On a recent trip to New Jersey, the flight was delayed significantly. We departed on time, but our plane hovered for a couple of hours over Virginia, waiting for the storm over Newark to pass.
One of the passengers beside me, a man from Florida sighed loudly. “I’ve been up since 4 in the morning. I am exhausted.” It was the third time he announced this since our plane first took off. Now there was an edge to his voice.
The pilot announced we were now flying into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to refuel and “wait for further instructions.”
“Man, I’m hungry. And tired. I’ve been going since 4 this morning.”
The woman between us nodded her head. “Oh, wow.”
“Yeah, I’m in construction. I need to help with the remodeling from Ida in New Jersey.”
“Oh, what kind of construction do you do?” the woman asked.
An hour later, the pilot announced that we would be idling on the plane “just a bit longer.”
If the man and woman’s dialogue could be heard as music, the man’s words sounded painful, whiny, out of tune; the woman’s speech was soothing and buoyant.
Hours passed. I listened to the growing tense “music” of the passengers around me: some were downright heartbreaking (a baby’s cries) while others were pleasant (a couple’s laughter).
The music shifted between the man and woman beside me: the man’s complaints morphed into humor (“Mother Nature’s gotta’ do what she does”) and then finally curiosity.
“Where are you heading?” he asked.
“Oh wow, did you miss your flight?”
“Yes, I think so.” Despite her mask, I could feel her smiling.
“What will you do?”
“I will get the next one.”
“Man, how long is that flight?”
“It is nice. I enjoy it.”
The normally 3.5-hour trip lasted 10 hours before we landed in Newark. By the time we deplaned, the “I’ve-been-up-since-‘4am” man was jovial; the woman from Bombay, appearing as content as she was from the start of our journey.
I wondered: what makes people experience the same event so differently? It was also not lost on me that the woman bound for Bombay influenced—for the better—our Floridian companion.
If we think of the mind as a TV, we can objectify the mind. We can watch the thoughts, but we don’t need to act on those thoughts. We can observe the facts as the peaceful woman on our plane did:
The plane is delayed.
We do not know where or when the plane will land.
We can choose to be aware of the facts of a situation—however unpleasant if not downright painful at times, without reacting to them.
In Martha Beck’s book, The Way of Integrity, the life coach writes candidly about her past struggles with anxiety. Her way out was through: through observing without judgment, through allowing without reacting:
“Clearly, my thoughts caused suffering. So, I didn’t obey them. Instead, I watched and questioned them until they dissolved.”
We possess this ability. We can choose to react or to grow still. We are not our mind, and our mind is not in control. We are the observer of the mind, the observer of life.
When we watch a dramatic movie, we can lose ourselves in the scenes and characters. We can literally forget that we are watching a movie, so drawn in we can become to the setting and actions of the story on the screen. But at any moment, we can become aware that we are merely the observer of the action on the colorful monitor.
When life feels unpleasant or downright painful, we can grow still and observe. We can watch without becoming the negativity or suffering.