Woman in purple dress holding old suitcase

Departing down the middle

In Insight and Experience by Dustin GrinnellLeave a Comment

It’s a good lesson in attachment, I suppose. She leaves, I stay. And we’re all supposed to be okay with it. As I drive into the terminal, I wonder how a Buddhist, heck the Buddha himself, might act.


In the movies, when a loved one leaves for an extended period of time, their significant other sits on a park bench outside the airport, spots their plane as it lifts off, and watches it fly away until it disappears in a blanket of blue. In the real world, you slump into the driver’s side seat of a car, misty-eyed and miserable, and then merge into traffic behind a shuttle with the words, ‘Love the Journey’, written on the back.

In Sanskrit the word Taṇhāliterally means ‘thirst’, which is another word for desire – the clinging to objects, people, even identities, which, if not balanced, can cause quite a bit of headaches and heartaches. The Buddhists call it ‘suffering’, a fire that burns hot when we can’t let go, but smoulders quietly when we come to terms with the natural law that reigns supreme – that change is constant, nothing stays.

As I drive out of the airport tunnel, I see the split ahead: arrivals and departures. For a moment, I indulge a little fantasy where I turn into arrivals and park my car with the hazards flashing. From the driver’s seat, I spot her come out, duffel bag strapped to her back, head on a swivel. But just as we lock eyes, the fantasy evaporates and I find myself turning my car toward departures. As appealing as the dream was, as much as I’d like to run to her and lift her high, I can’t. This day is about goodbyes.

It’s a good lesson in attachment, I suppose. She leaves, I stay. And we’re all supposed to be okay with it. As I drive into the terminal, I wonder how a Buddhist, heck the Buddha himself, might act. When the car stopped, would he have sprung out happily and sent his own loved one along merrily, even though the length of her stay was indefinite, certainly longer than a year? Blissfully detached, surely he would have also noticed the beautiful flowers planted in the drop-off area. Or, might he have been ambivalent, as the she rolled her bags through the sliding doors, his emotions on an even keel – not too hot, too cold?

I like to think he would have cried, his heart undefended, open to the moment. It would be an honest response, I think. As he held her close he might have told her he was proud of her, like I had. He would say he would miss her deeply, like I did. Then he would use his sleeve to wipe his damp eyes and as she walked away would remind himself that life isn’t all about arrivals; it’s a lot of departures, too.

We all have our fair share of departures. Perhaps the healthy response, I think, is to feel them, honestly and completely (it’s a human emotion, after all). Then, though easier said than done, let it go. Leave the pain at the airport, where it originated. Of course it’ll spring up now and again. Maybe when you roll over in bed and remember the time when you first shared those ‘I love you’s.’ Or perhaps in the car, when you hear the song you belted out together during a road trip. I suppose the ‘awakened one’ would advise letting the memory come through you, then pass. He would caution against letting it hook you and taking you for a ride.

As I followed the shuttle with its ironic little quip, I thought about attachment, about achieving a balance with the people we love. There was error, I thought, in being too loosely attached, perhaps using aloofness as a mechanism to cope. Equally off would be a profound rebellion with reality, a release of emotion so profound it cripples.

We know of a teaching from the Buddha, a story he told his disciples. “Fair goes the dancing when the sitar is tuned”, he said. “Tune us the sitar neither high nor low and we will dance away the hearts of men.” But a string too tight breaks. And a string too slack has no sound. With either, the music dies. There is a middle way, he said. “Tune us the sitar neither low nor high and we will dance away the hearts of men.”

Such is a metaphor for life, I realised, discovering that healthy balance with the objects, and most especially, the people we desire. As I paid the toll and drove away from the airport, I made my own departure, down the middle.


Dustin’s travel essays have appeared in such publications as Verge Magazine, Narratively and The Expeditioner. He is the author of the science thriller, The Genius Dilemma, and has written a feature-length screenplay. He is currently a science writer for a biomedical research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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