When you lack control over your circumstances, due to health issues or other unforeseen external factors, there is only one thing you can control; your inner climate. This can be done through the practice of meditation.
While much of life isn’t actually within our control, there is one place where all illusion of control tends to vanish. That place is on a commercial airplane, miles above the earth’s surface. Indeed, control seems to be lost the minute you’ve passed barefoot under a metal detector. You hear constant announcements about keeping your personal items near and endless reports on the current security level. You abandon your liquids and are forced to drink only those products available for purchase within the area surrounding your gate. Once in flight, there is no getting off the plane. You aren’t flying the big tin can, so you may as well let go. And, it doesn’t do any good to glance at your watch, because those sideways glances won’t get you to your destination any more quickly.
With so much beyond your control, much like when faced with a chronic illness, you have a fantastic opportunity to practice meditation.
What is meditation exactly? Well, I’ve read many books on that topic and have attended numerous meditation courses in a variety of traditions. What I’ve learned is that meditation is merely a matter of agreeing to be where you are. It is a place of surrender; surrender to grief, pain, or loneliness.
In so surrendering, you end the true agony caused by avoiding the truth of what is. You let your mind be where it is at, you observe your breath, and when you see your thoughts wandering off to all of the emails that will face you when you land or the new medication you’ve been prescribed, you gently observe the wandering mind and just return to your breath once again. If wholeheartedly embraced, you may arrive at your destination more at peace rather than bent out of shape because the plane took off two hours late or annoyed by the 30 minutes spent on the tarmac, waiting for an empty gate to dock the already-landed plane.
In this manner, a delayed flight can be viewed as an opportunity to access that quiet place inside; that trusting soul that agrees to simply be in the place it is. When practiced regularly, while in flight or waiting in line at the grocery store, you’ll be better equipped to access this place of quiet, even when faced with the extraordinary circumstance of a cancer diagnosis or an unforeseen job layoff.
Recently, I was given to separate opportunities to practice my own meditation. One was during a rather bumpy descent into the JFK airport. There were thunderstorms in the area and no way through but to go through the turbulent air. Even though the captain warned us in advance that the ride was going to get bumpy, I wasn’t prepared for that degree of bumpiness. As we swooped through an air pocket, I watched as my still unfinished cup of club soda catapulted up to the air vent. The trajectory was amazing.
I turned towards the woman next to me and said, “I’m scared.” That got her eight-year old son really upset and he started saying that he didn’t want to die. I realized that my own fear had sparked fear in a child. I felt genuinely bad. While still worried by all of the jostling in our descent, I closed my eyes and told myself that I wasn’t in control; we all face hardships, sickness, and eventually, death. I looked for that place of peace, letting it fill me until we once again stabilized just before landing.
The second opportunity was given to me just this past weekend. Eighteen weeks pregnant with my third child, I discovered some unexpected and unexplained bleeding. At the time, I was visiting my father’s home in a rural, wooded setting, which is the ideal landscape for self-exploration and deep thoughts, but not ideal for cell phone connections or medical crises. With the sight of the blood, I became anxious and every bit as fearful as when I thought my plane was going down.
After 20 minutes of panic and tears, I was finally able to calm down and find my breath, realizing that, here too, I was not in control. If this pregnancy happened to terminate early, then I would have to accept the loss and find a means to deal it. Until such an occurrence, however, I would do best by remaining calm and letting that calm carry me. How many of our troubles are only created by our wild imagination? When I finally was able to reach my midwife, she told me the same thing – to just be calm and she would check it all out when I got back.
For now, the pregnancy seems to have stabilized, but I am still on a plane of sorts and I am not the pilot. I have 22 weeks left to go in this pregnancy and I have no control. Things can happen at any time. All I can do is to breathe and know that I am capable of handling both life and death, as I need to. All I have is now, this moment, to breathe and to be present to all that comes my way, trying to save fear for the real versus imaginary troubles.
I am not the pilot, but a willing participant observing the mystery of life unfolding, as it will.