Part 3: What to do when it’s the Destination Not the Journey
One of the most stressful memories I have of traveling was not the time when I was on the way to teach a retreat in California and was detained in Canada. My passport had been lost, meanwhile the retreat participants had already arrived and were waiting for me. I was separated from my husband and taken to some strange room for many hours where I was searched and detained for questioning. Another time that was not the most stressful travel memory was when I was stuck in Kathmandu during chaos – the King had been killed and no one was allowed to leave. There was also the flight to India – not the most stressful memory – we received five minutes notice that myself and all the passengers were now going to have pesticides sprayed on us through the air ducts. Its interesting to note that these were some of the most dramatic memories but not the most stressful moments! The most stressful travel memory was one time on Air China. I had not slept for thirty hours and the plane was really crowded. The flight attendants where in a horrible mood, the flight was late and the passengers were all being rushed, pushed, forward when the attendant scolded me for not getting my suitcase into the overhead bin fast enough. Sputtering out some insults and rolling her eyes the flight attendant grabbed the suitcase from my hands lifted it up and the whole thing opened, spilling all of the contents out all over the aisle. She then rolled her eyes and walked away. Meanwhile I was trying to pick everything up as quickly as possible and another flight attendant came and yelled at me for holding up the line while the person behind me tried to climb over me and stepped on my hand, smashing my fingers. It was the perfect storm of grumpy passengers, little time, no room, grumpy flight attendants and exhaustion. I endured the rest of the flight in a drained exhausted haze counting down the hours, waiting for it to be over with.
Based on that experience, I can give the following travel tip with sympathy for our situation as tired travelers, its easy to have the whole experience be all about the destination and not the journey. That is the very definition of plane travel after all! That is why it is important to remember Tonglen when traveling.
At such times it may help to remember the Jataka tale of the Buddha’s past life. These are the stories where we learn exactly what led to the Buddha becoming the Buddha. In one life he was a strong man in hell, miserable, having to act as an ox carrying a cart on his weary, sore back day after day. One day he looked over and saw another person in the same situation who was weaker than him. He felt compassion for that person. That was the beginning of bodhichitta, the aspiration that leads to enlightenment.
I appreciate this story because sometimes we are in rough situations which may feel like hell, situations we cannot fix or change but nevertheless must be endured. But even in hell there is a practice we can do – we can generate compassion for others. Of course, if stress while traveling is your worse problem this holiday, you should count yourself as highly fortunate. Often, those hours on the plane are just one of many thousands of less important moments in life that slide by without much attention. But life is made up of those ordinary moments, which accumulate and add up to habitual ways of being that permeate all our moments including the most important ones.
One of the most difficult things about learning to use meditation practice in times of high emotion is to remember to practice in the moment. Its easy to be too caught up and remember when its “too late.” We rarely have enough warning to know when these times are coming and before we know it – a knee jerk reaction… Therefore times such as travel may have a greater value than we realize. It is a time when we will know in advance that we will deliberately enter chaos and stress. We may be stressed, grumpy and tired or surrounded by other stressful, rude or tired people. We may lose control, see our plans spoiled, rushed or be stuck waiting for hours… This is a good opportunity to use the time as a training ground for rehearsing compassion in times of high emotion, in times of loss of control, in times of inconvenience. Its for this reason that when we travel we should take Tonglen practice with us, so we can make it about the journey and the destination.
Take tonglen with you while you travel – this is the third of the four travel essentials in this series.
Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice of generating kindness, compassion and awareness of our interdependence with others. It involves visualizing extending compassion towards others in the form of relief giving light. Then it involves visualizing taking on the hardships of others ourselves, feeling their pain and therefore relieving them of these hardships. While some people became afraid of doing such practices, there is no harm. Generating compassion is always safe.
Basic Instructions for Tonglen while you travel:
Visualize white light streaming from your nostrils as you breathe out. Become aware of the other passengers, their suffering, their sorrows, their worry. Sit with your chest and shoulders open and a sense that your heart is also open as you tune into their stress and tension. Allow yourself to sense other’s tensions and be aware of these rather than push them away. Inhale this sensation and imagine the tensions and worries are leaving them. Every time you inhale open your heart to their experience and envision them in becoming free of suffering, misery, karma and pain. Every time you exhale visualize white light and a sense of freshness expanding outward from the center of your chest. Imagine on each exhale that this luminosity fills the other passengers and relieves them of their pain and sorrow. The light melts their stress and worries, washing them away, leaving them joyful and clear. Continuing with these inhales and exhales until you are able to imagine them full relaxed and joyous. Then sit silently letting go of any techniques of meditation and simply being present and aware of sitting.