As of late, meditation has made a tranquil bedfellow of the travel industry. Not only are there meditation-focused retreats hosted in far-flung destinations, from the Atlas Mountains to the Atacama Desert, airports have added dedicated yoga and meditation rooms (try ’em out at SFO, DFW and ABQ), and airlines, like JetBlue and United, are giving passengers access to inflight meditation apps.
To get a better grasp of what it means to meditate while on the go, we sat down with Susan Piver, the meditation devotee, Buddhist practitioner and New York Times bestselling author. And if you’re interested in one of those far-flung retreats, Susan is teaming up with Atelier Doré and Mr & Mrs Smith to help host a wellness retreat in Chile’s Atacama Desert called The Art of Self Discovery. Pack some sunscreen, hiking boots and an open mind and go.
First, let’s start with an obvious, but necessary question – what is meditation?
Meditation has been shown to help with so many things: health, mental balance, leadership, parenting, sports, depression, insomnia… the list goes on and on. However, for all its extraordinary results, meditation itself is actually quite simple: it’s the practice of taking your attention off your thoughts and placing it on something else instead. That’s it! Of course we are wrapped up in our thoughts all day (and sometimes all night) long; there are hopes, fears, critiques, opinions, ideas and gossip of all kinds. In meditation, we gently place our attention elsewhere. When it strays back into thought, we simply bring it back to our chosen object. In some practices, that object is an image or a sound (like a mantra). In the practice I teach, the object of attention is your breath. Convenient. It’s happening already!
How did you become a meditation expert?
I am not a meditation expert. If I was, I would be a fully enlightened being and, trust me, I am not. Rather, I have been meditating for a long time, close to 25 years. I have gone on lengthy meditation retreats, sometimes for months at a time. I have had the extraordinary good fortune to study with true meditation masters. I graduated from a Buddhist seminary in 2005 and have received extensive training as a meditation instructor in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. So rather than calling myself a meditation expert, I would say I am an experienced meditator who has been carefully trained to teach. Is that nitpicking? I hope not! The reason I am careful to make this distinction is that, as mentioned, I have known true meditation experts and I know I still have a ways to go.
Is meditation useful for travel?
It is useful for travel and it is useful for non-travel. Basically, it’s useful.
Do you need to pack anything for meditating on the road?
It’s helpful to have clothes that are comfortable to sit in.
Any top spots for practicing around the globe?
My very, very, very favourite place to meditate is Shambhala Mountain Center in the Colorado Rockies. I have had many profound meditation experiences there. Besides that, the best place to meditate is wherever you are. It really is a practice you can do anywhere.
Any meditative tips for dealing with travel stress?
For many years, I was a nervous flier. When I told people I was anxious about flying they would look at me like, but you’re a meditation teacher, can’t you pull some Buddhist trick out of a hat? The answer to that is, NO I CANNOT. It is a mistake to think that meditation prevents stress, irritation, fatigue, or any other difficult mental state associated with travel or otherwise. However, it does help you drop the idea that you’re ‘supposed’ to be calm all the time, and if you’re not, you have failed some Zen test. Instead, you accept yourself exactly as you are.
Basically, meditation helps you to love yourself whether you’re calm, freaked out, bored, overwhelmed… all of it. The true benefit of meditation is embedded in this capacity for self-love. The consequences cannot be overstated. Rather than trying to fit yourself into some idea of what you’re supposed to be, you relax and accept yourself as you are. Suddenly, a tremendous space opens up and it always refills with love – for yourself, others, the world.
How often should one meditate?
Ten minutes a day, five days a week is great. If that’s too much, ease up. Meditation is not a contest or a race. The benefits come with gentle consistency, not duration.
Any tips for inflight meditation? Are there apps that help?
I like the Insight meditation timer. They have a variety of meditations. Personally though, I like to listen to music inflight rather than meditate. I mean really listen. I find that to be a fantastic meditative practice. My very favourite tracks are anything from the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman album and anything from the quirkily named ambient music duo, A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
Is there a breathing technique that will help travellers deal with an armrest hog?
Eat a bunch of garlic and exhale with exuberance… just kidding! Whenever someone hogs something and I can’t figure out how to hog it back, I try to do the mental jujitsu of re-contextualizing it as a gift. Instead of thinking, Dude, where’s my armrest? Stop being so selfish! I try to think something like, Dude, I kindly offer you this armrest. Please enjoy my gift to you. I learned this from a Tibetan meditation expert and translator who was pick-pocketed in New York’s Port Authority after arriving from India to the US for the very first time. His money, return ticket, passport: gone. I asked him if he was angry about this. He said, ‘At first I was. Then I just offered it.’ What a lesson! Rather than feeling robbed and victimized, he decided to call his possessions a gift to the thief. He reestablished his elegance and power. He lessened his own suffering quite beautifully. That’s something to aspire to.
Can you think of the most Zen place you’ve visited (so we can book a trip there ASAP)?
The most ‘Zen’ experience of my life was in Hawaii on a ‘swim with the manta rays’ excursion. We sailed about five miles off shore in the dead of night. When the boat anchored, the captain shined bright lights into the water. The light attracts plankton and plankton attracts mantas. We put on goggles, got in the ocean and hung on to a raft with our faces in the water, waiting for them to come. They did! They swooped and swayed all around us, allowing us to be in their world without question. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the ocean with goggles on, crying your eyes out at the vast beauty, but I can tell you that is exactly what happened to me. I highly recommend it.