Posts Tagged ‘air travel’


Dharma Talk: Air Travel as a Form of Practice

January 24, 2016

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, our temple holds a dharma and meditation service. One part of the service is a dharma talk, when either a kyomunim (priest) or member of the community relates some part of the Won-Buddhist scripture to their life experience. A few months ago Rev. WonGong asked me to consider giving a talk. Friday I sent her a draft, seeking some feedback. She replied, “How about giving this talk this weekend?” I had not planned on going to the temple, because Jonas had dumped enough snow and ice to make travel dicey. But I figured there would not be many people there, reducing the pressure on me, and Vicki was willing to help me get her car out of our driveway. It took us a while, but Vicki was determined to get us on the road. Off we went, and after I gave the talk at the Saturday service, Rev. WonGong gave me some feedback and passages to include in the Sunday service. Here is the talk I gave today.

Notes: Quotes are from The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism. The Founding Master is Sotaesan, who established Won-Buddhism 100 years ago in Korea. “Son” means “meditation.”

The Founding Master said, “Ordinary people consider practice to consist of always sitting quietly in meditation, reciting the Buddha’s name, and reading scriptures, and do not realize that there exists a practice conducted throughout everyday life” (pp.147-8). My everyday life involves air travel. I fly for my job, and I fly often. I began my job of teaching workshops and training trainers to teach workshops in 2004. Since then I have flown about 1.8 million miles. This work has opened up the world to me. When I began it, I did not own a passport. Now, when I go to Korea with the temple group in April, it will be my 24th country to visit. I am grateful to have work that is so interesting and has offered me so many opportunities.

But to balance this life in the air, I need grounding and stability. I have a family that supports me. I have colleagues who make my work easy and enjoyable. And for almost a year and a half, I have had this sangha. Maybe it is not a surprise that I love coming to a place where I spend a lot of time sitting on the floor. In the front of The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism it says, “Timeless Son, Placeless Son,” which means we can meditate anytime and anywhere. Later, the scripture says, “Even a farmer wielding a hoe can practice Son, as can a carpenter wielding a hammer, a clerk using an abacus, and an official seeing to an administrative matter; and we can practice Son even while going about or staying at home” (p.62). For me, this teaching means airplanes and hotel rooms should be just as conducive to my meditation as this temple.

The main principle of Son is that “Ever-alertness within calmness is correct … ever-calmness within alertness is correct” (p. 152). Rev. Ginger included this principle in a recent dharma talk, and it helped me to look at air travel as a place for my practice.

When I prepare for a trip, I need to be alert within calmness. When you make as many trips as I do, it is easy to slip up. To reduce the possibility of forgetting something, I have two checklists, one for domestic travel and one for international, that I use when packing for my trips. This way, rather than wondering if I have forgotten anything, I can focus on what I am packing, counting shirts and socks to make sure I will have enough. The list allows me to relax and focus.

The next phase of my travel requires calmness within alertness. The process of travel to the airport, checking bags, proceeding through security, and boarding the plane can be stressful. I am tempted to resist things I cannot change. I cannot change when the plane leaves, so I must give myself plenty of time to get to the airport and to navigate the lines. I cannot change the length of the lines or their speed, so I just bring my focus to my breath, let go of the tension I accumulate, and move when the lines allow. I cannot change how many security stations are open, or how long it takes my fellow passengers to remove their belts and shoes, or how slowly the TSA agents respond to those who need extra attention. Again, the breath gives me a place to let go of stress and remain calm. When the gate agent announces boarding has begun, the passengers swarm toward the gate. We are all wondering–will there be space for my bag? I try very hard not to move until my zone is called. I try to use my calmness to overcome the anxiety in the air.

Once we are all on board and the flight begins, my focus shifts back to remaining alert within calmness. Air travel is not easy for most of us. We’re sitting in a small space among strangers. It’s difficult to move around, and even harder to move without disturbing others. I believe that, even though flying is common now, we know sub-consciously that we are sitting in a small tube high in the sky, and that hidden awareness produces fear. In these challenging conditions the temptation is to numb the mind, to make the fear go away and the time pass as painlessly as possible. So people order Bloody Marys at 6:00 am. They play solitaire and watch movies and sleep. While I too sleep on flights, and on long flights I watch movies and TV shows, most of the time I try to use my time well. Because I fly so much, I cannot numb myself. Instead I choose to engage. I read–and not junk but good stuff, novels and books about my work and of course books on Buddhism. I sometimes write, and I tackle my inbox, and in all ways try to be present–alert amidst the calm.

What can I gain from approaching my travels in this way? Master Sotaesan says that we too “must advance still further in our practice in timeless Son of ‘one suchness in action and rest’ so that we too will gain the three great powers” of Cultivating the Spirit, Inquiry into Human Affairs and Universal Principles, and Choice in Action (p. 149). No matter where I go now, I try to bring this practice with me. I always travel with The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism, my Meditation Chants booklet, and my dharma journal. And I have a small Il Won Sang image I place on the desk of my hotel rooms. This community has given me a place of grounding, which I then try to bring with me, timeless and placeless. I am grateful for the dharma that guides my travels, and for this sangha which keeps me balanced even when I am far from here.


Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 4

December 20, 2015

Route: Hyderabad to Raleigh-Durham
Flights: 3
Stops: London Heathrow, Philadelphia
Airlines: British Airways, American
Air Miles: 8678
Time Zones (inclusive): 11

The only drama of this trip took place before it started. I was eating dinner at my hotel in Hyderabad Friday night, feeling very happy to have completed my 71st teaching day of 2015, when I started getting texts from British Airways regarding flight delays. Each one pushed back our departure time further than the previous one, until I was going to miss my connecting flight to JFK on American. When I returned to my room I hopped on Skype to see how I was getting home.

I mentioned back in Leg 1 that I am an elite flyer on Delta. One of the many perks that comes with my diamond status is access to the “Diamond Desk.” This special service even recognizes my phone number, so I don’t have to type in my SkyMiles number every time I call. Instead, I get a “Welcome, Robert” message, then a live agent, in about 15 seconds. I mention this to you now because while I have been an Executive Platinum flyer on American Airlines in the past, I currently have no status with them, and I was about to discover the difference between having status and just being another passenger calling with a problem.

My situation was compounded by my ticket, which I purchased from American’s web site and included a code-shared British Airways flight from Hyderabad to London. The airlines will tell you how wonderful their “global networks” are, letting you buy from one partner while flying with others. While it is great to fly on, say, Korean Air, as I did last week (see Leg 2) and earn miles on my Delta account, it’s also great for Delta and Korean Air because they don’t have to compete with each other between, say, Seattle and Seoul, allowing them to charge higher fares. These alliances also make it tricky when, say, one partner has a delayed flight that impacts your ability to make a connecting flight on another partner. This was my fate Friday night.

I’ll spare you most of the details, but the core problem was that it took me six calls, three to BA and three to American, before my situation was resolved. Twice I called BA and they said, “Your ticket’s with American. Call them to get rebooked.” Twice I called American and they said, “BA’s flight is delayed, have them rebook you.” The third BA agent actually did try to get me rebooked, but when he found flights for me, he could not gain access to the system. I asked him for flight numbers and times, wrote them down, and called American for the third time. By this time American’s system was automatically rebooking me–hence the BA agent’s inability to help me–and I had new flights shortly.

I am usually a patient person, but I will confess that I got pretty upset with American Agent #1 (call #2). First he told me my BA flight was not delayed, even though I had already received emails and texts to that effect. (I do not understand how I could have more updated information than an airline agent had, but there you go.) Then he put me on hold for about 12 minutes before telling me that I had to call BA to get my ticket rebooked. Then he stopped answering my questions. Each time I asked him to explain why, after trying to help me for 12 minutes, he no longer could, or what my options were for getting home on American if I got to London on BA and missed my connection, or any of my other half-dozen questions, his answer was, “You’ll have to ask BA about that.” Like he was staring at a script and would not engage with my problem. This is what does not happen when you call the elite “desk,” because they know you’re a frequent flyer and you’re not going to settle for scripted answers. But this does not excuse my impatience with him, and I very intentionally was very patient and appreciative with the next four agents.

After my ordeal ended, I figured out two things. First, if I got to Heathrow when my delayed BA flight was scheduled to arrive, then American had no way to get me home Saturday night. This meant they’d have to put me up at a hotel and get me home Sunday–and I believe they wanted BA to bear that cost, because it was their flight that was causing the problem. And that is a reasonable request. But American never told me that, they just kept saying, “Call BA and have them rebook. It’s their fault.” If they’d just said, “Here’s the situation,” or even better, if they had called BA for me, then I would have been a happy guy. But their stonewalling ticked me off. Second, BA kept re-estimating the length of the original delay, and when it improved to the point where I could get home Saturday night, their system triggered the automatic rebooking, which was going on during Calls #5 and 6.

Once I was rebooked, I could focus on the upside: after six days of teaching in three countries on two continents, I was going home. I had my first two flights on Boeing’s newest jet, the 787 Dreamliner (see my Hyderabad to London plane below). En route I finished two books (All the Light We Cannot See, and The Martian, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) and two NY Times crossword puzzles (it always feels extra satisfying to finish a Saturday puzzle), and watched one meh movie (Ricki and the Flash) and one very funny HBO special (Amy Schumer’s). And because I was flying west, my Saturday lasted almost 30 hours. An extra-long Saturday that ends at home with Vicki is my kind of a long weekend.



Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 3

December 15, 2015

Route: Singapore to Hyderabad
Flights: 1
Stop: none
Airline: Silk Air
Air Miles: 2057
Time Zones (inclusive): 3

When I started traveling internationally in 2006, my second stop was in Singapore, where I experienced what many claim is the world’s best airport. When I arrived at Changi again last night, I saw a poster celebrating its 500th award as the world’s best. The distinguishing marks I’ve seen include short passport control lines, suffusive lighting, and lots of low ceilings and carpeting. Most airports are harsh and cacophonous, but Changi calms and quiets. It has corners lined with lounge chairs that are perfect for passengers stuck with long layovers. It even has a free movie theater. It has lots and lots of shopping–which some call Singapore’s national sport–but not more than lots of other airports. In many international airports, you survive long lines at passport control, only to go straight into a second queue for security. Changi instead moves the security line to the gate, so you get into the terminal faster, and share a line only with the other passengers on your flight. Schiphol in Amsterdam does this more often, too; it used to take forever to go from gate to gate there, even though you were just connecting, because they had a single point to get passports checked.

I cleared security at my gate and sat down near a TV; though it was not blaring, say, CNN, like plenty of US airports do (because people aren’t tense enough about flying, so they need the adrenaline boost from BREAKING NEWS!), it still drew my eye because it was airing Wheel of Fortune! Not a Singaporean version of the franchise, but “America’s Game Show” (it said so right there on the spinning wheel) with Pat and Vanna. After the show finished came an ad for a huge New Year’s Eve party at one of Singapore’s massive new casino/resort sites. The show would include seven hours of live music, featuring a lot of local acts, then the headliner: “international sensation” Adam Lambert! And as if these two “What the …?” moments weren’t enough, the next show topped them both: “A Minute to Win It,” which I think I had heard of, but have never watched, hosted by … Apolo Anton Ohno! Seeing this terrific athlete now emceeing a weird game show, and seeing him while sitting in the Singapore airport, completed my twilight zone trifecta. Maybe I was just tired from teaching.

I flew to Hyderabad on Silk Air, a no-frills cousin to Singapore Air, which is to international airlines what Changi is to airports. This is my fourth time in India, and there are two primary cautions when you’re an American flying into here: getting secure transportation and not getting sick from the water. Each time I’ve come I’ve had my hotel send someone to pick me up–this is nothing special, as all the big hotels have drivers and labelled cars at the airport.

The best thing about India is the people; I’ve met fantastic people every time I’ve come. Last night I started chatting with my driver as we headed to the Westin. He was pretty reserved, but answered all my questions. We talked about our kids (he has three between the ages of 11 and 15), and then I asked him how long he’d lived in Hyderabad. He’d moved there when he was 11, the year his mother died. He’d already lost his father at 3, so his village, about 200 kilometers from Hyderabad, basically told him they could not afford to raise him themselves, but made arrangements for him to take a steam(!) train–this was the mid-1980s–to Hyderabad and to live in a hotel. The hotel put him to work but told him he was too young to get paid. When he was 14 he started earning 5 rupees a day. Today that is about 7.5 cents, so back then maybe it was 15 cents a day? Years later he took his kids back to the village, so they could see his roots. They were unimpressed. Because he’d left so young, no one recognized him until he mentioned his mother’s name. His daughter works really hard at school, but he worries that his boys don’t care enough. He tells them he wishes he’d been able to go to school (he learned English from watching and rewatching movies). They remain unimpressed. The conversation was a pleasant diversion from the chaos of driving in India.

My flight was much less interesting than either its start or finish. I slept the whole 4.5 hours. It probably was from the teaching.


Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 1

December 9, 2015

Route: Raleigh-Durham to Seattle
Flights: 2
Stop: Minneapolis-St. Paul
Airline: Delta
Air Miles: 2376
Time Zones (inclusive): 4

I fly so often that it’s easy to lose track of specific flights. I often get surveys from Delta, asking me to give my opinion on how well the flight attendants or gate agents performed their jobs. It’s not easy for me to recall particular flights, not only because I fly so often, but also because Delta (and its partner regional airlines) hire really good flight attendants. Over the last few years, I can only think of one flight attendant whose attitude bothered me. He was resentful that I was using “his” space in the rear galley to wait to use the lavatory. All this flying makes it easy to let the my experiences blend into a dull, forgettable “I fly often for my job” blob. When I realized that my last trip of 2015 would take me completely around the world, I decided to take note of my experiences. So off we go.

My tour began easily enough. I’ve been a Delta flyer for nearly a decade. I’ve made Diamond Medallion status (flying at least 125,000 miles/year) every year since they introduced it in 2010. This steady attendance means I frequently get upgraded to first class, and that happened on my RDU-MSP flight this morning. This means I didn’t have to buy a big breakfast at the airport. I did buy a protein bar, because I knew it would be a while before they served us breakfast in the air. We pushed back on time, at 6:25am. But the pushback was all of about ten feet. The plane didn’t move; instead, the jet bridge retracted far enough to qualify the flight as departing “on time,” which helps Delta’s statistics relative to other airlines. See, according to FAA rules, if it’s not “at the gate,” then it has departed. This means we left without moving, as if we were using the Enterprise’s transporters. Due to a lack of manpower on the ground, however, we didn’t head for the runway for nearly an hour. I dozed for almost all of this time. Because I usually fly westward across the country early in the morning, and eastward on red-eyes, I fall asleep on the ground all the time. This only presents a problem on red-eyes when I wake up on takeoff, and can’t get back to sleep.

When I began getting first-class upgrades, I would almost always take advantage of the free alcohol (never before lunch!) and the big complementary meals. But today I asked for decaf coffee (Delta now uses Starbucks Via instant decaf) and chose the lighter cereal rather than the bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich. Over the last year or so I’ve almost completely stopped eating pork.

The extended wait at RDU meant that I had a quick layover. In fact, when we landed at MSP my flight to Seattle had already begun boarding. But I made it easily–one perk Delta provides frequent fliers is a separate boarding lane, which remains open as other passengers use the general boarding lane. I didn’t get upgraded–Delta’s calculus for who receives these golden tickets is based on many factors, including miles flown that year, previous miles flown, and cost of ticket. My one-way fare was $151–possible only in these post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas days–so I had to “settle” for a window seat on an exit row. This flight left just a few minutes late, and we made up the time in the air, arriving almost ten minutes early. The only bump was a bunch of bumps, turbulence that was more constant than severe. The plane had an on-board entertainment system, but they update it so rarely that I have watched every John Oliver, Big Bang Theory, and New Girl they’ve got. We did have some satellite TV, and I watched His&Hers, a great ESPN show with a noon ET airtime, which means I only watch it when I’m flying. More than watching TV, though, I use some easy-on-the-ears iTunes albums, listened to with my Bose noise-cancelling earbuds, to let me focus on work. Today I prepped for the coaching gig and half-day workshop I will teach during my two days in Seattle, along with monitoring email.

The length of my trip meant I had to check a bag, so rather than head straight to the rental car center I detoured to the baggage claim. And because I am teaching on the Eastside, rather than in Seattle proper, I had to rent a car rather than use the light rail. I come to Seattle so often that I have an ORCA card, which lets me use the light rail, streetcar, ferries and buses. Much less stressful than having to buy paper tickets every time I come to town. Reducing stress is a crucial part of my life in the air.


RDU’s Terminal 1: Gateway to a Life Unimaginable

April 11, 2014

This weekend, my home airport, Raleigh-Durham International, referred to throughout the Triangle simply as RDU, is shutting down its original terminal, now called Terminal 1, and opening its renovated grandchild. I am delighted this is happening–it’s the final chapter in the years-long massive redesign of RDU. The airport’s evolution demonstrates not only how much the region has developed, but also optimistically states that there is room for more growth, deeper personal and commercial connections with the world. There will be empty gates waiting.

My first trip to RDU was on Christmas Day 1989. Vicki and I had been married for all of four months. We were still living in California, and both of our families were back East. Rather than pick one family to share the holiday with, we decided to fly on Christmas Day so we could be with both sides for part of the day. We had done this the previous couple of years, and it worked well. Logan Airport in Boston was a little less crazy on the holiday than on the days preceding and following, and traffic on I-93 from Concord was lighter, too. Flying into modestly-sized Wilmington, NC, airport was easy, too, and Vicki’s parents had a short drive from their home to fetch us.

But in 1989 there was a glitch: a once-in-a-decade snowfall. In fact, the 13 inches on the ground in Wilmington remains a record for the holiday. So poor little ILM was shut down. But RDU was open, and so we got rebooked. Vicki’s incredibly patient and dedicated parents made the trek to fetch us. Today that trip takes about two hours each way, but the snow and the lack of interstate (I-40 would not reach Wilmington until the next summer) made it a four-and-a-half hour drive … each way. Yup, Don and Barbara spent nine hours of their Christmas Day driving on small, snowy roads, so we could be with them on Christmas. I’ve not forgotten their gift of time and patience that day. They didn’t even stop at the airport to rest; they just fetched us and turned around.

I remember three other things about that day: first, ballplayer and manager Billy Martin died in a truck accident; second, I saw NC State basketball player Brian D’Amico waiting for someone near the baggage claim; and third, I remember looking around the terminal and thinking, “Is this going to become my home airport?”

Vicki and I had married right before her last year of graduate school, and we were trying to figure out our next steps in our life together. Would she pursue a tenure-track job, which could lead us anywhere, or would we pick a place we wanted to live, and just look for jobs there? I had it easy. I was a high school history teacher, so I had lots of flexibility in choosing a place to live. It was tougher for Vicki. We were considering the Triangle as a possible landing spot because it had the things we liked about the Bay Area–universities, access to arts, a sense of moving forward–along with affordable housing prices. It would put us back on the East Coast, nearer our families, and looked like a good area to start a family. Vicki, whose selflessness I will cherish forever, opted for place over career. Six months after that Christmas Day at RDU, we were living in Raleigh. Six weeks after that, I had a teaching job at a middle school in Chapel Hill. A month after that, Vicki had her first job at Duke. Two years, Bobby was born, with Val arriving a bit more than two years after that.

There is no way my 1989 self could dream of the life we would have, just a few miles away from what was then called Terminal A. RDU now has two new terminals and a huge parking deck. I commute from the new Terminal 2–heading in and out of the airport for almost ten years now. We have welcomed Bobby home from college in Atlanta, and sent Valerie off on a school trip to Costa Rica. Vicki’s current Duke job (which is for a scholarship program including UNC) has her in and out of RDU all summer. To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary we flew from RDU to Paris. We have made a life for ourselves that surpasses all I could want.

And here’s a final piece of this story I could not have imagined in 1989: I am writing this post on a laptop, on a plane, heading home. Gotta click that Publish button before we get to 10,000 feet.


Christmas, Travel, and Rest

December 8, 2013

It is so very hard to fight through the commercialization and the sentimentality to find something I can call Christmas spirit. This year, as I near 175,000 miles of travel, pass 90 nights in hotels, and for the first time welcome back both kids from college, I’m drawn to the role of travel and rest in the Christmas story. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the pilgrimage of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the witness of the shepherds … that’s a lot of travel. Yet all these paths lead to peace: an infant son arrives, glad tidings abound, the world slows down and the sun finally reverses its southern trek in the sky. In the stillness of a cold winter’s night, the darkness is overcome.

Yesterday slowly filled me with the Christmas spirit. Not because of shopping or wrapping or music, though there was a bit of each. It’s because I got to spend the day with people I love. My in-laws spent Friday night with us after visiting with one of their sons and his family in Durham. We spent the morning chatting over coffee. Then I read and relaxed for a while before Vicki and I headed to see our dear friends Mark and Betsy, who have been mentors to us both. Their home was filled with Christmas, and it filled us–not just the treats and wassail, but also their kindness and curiosity. Vicki worked with Betsy for years at Duke, and it was from Betsy that Vicki’s commitment to service learning took root. Mark saved my Christian faith, introducing me to Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Rohr, Robin Meyers, et al. When I met Mark I had essentially stopped thinking of myself as a Christian. Now I think of myself as a progressive, contemplative Christian. Thus the appreciation I felt in their home was just a reflection of the thankfulness I feel every time I see Mark.

After a bit of shopping for a wedding shower gift, it was a very special date night with the person who is most special of all to me. Vicki and I celebrated (the day, the season, our friends, our marriage, our family, our many blessings? sure, all of those) at one of our favorite restaurants, Provence. We’ve had a couple of anniversary dinners there, and this time, thanks to the gift of yet another dear friend, Maria, we were finally celebrating our empty nest–a week before the kids return to fill it for a few weeks! We topped the evening with latest installment of one of our favorite movie series, Before Midnight. Yes, Vicki and I love movies filled with a couple’s dialog. And there’s something precious about checking in with Jesse and Celine every nine years–how are they doing? How are we doing? Damn, we are doing absolutely great.

A full day, but not a stressful one. A day of rest from the road, from work, from the to-do lists of the holidays. A day to find peace in the darkness.


More use of electronics on planes?

December 11, 2012

According to this article, the FCC’s chair is encouraging more use of electronics on planes. While I say, “It’s about time,” I would welcome some changes more than others.

My thinking has really changed on this. I used to be a hard-core “power down everything, every take-off and landing” kind of guy. It was the rule, dammit, and there seemed to be some evidence suggesting that our phones and laptops might be messing with the plane’s electronics. Just last week my friend and colleague Kristin was reminding me of a flight when I watched a woman stash her Kindle next to her armrest, rather than shut it off. My comment to Kristin was something like, “Does she think it’s not portable? Not electronic? Or not a device?” I also remember ticking off a young woman on a flight out of Boston because I spoke to her when she refused to turn off her phone.

But in the last few months I’ve softened, for two reasons. First, I believe that if the airlines really thought a phone or tablet could disrupt the plane enough to endanger its performance, we would all have to prove our devices were turned off before  we could board. Instead, TSA currently considers our shoes more dangerous than our tablets, and I usually use my phone in lieu of a paper boarding pass. Second, reading my Kindle is not any less distracting than my current sub-10,000-feet paper periodical, the Economist. So in general I’m all for loosening the current limitations on our use of electronics.

I do have two concerns, however. I support the idea that, during takeoff and landing, passengers should be aware of their surrounding, and the flight crew should be able to give instructions quickly and directly. As a result, I am opposed to passengers using noise-canceling headphones at the start and end of a flight. I am even more strongly against the use of cell phones for conversations during flights. We sit among strangers in very tight quarters. I really do not want to hear half of anyone’s conversations for an entire flight–it’s painful enough to hear about urgent widget orders and how soccer practice went before takeoff and after landing. I use my noise-canceling earbuds on long flights–please, FAA, don’t make me have to use them all the time.

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