In a fast-paced world where distractions await at every corner, it has become increasingly difficult to tap into the present moment. But with a few tools and simple practices, it might just be possible. Rule number one: Release judgment. Rule number two: Don’t compare yourself to others. And the final rule? Maintain a “beginner’s mindset”: honor that your intention to be more present is aspirational—it takes practice before it becomes easy. These were the ground rules laid out by mindfulness-based psychotherapist, Lena Franklin, at the first meditation session of our Power of Presence Retreat at Jamaica Inn this past October.
On my first day at the resort, set on the northern coast of Jamaica near the port town of Ochos Rios, the Inn’s owner, Peter Morrow told me, “There’s a difference between imagining being present and actually being present.” “When you bring your attention into the present moment, you create space for awakening, you realize—you are not your thoughts,” he said as we sat in the hotel lobby overlooking the Inn’s manicured gardens against a backdrop of still Caribbean blue.
A hotel rich with history is probably the last place you would expect to learn how to be more present. The 61-year-old Jamaica Inn was once a jetsetter destination in the 1950s for Hollywood celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. Today, crisp white linens, antique silverware, and an old mahogany bar make a stay at the colonial hotel feel like a journey back to a bygone era. But it’s this very sense that Jamaica Inn is standing still in time, that makes it fertile ground for learning how to be present.
The Inn’s aesthetic may be traditional, but there is a simplicity in its lack of effort to innovate and follow the trends. The award-winning spa consists of four thatched-roof huts with little more than a single massage table, nestled in a cliffside garden overlooking the sea. Instead of music, the spa relies on the natural soundtrack of the rolling waves below. Rooms come without clocks or televisions, but were recently upgraded with larger safes to store guests’ laptops. Jamaica Inn is not branded as a wellness hotel, but guests quickly find themselves disconnecting on their own initiative, putting away their electronics and opting instead for one of the many books offered from the Inn’s ever-growing collection.
Surprisingly, our mindfulness retreat was the first of its kind to take place on the peaceful property. But Franklin knew upon first visiting Jamaica Inn and immediately connecting to its peaceful, contained nature, that the resort would make an ideal environment for practicing meditation. Over our three days together, she guided us through mindfulness exercises influenced by the Zen Buddhist teachings of her upbringing, all with an aim of cultivating greater compassion, both for ourselves and others, by learning how to be more present.
While most wellness retreat schedules are packed with yoga sessions and excursions, ours centered around getting back to basics: walking, eating, and simply breathing—all with intention. Meditation is hard enough as it is. But meditating while walking on the beach—giving our undivided attention to the sand between our toes and all the tiny muscles of our feet as they fired up to find balance—presented a whole new challenge. Taking each step at a purposely slow pace was described by some participants as excruciating at first, but eventually the task became easier and enabled us to notice all of our senses interacting with the environment, resulting in a deeper sense of calm.
A visit to a nearby farmers’ market and a cooking class with the Inn’s chef Maurice Henry served as a mindfulness exercise by enriching our understanding of where the food we ate each day came from. Before diving into red snapper escabeche, steamed callaloo, and grilled plantains, we paused to acknowledge all the people, animals, and forces of nature that resulted in the pretty plate before us. Not only did expanding our knowledge of the local produce and eating mindfully (chewing more slowly to notice all the subtleties of the food) make us appreciate each bite a little more, it enabled us to feel a deeper sense of place. We realized that mindful eating is a simple tool we can use to be more present, both while travelling and at home.
The greatest reward for our efforts to be present came, however, on our last day, when mother nature gifted us with the hatching of 310 turtles from their nests on the Inn’s white sand beach. Ovan Coombs, the Inn’s passionate on-site turtle expert, informed us that the turtle’s first journey from their nest to the ocean is crucial—their newborn bodies record the vibrations of the earth so that they can return to lay their eggs at the exact spot where they were born. Morrow had warned me earlier that when our ego inhibits our ability to be present, we “block the high frequency vibrations of nature.” I didn’t know then what he meant by vibrations, but in that moment—as I watched hundreds of baby turtles scurry to the shore—I realized just how much of life we risk losing when we aren’t present.
Constantly being present may be perceived by some as a selfish act—the logic being that to live without concern for the past or future disregards the needs of others. But when we free ourselves from the traumas of our past and worries about the future, we become better able to serve others. At home this looks like being able to give our full attention to the people we care about. On the road, this looks like being more conscious of our impact on the environment and residents of the communities we visit, and being better mentally equipped to offer locals our attention in return for their hospitality.
In the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, shared by Franklin on our meditation veranda in the morning sun, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” The secret to travelling with impact? It’s as simple as being present.
Photography by: Anna Haines