“Grace is the composure that comes naturally when your thoughts are no longer able to shift your mind away from the details of this moment.” Angel Kyoto Williams
It seemed at first an impossible start to what I anticipated would be an arduous 40-hour journey to Indonesia. As I boarded the flight, I discovered to my dismay that my assigned seat on the long, 16-hour leg was already significantly occupied by another woman. Partially hidden in her abaya, her ample size more than overflowed from her own tiny middle space into mine. My impulsive first efforts to claim all of my own seat were confounded; there simply was no extra room for us in our already cramped seats or in the filled-to-capacity airplane. It was not what I wanted. My heart raced, my body tensed and contracted as, reeling in fear and squished in discomfort, my emotions raged and my mind exploded in prejudice, complaint and worry. It was Dukkha. Unpleasantness. Stress.
I knew the teachings. Yes, taught the Buddha; life is sometimes like that. There is dukkha. The unpleasant happens, influenced by infinite causes and conditions, most of which are well beyond my personal control. In that moment, his teaching invited me to, first of all, simply be awake to it all. In a seeming paradox, it invited me to bring a kind and mindful presence to my experience of the moment, to be willing to know it directly: to feel the “ouch” of it in my body: “This, too; it’s like this now. This is dukkha”. I knew that he then taught that the inevitable painful experience was one thing for me, but it was what I did next with my mind that would determine my actual suffering.
For my ordinary mind in that moment, however, this didn’t make any sense at all. My mind objected, determined to try to solve problem, to eliminate the obstacle – that first arrow. Of course. As far as it went, that was perfectly sensible. The problem, I kept having to remember, was that, as a strategy, eliminating the obstacle was not actually working and was unlikely to. In that moment, life had a way of not being in my control and not working out according to my personal comfort, views, wishes and plans. Looking at my realistic options on that airplane, the obstacles were simply there: intransigent and starkly unmoving.
I decided that I needed to use my practice and work not externally, but internally with my own mind to find a wider awareness to what seemed like a mountain of challenge. I remembered a teaching about mountains: “A mountain may be heavy, but as long as we don’t try to lift it up, it won’t be heavy for us…You don’t deny (problems)…and you don’t run away from them…you deal with problems where you have to and solve them where you can. You simply learn how not to carry them around. That’s where the art of the practice lies: in living with real problems without making their reality burden the heart.”
I saw so clearly that my heart in that moment was, indeed, burdened. I saw my call to practice then, in living with that very real problem, was to let go, to not “carry around” that mountain in my mind; if I didn’t find a way to navigate internally, it would be a very, very, very long journey, indeed. Complaint and reactivity, unlikely to solve the problem, would only ripen into more suffering.
I worked to settle my awareness and to shift attention away from struggle and toward more curiosity and compassion for myself. There was awareness of mental agitation: an internal flood of views, opinions, perceptions, complaints and stories about what was wrong. There was, however, also an emerging willingness to step away from further elaborating those ruminations.
As I let go a bit, I moved to a more direct, embodied awareness and a deeper and more kind presence. “It’s like this now.” I brought knowing to my uncomfortable body sensations and my rapid heart rate and constricted breathing. There was awareness of a flood of anxiety about how the rest of the flight would go, even as I managed to let go of rage at the injustice of it all. My breath deepened a bit. “It’s like this now.” Slowly, my mind calmed; my body began to release some of its extra tension. Still tired and cramped, there was more acceptance and I felt a bit more ease.
Limited by a language barrier, my seat mate and I nevertheless, negotiated a physical peace. I began to have compassion for her suffering as well as my own; imprisoned in her middle seat, her discomfort was likely even greater than mine. As I relaxed even more and settled in, I also discovered that her body actually offered me a very large and soft pillow; in my greater openness, there was nothing to do but receive it. Both figuratively and literally, we rested on and in one another’s arms. Together, we settled. We slept.
Toward the end of the flight, we cautiously labored through our different languages, attempting a bit of conversation. I learned that Amira was a school principal in a small town in Pakistan and that she had a beloved son who was studying in the US. She was returning home after a lovely visit to him in our strange and unfamiliar country.
As we separated in Qatar, Amira was a little bewildered by the chaos of the airport. I helped her to find her way. When we parted, we looked at each other; we saw each other with care and affection. “I will keep you in my heart and in my prayers” she said. “Yes, and I you; may you travel safely.” We embraced in a moment of tears and love. It was a tender and unexpected opening: a surprising sweetness as we parted, resting together in the magic and freedom and grace of our unburdened hearts.