Airports are a great place to test qualities of mindfulness, such as patience, acceptance and compassion.
American spiritual leader and author Ram Dass once said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
Last year, I changed that phrase to“If you think you’re enlightened, engage in the current presidential election,” and now, I’m adapting it for the airport situation.
I’ve traveled a good deal around the country and internationally and have been relatively fortunate with my experiences.
Sure, I’ve had to run to catch a plane before; my luggage has been lost a time or two, and there was that incident years ago (before I started my mindfulness practices) when I may or may not have cursed at a rude traveler. Not my finest moment.
But I’ve never experienced delays and cancellations like I did recently.
After a delightfully rejuvenating and peaceful vacation in Boulder, Colorado, with my best girlfriends, I was heading back to Nashville and had a layover in Chicago.
I was supposed to leave in the afternoon and make it to Nashville with plenty of time to drive back to Chattanooga and be back to work Thursday.
Then, the texts from United started.
“Your 3:55 p.m. United flight to Nashville is delayed due to aircraft maintenance.”
OK. So we’d leave at 4:45 p.m. instead, and I’d still get to Nashville by 6:30 p.m. Right?
The delays kept coming; we’d leave at 5:25 p.m., then 6 p.m. Finally, the flight was canceled because of “air traffic control,” which was a result of bad weather.
My flight wasn’t the only one that was dropped. Countless people were left to find a hotel for the night.
This was stressful, but my mindfulness training kicked in.
I noticed other people, including a member of the military who said he hadn’t seen his family or dog in months. He was delayed with me and wanted more than anything just to be home. That helped put things in perspective. It made me grateful for his service, for my privilege to be able to travel, and hearing his situation helped me hold on to compassion and patience.
And there wasn’t any point in being upset. This reaction is a departure from how I may have reacted five years ago before I discovered mindfulness and meditation.
Instead of fretting, I focused on the moment I was in and figured out my next steps.
I Ubered to a hotel-well, first I Ubered to the wrong hotel because of a miscommunication with the United representative who was helping me. Still, somehow, I managed to remain chill and get to the right place.
When I got to the hotel, about 30 people were in line in front of me, and there was one person checking everyone in.
The looks on the faces of the people in front of me silently screamed, “We’ve been waiting forever; I’m thinking about punching someone.”
About an hour into the two-hour wait to be checked into the hotel, my calm started to slip, but I kept reminding myself to breathe.
I focused on my breath. I studied the people and items in the lobby, working on taking in my surroundings in the moment I was experiencing, instead of letting my mind repeat over and over, “This sucks; I hate waiting; having one person here right now is unacceptable.”
It’s not that those thoughts didn’t come to my head. Of course they did.
But I noted them and then tried to refocus on more constructive ideas and actions.
It was a challenge, but overall, I managed to maintain a relatively content mood. (I’m not going to lie; I also passed some time by playing on my phone. Maybe not the most mindful thing, but no one is perfect.)
Again, it’s not at all that I wasn’t annoyed and tired. But I purposefully used mindfulness tools to make it all less painful. And it worked. It really worked.
And I looked to the bright side-I’d get a day of solo sightseeing in Chicago thanks to the delay. My rescheduled flight wouldn’t leave until the next night.
I enjoyed the next day wandering the warm streets of the Windy City, and in the early evening, I went back to the airport for a 9:05 p.m. flight.
Then, the texts came.
“Your 9:05 p.m. United flight to Nashville is delayed due to awaiting aircraft.”
We’d leave at 9:35 p.m. Then 10 p.m. and 10:20 p.m.
By this point, bad weather was hovering over O’Hare, and they were trying to avoid canceling us again.
“Your United flight … now departs at 12:39 a.m.”
It was at about this time that I started to give in to the stress and annoyance.
I was tired from walking all over the city. I had already missed one extra day of work, and now-if I got back to Nashville-it would be too late to drive back to Chattanooga to be at work first thing Friday. Not to mention a storm was coming.
Thankfully, we boarded before my emotions overtook me, and ultimately, I made it back to Nashville by about 3 a.m.
I would not describe the experience as pleasant, but it was a positive one because it tested the skills I’ve been working to cultivate.
I didn’t succeed in feeling zero anxiety or irritation, but practicing mindfulness drastically reduced it. I mean, I didn’t even have the urge to cuss someone.
Using mindfulness tools over a two-day stressful period helped magnify how well they can actually work and showed me that daily practice makes equanimity easier to access in the midst ofturbulence.
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