“Why do you get upset when things are beyond your control?”
Said a Theravadran monk to me once at 35,000 feet in the air.
He was a forest monk taking his students to all the sacred sights of the Buddha, on pilgrimage from Sri Lanka to India and our eyes had happened to lock in the aisle and we had struck up a conversation.
Though the conversation was actually about Trump, he gave me the insight to sharpen my awareness, observe, do what I can and stay in the moment when dealing with the inevitable hiccups and challenges that come being in transit—many before the journey even starts.
In 30 years of travel, I feel like I’ve seen it all.
I have been grounded by the Icelandic Volcano, taking days to reschedule the flight due to a wandering cloud of ash. I’ve had to take an 11-hour train ride—with the toilet in my carriage broken—because a flight couldn’t take off due to an eruption of Mount Etna. I’ve been on planes that’ve taken off only to turn around, landing their passengers in super funky hotels in marginal whereabouts in third world countries with even more questionable vouchers for food. I’ve gone hours without being told what the problem is as airlines seem to be allergic to explanations until the Indians get restless.
There are a myriad things that can happen—enough to scare us away from leaving home at all.
In fact, on another flight, this time from Pisa to Marrakech, it occurred to me—for the 218th time—that travel is the second best path to enlightenment. (The first one being motherhood.)
It’s the bardo baby…fasten your seat belt.
Weather is a common factor with travel, and in this recent case it was fog. I had taken a one hour train from Florence to Pisa one late afternoon a few weeks before, to spend the night in order to catch at 6:25 flight on Ryan Air to Marrakech. Rising at 4 a.m. gave me the right amount of time to be there almost two hours ahead. The check-in was smooth, until I arrived at passport control to have my passport stamped to leave the country…
Except there was no one in the booths. Our departure was soon approaching and there was a slight panic that we were going to miss our flights. It was getting crowded, with no sign of any official nearby, and you certainly didn’t want to lose your place in line to go looking for someone.
Could this be a strike at six in the morning? Italians love to strike and strike often. After an hour of standing there, we flagged an official walking by.
“WTF?!” we asked him (though not in those exact words).
He said, “ L’aereoporto e chiuso.” (The airport is closed.)
“Perche?” (But why?)
“Are we locked inside?”
“No signora, nebbia, nebbia.” (Fog!)
Soon, they let us through passport control into our gates, and there we waited again with no word and no sign of anyone. The flight was mostly full of Moroccans going home. They had been patient, waiting like everyone else, until they started to get nervous and began yelling for an explanation. Voices got louder until one attendant threatened to call the police. (Instead of just telling us what was going on). The carabiniere eventually came onto the scene to calm things down. The whole scene could have been avoided with an announcement or two, updating us on the situation.
After six hours of standing there, we were finally told our plane was in Bologna on its way. It was circling the airport waiting for the fog to lift. We were told to sit down, that they would let us know when we could board. But the crowd was impatiently glued to the window in the hope that the next flight would be ours. Two hours later, the plane came. Eight hours of standing in suspense: babies were crying, people were hungry, and tempers were briefly frayed.
So what did I do differently? What have my years of enlightenment by travel taught me? Ride the horse don’t let it ride you. I took a look at the big picture, I sighed a lot, I prayed and chanted, “om mani padme hum.”
The only thing we can do in these circumstance is calm our own mind.
When we step out of the drama, we can see what’s really going on. In this case, we just had to wait. It was a lesson in patience and strengthening that invisible inner muscle called our mind. Anytime we get looped into a situation that causes us to react, we have lost our seat.
Keeping our seat, for me, means keeping our focus and attention on the breath and our awareness, or whatever you want to call it. It’s staying hunkered down low enough to know “when to hold em’, know when to fold em.”
It’s counter-intuitive in a way not to react. Reacting seems to give us pleasure—but it’s just habit. It leaks energy and that is the reason not to do it. It’s depleting and, more often than not, it hurts someone by hooking into their neurosis and making ours flare. It doesn’t usually help the situation either.
And when we can’t help the situation, we get frustrated and fall into despair. There’s a strength in keeping calm and carrying on. We can still be kind, check on our neighbor, even have a meaningful conversation with a stranger in our same situation. Before we know it, the plane has arrived and we get on it and it takes us where we want to go. The memory of it in the past.
Here are Five Ways to Keep your Seat when you’re ready to Lose It.
- Drop into your breath. Breath slow and deep count—if it helps—seven breaths in, seven breaths out.
- Straighten your posture and align your spine. Become a warrior (access your soft spot, don’t become hard). Relax. You can handle the challenge.
- Chant silently to yourself, “om mane padme hum” or another mantra you like. Sing to yourself. Listen to calming music or talk or read or observe humanity.
- Watch where your mind is going and what it’s thinking. Let your frustrated thoughts pass; find your breath. Do a standing meditation with your eyes open.
- Be patient, observe what is…let go, but pay attention.
Ask good questions when necessary and inform yourself as best you can.
If you do, you might end up stuck in an Italian jail joking with the carabiniere being fed a nice plate of pasta. Things could be worse…unless you’re gluten free.
Author: Peggy Markel
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis