May 13, 2010

Real Travel On The Path

Very often we speak of our practice as a path or journey. Buddhism abounds with travel metaphors. We have The Noble Eightfold Path, after all, not The Noble Eightfold Concentric Circles. Sometimes this is a helpful metaphor, in that it gives us something to strive for, and sometimes it is deceptive because it gives us the impression there is something to strive for. Tricky, that, which is one of the things I love about Buddhism.

However, when it comes down to the very practical issues concerning actual physical travel, what does the buddhadharma have to teach us? After all, travel can be stressful, right?

Perhaps not. I think this is the first myth we tell ourselves. We create this story in our mind about the great ordeal that is modern travel. We have to get up so early and wait so long and go through such a process. But honestly, how difficult is it to stand in a line or sit on a plane?

What is really stressful about travel has very little to do with security checkpoints and weather delays. It has to do with two things: 1) breaking out of our habitual patterns and 2) not being in control.

First, we have to contemplate the very thought of going somewhere new. We have to take time away from work, find the cheapest plane tickets, somewhere to stay, things to do. We have so many questions they buzz in our heads like bees and we don’t know which to answer first. What happens if we get lost? What happens if our luggage is sent to Burmuda? What do we do if the hotel looses our reservation? We have to contemplate all these potential unfamiliar situations and try to plan for contingencies we can’t even think of yet.

When we get to where we’re going everything is unfamiliar. The little coffee shop we always have breakfast at is hundreds of miles away. The weather is different and we don’t know if we’ll need a coat or not. The people may speak oddly and we may not know what is considered polite behavior anymore. All of this can put our mind into a kind of overwhelmed state as we try to scramble to categorize the differences. We want everything to fit neatly into its assigned mental folder, like it did back home, and the filing gets backed up while we try to shuffle these new perceptions. We don’t have our habitual ways of acting and thinking to fall back on.

These habitual patterns are the ways we attempt to control our lives. If travelers are often perceived as grouchy or stressed, I believe it is because travel necessitates placing ourselves in situations over which we have no control. We can’t control when the plane is going to arrive or if the train will be on time. We have to sit and wait on rely on other people, strangers, to take care of us. We have to trust they know how and care enough to do their best. People don’t like this. I’ve watched established businessmen in their tailored suits squirm like three-year-olds when the stewardess announces a slight delay.

“In the West we grow up with the sense that we must learn to take control of our lives. Little is left to the workings of fate. By the time we are adults, we must be able to make decisions and take responsibility for the direction of our lives,” notes psychotherapist Rob Price (“The Solace of Surrender,” Tricycle, Spring 2007).

But you know what? These two things – breaking our patterns and letting go of the search for control – are essential on the Buddhist path.

Meditation is often described as way to cultivate mindfulness. “Mindful awareness frees us from habitual patterns, opening up a space between stimulus and response, allowing us to consciously choose how to respond to things rather than blindly react,” writes Lama Surya Das in “The Heart-Essence of Buddhist Meditation.” (Tricycle, Winter 2007)

But very often even meditation becomes a habitual pattern. We sit for so many minutes at such and such a time and have these kinds of experiences. In many ways we may try to fall into that as we wait in the airport or at the bus stop. Meditation becomes the familiar thing we can carry with us anywhere. While travelling it can be a great source of comfort and calm. It can be very handy to be well practiced in sitting and doing nothing (seemingly) for long stretches when the airport has been closed for the third time in as many hours. That’s shouldn’t be underestimated. However, mindfulness includes being mindful of using practice techniques as a crutch. Luckily, meditation can bring this to light for us as well.

Travel can do the same. Keeping that open space between stimulus and response is essential in new surroundings. Letting ourselves become overwhelmed by our mental paperwork is not a good way to enjoy Hong Kong. Mindfulness can help us drop of the patterning and categorizing and be fully present where we are. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we travel in the first place?

When we can start to do that, let go of our habitual patterns and simply be present, we can start to realize there really is very little we need to control, let alone can control. “It has often surprised me,” Rob Price continues, “that in the process or surrender what I give up is fear and struggle. A kind of strength comes from truly giving up. Something changes when I genuinely let go and ask for help. The challenge is maintaining this openness, rather than grasping at solid forms or quick solutions to feel safe. It's not that I give up personal responsibility, believing that some external entity is going to rescue me. Rather, I realize that if I truly listen to the innate wisdom of my Buddha-nature, it will guide me, ‘Trust your inner know ledge-wisdom,’ my teacher Lama Tauten Ye, she used to say.”

Oddly enough, I find that when we can let go of the need for control, everything becomes much more workable. Because when we reach for control all we notice is how it slips further and further from our grasp and we work harder and harder. Then when we finally let go, it is a great relief. We realize we don’t have to worry so much. We can trust the gate attendants and stewards and baggage handlers to do their jobs. We realize that even with the inevitable delays and errors, everything is actually fairly easy to fix (barring unpronounceable volcanic eruptions). The system is actually designed with these things in mind.

Travel is a great opportunity to open ourselves to trusting others. I’ve never run into a problem so bad it couldn’t be solved with a please, thank you, a genuine smile, and a little bit of patience. Most folk will actually bend over backwards to help you out, especially if you are genuinely grateful.

So next time you book a trip, remember what an opportunity this is for practice. Don’t cling too tightly to schedules or contingency plans. Leave room for openness. Trust yourself to be able to handle situations as they arise, just like you would back home where everything is familiar. Things are going to happen you can’t control and you’re going to have to roll with it. Trust other people to be there to help you out. Realize that when someone is rude (and they will be), they’re just suffering because they’re out of the comfort zone too.

Travel can make the metaphor of the path very real.

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