An unavoidable reality of every long-distance trip is you have to stroll down this shiny tiled path....
....before you can stroll down this one.
Though I have been in and out of airports more times than I could count, I still feel a sudden rush of anxiety whenever I walk through those massive sliding doors. It's normal to feel some level of fear before travel. After all, you are putting yourself into a situation without all the tools you want to navigate a new environment. (Keyword: want) Airports pose some unique challenges. As someone who is naturally attentive to the feelings of others, airports can be a minefield of stress and fatigue. It seems almost an inevitability that I will witness at least one full grown adult completely lose all sense of compassion and respect for other people while walking through our local airport. Rather than accept their lack of control and make measured, adjusted decisions to their changing circumstances, some men and women allow their emotions to burn through them, often causing strain on their minds and bodies and contributing to the suffering of others around them. It is frustrating but enlightening to witness a sudden flight cancellation. Those who understand the power of acceptance are on the phone with customer service right away getting their flights rescheduled. Those who react to the situation are (literally) running in circles, screaming at the poor airline staff members, and arguing with their own loved ones on a family vacation.
Don't be the screamers.
Whether you are just getting into meditation like myself or have had a consistent practice for years, the airport is the perfect place to explore mindfulness. In fact, I'd prefer if it was a prerequisite. You don't have to be a Buddhist to reap the benefits of Zen meditation, and I am certain there is a place for breathing and stillness in the chaos of air travel. Before I share some practical tips, let's acknowledge the most painful parts of flying.
There are many aspects of air travel that contribute to this high-stress environment. When I asked some friends and coworkers about their top three struggles with air travel, many of them mentioned problems like cancelled/delayed flights, outrageous change fees for rescheduling flights, expensive tickets, location of the airport in proximity to their home and lack of overhead luggage space. These are certainly some of the worst parts of air travel, but they are the result of corporate policies, the pressure to turn a profit, and the oligopoly of the airline industry. Though you could certainly write or tweet to an airline's customer service department or negotiate a waiver for certain fees over the phone, I would lump these issues into the "out of my control" category. Other issues mentioned included some airport-specific issues like chaotic and disorganized security checkpoints, pricey restaurants or shops, and a lack of ride-share transportation. My friends were 100% accurate that all these things 100% suck, but the good news is that most of them can be anticipated. The other good news is that what cannot be anticipated can be accepted as a part of the reality of air travel. Here are a few steps you can take to prepare yourself for a calm, mindful, and dare I say enjoyable trip to the airport:
Make space for the expected.
If you are anything like me, I am basically non-functional for the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes of every day. I grumble and glare at those who spring magically out of bed with a smile on their face and fully formed sentences on their lips. Throw in some jet lag and you've got yourself one grumpy lady. It's important to know what makes you feel your best and try to incorporate this into your travel plans. For instance, in 2017 we traveled from Atlanta to London with a 6AM departure. Jet lag is notoriously difficult going from west to east, so I made a plan for the 9 days before our trip. Since London is 4 hours ahead of Atlanta, I started moving my wake-up time and bed time 15 minutes earlier each day. My morning alarm went from 6:15 to 4:15AM. By the time we landed in London, my biological clock was only two hours off kilter instead of four, and I had little to no trouble with a full day of touring the next morning. If you do decide to make a schedule shift like this, make sure you are still getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.
Making space for the expected means anticipating the challenges of air travel and taking some practical steps to ease or eliminate suffering.
Make space for the unexpected.
Now it’s time to focus on the parts of air travel that we cannot control. This is easily the most challenging step though it requires the least amount of physical preparation. In Zen Buddhism, suffering (read as: anxiety over getting stuck in a long line, frustration over having your flight cancelled, anger at a rude customer service agent) originates from the desire for pleasant experiences and the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations like fear. In this case, we may desire to be treated respectfully, to not go hungry, to maintain the comfort that comes with knowing what will happen next, but our internal or emotional reactions to these scenarios will not alter the reality of them in any way. An airport is in constant flux. In fact, it’s the perfect example of impermanence. Departure boards flash new times or cancellations based on seemingly unrelated things – a thunderstorm in Los Angeles, an overbooked flight from San Juan, a power outage in Detroit. In these situations, often the most helpful thing we can do is just to recognize the world as it is (the restaurant with the veggie burger is closed) rather than spend time longing for things to be different (the restaurant with veggie burger is still closed and I am so upset I don’t notice my favorite frozen yogurt shop next door.)
Making space for the unexpected means acknowledging when a travel situation is out of your control and taking the mental and emotional steps necessary to accept it.
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