Finding Enlightenment in an Airport Security Line

It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

Here’s a paradox of modern spirituality. We live in a digital age full of constant stimulation. We have cell phones, iPads, DVRs, laptops, and more.

But many of us still practice what I call “monk-style spirituality.” When we go to meditate, practice yoga, or pray, we do it like the ancients did. We take a 30-minute break from the chaos and sit in silence like monks in an abbey or yogis at an ashram.

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We’ve trained ourselves to find peace in the calm and serene.  But we’ve overlooked the bigger challenge – finding peace in the chaotic and wild flow of everyday life.

This realization hit me one day when I showed up late to a yoga class.  The teacher that day happened to be a strict disciple of “monk-style spirituality.”   She started class with a five-minute meditation and then used her body to barricade the door.  I’m not kidding.  She leaned against that door like she was protecting a room full of innocent children from some sort of terrorist invasion.

I knew that if I tried to get into the room, she would lose it.  “Meditation is a silent time,” she would tell me in a screaming whisper.  “It’s against yoga etiquette to disturb others by walking in late.”

I get it.  Now more than ever, we need these undisturbed and peaceful moments.  But this kind of “monk-style spirituality” also has some real dangers.

Here’s the basic problem.  The practices of “monk-style spirituality” create separation between the spiritual and the everyday.  We start thinking that spiritual experience only occurs in silence and isolation.  It only happens in places like yoga studios, nature preserves, and churches.

Then we wonder why it’s so hard to experience these states in everyday life.  The reason is obvious:  our adherence to “monk-style spirituality” guarantees that our experience of inner peace only emerges in enclaves sheltered from the chaos of modern life.

This was what Emerson meant in the quote above.  It’s easy to find your center in isolation.  It’s easy to lose it in the chaos of everyday life.  But, as Emerson says, “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

What would it look like to merge the spiritual and the everyday?  What’s the alternative to “monk-style spirituality”?

For this week’s experiment, let’s find out.  Let’s explore the conscious practice of finding peace, presence, God, or whatever you call it in the wild flow of everyday life.

Here’s the way I plan to experiment with this idea.  It’s a practice that I’m calling “disturbance meditation.”

Almost every spiritual tradition uses practices of meditation or contemplative prayer to focus and calm the mind.  You may already have your own practice.

But for this week, see what it’s like to seek out, rather than avoid, disturbance and stimulation.   Anyone can find inner peace while sitting in a serene space.  But can you find this same state in front of a crowded grocery store, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or in an airport security line?

That’s the practice.  See if you can find that centered space of inner peace in the environments that normally create disturbance and inner turmoil.  I’m already thinking that the airport may just be my new church.

What do you think?  Do you see the dangers of “monk-style spirituality”?   What’s your experience of trying to merge the spiritual with the everyday?

Update: Extreme Airport Meditation –
Counting Breaths from DIA to LAX
posted June 8, 2011 by Nate

In this video, Nate explores bridging the gap between the spiritual and the chaos of everyday life by counting each breath on a plane ride from Denver to Los Angeles.


  1. Todd45387 says:

    I think you’re right on about bringing down the walls between what we think of as spiritual space and so-called everyday life. This distinction is just another way we cut up the world into neat and tidy concepts tha actually end up leading us away from truth…

  2. My goal is to take the opportunity in every moment to balance my Spirit and my Ego…I am both; not one or the other. Every thought is a prayer, every prayer is a meditation. I often use just one incredibly conscious breath to tap into that place of peace that is always present. The breath is probably the most valuable and accessible life-tool we have.

    I love that you used an airport as your lab, Nate. It also is the place I use as an exercise to stay centered…the buzz of energy there can be so overwhelming. Thanks for your work. Brice

    • Thanks Brice. Yeah, I used to hate airports. You’ve got screaming babies, flight delays, security lines, and hundreds of people packed into a flying missile for hours on end. But I’ve come to see them as one of the most spiritual places on earth. If you can find peace there, you can find it anywhere.

  3. I love this. As someone who actually thrives on chaos, sometimes I try to picture myself as part of the greater energy of a crowd, or imagine how no matter where we all come from, we are all interconnected (we are all walking on this linoleum floor, which was designed by an artist, stamped by a worker at a factory, packaged and shipped by a delivery man or woman, their relatives and friends could be six degrees separated from me on this line right now…), and remember, especially at airport security, that we all have the same purpose in that moment — to fly safely.

    • Nate says:

      Common purpose! I love it. I think that’s really true. We’re all just trying to go where we need to go and, at some level, many of us are feeling irritation or anxiety. This can push us toward even greater levels of separation. But why not go the other way?

  4. Ronnie Rubin says:

    Kind of like daily life. There is the possibility of deep, grueling challenges and new experiences. And at the end, there’s always the double/double animal style. :-)

    • Nate says:

      Totally — though I have to admit I didn’t go all out with the burger. I went protein style with fries.

  5. Istvan says:

    Nate, great stuff to ponder about again! Yeah, it is easy to stay calm/connected etc. in solitude/while in an ashram/monastery etc. (Is not the 4th way the path?) I remember trekking in Nepal everyone was so nice/kind/warm etc. BUT I heard (fortunately not experienced) that there was a landslide and people were evacuated by a helicopter with limited number of seats. Vanished the calm/love etc. and they were all (hope NOT all!) for a seat to get away. Same in the Titanic/war/in a concentration camp. HOWEVER, it is better if we do not find ourselves in such extreme situations to test WHO WE REALLY ARE! “If you want to discover the world, stay at home! If you want to discover yourself, TRAVEL!” is not that the same idea? Actually it is quite fun to see how upset people became with really trivial things, like delayed flight or even not finding a parking place! ‘Mumy! Compress me!’ (it is funny in Hungarian – let me know if it comes across in English, too.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Thanks so much for all your thoughts Istavan. I hear what you are saying about the way we call all get agitated and thrown off by the small things. I really like your quote about travel. There’s a lot of truth to that idea!

  6. Nate Klemp says:

    Totally agree! Thanks for your thought on this Todd…

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