My recent trip to Beijing, China, was insightful for a variety of reasons, but a half-day visit to the Great Wall gave me time to reflect on the concept of mindfulness.
On our tour we rode the cable car up to the base of the visitor’s area and then walked up to the entrance to the wall. On that brisk, sunny, winter day my attention was drawn to each step I took. The steep, snow-covered stone steps and walkway were a somewhat precarious route to ascend up to Tower #14. Each step on the crunchy, ice-covered snow required a pause to test that slippage would not be an issue prior to shifting one’s entire body weight to that foot. Sometimes, nature forces us to be more mindful of our routine actions.
The cold also seemed to be a strong deterrent to tourist activity. My husband, his co-worker and I were amongst just a handful of visitors that day. At times, we were the only people at certain sections of the Wall. This sparseness of distraction provided space for me to think about what it was like to work on or live on the Wall in ancient times. I laid my bare hands on the stone walls along the walkway to try to connect with the people who had laid the masonry in place. How many people’s lives were affected by the construction of the wall? How many soldiers had spent nights sleeping on the cold stone floor taking turns looking out for signs of attack? In my opinion, the cold stone did not seem conducive to sleeping comfortably at night, even in the protective walls of the towers.
According to the Unesco website, it took 1200 years to build this massive 22,000 kilometer structure. The Great Wall symbolizes both military and cultural isolation; it’s primary function was to physically prevent invasion of people and ideas for 2000 years.
Physically standing on this cultural icon brought awareness to the link to the present day cultural division. Today, the Chinese government has created an internet wall analogous to the Great Wall to protect their people from cultural invasion via the internet. Facebook and several other websites were inaccessible during our time in China (using a VPN located in San Francisco we were able to sporadically access these sites).
Bringing awareness to this link, the link between the historical and modern cultural division, brought realization that our American culture of open access to other people’s ideas could be threatened if we build a physical wall to keep people out of our country. Scattered barriers already exist in some places on the US/Mexico border. We, as a society should be mindful that creation of physical borders has historically affected access to freedom of ideas.
The world exists to be seen and discovered. – Desikachar
Mindfullness is a attribute that I, as a yogi, am trying to develop for myself. In the western world, we tend to view Yoga as being limited to a set of physical poses to do at the gym; it is one method to achieve a skinnier body or to alleviate back pain. However, the physical poses, or asanas, are just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Mindfulness is an integral part of a yogi lifestyle and the need to be mindful is woven throughout many of the eight limbs.
The term “mindfulness” has many ways of being defined, but the sense of being “present” captures quite simply the way in which we can focus attention on what is happening as it is happening and fill awareness with the fullness of our here and now experience.
What I learned from a half-day trip to a historical landmark is worth more than I could ever have anticipated. Being present during each step I took as I walked on the wall, creating awareness of the link between the past and present, being mindful that this trip was not just about taking pretty pictures to post on social media, rather, I was absorbing knowledge through an experience that I would not necessarily achieved through reading about the Great Wall.
When I started writing this post, I had no intention of bringing political ideas or thoughts into it. Once I started to write, I realized that I needed to write my thoughts as they were streaming through my head.
Have you ever had a travel experience that, upon reflection, taught you more than you expected? I would love to hear about your experiences!