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When Peace Goes Away, it Doesn’t Make a Sound

guy with french horn

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.

***

 Photo by Joe Del Tufo
George November 10, 2014 at 2:18 am

I stopped doing structured, formal meditation a while ago, but I do a daily ‘letting go’ exercises (quite Zen-like I suppose) and a ‘thought experiment’ that I find brings me back in touch with how things are. In fact, the latter seems to have a persistent effect: after I’d done it, everything seemed more spacious and never went back. I now find that even recalling the thought experiment puts me right back into that ‘perspective’.

I include them in case others find them useful:

LETTING GO (TO “GOD”, GRAVITY, WHATEVER)

Lie down on the floor, in the constructive rest position (feet flat, knees bent, head supported by books) or the recovery position (on your side, upper arm forward) and let go to gravity; just play dead. Let your thoughts and body alone, let them do what they will to move or unwind. Stay like this for 10 minutes. If you find yourself caught up in a thought of a body sensation, just let it go again. Importantly: let go of your ‘attention’. If you find yourself holding onto a narrow attention, just release a hold again.

After the 10 minutes, you are going to get up. Without doing it. Just lie there and “decide” to get up. Then wait. Leave your muscles alone. Wait until your body moves by itself. This may take a few sessions before you get a result, perhaps many, but at some point your body will just get up by itself. Once that happens, avoid interfering with your muscles and let your body go where it will, spontaneously and without your intervention. Decide at that moment to stop generating thoughts.

TURNING OFF YOUR SENSES

This exercise is to be done from a first-person perspective: Don’t think about it; imagine it’s actually happening. Here it is:

* Sit comfortably. Now imagine turning off your senses one by one:
* Turn off vision. Are you still there?
* Turn off sound. Still there?
* Turn off bodily sensations, such as the feeling of the chair beneath you. Uh-huh?
* Turn off thoughts. Where/what are you now?
* Some people are left with a fuzzy sense of being “located”. This is just a residual thought. Turn that off too.

You’re still there, you realise; you are a wide-open “aware space” in which those other experiences appeared. This is what you really are.

George November 10, 2014 at 2:22 am

“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.”

Yes. I never realise how much of an “impulse-reactive” person I was until I did this. I discovered I was rarely really making conscious decisions; I was just barreling on based on “feeling” – which meant in effect I was avoiding the anxious, challenging sometimes (often what I should have been doing) and just going with the easy path (but rationalising it).

That quiet is where you can hear/feel what you should be doing, with all information taken into an account, in a way that your “head thinking” just can’t do.

David Cain November 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

“Barreling” is a good descriptor of how I was operating — living from an unexamined chain of causes and effects. No real reflection.

StephInIndy November 10, 2014 at 2:48 am

thanks. i needed that.

Valen-Your Own Life November 10, 2014 at 4:55 am

Great article! I have been traveling full-time for the last year, and it is so hard to keep with my meditation schedule. It’s part of the reason I decided full-time travel is not for me. I need more time to just be in the world. There has been too much activity. This article helped so much, though, and next time I get on a plane with a crying baby (or a cougher) or have any other irritations, your exercise will come to mind.

David Cain November 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

I would like to get better at traveling, so that I can maintain my more delicate habits (namely meditation and writing) while I do it. But so far it is reliably disruptive. Part of the reason is that when I’m away I feel like I shouldn’t be “wasting time” doing things I can do at home, even if they are valuable and necessary things to do.

George November 11, 2014 at 5:32 am

Have you played with lucid dreaming at all? As a way of doing something quite meditative/mind-explorey whilst not wasting your valuable waking hours?

Great for plane travel too (excuse the pun), if you learn to induce them directly (although this isn’t easy to do fully, you can at least have vivid hypnogogic ‘exploring imagery’).

Because it’s “fun” it’s easier to get yourself to do than a meditation session or whatever.

Michael November 10, 2014 at 4:56 am

“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.”

PRICELESS!
I really enjoy reading your weekly dispatches. Many thanks

Bram November 10, 2014 at 5:18 am

Awesome!

It is always a good thing to be reminded of doing important things. I wonder if this returning unawareness has something to do with the pain body Eckhart tolle describes in his books. Perhaps noticing that you react to something that you managed to let pass through you in the past few months, is nothing else than the return of the pain body. The pain body got the chance to return because you were not consious enough to notice it coming.

Anyways, there are different ways to describe the same phenomenon, something you beautifully described in your post “How to find the way”.

Thank you for the post and have a good day, Bram

David Cain November 10, 2014 at 9:32 am

The pain-body is a useful concept here — pain triggers other pain that you’ve been carrying with you, and it’s easy to fall into a cycle where you are just constantly reacting to discomfort and pain instead of acknowledging it and responding to it consciously.

Mrs. Frugalwoods November 10, 2014 at 6:04 am

This is a great way to think about it! I find that I have to actively pull myself back into non-judgement and focus even during my yoga practice. It can just be so hard to entirely let go and center my mind. But, like you said, it is possible to actively bring yourself back to your intention and a place of empathy with conscious thought.

David Cain November 10, 2014 at 9:34 am

On the other side of it, the more practice you do, the easier it is to become present during any given session of practice. Meditation will support your ability to let go in yoga, and vice-versa. The more frequently we bring ourselves consciously into the moment, the less resistance we have to it when we do.

Randy Hendrix November 10, 2014 at 6:46 am

What a great mindfulness “booster shot” this was! And perfect timing as I was really needing it! As always, thank you David for being the best at what you do.

BrownVagabonder November 10, 2014 at 7:01 am

Building compassion and letting go are part of my daily meditation and yoga practice. I find that the more I try to do either one, the worse I get at it. I feel more deeply and realize more instantly when I am off on one or the other. I find that the more I meditate, the clearer I am seeing everything around me, and the clearer I see myself and my flaws. I am not a compassionate individual at all and I have a really hard time letting go of anything. But I am a work in progress. Everyday, I keep on going and trying and hoping that one day I will move up a level on this scale I have created for myself. A wrong attitude perhaps, but the only one that I have at the moment.

David Cain November 10, 2014 at 9:39 am

The language we use to talk and think about our practice can make a big difference. I found that the phrase “letting it go” was hindering me in meditation, because it implied that I needed to get rid of or get past certain unpleasant feelings that were there. This was frustrating because you can’t just get rid of a feeling like that on command. Once I redefined my aim as “letting it be there” it became a totally different practice. It may be that you need to hear a particular instruction in the right way, and then everything will click. It certainly was that way for me, and many others have said so. Reading how different authors and teachers describe the same processes using different terms gives you a good chance of finding the language that helps it click for you.

Kristin November 10, 2014 at 2:43 pm

I agree completely. Today I was thinking, why do I often leave the yoga class feeling bad about myself? It’s partly down to the well-meant phrases the teacher is using in the style of “letting go”, which frustrate me as I end up with the exact opposite of letting go… I get self-critical and frustrated. I agree that a more compassionate and accepting wording can make a huge difference.

George November 11, 2014 at 5:34 am

“Letting it be there” – great wording.

Only when I started interpreting “letting things go” as “letting my attention go, letting my attention open out again” did it make sense. Guess it’s kind of the same thing.

BrownVagabonder November 18, 2014 at 8:51 am

That’s a really great point. I never thought about it that way. I am going to try using different phrases in my practice to see how that affects my thinking.
Thank you!

Riss November 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

Hi David, I just wanted to say thank you for this article. It’s an ongoing effort for me too, to try to live life fully and engage with the world while at the same time maintaining the practices that bring inner peace. There’s something really comforting about reading an article that puts this balancing act into words as well as you have.

Art November 10, 2014 at 10:43 am

Good read! I should start experimenting with meditation myself. Never really gave it a try.

John November 10, 2014 at 11:11 am

We’re so trained to be in a reactive mode. When you started off with the crying baby on the plane, I was remembering how many time I’ve felt that way! I would think, “Why don’t the parents calm him/her down! Don’t they know we don’t want to hear a crying baby right now!”

As if the parents weren’t doing their best.

Great reminder in practicing compassion. Thanks David.

Rob Thilo November 10, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Thanks for putting into words the simple occurrences of “life grist” that accumulate into sludge and on into the piles of weight that become the burdens of life. Over the year I have learned that in these times of accumulated stress I need to return to simple basic instructions. If it is simple, there’s a good chance I will remember it. And choose to practice. Meditation practice has given me some of the simplest and powerful instructions. A few especially useful directives in those “child on plane” moments:

Breathe in, Breathe out, Let go.
Begin again.
This moment is like this.
Something…Being known.
Notice, allow, ease/examine, release.

The willingness to practice becomes the impetus to remember this peace you describe. To shine the light of awareness on these moments in whatever community I find myself, serves to support and extend the practice. Thank you for your writing to trigger remembering.

David Cain November 11, 2014 at 9:09 am

Yes — most of the habits that have stuck with me only began to stick when I began to think of them in terms of simple instructions. Sink into the seat. Let the moment hang around you. Back straight but not stiff.

Saya November 10, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Your blog is one of the only ones I’ve kept up with since I’ve moved back to NZ (I used to blog and be online a lot more to stay connected to home) and I love that you are so honest about “falling off the wagon.” A lot of blogs speak from such a place of authority (perhaps because of all the emphasis on that in things like “build your following in 30 days!” type of e-courses) but I find it hard to take that seriously. I have very similar experiences with mindfulness (I loved your book, by the way) where being out of a routine makes it difficult for me to stay with a practice and it’s heartening to see you talk about it and feel it’s okay.

David Cain November 11, 2014 at 9:10 am

Heh… half of this blog is about my falling off a wagon of some kind or another.

kate November 10, 2014 at 7:18 pm

this was a wonderful subject to write about. I found it to be very helpful. oh, why is it that forgetting is something that humans do so well? So many times i have said to myself, hey, that was something that was was so good for me, and how did i slip into not doing it anymore?? and the baby on the plane scene was such a lesson…. good one.

Jmu November 12, 2014 at 4:00 pm

My meditation is part of my works schedule. While taking a staycation I found myself angered by the most trivial things. In discussing with a friend I realized what was different. Got back to mediation, problem solved.
Also, I have been carrying last week’s message; those people delaying me aren’t idiots, they may be geniuses too distracted by the life of the mind to pay attention to the life of the world.

Sandy Massone November 12, 2014 at 7:11 pm

I love your example of building up peace in the face of a crying baby, then challenged by the coughing man sitting next to you. For me, when I declare that I am peace, it seems the Universe gives me opportunities to practice peace in the form of crying babies and coughing, hacking people :-) If I can be mindful of that, then I flow through those experiences so much better. Thanks for sharing.

Heiko November 18, 2014 at 8:37 am

The second last paragraph should probably start with “One OF my…” :)

Free to Pursue November 20, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Hmmm…sounds like your flight to Ecuador and my Johannesburg flight were similar. Maybe it was the same guy! What made the flight enjoyable for me was watching how other people reacted to “clearing the throat guy”, “complainy-pants woman” and “ignorant-missionary lady”. It was a hoot! So much irritation from so many, and on a 15.5hr flight to boot. They were torturing themselves by letting it all get to them.

I ended up having a great time just observing everything going on around me and realizing I had made the right choice – to “keep calm and carry on”. I only wish I were as wise every time I fly.

David Cain November 20, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Throat-clearing guy sure gets around. Complainy-pants woman too. I haven’t met I.M.L. yet but I’m sure she’s waiting for me on an Airbus somewhere.

KW Stout November 25, 2014 at 12:39 pm

I can relate to the love of travel, but it interferes with my daily habits.

My daily schedule is dependent on a good sleep schedule, that I am very consistent about at home. However, when I travel my sleep schedule gets messed up sometimes and my daily habits fall apart.

It’s funny how hypocritical we become when we’re in traffic or on a flight, when we are stuck in a reactive mindset. Something most of us could probably improve on – great post!

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