I’m on a plane right now, somewhere over the Midwest. It was supposed to be yesterday, but yesterday’s plane broke.
Being stuck in an airport, yearning for home, in a throng of thoroughly dissatisfied people is a perfect place to practice. I knew that the gate would be full of very frustrated people expressing their angst in various ways, many of them tangible. I thought this might be an opportunity to be the difference to the gate agent and the others around me. I thought it might be an opportunity to pursue my practice in a way that would help others and not just myself.
I suppose living the dharma does that anyway, in an existential sense, but this would be more practical, even tangible.
So I did.
After an hour delay they had boarded us. We sat at the gate while they rebooted the plane. I know, right? Nobody was really saying it, but if you need to push ctrl-alt-delete, confidence is going to run pretty low.
Sure enough, 15 minutes later we were deplaning and lining up at the gate. Being near the front of the plane I was about 15th in line (out of about 40.) So I just smiled and waited. I stayed in the moment and practiced mindfulness. I breathed in the dark and gave out light. I kept my thoughts gentle. As I chatted casually with the people around me I was upbeat. I mentioned to someone that it was out of my control – I could fight it and fume, but the plane would still be broken and I’d still be at the airport, only now I’d be angry and miserable. Best to just accept it and peacefully work it out. My line mate thought about that, smiled and said, “That’s true,” and visibly relaxed as we chatted on about other things.
Well, this practice stuff is pretty cool!
The line moved slowly, but soon it was my turn at the gate. At the time the flight was still only delayed, but my connection was shot. Having spent the time cultivating an attitude of compassion, I was able to be gentle and peaceful while I double checked my rebooking. I may not have made her day better, but I didn’t make it worse, which is half the battle, right?
That done, I went to the very back of the line to chat with a customer of mine on he same flight who had been hanging back trying to make his changes over the phone. During the time we were slowly moving up, the flight was cancelled. My customer got his flight sorted by phone for the next morning, and his company got a set of rooms at a nearby hotel. Meanwhile, I now had to stay in line and rebook again, as only my connection had been rebooked.
As I waited a few more people had gotten in line behind me. Directly behind me was a rather terse middle-aged woman who was trying to rebook by phone. Her conversation with the phone agent was long, convoluted and tense. She finally balked at giving the agent her birthdate and was apparently put on eternal hold. She gave up.
Behind her was a middle-aged couple. Traveling in pairs has its advantages. One, someone can watch your bags while you go off in search of various forms of relief, usually related to some point in the eating/drinking process. Two, when your plane breaks and you’re stuck in a looooong line, one of you can go in search of a shorter one.
So the wife portion of the couple heads off to another gate. A short while later the husband portion gets a call and also leaves the line. Soon they are back, and they tell the terse woman behind me that there’s an agent at gate 15 who got them set up in minutes. The terse woman heads off.
The rest of us stay. The line slowly moves.
Some 10-15 minutes later the terse woman returns and says, “I’m back. There was nobody there,” and retakes her place in line. The line slowly moves.
We come to a point in time now – I’m second in line. The terse woman is behind me. The couple is gone, so behind her is slim, 40-something man with a ruddy tan. Behind him are two other people. Otherwise the gate is empty. It has been nearly 3 hours since they pulled us off the plane.
Out of the blue the ruddy man speaks to the terse woman. The conversation goes like this:
Ruddy: Don’t you think since you got out of line you should go to the back of the line?
Terse: Are you saying you think I should?
Ruddy: Yes, I think you should.
Terse: Alright, thank you.
Ruddy: Thank you.
Needless to say, it wasn’t very friendly. The terse woman was very put out. She got on the phone and stood close by while loudly telling the other party about the nice man who told her to go to the back of the line. I admit I just ducked.
Okay, I did more than duck. I judged. I mean, the woman was presumptuous. She did leave the line in order to improve her lot over the rest of us.
On the other hand there were so few of us left, with two agents working, that it didn’t seem to be a big deal.
I tried to figure out what practice would look like right now. Well, I didn’t try that hard. After all, it had been horribly long day, and it was almost my turn. I had to focus, right?
I got rebooked, got my vouchers, got my bag, and headed to the hotel to get some sleep and give it another go in the morning. I couldn’t get that confrontation out of my head. They had both been aggressive in their own way. They both suffered due to the other’s response. Was there anything I could have done to make it better?
It made me think about how I had practiced earlier. While it felt good, and probably didn’t contribute to the suffering at the gate, it didn’t cost me much either.
What if I had offered to the man to go to the back of the line myself and give my space to the terse woman? Would he have been happy? Would he have cared *who* was actually in front of him? Would he have lightened up and let it be? Would he have been angry at me because he wanted to teach her a lesson?
What about her? Would she have been happy? Would she have lightened up and realized the line wasn’t that long and the back wouldn’t have been so bad? Would she have been angry that I had made her seem petty?
What about me? Would I have gotten a worse arrangement? The flight I’m on is very full. Would I have really been acting holier than thou, showing them up somehow? Would that have been rubber-to-the-road practice, giving out whatever compassion I could muster, trying to decrease the bit of suffering of these two weary travelers?
I don’t know. In hindsight, I start asking questions about the questions. Is practice more valuable when it *costs* the practice-er something? Is there something specifically holy in small sacrifice? Is there something egotistical in taking their suffering on myself at all, when my presence was immaterial to either of their experience except for the obvious fact I was in line in front of them?
I was weary, so much so that I wept a little when I got to my hotel room, homesick and exhausted. In the end I went to sleep with my questions and the thought that it might have to be okay that they won’t ever be answered in full.