June 28, 2010

How to be Mindful: My Problem on Delta Flight 4593

“To force things to be a certain way, “my way,” isolates us from our own possibilities.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn


I sat in 13b, the very last seat in the regional jet, the one that doesn’t recline, directly across from the bathroom. After a 5am wakeup, I thought I’d catch up on some sleep. Every 5 minutes, however, someone would use the bathroom, which was loud and smelly. This was not good.


At least, that’s what I decided. Then I remembered some of the ideas from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses. Kabat-Zinn is an expert on mindfulness, which he says is “open-hearted, moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.” I was definitely judging.


Mindfulness is the practice of being more curious and aware than judgmental. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson describes mindfulness in his book Sacred Hoops. It’s one of the most powerful concepts in performance.


The basic idea is that the problem is never the problem. The problem is your reaction to it. Perhaps you’ve broken your leg, lost your job, or not gotten a hit in your last 10 at-bats. Those are events, not problems. How you respond is the key, and your response is determined by your judgment and awareness in the moment.


A cluttered mind, constantly reacting to circumstances, is one of our biggest challenges as performers. Here’s how Kabat-Zinn describes what happens:


“Thoughts, interpretations, and emotions pour in so quickly following any and every experience–and as expectations even before the experience arises–that we can hardly say that we were “there” at all for the original moment.”


Sitting in 13b, I had lots of thoughts, interpretatations, and emotions. (You can imagine what they were.) Then as I practiced mindfulness, I thought to myself, “the problem is not your seat, the problem is your response. See how it’s bothering you?” Amazingly, that alone seemed to help. It gave me the feeling that I was watching myself, and thus felt a bit removed from the situation. I was reminded that with every circumstance comes the choice on how to view it.


After all, there are many reasons why 13b was a far better option than many others.  I could have missed the plane, or had someone kick my chair the entire flight, or not had the chance to go to Arizona, or…


Einstein, I believe, once said that we gain power the moment we’re able to step outside ourselves. Mindfulness is stepping outside yourself, allowing you to be wherever you are, and with whatever feeling you have. The resistance is the problem, not the strikeout in baseball, double-bogey in golf, or seat 13b on a flight from Tucson to Salt-Lake City.