Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Waking Up to Air Travel

Last week it was Spring Break here in Columbia, Missouri. My wife and I were fortunate in being able to fly to Florida to visit some family for the week. As is often the case, I found traveling to be quite an interesting, and in many ways difficult, experience. Running the gauntlet of what seems to be ever-changing rules of airport security is often a challenge, especially when the rules seem to be applied one way in one airport and another way in a different one. But the actual experience of flying is where I find things get really interesting.

On our flights, there was not one empty seat. So, everyone was confined to their four square feet of space for the duration. (At least it seems that small.) As I sat in coach with all the other passengers, I wondered if this would qualify as a form of torture if we weren't doing it voluntarily? Anyway, one of the things I was noticing on the flights was the noise. There was the on-going roar of the jet engines, which, of course, one really wouldn't want to be without. Then there was the high-pitched whistling of the ventilation nozzles as people attempted to regulate the temperature in their little bit of space. And there was the background rumble of a hundred or more people engaged in conversations, folding and unfolding newspapers, typing on keyboards and snoring. And, since these were Spring Break flights, all of this noise was periodically punctuated by the loud protests of many small children. They seemed to be troubled by the general commotion of traveling, the restrictions to physical movement, the changes in air pressure as the planes ascended and descended, and general boredom, among other things.

As I watched and listened to the children, I noticed that they, and the adults on the flight, seemed to use two strategies for coping with the difficulty of travel. The most common strategy was putting themselves to sleep to the experience. They would either literally fall asleep, often to the relief of their parents and the surrounding passengers. Or, they would do everything they could to distract their attention from the unpleasantries. The other strategy was actually paying attention to the experience, which most of the children and adults didn't seem to do for very long. I did some of both on our flights.

The strategy of distraction is based on a belief that if we string together enough pleasant moments we won't have to experience anything unpleasant. But while this strategy of distraction seems to work in the short-run, it really fails as a long-term approach. Sooner or later something unpleasant comes into our lives. As long as we are caught up in dividing experience into pleasant and unpleasant, we can't have one without the other. This is the nature of a dualistic world.

The other strategy is to transcend this duality, to let go of our addiction to the pleasant and our aversion to the unpleasant. Instead we focus on fully experiencing what is true right now, in this moment of our lives.  

When our focus is on meeting each moment of experience with non-judgmental awareness, or mindfulness, it allows us to stand outside of, and consequently to transcend, the dualities of good and bad, right and wrong, pleasant and unpleasant. We just see that this is what is at this moment. Mindfulness allows us to see when it is time to open our hearts to the life that we have at this moment, even when it is the sound of screaming babies and the sensation of cramped legs.


Photo 118140540 by carib on Flickr. Creative Commons License Attributions-Non-commerical-No Derivative Works 2.0 generic license