The Mind on Vacation (written 2015)
I don't take vacations very often. Over all my “getaways” are to meditation retreats or for work-related training. Sometimes trips might center on visiting family or spending time with someone not often seen. But for me it can be years between the kind of vacations that many people plan as annual or semi-annual events. There are a lot of reasons for this, none of them of very much interest to anyone but me. But what is interesting, I think, is what happens when someone committed to watching the mind's natural inclination toward clinging and distraction, takes a vacation, because a vacation is the very definition of distraction. It is an immersion into all that the mind clings to: good food, lazy days, interesting new experiences, following whims and impulses, indulging desire. When we plan a vacation we want it to be of the five star variety. The horror stories people tell are usually of poor service, unacceptable accommodation, flight delays, bad weather, accidents and disruptions in the easy flow of pleasure. In short, we expect a lot of a vacation. We're holding it responsible for fixing whatever is not going well right now, we want it to be an escape from a reality that is sometimes too much. And, big surprise, few vacations can meet our expectations fully, because even if they do, even if they are perfect while they're underway, they have to end, and we return to the unmade bed and the things we didn't put in the suitcase.
So the kind of vacation we planned recently to celebrate a significant anniversary was something I anticipated with an unusual state of mind. I wanted to enjoy this time. Why not? Sensory pleasure is one of the gifts of being embodied. But I also was carefully watching my anticipation. What did it feel like when I was drawn out of the moment in the weeks before, looking toward what was to come? Mostly, I worked to keep my pre-vacation mind excursions centered on the details of tickets, reservations, and packing, not the building of fantasies. I was trying to leave the vacationing for the vacationing.
This centering in the task at hand I also hoped to maintain through the vacation itself, and to my surprise, this vacation reinforced a very simple learning: whether at home or in some exotic locale, being present in this moment is central to happiness. Keep the attention here and let craving and aversion mumble in the background and dissipate as they will do when unattended. This, right here and now, is the way it is: organizing passports and travel insurance, doing laundry, or walking along the Mississippi on a sultry New Orlean's evening. Whether listening to street musicians and watching the moon reflected in the water or scrunching my nose as I wound around garbage cans simmering in the heat, the mind was on the move, and my determination to watch this moving towards and moving away was my practice. Being here allows me to live what I'm living, not miss the moment as it flies by. But it also allows me to see that the mind leans...it yearns toward the magnolia blossoms, the saxophone's song, the colorful parades in the street. It leans away from the bodies curled on cardboard in doorways, sleeping; the too hot thump of the sun on the top of my head; the clanging of garbage trucks and the revelry of partiers interrupting sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Yet, all of these are part of what a visit to New Orleans entails. Sitting in the damp grass listening to a gospel choir, I let the music flow over and through me, or closing my eyes to savor the aromas and flavor of eggplant and crab cakes in crawfish sauce, I examined the textures and sensory detail with sweet delight. The tiny voices that wanted it to go on and on remained murmurs in the background of the current experience as it arose, lingered and passed away. And when the vacation ended and the moments held a cramped airplane seat for long hours, a prewrapped sandwich on the run between flights, and a long drive at the end of the day, presence undermined the “poor me”, resistant mind of aversion, that wants things to be otherwise.
The mind likes what it likes and doesn't like what it doesn't like. If we hand over the controls to this “blind driver” as I recently heard one teacher call it, we're going to have a crazy ride. The mind thinks that everything it doesn't like can be avoided, and everything it wants, should be attained. It heads toward the sunshine and avoids the clouds, heedless of the shifting ground and sheer cliffs along the way. Then when things go from bad to worse, it's given to sulks and tantrums. It blames: others, myself, all of the above. When we train in mindfulness, we give the controls to the watcher, that which knows that the weather will change on its own. There'll be some of each, sunshine and rain. That's the nature of the journey. The watcher keeps to the moment, savours the pleasant and patiently endures the unpleasant.
This path, if we stay the course, means not being reliant on conditions for our happiness. It means no more horror stories...not about vacations gone wrong, nor about the woes of life that make us seek vacations as distractions and escapes.