Zen and the Art of Airplane Travel

At some point, we were collecting statements from environmental philosophers on whether they are willing to fly or not. A perceptive and stimulating statement comes from Lucy Weir:

Using any kind of energy other than that derived directly from a simple vegan diet to propel ourselves from place to place might be an ideal position. But I’m interested in showing that there are serious problems with ideals, with ideologies, and in particular, with imposing ideologies on others. Therefore I have to conclude that I cannot advise others on a right or wrong way to live and that includes no right and wrong in the context even of deeply damaging activities, like flying in aeroplanes propelled by fossil fuels.

What would an ecologically aware Zen practitioner do?

There are no guidelines in Zen. But there is the constant demand to pay attention, to wake up to what is going on, to a reality that is evident, observable, when the attention is kept focussed on each moment. The practice of seeing oneself see opens one to the full implications of the impact of ones actions. And yet one may not always be able to avoid causing suffering. This is the tragedy. We may still, even without principles, be bound to a course of action that condemns us to exacerbate harm, right until the end. Yet we can only respond from the particular set of circumstances, from the context. And if raising the question causes more of us to shift uneasily in our aeroplane seats, or to forego the joyous whoosh of take off, then perhaps the loosening of our attachment even to this wonderful luxury can be brought into focus.

There is no perfect relationship with the world. The relationship with the world that we would have if we were to hope to live more in accordance with natural laws would demand so much of us that we would have to give up every luxury, everything but the most simple materials to meet our needs, even challenging our natural drive to procreate. But there is no perfect relationship. There is only the work to see ourselves as impartially as possible, as impermanent connections that unfold into one another. We inevitably create suffering. We can, however, see ourselves seeing what is going on, both in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with other humans, and even in how we relate to the non-human, living and non-living, systems within which we’re embedded. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves and setting ourselves up with idealistic expectations causes ever more rigidity in our reactions which is entirely counter productive. But we can be compassionately aware of that suffering, and even when we fail to relieve it, we can use that failure as an opportunity to observe, impartially, to forgive, and reflect on what could happen differently. When we succeed, to relieve suffering, that is enlightenment.

Would I willingly fly to conferences? I want not to want to. I watch my moment by moment response and I feel wry relief when the possibility is closed to me, through poverty. When I can afford to travel at all, I consciously seek out alternatives to flying, and if I can, I take them. However, like wine, I find the rush of take-off utterly seductive and I regret that I can’t indulge myself more often. In spite of the stark sterility of airports, the heart-thumping anxiety of security checks and final calls, the sheer exotic pleasure of being whisked from one time zone to another is thrilling. I would fly unwillingly, then, feeling the huge weight of what suffering that action supports. But I’d probably find myself smiling as the plane lifts off.

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