Airport Security and Non-Self

As I've written in these pages before, I'm not a fan of our nation's airport security protocols. I think they do not adequately factor in the humiliation of old ladies in wheelchairs, incorporate a base level of common sense, or strike the right balance between security and practicality. Yet as I've crisscrossed the country on tour to promote my new book over the last two months, I've disrobed, de-shoed and had my naked body scanned by a stranger so many times that I've long since surrendered any notion of privacy or dignity.

I've also arrived at a somewhat easier relationship with this regime of inspection and surveillance, thanks to the Buddhist concept of non-self. Herewith the lemonade that has come from the lemons.

In crafting our country's airport security rules, policymakers made a choice to screen things, not people. Israel, the country with the most experience in these issues, long ago made the opposite choice. When you're going through security en route to or from Israel (I travel there often), you're questioned by a security officer whose job it is to disturb you just enough to get you off your guard. As I learned from former security officers themselves, it's all about that one moment of confusion: security professionals are trained to pick up on specific cues that suggest that more interrogation is warranted.

The Bush Administration chose not to do this -- and for very good reasons. Obviously, the personal approach leads to official and unofficial forms of bias. Arabs and "Arab-looking" people report receiving tougher questioning than others. Racial profiling is par for the course. Israeli society, for better or for worse, already sees itself as being in conflict with members of specific ethnic/national groups, i.e., Palestinians and Arabs; airport security is the least of it. In the United States, however, notions of equality are embedded in the constitution, and in our national character. To officially sanction racial profiling would be a serious blow against those values.

Of course, racial profiling still goes on. But the choice to screen objects instead of people at least makes it unofficial, and punishable. Watching elderly people struggle out of their wheelchairs makes me feel sick, but the alternative is a system in which people are treated unequally, which is arguably worse. Our system is deliberately counter-intuitive, deliberately devoid of the human element, because such a system better protects our values of equality.

As an abstract social-legal matter, I'm on board. But in practice, I still chafe at the astonishing incursions on personal privacy that these processes represent. Personally, I don't mind people seeing me naked. But to strip down, raise up my hands, be ordered around by people in uniform -- this still feels too much like a criminal process. Too... dehumanizing.

Which is exactly the point. One of the central values of dharma practice is to depersonalize aspects of our lives which we ordinarily take as "mine." Normally, most of us take everything personally. That driver just cut me off, making me angry. I got rejected, I'm talented, I'm the winner, I'm the loser. With close attention to what is really happening, actually this "I" doesn't really do anything. The driver didn't cut me off; he just made a decision that has nothing to do with me. The anger that arose in me was just cause and effect. I didn't get rejected; Jay Michaelson just wasn't the person this employer/romantic partner/awards committee was looking for. Even my talents and accomplishments aren't "mine" -- they're really the results of causes and conditions, cause and effect.

In my meditation practice, observing the truth of this theory -- that what we call the self is more an illusion than a reality -- has been deeply liberating. It's helped me worry less, enjoy more and relax out of challenging situations.

Which brings me back to airport security. This is a classic example of non-self in action. By design, even. Security officers are not screening me -- they're screening my stuff, which includes my body. It's an entirely objective process, at least ideally: whatever the security officer thinks of me has nothing to do with the way the screening proceeds. It may be obvious that I'm not a terrorist -- or as a bearded man traveling alone, it may not be. Either way, my body and my belongings are subjected to the same annoying processes. "I" have absolutely nothing to do with it.

I'm not going to pretend that long security lines and invasive X-rays are now some sort of spiritual experience for me. They still suck, and I still have my questions about them as a matter of policy. But I have been able to find some equanimity amid the stressing and the stripping. What's happening in those lines is just cause and effect, impersonal and unowned. And in that relinquishment of self, there are the marks of liberation.