As flights keep getting longer, it's time to learn how to take care of yourself in the air.
You’re on an airplane. You’ve just admired the kitschy, contemporary airline safety video, and you’ve perused the selection of nuts and adult Lunchables on offer. You’ve stowed your baggage, and adjusted your seatbelt to accommodate the legion of 5-ounce Cabernet bottles you plan on consuming throughout your journey. For the next full day, your whole world exists within the confines of this seat. You are embarking on a 19-hour flight.
No matter how you look at it, 19 hours is a long time. It’s three standard nights of sleep. It’s four open heart surgeries. It’s a pretty decent filibuster. It’s also the duration of the world’s longest non-stop flight, stretching from Singapore to New York City aboard Singapore Airlines.
For even the most dashingly well-traveled among us, sitting still for 19 hours is no small task. It’s hard on your joints, it wreaks havoc on your sleep schedule, and it feeds your anxiety like paper to a bonfire. But what if uber-long flights were actually a blessing in an extremely inconvenient disguise? What if they were good for you?
As it turns out, long flights present an ideal sphere for the practice of meditation — so that 19-hour stint might just be your key to enlightenment.
What is in-flight meditation?
“On a plane, we have this unique inability to meet friends, talk on the phone, or do our jobs,” says Sharon Salzberg, internationally renowned meditation teacher, and author of New York Times bestseller, "Real Happiness." “It’s an ideal space for meditation because there’s nowhere else you could possibly be.”
For Salzberg, an exceptionally long flight can serve as a brilliant exercise in combating distraction. Air travel is rife with undesirable intrusions: weeping children, weeping adults, turbulent air. “Mediation isn’t about clearing your mind or emptying your headspace. It’s about embracing distractions and letting your mind run with them,” she says.
In fact, according to Salzberg, the longer the flight, the more likely you are to see results. “You’re naturally restless and your body needs a way to find peace with your surroundings,” she explains. “It can take some time to do that.”
How can it help with anxiety?
“Our fight or flight panic response mode is triggered when we arrive in an airport,” says Lodro Rinzler, meditation teacher and co-founder at urban wellness initiative, MNDFL. “Your mind is racing — did I pack everything? Will I make my connection? A lengthy flight is the first time you get to sit back. It can be incredibly restorative, and even soothing for anxious flyers.”
As Rinzler explains it, anxiety is derived from stories. “When you feel turbulence, you tell yourself a story about the plane going down. It’s fictionalized, but it could happen based on your current fear,” says Rinzler. You create the narrative. It’s a little like asking your Hinge date how they like the name “Miranda” for a baby girl after your first drink together. Your brain jumps the gun – writes a story based on sentiment, but without actual grounds.
“In meditation, the more we come back to the breath, the less room there is to generate those stories. Instead, we’re coming into our felt experience,” Rinzler explains. “You’re allowing space for that anxiety, but removing the narrative.”
Apparently, in-flight meditation can be its very own form of Xanax, stripped of the side effects and the exorbitant psychiatry bill.
How will it make you a better traveler?
“[Meditation] deepens qualities like presence and clarity. It can make you more adventurous. It might also help you detach from concerns back home,” Salzberg claims.
In a Psychology Today report, Neuroscientist David Rock even posits that the act of remaining present — focusing on the breath and centering yourself — can help to cure jet lag. “When arriving in a new time zone, it's important to focus entirely on where you are,” he writes. “Pay attention to local signals, be present in the time you’re in.”
“It’s a gradual re-wiring of the brain,” adds Rinzler. “It can make you more involved in conversation, or even make your coffee taste better.” As it turns out, meditation, airborne or otherwise, will make you a more present traveler, and quite possibly, a more decent human being on the ground.
How do you meditate on a plane?
For many of us, meditation can feel more akin to a grown-up timeout than an exercise in self-care. But the act of in-flight meditation does not exactly require you renounce all your worldly possessions. “It’s a period of dedication. That’s all it has to be for you,” Salzberg clarifies, “the everydayness of it is most helpful, so I recommend trying it out for a few weeks – even for just a few minutes a day – prior to your flight.” The simple, repetitive act of focusing on breath, and allowing the mind to wander, can build into a fully functional meditative practice over time. Like anything else, it’s takes repetition.
Once you’ve survived your brush with the TSA and you’re actually strapped into your seat, both gurus recommend that you take at least three deep breaths as slowly as possible. Focus on how the pressurized air feels, entering and exiting your lungs. “In through the nose, out through the mouth,” Rinzler explains. “Relax your muscles, lift your spine gently. If your mind wanders, let it. Simply try to guide it, slowly as you need, back towards your breath. This helps you get away from your left brain, which tends towards obsessive thinking, and lean in to your right brain, which is more experiential.”
It’s ok that the baby seated beside you is screaming like a banshee-human crossbreed. It’s ok that your $14 club sandwich tastes like seasoned cat litter. Let those thoughts meander about in your skull, before gently nudging yourself back towards the act of breathing.
“If it’s not working for you, take a break, then try again,” says Salzberg. “You have all the time in the world.”
It’s true: you’ve got 19 hours, and nothing to keep you company but a roster of 2006 Matt Damon films and a bottle of wine more appropriately sized for an American Girl doll. You may as well give it a shot.
“You never know,” Rinzler says. “All those hours on a plane might start to heal something in you.”