Southeast Asia is always teeming with Western backpackers, and there’s a silent competition among them to appear the most relaxed. You can get an idea of who’s been “in country” for some time based on how unfazed they appear in sketchy situations. Something that rattles you on the first day in Bangkok—a taxi ignoring a red light, a housecat bedding down beneath your table in a restaurant, a motorcycle using the sidewalk to sneak past a traffic jam—seems mundane a week later.
So when you’re on an overcrowded boat that seems as if it’s about to capsize with every wave, some of your fellow passengers can appear almost supernaturally relaxed. It’s hard to know who’s truly at ease in the tumult, and who’s trying to look like they are.
But you know that some of them really have achieved a Keith-Richards-like level of easygoingness, because you start to see it happening to you. You learn you can actually relax on purpose. In fact, it’s necessary to some degree, because in a foreign country you are usually a passenger with no control. As you spend more and more time being chauffeured in unlicensed boats, taxis and tuk-tuks, it begins to dawn on you that the ability to enjoy yourself is directly related to your willingness to kick your feet up (maybe just figuratively) and relax into the warm bath of passengerhood.
You have to remind yourself to do this, otherwise your mind habitually retreats from the moment around you, into an uptight inner world of catastrophizing and contingency-planning. Instead of basking in the marine air or gaping at the jewel-blue Andaman waters—or otherwise doing what you came here for—your mind is straining for some sense of control over the uncontrollable, by quizzing itself on the Blue Cross emergency number, or gauging the swimming distance to the nearest island.
The essence of relaxedness is a “good passenger” mentality—a willingness to actively enjoy the moments between “destination” moments. We often fixate on future moments that promise resolution to our current needs, such as when you get to the front of the line, or the end of a workweek, or the far shore, as if it is only in those moments that you can drop your luggage and finally be where you are with your whole heart.
There are two major problems with waiting for these moments before you let yourself relax:
- They make up a tiny percentage of your life. The vast majority of life consists of getting somewhere else, or otherwise alleviating some unresolved need. If you feel like you need to be there before you can fully relax into where you are, then you will seldom be relaxed in life.
- Like all moments, these “moments of arrival” are over as soon as they begin. A new desire emerges in no time, and already you are back in that other 99.9% of life, the part that contains uncertainties and unresolved needs.
Being a good passenger is pretty simple, but you do have to remember to do it. It’s really three things:
- Settle into your body
- Actively watch the world unfold around you
- Occasionally notice how nice it is to be able to do both of these things
That’s it. Whenever you notice you’re ruminating, remember to be a passenger again.
Essentially, the passenger state is a conscious shift away from analyzing, planning, and commenting, in favor of simply enjoying where your body is and what it feels like to be there. In the John Lennon sense, it means it’s time for the “life” part of life, as opposed to “making other plans” part.
This mentality is characterized by a certain kind of faith—that it is not only safe, but exhilarating to drop your security blanket of constant figuring and questioning, and just let life happen to you for a bit. The faith part is necessary, because if you’re trying to logically convince your mind that it is completely safe to let things be, you’re already stuck in analysis again.
You are always a passenger
Being a passenger isn’t an occasional circumstance. In some sense, you are a passenger whenever you don’t have total control over what is happening, which is all the time. You don’t need to actually be in a vehicle. Your body is always chauffeuring you around anyway. You can sit back and put your feet up—in spirit anyway—while you’re walking, or even driving.
The good passenger relaxes into uncertain or unresolved circumstances, with a strong sense that things will probably be okay, or at least okay enough that there’s no need to grasp at any kind of supernatural control over the future. You can watch reality unfold without flinching, trusting that you are capable enough to respond in those occasional moments that actually require a response.
At the same time, you accept that despite your best efforts, you may still end up in a mess. If you do, you will respond from there. You will gauge swimming distances only once the ship actually hits a reef. If you die you die, but it won’t be because you decided it was okay to enjoy yourself until there was a real emergency.
The unrelaxed mind experiences a thousand emergencies for every real one. And when the real one comes, the unrelaxed mind is the least prepared, because it has no faith in its owner’s ability to act in the present. It believes it can operate without this self-trust, determined instead to somehow escape the inescapable danger of being alive, just by summoning so many catastrophes to mind during ordinary moments that nothing can surprise it.
This is all delusion, because even when they do happen, no catastrophe looks quite like you thought it would. Instead of leaping into action, the mind leaps into panic, because that’s what it has been practicing.
As Mary Schmich put it in her famous “Wear Sunscreen” column, “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind-side you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.”
The fact that liberates the good passenger and traps the worried one is that there is no way to inoculate yourself against the idle-Tuesday blindside. No amount of rumination can head it off. Sensible decision-making and intelligent planning are a part of every well-lived life, but these things are accomplished by sitting down with a pen and paper for ten minutes now and then, not by perpetual worrying. The self-assurance that worry is trying to achieve, ironically, has everything to do with giving up attempts to control much of what you want to control: the reactions of others, the weather, the fate of the boat you’re on, the feeding behavior of local marine wildlife.
The good passenger can enjoy the stars and the waves, because he’s not trying to control them. To worry is to grasp at kinds of control that are not possible. You can never get enough of what you don’t really need, which means you can never do enough of what doesn’t really work.