sunset as my alarm and let my body sense what it needed and when. Not to mention, I felt so many ideas continuously flowing – creativity gets a huge boost when we travel (makes me want to stay longer for that reason alone!).
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to rewire, to create new pathways of learning in the brain. This happens when we travel someplace new because we are more likely to be keenly aware of our surroundings. An added benefit comes from hanging with the locals and not staying around other people exactly like yourself. In an article in The Atlantic, Adam Galinsky states, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought… the key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation.” This can be helpful to divergent thinking and the whole creative process. For example, I opted to stay at an AirBnB in the neighborhood versus a hotel on the main "strip." Every morning, I would ride or walk into town with people that lived there, strike up conversations and experience in some way how they were living. I chose restaurants that weren’t always on the main part of the island and welcomed the opportunity to talk with anyone. Traveling to this small island made me wonder about things back home that make my life easy, and if I could do without those things, like not having AC, washers and dryers, drinkable water, maybe hot water. Being there made me think of what things are really important in my life.
During my third and fourth horseback riding lessons I rode bareback. There is a movement, a rhythm of the horse that I just couldn't seem to get. It opened me up to the idea of control. I realized that in my needing to be able to “control” the horse, I have to be able to let go and just feel and move with what is happening (hmmm, sounds like life). Riding bareback, I felt more connected to the horse, but then we put the saddle back on. Although I am better with the saddle on, there are still moments of frustration and confusion. Week 5, while learning to post up, the horse started to trot faster and I started bouncing around. I wanted him to slow, I wanted to connect with the motion – I felt my heart race and my shoulders tighten (here is where my mindfulness practice served me well; I am very in tune with my body), so I just stopped him. I knew that I needed to just breathe and relax again. So, I put him in a walk and did some deep breathing. My instructor explained again what I was to do, and I tried once more, clear minded this time. I know that challenges are good for mind growth, but I also know that when frustrated, angered, saddened, etc. our minds are not capable of making good decisions and thinking clearly, so I pushed pause.
Each time I practice horseback riding, I am changing and rewiring my brain. Each time I bounce up and down and pause and go back to it, I am changing and rewiring my brain. Here is a great article that discusses the whole process of myelination and how myelin is created and how it improves performance – click HERE.
Traveling solo and horseback riding are just two things on my list of many things I'd wanted to do but hadn't yet. I plan to continue making my way down my list and expanding the capacity of my brain.
For now, I know that sunrises and sunsets on a pier, horses, and dogs (of course) might be all I need to be happy.
Peace and Blessings,
For 13 reasons as to why travel is good for your brain, check out this article.