How I Hurt People With Mindfulness

I’ve never been praised for my mindfulness. But I’ve been working on it.

For me this looks like trying to control my emotions more. So when stress builds, I’ve been practicing what every startup founder turned zen master extols: mediation (high fiver Tim Ferris!)

I got my big chance tonight. In the oppressive heat of a record breaking Vegas summer, I boarded my Allegiant (yes, Allegiant, yes, you too can chastise me for my choices) flight bound for Oakland. Surprise, we never left the runway.

Instead, we cooked in the blistering heat. Fresh from an interview that night, I quietly cursed myself for not changing into my spare clothes prior to boarding the flight. But then I checked myself. I am better than this I thought. I have a choice. I can enter into the frustration, the anger rising around me, or I can draw inwards, refining my character, becoming the tranquil water lily that has always eluded me.

It worked. I walled myself off, I focused inward. I even managed to maintain productivity as I flipped through Term Sheet and finished an outline on base drivers of human action. The temperature climbed; we waited. Minutes passed. I remained resolute. If I can control myself I reflected, I can control my situation…or so I thought.

That’s when it happened: ten rows back, Mrs. Rose (name change) had a seizure.

The flight had be canceled (engine was reving too high in the heat?), and we were returning to our gate when I first heard the shouts for help. A second later a flight attendant blared past me down the aisle. A call went out over the loudspeaker “is their a doctor on the plane?” I jumped to meet and quickly realized I was the only one.

I rushed to the sounds of panic. When I got to Mrs. Rose, she was sprawled out across a young man in the passenger seat. I called for water, cold washcloths, took a quick history, and then leaned into asses her. She was just coming out of her seizure; eyes slowly brightening back to life. She was sweaty, with a quick steady pulse, but otherwise OK. No neurologic deficits, no serious cardiac events.

We rushed Mrs. Rose off the plane into the welcome techno-colored chill lobby air. After an EMS clearance, rest, and copious rehydration she stabilized. Mrs. Rose and I exchanged contact info. Then she left with her husband to the airport dining hall, and I left to a nearby galley of chairs to collect my thoughts.

Replaying the moments again and again my mind I couldn’t escape one glaring question: where the hell was I?

The truth is that I was taking care of me while hell raged around me. I felt the coarse stitching of my sweat soaked shirt as it clung to my side. I saw my nameless flight-mates as they rhythmically beat their seatback programs and squirmed uncomfortably in their seats. I heard a baby cry. I quenched my thirst with lukewarm shots of water while this thought fluttered through my mind: man, it would really suck if you forgot to bring a water bottle.

If only that engine hadn’t overheated. If only we had a deplaned one minute earlier. If only there had been no seizure. Then there would have been no consequences, and I might have missed this lesson in mindfulness.

But there were consequences, and I learned that my tranquil inner-peace offered no comfort to anyone but me. Why didn’t I take control of chaos as I had so many times in the past? Why didn’t I approach the flight attendants, explain the risks, clue them into the implications of unrelenting heat, and insist that water be distributed to the passengers on-board? I could have done something. Well intentioned or not, instead I chose to focus on mindfulness and controlling my own reactions to a difficult situation. I did nothing for anyone else.

I think I’ve missed the true meaning of mindfulness. The goal isn’t to level set on status quo. There’s no points for achieving the absence of harm, no virtue in collapsing into the tide and swaying with the breeze. The truth is, it’s not about you. It’s about reaching out and holding in mind the story that is unfolding all around you.

I want to excuse my behavior and appease my guilty conscious with pragmatic reasoning that at every moment we were, according to the crew, just a few minutes from take off. But as I write this, generous passengers are coming by to offer words of kindness. Each congratulations stings with the reminder: in the face of crisis, perennial calm looks a lot more like indifferent resignation.

This wasn’t a proud day for Allegiant Airlines. But it wasn’t a proud day for me either. Going forward I can only hope that a dogmatic focus on shaping and growing myself into who I want to become, doesn’t blind me to the call to serve my brothers and sisters living besides me in the here and now.

Let’s imagine a different world. Forget about yourself. Feel the heat of the lives breathing all around you, and let your mind find peace by following your heart into the breach.