The more stressed a person is, the more frequently they might say to themselves, “I need a vacation.”  This means: “I need to get away from everything. Change everything up. Be in a totally different environment. Only that would make me feel better.”

But “I need a vacation” is not always a helpful thought. At the time when we’re having that thought, we’re probably overwhelmed. We’re not planning to do anything then and there about our desire for a vacation. Vacations are: Stressful to organize. Expensive. Logistically complicated. You can bring your worries along with you on vacation. You can be disappointed by your destination. Then you come home and you’re behind on everything and you’re even more stressed than before.

To be clear, vacations are good. This is not an anti-vacation essay. This is an anti-“I need a vacation” essay. The point is that we can think “I need a vacation” all we want – and we can keep thinking this all we want without acting on it, and nothing is going to change. When we think “I need a vacation” in passive frustration, it just makes us upset that we’re not on a vacation.

Here’s something new to try whenever you think “I need a vacation.”

Ask yourself: “Can I go on a vacation right now, this very moment?”

The idea is to take a mental vacation – to stop thinking about everything you’ve convinced yourself you need to think about. To set aside five minutes and forget about it all. 

If you need a vacation because you need to get away from your worries, why not get away from those worries immediately, by choosing not to give them any attention whatsoever for the next five minutes? Or two minutes. Or one minute. However much you can afford. The worries will try to convince you that you can’t not think about them, but why not do it anyway? If you need a vacation, take that vacation starting with your next breath.

Of course, we take such mental “vacations” all the time. That’s called procrastination. Avoidance. Diversion. We escape our worries by filling our mind with something totally different. We crowd out our anxieties with alternate mental content that’s equally stimulating. We think about something we’d like to buy. We listen to the news. We check social media. We drink. We play games. We research facts that we don’t need.

But we never achieve emptiness in these pursuits. We never achieve a mind that’s free of thought. We only change around the content of our busy, active thoughts.

That’s because we don’t recognize emptiness as a goal. We’re not even aware of it as an option we might pursue. When we’re overstimulated we think that what’s going to make us feel better is more stimulation. Different stimulation.

But if you practice meditation for long enough to get a glimpse of the benefits it can offer, you realize that there is something fundamentally different and special about emptiness. There’s something refreshing about clearing your mind – emptying your thoughts – that you just can’t get any other way. You can’t get the same refreshment by changing the content of your thoughts, you’ve got to empty them. Sleep doesn’t count. You’ve got to be present for the emptiness to get the benefit.

A diet analogy can help make the situation clear. You might be feeling stuffed all the time because you’re eating a steak for breakfast, another for lunch, and another for dinner, every single day. You could change that around by trying to eat a calorically equivalent amount of tofu. That’ll have some consequences, no doubt. You’ll be getting a different assortment of nutrients and it might have a different effect on your body. But one thing won’t change: you’ll still be feeling stuffed all the time.

That’s what we’re doing to ourselves when we take a break from a stressful thing by redirecting our attention to an overstimulating diversion like the news, social media, shopping, or anything similar.

A new thought pattern can help break us out of this cycle. Instead of thinking “I need a vacation,” try thinking, “I need emptiness.”

Consider mental emptiness as your goal, as the thing that’s going to provide the feeling of refreshment and renewal that you’re looking for.

Mental emptiness is not always easy to achieve. People work at it. They practice it. They need to practice it because it’s hard.

Imagine what it would be like if you were eating three steaks a day and then you tried to fast for a day. Your body would resist. You’d have a lot of complaints. You’d invent reasons to give up on fasting. Guess what? It feels the same way when you try to meditate or go on a “mental fast,” even knowing that it’s going to be a temporary fast.

But you can do it. And the way to start is to know what you’re looking for. Recognize emptiness as the thing you want. The thing you need. Not a vacation. Emptiness. ■

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