Keeping calm in customs


This week, Rabbi Feigelson delves into the stress of airports, recounting a nerve-wracking customs experience that spiraled into wild anxiety about sinus rinse bottles. Using insights from the Torah portion of Naso, he highlights how our minds can quickly become a maze of stress and shares a quick meditation to keep calm, even in moments of internal chaos.

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A few years ago I was in the airport in Toronto, Canada traveling back to the US. My wife is from Toronto and we had been in town to visit family and friends. 

Now when you’re flying to the US from Toronto, there’s a funny thing: In almost any other international travel situation, you go through US customs and border control after you land in the United States.

Check-in at Toronto Pearson International Airport (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

But in Toronto, you actually clear US customs while you’re still in Canada. Like, there are uniformed US customs officers working under an American flag and a picture of the President of the United States, while standing on Canadian soil. Whatever. Weird.

Anyway, the reason this is significant for this story is that it means that if you have a customs issue, you can miss your flight.

And my wife and I had some history with this, having once missed a flight because the US border folks had some question about her green card (she has since become a citizen). 

So as I went through the line, I groaned when I got flagged for a random screening. “Crap, we’re gonna miss our flight,” I thought. I schlepped my bags to the appropriate place, where a big burly guy asked me to open my suitcase and started going through my things.

And of course then I started thinking, did I pack anything I’m worried about here? And my mind alit on one thing in the suitcase: It was springtime and my allergies had been acting up, so I had brought with me one of those sinus rinse squirt bottles.

There wasn’t liquid in it, but I got nervous: That could be weird, and it could be trouble, for whatever reason.

The customs guy continued through my things. He got closer and closer to that bottle. My heart was pounding a little more heavily. I was sweating a little more.

I was so far beyond worry about missing the flight at this point, I had started conjuring images of me sitting in customs jail because of my sinus rinse. I started cursing my allergies — ”damn you, hay fever.”

And then he gets to the sinus rinse bottle. He takes it in his big meaty hands, lifts it up, gives it a good look. As we say in the business, I’ve got shpilkes.

And then the moment comes. He opens his mouth: “Sinus Rinse, huh? I LOVE THIS STUFF!”

Crisis averted. I repack, go to the gate, and make my way home. God Bless America.

The thing I want to focus on in this story is my own normal but pretty unmindful reaction. You, listening to this, might be sage, patient and wise.

Maybe you noticed that virtually all of the tension in this story was caused by me. It was the result of my own response to the situation. I was in a situation that was out of my control.

And so often in those situations, our minds are desperate to try to assert control — even if that’s just by making up a story about the reality that awaits. So my mind started spinning stories: “We’re gonna be late. We’re gonna miss our flight.

They’re gonna find the sinus rinse bottle and throw me in customs jail and I’m gonna be force-fed poutine and Molson beer!”

All of that is the mind’s natural response to a stressful situation. Clinging, story-spinning, circling the drain on a downward spiral.

Had I realized it then, I might have seen that I had other options for how to respond. I could have asked myself, “Self, what are you feeling in this moment?” I could have noticed fear and anxiety.

And I could have said, “Okay, fear and anxiety. That’s a very normal response. But remember, you have no control here. So let’s try not to stay there. What do you want to focus on right now? Maybe something more pleasant and in your control, like your breath?”

Having acknowledged the fear and anxiety, I could then choose to lovingly set them aside and focus on breathing, on being present from moment to moment. And that might have helped me to stay calmer, less nervous, less sweaty-palmed.

The Torah portion of Naso contains one of the most troubling passages in the Torah, one that I think is kind of all about this nervous, fearful, story-weaving response.

The passage is called the ritual of the Sotah, and it describes the Biblical procedure for when a man suspects that his wife might have been unfaithful. I’m not going to get into the particulars here, but it’s an uncomfortable sequence. E

ither way, though, like everything in the Torah — and in life — I believe we can and should ask, what can we learn from this?

And what I learn from the Sotah passage is a lesson about trust, about how we spin these stories in our minds.

Because the essence of the situation the Torah describes is that this couple doesn’t communicate. And in the absence of communication, the mind starts to imagine stories — often bad, distrustful stories–about other people.

Our fight or flight reflexes, which are designed to protect us, label unknown objects and people as untrustworthy, as threats. We imagine the worst possible outcomes.

In my case, my mind immediately went to, “This big customs guy is gonna think my sinus rinse bottle is the weirdest thing he’s ever seen, and that’s going to lead him to judge me unfavorably, and that’s going to land me in jail with the poutine — which I can’t eat anyway because it’s not kosher, so I’ll starve — oh man oh man oh man.” And so on.

We do this all the time. We label people who live in a different part of town as weird or dangerous.

On social media, we make snap judgments about other people we don’t know and hop on the bandwagon of this or that slogan.

In politics, we lump people together and call them evil without even getting to know them as human beings.

It’s all the same thing: That fearful, anxious fight or flight reflex conjuring stories, sowing distrust. Most of the time, it isn’t mindful.

So here’s a practice that can help. It’s a meditation practice, but it’s brief–one you can use when you’re standing in the security line at the airport or even when you’re stuck in traffic. 

If you can, close your eyes. If you can’t, just try to soften your gaze a bit. 

Take a good deep breath. Try counting to four on the inhale through the nose. Hold the breath for a beat. And then try counting to four on the exhale through the mouth.

Do that again.

And one more time.

And now, just notice what emotions are present for you. It could be calm, which is great. It could be you’re experiencing some agitation. Maybe there’s some fear or anxiety there. Just practice noticing it. 

Through your noticing, try to create a little separation between you and your emotions. 

Feel into the reality that you can actually be more in control than you might think. 

And now, from a slightly calmer place, ask yourself, “How do I want to show up in this moment? Do I want to be reactive, fearful, angry? Or could I respond in another way, one that is wiser, richer, more assured?”

That choice is yours. That’s your control, right there. And if you need some help choosing that wiser response, remember that I’m here believing in you, cheering you on. 

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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