The other day I sat on a plane from Moscow to Verona. While having lunch on my own, I started paying attention to my pace of eating compared to that of the young woman sitting next to me, who was also traveling alone.
We had both ordered a chicken meatball with rice. I had already devoured most of my meal holding the food box in my hand while she just started, having unwrapped her cutlery nicely and set up the tray table as if she was in a fine dining restaurant. She seemed to enjoy the untasty flight meal.
Noticing how graceful and mindful she was, I started to wonder why I had decided to order the meal and eat in such a rush. I paid no attention at all to what I was eating, as if my mind was elsewhere.
I couldn’t deny it: I was hungry. However, I could have easily waited a couple of more hours. I recognized how the decision to eat during my flight was due to boredom rather than real hunger.
Eating food on the plane is a universally unpleasant—and often stomach-churning—experience. The best advice would be to skip the food altogether and instead bring something tasty and healthy from home. In most cases, I do that. However, when you don’t have a choice, there’s no point in eating and whining about it. I believe there are ways to turn solo eating on the plane into a pleasant experience regardless of the overall condition of the food, the commonly known staleness, the lack of taste, the obnoxious texture or the quite familiar—and rather uncomfortable—lack of eating space.
At that moment, “Modern Mindfulness,” the book by Rohan Gunatillake came to my mind. In the book Mr. Gunatillake explains an approach to modern meditation and provides some useful exercises to practice wherever and whenever. In an attempt to practice some mobile meditation, I had taken it with me during my trips over the last month. Positive results didn’t take long to show up with more presence and an improved ability to handle stressful situations. According to Mr. Gunatillake, any moment is the perfect time for a mindfulness practice.
So, I wondered if eating dull plane food on my own could be THE situation for me to be more mindful.
I stopped there and put the fork down with the intent to turn the unpleasant experience into an enjoyable one. I did this exercise, an observation from the outside-in—from the packaging to the ingredients contained in the food—that involves all senses but taste.
I started by observing the packaging, a squared and shiny package made of cardboard. I looked at the graphic, written in Cyrillic characters, and I slowly recognized what was written there (my Russian language skills are limited to reading and speaking a few words). The cities of Berlin, London, and Vienna emerged from the apparently obscure language.
I continued the exploration. Now I focused on the texture of the packaging. It was glossy and conveyed a different message about the food contained. Quickly, my mind went its way pondering about the incongruence between the outside and the inside. But I stopped it. The first times you do this exercise, it’s hard to control your mind, but it becomes easier with a bit of practice.
Then I shifted to the square boxes and the snacks contained in the packaged lunch. I reflected on my tactile experience, the heat of the aluminum-foiled vessel containing the chicken meatball and the rice, and the weight of the salt-and-pepper paper bags. So I moved about to take a bite and think about the people involved with the logistics and the service. The faces of the cooks who prepared it, the people who wrapped it, those who took it on board and I observed the flight assistants who served it, who are the passengers’ only contact with the food itself (Mr. Gunatillake’s book inspired this part).
By the end of this exercise, my neighbor was done eating.
I, on the other hand, had not only elevated my solo eating in-flight experience into a fully-sensorial and enjoyable experience (I know, I know, despite the poor-quality ingredients), but I also fought the boredom that often affects me on flights.
The exercise I’ve just described is an excellent practice for any person who is traveling solo by plane or any other mean of transport. I believe it could also work very well for those who are served dull food at their work canteens, as well as for people who can’t leave their workstation for lunch. Of course, with the necessary adaptations related to the specific situation.
Are you taking a long-haul flight very soon? Are you eating solo at work or at home today? Try this mindful exercise and let me know how it went.