Something happens inside many of us when we’re seated on a plane and we see someone get on carrying a crying baby.
My normal reaction used to be a combination of low-level worry and indignation. Flying is uncomfortable enough, and adding a crying baby makes it worse. So I would find myself hoping that the baby and its parent would sit far away.
Intellectually, I know this reaction is ridiculous and self-absorbed. Babies need to travel sometimes. Babies need to cry sometimes. I was a crying baby at some point. Hoping that a boarding baby won’t sit near me is, essentially, hoping that other people would be annoyed instead of me. What a gentleman I am.
While I knew these were unfair thoughts and I didn’t act on them, I still didn’t know what to do with them. I honestly didn’t want a crying baby near me, and I ached with hope that there wouldn’t be one.
At some point, in the years between my flight to New Zealand and my flight to Ecuador, my reaction to other people’s airplane babies changed. Upon seeing a boarding infant, I still had the initial thought of, “Oh great, a BABY! That’s what we need on this airplane!” But that useless and selfish thought began to trigger a more useful (and more defensible) thought: May this baby have an easy and peaceful experience on this flight.
This is just a simple habit of cultivating compassion. After all, if the baby is crying, presumably it’s not having a particularly comfortable flight either. This is not only a more reasonable and diplomatic reaction, but on a totally selfish level it’s actually a better one, because it transforms what would have been an experience of annoyance and discomfort into one of peace and solidarity.
I experienced a softening of my entire flying experience (as well as virtually every other less-than-pleasant category of experience) between 2009 and 2014, and I know I owe it to the practices of meditation and mindfulness I learned during that time.
Something alarming happened during my most recent flight, a few weeks ago. I realized I had lost a step in my ability to stay peaceful and nonreactive. This time there was no baby. However, another common test of compassion was seated near me: a man who would not stop clearing his throat and coughing.
That old reactivity came back, and even though I knew what the smart response was (to consider how awful it would be to have a persistent cough), it was hard to remember how exactly to do that. Not long before, it had been a reflex. In fact, the whole ordeal of air travel, including security, lineups, and crowds, was suddenly giving me a lot more trouble than it had in a long time.
I felt conspicuously rusty at what felt, not that long ago, to be nearly second-nature: allowing the present moment to be as it is, simply because there’s no other way it can be right now. This is the central theme of You Are Here, and I found that I had slipped out of that habit without even realizing it.
And it happened in a fairly short time. As I mentioned in this post, one thing I learned on my Ecuador trip was that travel, as much as I love it, is very disruptive to my habits. My meditation practice went out the window, and it had been supporting my moment-to-moment mindfulness habits, such as taking stock of the present, appreciating space and simply remembering that it’s okay to be here.
Patience and acceptance and compassion are all learnable skills that you build over time, but they also require practice, or they’ll atrophy like physical strength does when you stop exercising.
When other kinds of habits atrophy, they give you regular reminders. If you’ve fallen out of shape physically, you’re reminded of that whenever you climb a flight of stairs. If you’ve neglected your finances, you’re reminded every time you get a bill.
But peace sneaks away without a sound. Everything else in life is louder.
When you emerge from a meditation session, you often open your eyes to find a conspicuous quiet in the room, as if a distant television turned off at some point and you just noticed. When I did return for my first proper meditation session, I realized it had been a long time since I felt that conspicuous quiet. Presumably I had been rattling on in my head virtually 24-7 for most of two months.
I really believed I was beyond that kind of lapse, and that’s why it happened.
There are two simple reasons why this loss of peace happens so quietly. The first is that unawareness isn’t something you can be aware of. It is possible to become aware that you had been unaware, but by definition it isn’t possible to be aware of your unawareness while you are unaware. In other words, it’s only when you come back that you notice you were gone.
The other reason is that being lost in thought is by far our most compelling and well-practiced habit. Unless you’ve led a very ususual life, you’ve been reinforcing this habit nearly 24 hours a day since childhood. Even an experienced practitioner of mindfulness is spending a significant amount of time every day greasing the grooves of mental chatter and distraction.
Some of our habits help us return to the present more often, and help us to become more comfortable there. Meditation is far and away the most direct way to cultivate presence, but we also do it by performing yoga, taking long walks, participating in sport, making art, playing music and even by things like making tea, depending on how you go about it.
One my my favorite meditation teachers says that he often doesn’t notice when people stop coming to their weekly group sessions for a while, but he always notices when they come back. Most of them have the same story. They were doing so well that they didn’t feel a need for the practice, so they drifted away from it. Then something difficult happened — a breakup, a loss, a diagnosis — and they realized they didn’t have the patience and insight they once had, back when they believed in the importance of their practice.
So I tell you this in the hopes that you won’t need a breakup, a loss, a grim visit to the doctor, or even a crying baby to alert you that you’ve drifted away from your consciousness-building practices, whatever they might have been. It’s easy to give in to a feeling being “too busy lately” for meditation, or yoga, or your morning walks, or whatever you know is important to your mind. But perhaps this mode of foggy, pervasive busyness is exactly what happens when you stop doing those things.