Category Archives: waiting

Monster Mash :: What are you waiting for?

delayed.jpgLast week we took a trip to the East Coast, a whirlwind week of new sights, old friends, extended family and autumn foliage. Pretty much ‘perfect’ in every way. Until we arrived at the airport for our flight home and were informed it was delayed four hours.

We made the best of the situation and chose a good restaurant to have a leisurely lunch. But eventually we felt the pull of our departure gate, the only place to get real information. Once there we discovered that it wasn’t just our flight to San Francisco that was delayed, but flights to Seattle and L.A. as well. Conflicting explanations as to the cause of the delay were bandied about, leaving our idle minds to go wild with wondering. Had Kim Jong-un pushed the nuclear button and boom? Had there been a seismic event of epic proportions? Were the wildfires still burning creating too much smoke to land? Or was there a Midwest waltz of tornadoes we wouldn’t be able to fly through?

How much easier it would have been to settle in if we knew early on that our intended plane had a problem and had to be replaced with a different one. Of course if there was anything wrong with the plane, we would prefer a new one, thank you very much. It wasn’t until seven hours later, right after we finally boarded, that the pilot shared that helpful information.

So there we all were: passengers for three flights crammed into this relatively small wing of gates at the airport. But we fortunately found seats and set in to wait.

What is waiting anyway?
So often in our lives we are in this state of waiting: In traffic, in the grocery store line, and at the airport. As I sat there I realized that this body of mine has to be somewhere, why not here? I am not in pain or danger. My stomach is satisfied, my bladder is empty. Nothing is actively causing me suffering. Why not simply be present with this experience? After all, even if the plane was on time, I would still be sitting there for a certain amount of time.

The knowledge that I would be there quite a bit longer than anticipated changed everything. Instead of planned passivity I was awash in a flow of impatient emotions, each of which I met with that same statement: ‘The body has to be somewhere. Why not here?’

Over the years I have talked about waiting as an opportunity for practice. I have cited the grocery store line as a place of awakening, if we are present and open to the experience. I have said that I teach a style of meditation I call ‘a portable practice’, that can be done ‘in an airport waiting area.’ Well isn’t this just karmic comeuppance, Miss Meditation Teacher! Let’s see how you deal with what turned out to be a seven hour wait at the gate!

First let’s look at this word ‘waiting’. By waiting we are saying that this moment doesn’t count compared to some future moment we are anticipating. What an opportunity to practice being present with whatever arises.

Waiting is also wanting things to be different than they are. Wanting is a kind of poison that we binge on. Whether we want more of what we have and hate to let go of the experience when things change, or we want things to be different than they are, wanting is the cause of suffering.

This truth is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. And it’s a great place to start any exploration of our relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience.

As I was sitting in Gate 42C at Logan Airport, I had a lot of time to ponder this, to ask myself ‘How am I in relation to my current experience?’ This is not to find fault, to shame myself into looking at the bright side, or to try to change anything. It’s just a way to be present and see the truth of what’s going on.

The wanting things to be different flavors everything in an experience, doesn’t it? If we can set aside that wanting even briefly, we can find all kinds of things to engage us in this moment. Certainly a room packed with travelers is full of entertainment potential. There are children whose antics are amusing, and their weary parents whose situation makes mine feel infinitely less onerous. Great compassion to them. There are friendly people to talk to as well as those trying to carry on their work lives. One man conducted a whole webinar as we all sat around, forced to listen to him expound on contractual marketing in the hospital sector. Huh?

The body has to be somewhere. Why not here? This has so many applications. When we’re stuck in the sick bed or the hospital, or stuck inside due to inclement weather, or stuck in traffic. We can ask ourselves what else is here in this moment besides the idea that ‘I don’t want to be here’?

A little boy expresses joy at seeing an airplane out the window. Can I have such a beginner’s mind as that in regard to all that is arising in my experience? All the simple pleasures?

Instead, so often the mind begins a circular pattern of regret and recrimination: What could I have done differently? In this case, I could have gotten the airline app that would have told me earlier that there would be a delay, and we could have perhaps spent the day sightseeing instead of sitting here. If stuck in traffic, we might think what a difference it would have made to take a different route. At the store, what if we had stood in a different line? And is it statistically possible for us all to be the person that always chooses the wrong line? Or does it just seem that way because we don’t notice all the times we breeze through and things go easily. That’s our natural negativity bias that neuroscientists talk about kicking in. Did I even once say to myself ‘Gosh, of all the flights I’ve taken over the years, this is the first time I’ve had such a delay.’ No. Even though that is true, it didn’t cross my mind.

After almost seven hours hanging out together in this compact space, the carefully crafted formalities between us dissolve. The other two flights to LA and Seattle have gone. We are now a fleeting family with a shared experience. The airline representatives break out Halloween songs and do a little dance to Monster Mash. Reluctantly we are lured into enjoying ourselves. Things fall apart, but in a good way. And I recognize how the magic of shared human experience happens in the places where things don’t run smoothly. But you’d never discover it if the plane ran on time.mon-oj.jpg

You Never Have to Wait Again!

You never have to wait again? That sounds like an impossible promise, but what if it is possible? Let’s explore.

First, let’s define ‘waiting’.
We might say that waiting is focusing  our attention toward some future moment, thinking that what is to come is the ‘real’ experience and whatever this is in this moment is not worthy of our attention. While waiting people often say they are just ‘killing time.’

But through the practice of mindfulness we find that this moment is always worthy of our attention. Therefore, we never have to wait again.

Can that be true?

A typical situation most of us dislike is waiting in line.
We might experience anger and frustration. We might think, ‘These people aren’t doing their job,’ ‘They aren’t respecting my time,’ or ‘I am now going to be late for such and such and so and so will be upset with me.’ We might debate whether we should stay in line or come back another time. We might give ourselves a hard time for not planning enough time or for choosing the wrong time to come. Even after we have accomplished what we came for and left, the aggravation may lingers on, ‘ruining our whole day’ or at least we continue to think about it and maybe talk about it to others.

So what would make standing in line NOT be waiting?
What if we let go of the idea that our only purpose is to pick up the prescription or buy the groceries or mail the package? What if this is not a placeholder moment but a real deal moment? As we stand in line we can come fully into the moment just as it is without any other purpose but to be here, senses activated. We feel our feet on the floor, supported by the earth, anchored by gravity. We might notice temperature, texture, light and dark, color and pattern, tension in the body, air on the skin, the breath rising and falling. There are so many things going on!

As we access these sensations, we develop a spacious awareness that awakens us. As if captured by an artist on canvas, we experience this moment as complete unto itself, rich with shapes and colors of the clothes draped on the bodies, the faces with all the character and moods exposed in a setting that is full of pattern, light and shadow. If it were in a museum we would be fascinated by this painting.

As we sense into the fullness of this experience our compassion is awakened. We understand that we are all in this together —  in this line and in this life — not in an ‘us against them’ way but in an intrinsic connection of all life. Out of this awakening awareness and compassion, we smile. And just as something shifts within us, something starts to shift within the room. Our eyes meet another’s and a conversation begins. When its our turn at the cashier, we are kind. Here is a person having a stressful day dealing with aggravated people. Great compassion! We each have the capacity within us to frame our experience, to decide whether it is a source of irritation, insight or pleasure.

There are many other kinds of waiting beside standing in line, of course. A pregnant woman could be described as waiting, but is she? In fact, she is very actively providing a nurturing environment for gestation. I remember when I was pregnant having the wonderful sense that I could do absolutely nothing and I was still being the most useful person in the room. There are other kinds of gestation that we might interpret as waiting, but as passive as it may feel, something is happening. Is there anything like that in your experience? I know sometimes when I am writing, I need to take a break, do a little game of Spider Solitaire or unload the dishwasher, anything to empty my mind and let me return to the writing from another angle. Gestating. Not waiting!

There is waiting for news. Maybe about a loved one. Is he or she okay? For this kind of waiting we can send metta, universal loving-kindness: ‘May you be well.’ This is really all we can do about it, and it helps us to settle and come back into the moment. Maybe the news is our own, waiting for results of medical tests. Same thing. ‘May I be well.’ Metta is a powerful activity, aligning ourselves with that quality of infinite loving-kindness, feeling it in ourselves and then sharing it generously with all beings. ‘May all beings be well.’

Maybe we’re waiting for news about something we’ve submitted, such as an application or a manuscript. Someone else is holding our future in their hands. That can be a stressful if we focus on the future, hoping or worrying ‘what if..’. But if we stay in the moment, once we’ve done everything we can do, we don’t need to ‘wait.’ We go on living fully. It can actually be a pleasant feeling to have accomplished having something ‘under submission’ where it is no longer on our plate and we are free to focus on other things. Every time thoughts about that ‘up in the air’ submission arises, we simply send metta. ‘May those in whose hands the decision rests be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.’ That’s all we can do, and it’s the best thing we can do.

Some people seem to make a whole life out of waiting: for a settlement, or a true love, or a baby, or the wherewithal to buy a house, move, change jobs, get sober, etc. Whatever it is always seems hopelessly off in the future, but because they believe it will change everything, this life here and now seems pretty shabby compared to that dream. Appreciating this moment just as it is may seem like a betrayal of the dream. We’re told not to take our eye off the prize. But this is the prize: This ability to be fully engaged and aware right now.

Sometimes we’re waiting for the courage to kick in to do something we want to do. Mindfulness enables us to notice the pattern of our thoughts that keep us from proceeding. We can notice:
  • A thought that knocks the stuffing out of us. Every time we think it we want to crawl back under the covers, grab the remote or head for the refrigerator.
  • A gaping hole in our knowledge base that needs to be addressed before we can proceed. Identifying the question and just Googling it is a good step. Maybe it’s a big gap and requires a book or a course. Sometimes it is a gap that can be helped by thinking of who we know that might have the answer or the contact. So often our quandary has to do with believing that we have to do this on our own. It truly does take a village!
  • Erroneous assumptions that keep us circling around again and again, coming to dead ends. Every inner statement can be questioned: Is that true? How do I know that’s true?

If we let go of the idea that we are waiting and instead really pay attention, we gain clarity, compassion and courage.

So next time you find yourself waiting, explore the experience and see for yourself what is true. Maybe you will find you never have to wait again!

It would be great to get your comments or questions on this topic. Click below.

The Don’t Know Mind

At this moment in my life, a grandchild is about to be born. I don’t know when. I don’t know for sure anything about this baby. We assume she’s a girl because an ultrasound early on indicated that was the case, but we can’t be certain. And all the other possible variables in life are held in a wonderful womb of mystery. Who is she? What will she be like? All I know is this sense of waiting.

We all have moments in our lives like this, where we are waiting to hear. Perhaps we have applied for a position or a program, and we are waiting for acceptance or rejection, not knowing if we will be elated or disappointed. Where every ring of the phone, checking email or looking in the mailbox could be pivotal, changing the whole direction of our lives.

The nature of this moment is quite clearly the state of not knowing. We see clearly that this is true because there seems no way around it. But in fact this is true of every moment in our lives. We never can be fully sure that the next moment will be the way we imagine it.

Last week my husband and I had long-held tickets in hand for a flight home from Mexico, but it turns out that one leg of our flight had been cancelled. The airline left a message on a cell phone that wasn’t operative because we were out of country, so we didn’t know that our trip home was in question.

We didn’t know.

We had our ticket in hand that promised us a flight, and believed it meant something. But it meant nothing. It was just a piece of paper, not a promise at all. We didn’t know.

Fortunately, we found out in time and were able to do a work around and we arrived home on the day we planned, just by way of different cities. And even then, there were things we didn’t know. The gate stated on our boarding pass was 19. We waited there, but then an announcement was made and all of the passengers on the SFO bound flight were to go to gate 34. We waited there, assuming we would be boarding from that gate. Why wouldn’t we? It was a natural assumption, just as it’s a natural assumption that we will wake up the next morning, or that our car will be where we left it. Our lives are based on such reasonable assumptions. But then, an announcement was made that we should all go to gate 29. A hundred people together shuffling around their baggage and babies, their cell phones and cameras, sharing this experience of ‘I don’t know.’ This was not that big a deal, but it just illustrated so clearly about these assumptions. And this particular set of illustrations could have gone on and on, as there are about 70 gates at the Mexico City airport!

Once on the flight, once up in the air, once homeward bound, the future seemed a little more certain, a little more clear. We relaxed into knowing we would be home soon.

Then suddenly all the lights went out. Now this was not a shifting from ceiling lights to low lights. This was suddenly barreling through a pitch black night in absolute darkness. It only lasted about five seconds. Not long enough for voices to rise. Just long enough for the truth of the situation to make itself known in that dark silence: We don’t know.

We don’t know what the next moment will bring. At some level we all understand this, but we don’t acknowledge it. Not to ourselves and not to each other. None of the crew explained this event, nor to my knowledge did the passengers discuss or acknowledge that brief close up glance at the truth. Life aboard the plane went on, cabin attendants pushing their carts of meals and drinks (All free, even alcoholic drinks! A little plug for good old Mexicana!)

It wasn’t until we were all wearily assembled around the baggage claim at midnight that I heard one man say to another, ‘So, how’d you like that blackout?” People chuckled. It was now a story to tell, grateful that it was just a blip of a tale, not like the ones that make the news. Not like the flight to Hawaii our friends took years ago, where the skin of the plane peeled away and they were flying through the blue sky and clouds with the wind beating upon them.

We all know these as stories about other people. It is human nature to be fascinated by them, perhaps because at core we want to know the truth, even as we hide from it in our own lives. In someone else’s life it gives us the truth, but allows us the delusion that it doesn’t actually apply to us. We can go on believing that our lives will play out as planned, even as others do not. This idea of not knowing seems so scary. We feel that knowing is a level of control over our situation. But it’s not.

On the shuttle trip home from the airport, our driver was a gruff woman, short tempered with other drivers and with passengers as well. (Somehow this is our traditional re-entry into the US after being made soft by the sweet nature and patience of the Mexican people.) This driver was impatient and grumpy. When a passenger would dare to offer information to make finding their house easier, the driver would say, “I know, I know!” as if the idea of not knowing was a mark against her, or a threat to the integrity of her very being. This happened in each case, and in each case it turned out she didn’t really know and had to make sometimes dangerous last minute modifications to correct her course. As the last passengers to get out, I felt so badly for her, trapped in her defensive fortress of ‘knowing’ that I tipped her generously. She was surprised, and she really struggled to say thank you, another threat to her fortress: gratitude. Had she sensed how badly I felt for her, she would have probably punched me out.

Thinking we know is painful, even dangerous. In this tight defensive stance, we are cut off from resources – like the bounty of information the passengers had about how to get to their homes. Thinking we know, we are narrow focused to the point of blindness.

Imagine trying to find your way across a field while peering through binoculars. Obviously you could easily trip over what’s right in front of you or be eaten by a hungry bear right to your left side. But this is kind of what we do in our lives when we think we know the future. We fall in love with our plans and trust in the promises of pieces of paper that say what the future will hold. We believe that the binoculars give all the information necessary. Clearly they don’t. We never ever have all the information.

While in the Mexico City airport, I was trying to get news of the potential tsunami from the 8.8 earthquake in Chile. My brother lives in Maui and I wanted to know that he was safe. I was in a place it was difficult for me to check news, so I kept looking for people that seemed to be connected to the internet and asking, “So how’s Hawaii?” Turns out it was fine. My brother and friends had a fun party upcountry and that was that.

He told me when I talked to him that he knew it would be a non-event. And I said, well, I appreciate that knowing that, you still took sensible precautions. He said well there was one potential event that he would not have time to take precautions for: Apparently a big chunk of the Big Island could drop into the ocean one of these days, and if it were to do that, he and his neighbors wouldn’t have time to run upcountry, let alone plan a party.

One potential event that could catch him by surprise? Only one? Really? This from a man who has had his fair share of unexpected news come across his phone over the years. Yet he names the one event he would be unprepared for, the void in his known universe. And this is what we all do. Perhaps we each have the scary thing we name that we keep as a Talisman to ward off all other unknowns.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Ah! How liberating is the I don’t know mind! The Buddha always encouraged his followers to rest in the moment and discover for themselves what was true. He didn’t encourage them to rest in the future, to vest in the future. He didn’t encourage them to trust his findings but to find their own, moment by moment.

To think we know what the next moment will bring is clearly erroneous. We don’t know! Pretending we do is a great weight. Acknowledging that none of us knows may seem scary, but it is also freeing.

One thing we get free of is being locked into expectation and disappointment. Thinking we know how things will turn out, we live partly in the future, conjuring up fantasy. Then when reality hits, we are stuck in that place in between, comparing, contrasting, complaining. We make ourselves miserable over and over again.

When we have these moments where so clearly we can see that we do not know, like this moment for me awaiting a grandchild – when we have these anticipatory moments, we can see them as a gift. They remind us of the truth of EVERY moment, not just this one. Every moment is pivotal. Things turn on a dime. Knowing this we can release into the sea of change, learning to surf the constant ebb and flow of causes and conditions. Learning that staying fully present in THIS moment is always the best course.