June 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Zen and the Art of Business Travel June 1998 Current Issue

Zen and the Art of Business Travel


Your attitude determines your altitude...literally

For the past few months, the most popular computer game for my two sons has been a surprisingly educational item called The Oregon Trail. You start off in Independence, Mo., with a passenger-filled covered wagon and try to make it to Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. While there is an intricate scoring process that appeals strongly to my highly competitive younger boy, the kids are pretty content to make it over the Rockies and reach the West Coast alive. That doesn't always happen. Even when they do make it, they almost inevitably lose all or most of their passengers to disease or accident along the way.

One of the lessons I hope my sons are getting from this software is that travel isn't easy, and it used to be a whole lot harder. Today, it's often aggravating, but 150 years ago, it was life- threatening. Still, going by wagon train to a new life in the West was usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both for the survivors as well as for their less fortunate trail mates. Flying from New York City to Chicago to Las Vegas to Orlando to Kansas City, etc., has become virtually a way of life for all too many of us. Some of the irritants of contemporary travel can be mitigated if you've got enough money to go first or business class. The rich fly different from us. They get better food and have room to stretch their legs.

Nevertheless, whether you're munching on caviar in the front of the plane or stale honey-roasted peanuts in the tail, everyone on the flight is going to leave Denver late and miss connections in Dallas. Once you board and fasten your seat belt, you can't control when you're going to arrive. You can, however, determine how you're going to arrive: hyperventilating and furious at the world, or relaxed and ready to deal with this latest delay.

Largely, successful business travel is a matter of having the right attitude, although it also is essential - as in the days of the Oregon trail - to start off well-provisioned. You won't need an ox or an axe, but food and books will come in handy. Of course, if you are flying in the front of the plane, where the flight attendants are so free with the champagne you may begin to think you're at a wedding, you can probably leave the crackers and cheese at home. But if you're stuck in the stale-peanut section, being armed with a sandwich and a piece of fresh fruit can save you from a severe outbreak of hunger-fueled impatience.

As for books, I suggest bringing something long and pleasurable. For some people that means Tolstoy, for others Danielle Steele. Think engrossing. Think fun. Using your time aloft to catch up on your business reading is a good idea (especially if that means devoting some time to this trade magazine). Should you suddenly confront an interminable delay, quarterly reports, requests for proposals, software manuals and, yes, even M&C may help you while away the empty hours, but at some point you'll need to give your mind a breather.

No doubt, there are many ways to develop a good attitude to coping with the irritants of travel, but I would like to recommend a short volume (it easily fits in a shirt or jacket pocket) I've been reading lately: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (Shambala, Boston). It contains several hundred brief stories, poems, exercises and riddles that attempt to provide an answer to the answerless question of "What is Zen?" While I certainly don't have the slightest idea of what Zen is, it is clear to me that following certain Zen principles can allow you to emerge from an airplane trip with your composure intact.

  • Avoid attachments. Don't get too hung up about having your schedule thrown out of whack. Also, don't worry about your luggage not arriving with you. Of course, anything that you truly need - passport, medicine, the keynote speech you've spent the last six months writing and are going to deliver if this 90-minute flight arrives at its destination in less than 48 hours - should be in your carry-on.
  • Show kindness to all sentient beings. This includes virtually all airline employees. It's not the ticket agent's fault there is a blizzard in Salt Lake City. Nor is your flight attendant to blame when the mechanics want to check out the fuel line one more time. Verbal abuse will not get the plane to fly any faster. It certainly will not get you upgraded to first class.
  • Learn to meditate. It's easy. Sit comfortably in your seat. Close your eyes. Breathe evenly and deeply from your diaphragm. As you exhale, quietly repeat a word or phrase over and over. You can try the Hindu "Om," the Hebrew "Shalom" or, in English, "My luggage will make it to Kansas City. My luggage will make it to Kansas City. My luggage will make it to Kansas City...."

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