On Sunday night I had what could have been a terrible flying experience. I was jammed into the middle seat on a long Southwest flight from Chicago to San Francisco. The passenger to my right was of such a girth that I was physically unable to lower the armrest because their body occupied the same position in space that my armrest would to occupy. As I eased into my seat and felt my body come into contact with theirs, I knew that for the next four hours we were going to be hip to hip. Every breath I took, they’d be feeling me.
This could have been a highly uncomfortable flight — I could have suffered the whole way through. But I didn’t suffer at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, and the flight went by quickly. How’d I do it?
I did it by practicing a simple mindfulness technique. Here’s how you do it.
- Notice that you feel discomfort. Let this be your “trigger” for carrying out the following action plan. In this case, I noticed that I was feeling very uncomfortable with the physical contact between my body and my neighbor’s.
- Bring your attention to your real-time sensory experience. This includes whatever you’re experiencing right now as physical sensations in your body, sounds from your ears, sights from your eyes, and thoughts in your mind. If you’re experiencing thoughts, you don’t have to stop thoughts (and you couldn’t if you tried; it’s impossible unless you’re dead): all you have to do is see thoughts as thoughts. The easiest way to do this is to silently identify each thought as either visual (mental images) or auditory (mental talk). Whatever is arising, just watch the real-time stream. No need to get fixated on any particular sensation.
- Identify the elements in your real-time sensory experience that seem to be most connected with your discomfort. Often this is a combination of some physical sensation in the body and some echoing mental talk. In my case, on the flight, I noticed: the sensations of my leg pressing against my neighbor’s leg, sensations in my belly that felt like anxiety, sensations rising in my chest that felt like anger (and seemed to push my mind to think “escape!” thoughts), and a vivid but repetitive barrage of thoughts around what I could have done to avoid this situation, how shitty the airline was, how the boarding clerk had failed to communicate clearly, etc.
- Allow those sensations to be as full as they want to be. This is the equanimity step, and it’s the key move in all of mindfulness (and you might say it’s the core doctrine of the Buddha’s teaching). The idea is counterintuitive (which is why it was a great discovery): by allowing an unpleasant sensation to do whatever it wants to do, including bloom into fullness, you can escape suffering. The reason is that sensations are impermanent. When you allow them to come and go as they please, they do exactly that: they come, and they go. Every sensation you’ve ever felt, barring the ones you’re feeling right now, has come and gone. Whatever unpleasant sensations you’re feeling right now will eventually pass away. What you resist persists. The best way out is through. Notice that if you pay attention to any one of the sensations by itself, apart from the others, it’s actually not that unbearable. For me, the sensations of my leg contacting my neighbor’s leg were not, in themselves, painful. It was just a warmth and pressure. It was kinda nice, actually. And the sensations in my chest and belly were interesting, but not painful.
Do this until you feel genuinely at ease with the experience. It’ll probably take at least five or ten minutes, depending on the intensity of the sensations and your skill as a meditator.
Let me know how it goes!