Monday, August 15, 2011

The Art of ZenTravel

There is a quiet mob fomenting at the Southwest Airlines terminal. Zone A passengers are lined up by their designated poles, shuffling bags and secretly scoping out one another’s boarding passes to make sure no one is trying to sneak into a lower number section within the Zone, and therefore getting on the plane sooner, and therefore getting a seat. Meanwhile, Zone B through D passengers hover nervously, ready to sprint to the gate at the slightest flick of the attendant’s microphone.

As if flying weren’t nerve-wracking enough, Southwest Airlines has brilliantly decided to herd customers onto their planes cattle-style, first come first serve. This adds a palpable panic to the air. Will the newlyweds be able to sit next to each other on their connecting flight to Turks and Caicos? Will granny get her aisle seat? Southwest makes us sweat.

Finally on the plane, baggage stowed, seatbelt clicked, awkward/polite nods to seat neighbors completed, I can try to meditate.

Plane rides are the perfect opportunities to meditate because the practice involves sitting straight and still. This is often the biggest obstacle for me at home, where I have so many other options, like a couch, or a Facebook account, for instance. But on a plane I’m already strapped in to a prime meditation posture (seat upright and in the locked position).

Reason #2 air travel is also great for meditation: even though I love traveling and plan to scope out every inch of this fabulous, insane planet of ours, I get a bit shaky at takeoff. What can I say, I’ve been scarred by Final Destination. (The first FD…you know that horrible first plane crash scene I’m talking about--shit scared me so that for years I had to check every tray table as soon as I sat down. I nearly ran off a plane once when my tray table latch was painted red instead of the ubiquitous beige.)

As the metal phallic object I’ve entrusted my little life to is hurling down the tarmac, I get suddenly Catholic. I get suddenly any religion, whichever one will have me at 5,000 feet and climbing. I use The Secret. Happy thoughts: I survive this flight, I envision myself landing, I see my bags chug down the baggage claim carousel, of course they haven’t lost my bags, and so forth. I try to focus on my breath. I deeply inhale the stale recirculated air. A man three rows behind me sneezes violently. Some kid screams. I exhale. Positive, happy, healthy thoughts!

Then the sensation of liftoff: the scoop in my stomach, the centrifugal force, the rush of engine, the lack of control I have over everything happening. It’s frightening and strangely exhilarating. God I hope the pilot isn’t drunk.

Rolf Gates calls yoga “a refuge from our need to control.” It makes sense: we try to arrange our lives in neat, perfect angles. Get the decent job, buy the nice car, the comfortable home, maintain circle of witty and attractive friends, whatever. But things don’t always go our way, and many of us haven’t learned how to cope with that very well. I haven’t anyway (if you have, I’d sure love to know your techniques). Even in yoga and meditation, we try to control the experience. I need a nice, quiet space to sink into a blissful, super-zennified mood.

This is clearly not flight 287 to Phoenix.

But one of my meditation instructors also says that the conditions to meditate will never be perfect. In fact, it’s better to be still in the midst of the chaos rather than when I’m already calm, when the sage incense is already burning. If I can find an iota of stillness on this flight, then maybe I can find stillness at home, too.

At cruising altitude, a little boy behind me looks out the window.

“How cool, I can’t believe I wasn’t looking before,” he says to his mom.

I look out, too. It’s weird and beautiful, the earth carved up and spliced into life. I sit and watch. The plane slips through a patch of clouds like an anhinga through water, white flashes against my small oval window. There it is; the moment. Just breathing, being right now on flight 287 to Phoenix. Until the turbulence. Then I force some deep breaths and pray to every deity I can remember.


  1. Yaaaay, I love it, Melissa! Airplane travel is always so stressful. I think the only time I feel comfortable is when I'm sitting in my seat on the plane. I actually love the take-off... though the landing isn't always fun if my ears are clogged.

    Maybe it doesn't scare me because I love roller coasters, so any turbulence makes me want to throw up my hands and laugh.

    I never thought of meditating on the plane. That's actually a great idea, especially when you can't concentrate on a book and the television just isn't grabbing your attention.

    Oh, by the way, I love the Final Destination movies! They are SO clever! But I know what you mean! The part with the dentist freaked me out - as if I wasn't already scared of it, haha.

  2. French Louis Seymour of the West Canada Creek, who knew how to survive all alone in a treacherous wilderness, and Mr. Alfred G. Vanderbilt of New York City and Raquette Lake, who was richer than God and traveled in his very own Pullman car, and Emmie Hubbard of the Uncas Road, who painted the most beautiful pictures when she was drunk and burned them in her woodstove when she was sober, were all ten times more interesting to me than Milton's devil or Austen's boy-crazy girls or that twitchy fool of Poe's who couldn't think of any place better to bury a body than under his own... floor.