Airports, Surfing, and Flow: Looking Around

by Ben Carter

An airport is a miracle. At airports, humans—fat, fleshy, be-thumbed bipeds—fly. And not just a few chosen humans,[1] millions of humans. Airports are the pinnacle of human achievement.

Airports should enjoy the same sort of hushed awe that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon enjoys, that overfalls the crowds standing before Michaelangelo’s La Pieta. They deserve the kind of “Ooooooooooh…” that the Northern Lights receive or the silence that swept through the arena in 1988 as Michael Jordan lifted off from the foul line.

Why, then, should airports also lay us so low? Instead of inspiring, instead of uplifting figuratively instead of merely literally, airports degrade us. Some of the reasons are obvious: backscatter x-rays, lines, being coughed on by strangers, being confronted with the very existence of barf bags, the confiscation of your wife’s expensive hair product. I am not interested in obvious answers.

How can something like “the miracle of human flight” be lost on me so consistently? This is an important question. If I’m missing it at the airport, where else am I missing “it”—whatever “it” might be?


We are all haunted, at least occasionally, by the sense that we are missing it. I have met three people—a camp director, a writer, and a judge—in 33 years who knew they weren’t missing a damned thing, who knew that what was around them and within them was all they needed. These people are forces of nature. I would like to tell you that their examples are inspiring. They’re not. Being in their presence is deeply unsettling.

I am not one of them. I fear I am always missing it, so I am left to wonder, “How do I so consistently miss it?” In the context of airports, I think part of the problem is the aggregate of all the obvious inconveniences, but that can’t be the final, only answer. It is not possible, is it, for a hard transcendent jewel to be fatally dulled by minor irritants? If this were the case, the search for some sort of connection to God, or a Large Thing, or Human Potential, or Meaning, is certainly doomed.

What scares me more about my consistent failure to appreciate airports is how similar airports are to most of the rest of my life. Airports are mundane and airports are not the destination. I think these facts about the airport are deeply connected to the larger reasons for my life-wide miss.

At one time, I understand, people were wowed by flight. It was new and palpably mind-blowing. No longer. Now, every jackass in America can get on a plane. Even this jackass. No problem. And, we fly all the time. We do it so often, the airport is just everyone’s communal living room: we’re in our pajamas, eating nachos, watching the news. We are no longer children of flight. There is no wonder, except to wonder who farted. We are grown-up. We have responsibilities. Responsibilities that do not include awe, gratitude, bliss.

Flight is mundane and mundane is hard to pay attention to.[2] That’s sort of definitional. Something mundane is something we have permission to ignore. The problem is: most of my life is mundane. My mind was blown in childhood and then blown again in my 20s. I suspect and fear that it might not be blown again and that’s not okay with me.

As I type, I am miles above some midwestern state. A lake below reflects the haze above which I am seated. Fingers of forests and veins of creekbeds encroach on the order of the winter-brown fields. Above, the sky is always blue.

This is not why I’m here. The glowing clouds outside my window are not why I took two weeks off of work. The orange light below me on the fish-scale clouds and the green-brown haze on the horizon are not the point. I’m here to get to Palau. This flight is just an implementation detail.

Hawaii is for refueling...

This is the second fundamental problem with airports and airplanes: they are never the destination. I am literally hours from Palau—where I learned to surf, where I learned to dive, where I learned to defend people accused of crimes, where I learned how to be married. For months, Erin and I have been planning and anticipating our return. We’ve been looking forward to it. The phrase “looking forward” pretty well encapsulates how I feel about the problem of destinations: when I’m “looking forward” to something, I’m not looking around.

How much have I missed on the way?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do about the twin problems of overlooking the mundane and looking forward to the destination. But, I am almost certain that if I’m going to be prepared for awe, if bliss is ever going to overwash me again, I will need to crack both.

I have a few ideas for this project.

There’s a great book about surfing called West of Jesus. The author’s hypothesis is that surfing grips its participants so deeply, inspiring in them an almost (and often actual) spiritual devotion to the practice of surfing, in part because as an activity it forces the surfer to a) focus on mundane things like wave patterns, wind direction, tides and b) focus only on the moment. In other words, there is no destination, there is only now and what you must do right now to catch this wave.

Palau Surf Legend Bill Ridpath on Overhead Flow

The same biochemicals that flood a practicing, meditating Buddhist monk’s mind when he or she is in a deeply meditative state flood the surfer’s brain. Like surfing, meditation encourages a practitioner to focus on mundane things, often inhaling and exhaling, and focus only on the moment, not worrying about achieving enlightenment, or a certain sitting position, or whatever. Just the breath. Innnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut. Innnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuut.

I have felt that deep gratitude, connectedness, and joy while surfing and, more rarely, while meditating. I have also experienced it running. In that context, of course, it’s called “Runner’s High” and is awesome.

But, I have also felt it while writing. Even legal writing. The conditions are the same in each situation: an intense focus on the details (mundane) to the exclusion of everything else (no hunger, no football game, no pets). Maybe the same chemicals aren’t involved in writing, but I wouldn’t doubt if they were.

What I am really talking about is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in his book, Flow: The Pschology of Optimal Experience. Flow (Wikipedia explanation) is basically that state of being in which a person is fully engaged in their activity, being challenged but also up to the challenge. You lose track of time. You lose track of yourself. You are only what you do.

Primarily, I’m not concerned with how to achieve those rare, hyper-aware states brought about by surfing and intense meditation. Rather, I’m more interested in how to let those moments infuse life each day in ways that allow me to appreciate the jaw-dropping miracles of daily life.[3] I am terrified I am missing them, that my life has become an airport. On this point, I have to say I have only the faith that pursuing spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, writing, and surfing will help me look around and appreciate the sacred mundane.

Outside my window, there is snow on the fields and mountains. The city lights look like pools of fire on dark frost. To my left, across the aisle, the sun has set and a fellow traveller reads by the fading light of another day.

  1. Sure, sending humans to the moon, keeping them in a SPACELAB for months at a time might literally be a higher achievement, but I’m going to maintain that relatively safely sending millions of humans a few miles into the air each year is a greater cumulative achievement.

  2. I have spent years and multiple rolls of film and endured the derision of family and friends capturing images of mundane things. I go to Hawaii and take pictures of ferns near blowholes, not the blowholes. I will shoot the gravel in the parking lot of the Appalachian Trail, a rusty nail in the side of corrugated aluminum, a dandelion between railroad ties. These photos are not interesting. What is interesting is the practice of focusing, literally, on the mundane.

  3. Yes, I am aware that this essay is essentially just a longwinded refrain of Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “talk in present tenses”, John Lennon’s observation that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, Blake’s desire to “see the world in a grain of sand”, and Anonymous’s hackneyed observation that it’s the journey not the destination. I know. I suck.