Often when I fly, I end up sitting next to someone who has brought absolutely nothing along to occupy their time for the duration of the flight. This happens on quick trips to Montreal and New York, where I get the impression that the individual is just commuting, waiting for the moment of touchdown when they can spring into action and get going with whatever they need to do. But the more fascinating encounters are with those who sit and stare at the seat in front of them during the hours upon hours before arriving in more distant locales like Europe, India or even Australia. On both my trips to India, for example, I can remember watching in awe as at least one of my seat-mates passed the time with merely their own thoughts for distraction.
So that gets me thinking, because apparently that’s what I do on flights when I’m not plowing through a novel, catching up on work or watching movie after television show after movie. I wonder who these people are, where they’re going and who they’re with. As I write this on a flight to California, the man sitting an empty seat across me is, from what I can gather, traveling with his wife (across the aisle) and their 40-something year-old son who sits in the row ahead of us. The son orders their food and drinks, since his parents cannot speak English and seem accustomed to having their son do this for them. Outside of meal times, both the man and his wife sit with their hands folded neatly in their laps. Sometimes their eyes are open, other times they’re not. Once in a while one of them checks the time, but not in an antsy “Get me the hell out of here” way, but more in a “Oh look, just 4 more hours left of this seated reverie” way.
I can’t help but wonder if I’m seated next to these various “quiet” individuals for a reason. Each time I board a plane, I secretly hope that this is the one; the flight where I will finally sit next to that amazing gorgeous man who just happens to share the same final destination, who either lives there or has been there before and can’t wait to show me around. And then appears my familiar companion, the older lady or gentleman who gives me a polite “Yes, I’ll be sitting in this row” smile as they remove their coat, sit down, and stow whatever they may have brought onto the plane far away in the overhead compartment. Silence sets in, and I assume my normal routine of organizing all of the various accoutrements I’ve brought along to keep me company.
It’s no mystery that I treat travel the way I treat most other things in life: something to be done with efficiency. I bring along food that will simultaneously keep me from starvation while giving me something to look forward to since I know it will taste better halfway through the flight than any meal prepared on board. I have a Kindle loaded with material just in case I turn into a speed reader and need more than one novel for a 5 hour flight. I also don’t leave home without my laptop, so that if the mood strikes to do exactly what I’m doing now – write – I won’t be left with only my phone or (heaven forbid) a piece of paper on which to transpose these ideas.
If at the end of a flight I feel a balanced mix of “Wow, that went by really fast” and “I just accomplished a lot while also setting the relaxed tone for this vacation”, I consider the flight to be a success. I suppose the whole getting from Point A to Point B via flying tin can would be a win as well.
I can’t imagine willingly boarding a flight without having something on hand—at the very least, a trashy magazine and bag of M+M’s to keep me engaged. So perhaps that means the “just sit there” tactic is something I need to try. I mean, I espouse the merits of meditation, and just the other day voluntarily immersed myself in a sensory-deprivation float tank for the primary purpose of doing nothing, not even supporting my own body weight, for a whole hour. Why not take advantage of an opportunity to sit quietly on a flight, and contemplate whatever it is I’m leaving behind, and begin to imagine whatever may lie ahead?
I don’t really have a reason not to give it a shot, aside from my own resistance to the idea; the kind of resistance that keeps us busy, looking for a constant stream of stimulation in our lives. It’s the same resistance I encounter when I teach class and watch people fidget through the duration of a short seated meditation or even struggle with the concept of lying still in savasana. This struggle is often exaggerated by something that makes us uncomfortable (whether it’s air travel, or lying on a sweaty mat surrounded by other sweaty people at the end of a yoga class). That’s probably why doctors’ offices are always so well-stocked with magazines, and why I’m so grateful for that television screen perched above the dentist’s chair!
On the practice mat, I like to look for opportunities to pause, especially in the places where I’m tempted to speed up out of habit or laziness. Consider the Everest of transitions: the mighty jump-back/jump-through, where the practitioner aims to lift up from a seated position, float back to chatturanga, and once arriving in downward dog, transfer weight to the hands in a controlled manner that will allow her to float her legs through the arms and land softly for the next asana. More often than not, these transitions are rushed (because they’re hard! and uncomfortable!) and become hotbeds of injury. Believe me when I say that if you really want to find the lift and experience that floating quality, you’ve got to slow down.
As I look over at these people on my flight sitting contentedly without distraction, I’m proposing a challenge to myself, and to any of you reading this who can relate to my “why do nothing when you can do it all” tendencies. Given that the holidays are often accompanied with various forms of transition—ranging from travel, to the start of a new year—one could argue that this is a perfect time to experiment with doing less, and see what happens when we try to get comfortable taking a pause, especially at times that make us uncomfortable. There is a certain strength derived in reflecting on where we’ve come from and where we’re going, but also in engaging with the present moment, even if that present moment looks like staring at the back of the airplane seat in front of you.
Let’s give it a try and just see what happens. After all, a little pause could go a long way.