Recently I had to fly out of town for a family visit. I had several connecting flights in one day and I ended up spending a lot of time in airports on layovers. I had just gotten off one of those small planes—you know, the ones that look like a minibus . . . with wings. I never feel safe in those puddle jumpers, especially because it can be really unnerving if there’s turbulence. So I decided to focus on the book I was reading as a way to distract myself from the uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that I knew would arise.
My avoidance technique was working during the short flight and then I heard the pilot announce our descent. I am always fearful during the descent, but this time I chose a different route: I decided to be mindful. I put down my book and looked out the window. I noticed how soft and fluffy the clouds looked, yet how they are as thin as air. I thought about how they can cause bumps in my ride, even though they look so forgiving. I noticed the miniature houses and roads below.
Then the plane began to shake. I felt my stomach drop and I could feel my brain ricocheting to catastrophic thoughts.
So why would I choose to pay attention to my experiences when they included such negative thoughts and emotions? Because by avoiding the negative experiences, I am also missing out on the positive ones. Avoidance techniques are great coping skills in the short-term because you don’t have to focus on something you don’t like or that makes you feel uncomfortable. But in the long-term, you are limited by that same coping skill, which can lead to a vicious cycle of increased avoidance. Think of the person with a phobia of flying. She would likely be too fearful to even get on a plane and of course that could make it hard for her to live life fully.
Being mindful means focusing on the present moment. It involves paying attention to whatever is happening in the moment, internally and externally, without judging. Notice that you feel happy after hearing a funny joke, notice that you are having an urge to drink, notice that you are remembering a traumatic event. The idea, though, is that you do not exclude other events in the present moment. Also notice that the sun is shining, that fleeting pain in your leg, the tick-tock of the clock and anything else that comes into your awareness.
Being mindful takes practice, but it is worth it. If you notice that you are stuck in a negative thought or feeling, just notice that you are stuck there and then direct your attention to what else is happening in that moment. What are you noticing right now?
While I was waiting for my next flight, I had a great experience that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been practicing mindfulness. I was eating a sandwich and heard music. I looked over and noticed another traveler playing a harmonica. I stopped what I was doing and just listened. It was beautiful and so soothing, and yet I was saddened because so many of my fellow travelers were talking on their phones or otherwise distracted and didn’t hear the music. What are you missing out on when you are distracted by or avoiding distressing thoughts or emotions?