A New Kind of Jet Lag

Anyone who flies knows the feeling, to some degree, of having to accept mortality each and every time you step on a plane.  Historically for me, the feeling was infrequent and fleeting.  It came only in dips that sent my heart into my stomach, or bumpy rides when it felt as though we were traveling over a gravel covered dirt road.  The truth is, statistically speaking, our own mortality is much more at risk every time we get into a car, hop on the subway, take a bus, or live in New York City for that matter, than it is when we’re flying through the air. 

Anxiety about flying is a lot like jet lag.  There are ways to avoid it, but once the ball is rolling it can completely knock you out.  So why now?  Why after decades of flying without issue (in fact previously flying with pure enjoyment and excitement) is this new fear rearing its ugly head?  Is this yet another lovely side effect of growing older? Like grey hair and wrinkles?  Or am I seriously losing it?

It’s questions like these that brought me to yoga in the first place.   No one likes having stress or anxieties, and I am especially allergic.  It’s not that yoga magically erases these issues from our lives; stress is a reality for all of us.   But it has, for me, provided a practice in searching for contentment no matter what is taking place around me.

By contentment supreme joy is gained.
— Sutra 2.42

As with most things leading towards joy, finding contentment seems to become harder and harder as we grow older.  As kids, most of us are lucky enough to be carefree and easily content.  It’s our parents’ job to worry.  My own childhood in the idyllic Midwest, was filled with soccer games, happily hopping from lake to boat to lake in perfect Michigan summers, and turtle catching with my siblings and friends.  Our biggest concern was what to name the day’s catch and where they should live.  Joyful little “bumpkins” (as my husband likes to call me).

Fast forward 20 years and you'll find me struggling to find my way in New York City with little to no financial support from my parents (who thought I was crazy), barely making enough to get by working 24/7 at an art gallery, jumping from apartment to apartment with no real home (a New Yorkers right of passage), and heartbroken over a relationship I had become so attached to it felt as though I lost a limb when it ended.  It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  I found my resilience, my independence, and most importantly, I found gratitude. 

When I look at my life today, by comparison, I should be extremely joyful.  And I am very happy.  But I find myself less content than I was in those years of madness in my early twenties.  My thoughts relate almost entirely towards my future and what's to come of it.  Some of it wrapped in worry, some in excitement, but all in the "when" and very far from the "now."  What's more is that I've become so attached to the happiness I have in my life now, that I'm overly concerned with what life would be without it.  Leading up to my wedding I became so attached to the desire to be married and start our life together that every time I, or he, or we got on a plane I thought to myself "What if this is it? What if we never make it to our beautiful wedding? What if we never get to start our life and make a family together?"  Now that we've lived to see our wedding day, my thoughts have moved on to the "What Ifs" of starting a family, when and if we'll move from New York, what will/should I be doing with myself now that I've left my career in the arts behind me...and the cycle continues.

I’ve made the mistake of thinking that having gratitude is enough to find contentment.  That simply being grateful for the things we receive in life is enough to keep us grounded and happy.  The truth is, it’s really only half the battle.  The other half lays in remaining unattached (or practicing “non-attachment” as we yogis say) to our blessings and letting go of the desire to control…well, everything.  I want to be content, joyful, and present.  It’s my daily practice and it’s hard!  I think it not only makes our lives as individuals more meaningful, it also deeply affects the way in which we impact the world around us. 

Being able to fly is a massive blessing.  I’m still amazed by it.  Eating dinner in one place and waking up to breakfast across the ocean. It’s crazy in the most fantastic way.  A recent trip required four anxious plane rides:  New York to Madrid, 4 days later Madrid to Athens, Athens to Santorini, and then Athens back to New York.   I was extremely anxious before leaving.   I didn’t sleep at all on the overnight flight to Madrid, and barely slept the night before.  Talk about jet lag! I went through the same thing on the next flight. 

And then we arrived in Santorini.  Staring out over the vast deep blue waters of the Caldera juxtaposed against white rooftops spilling down the cliff side, I felt as though I had just landed on another planet.   This could not be Earth.   In that moment, I thought of what I would have missed had I let my anxiety get the best of me.   If I allowed my desire to “preserve” a state of happiness override the chance to experience something new and beautiful, and truly add to my joy. 

I wish I could say my flight home was carefree and lovely.  It wasn’t.  But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?  My anxiety shows its face when I’m flying, but the reality is it’s always there, hiding in the shadows of other emotions.   Letting go of those anxieties will be much harder than overcoming a fear of flying.  It’s a practice, and for now I’m working them out on and off the mat…and when I’m lucky, in far off places like Santorini.