By Sarah Hodges
When my dear friend Sarah Hodges told me her ‘greatest teacher… for this moment’ story below, I knew that you’d enjoy hearing it, too. Let’s listen in to Sarah:
Ever since a treacherous flight when I was 6 years old, every plane trip I’ve taken has been a gut-clutching, adrenaline-filled life review and a reflection upon my imminent mortality. Unless you also know the fear of flying, you might have trouble imagining how each vacation, work trip, or family visit can feel like a near-brush with death.
Today as I walk up to the big sun-lit airplane on the Lisbon tarmac, I am filled with an unusual feeling. Over the past couple of years, I’ve begun coaching myself to change my mind about flying. Now, I feel a significant shift. I mount the stairs of the plane with a full-bodied sense of gratitude, far from the usual mix of nausea and terror. Thank you for all that made it possible for me to make this flight, I think. Thank you to this heavy, metal structure that will carry us over the Atlantic Ocean to land safely in New York. As my feet reach the entrance of the plane, I take one more look at it and hear a voice inside me say to the plane: “For this moment, you are my greatest teacher.”
A crawling sense of doom usually fills me whenever I near the moment of flight. Lingering in my subconscious is the memory of being a young child, returning from my first-ever travel beyond the Hawaiian islands, when our plane lost air from its tires. As we prepare to land, I remember passengers yelling above the loud voices of stewardesses instructing us to fold over in our seats and hold our ankles for landing. I am terrified for my stuffed bear, who is somewhere in my backpack in the overhead compartments. The thought of us being separated from each other seems unbearable!
We land with a jolt, fortunately managing to come to a stop. From my window, I see ambulances and fire trucks gathered all around us, positioned… just in case something worse were to happen. Little me was really scared.
Over the years, my fears of flying have ebbed and increased. On each flight I tell myself this is the last time. It’s too much torture for my mind and nervous system. But the passion for exploring keeps me returning to the air, eager to see new places and broaden my perspectives.
On this last trip to Europe I again reflect before leaving Hawai’i. “Should I really do this? Shouldn’t I just stay in Hawai’i?” Not one to give up from fear, I push on with my plans.
From the onset of the journey, things feel just a little off. When I arrive in Lisbon for a stop before flying to Paris, I find out my name is not in the airline’s system for the next flight. Nobody seems to be able to get me on the flight I paid for. Still, I have hope. I tell them I’ll just buy a new ticket for the flight and resolve it later. “No,” they tell me. Tickets cannot be purchased online on the day of flights. I gather my bags and make my way to the airline’s Assistance office with very long line of disgruntled passengers with whom I spend the next five hours standing. Although I eventually escape from the Lisbon debacle, I’m not having my customary “in the flow” travel experience!
Then there’s my last day in Paris. While making my bike ride back to the flat, I somehow slip a bike tire and come crashing down onto the pavement. The impact shocks my system. I wait for the pain surging through my elbow to subside before picking my bruised and bleeding limbs up from the ground, to continue on. I don’t know why all this is happening to me.
Other and more serious health issues plague my travels, causing me to take a side trip to Poland for a reliable doctor’s consultation.
Although I do my best to enjoy every step of the travel, I’m baffled about all these impediments. The night before taking off from Lisbon to return to the US, my head is buzzing with concerns about my health and flying. Will the pressure and stresses of flying throw my body even more out of whack?
By morning, I’ve mentally massaged these thoughts away and feel like the warrior gate-keeper of my mind: I invite in only thoughts towards growth. I will not waste one more drop of energy on negative imaginings. By the time I arrive for my flight out of Lisbon, I have primed my mind for a shift. I’m ready to learn.
To step beyond the pattern of fear that has grabbed at me for so many years, I work dilligently to coax myself into thought patterns. I make my “you are my greatest teacher” affirmation at the door of the plane, knowing that it will be so only if I pay attention to the lesson at hand. As the plane speeds down the runway, I position myself upright, hands cradled together and close my eyes to meditate. For the following seven hours I settle into this space of meditation, open concentration, centering, and non-judgment. Never before have I tried meditating for an entire long-distance flight, or gone through a flight full of the usual turbulence without a bolt of adrenaline running though my system. In my meditation I feel messages merge into me: We have a massive capacity as human beings to overcome our perceived limitations and fears.
I continue to feel a strong centeredness, even as the plane touches down at Newark airport with a jerky thud. I come out of the plane feeling healthier than when I’d taken off that morning. I feel energized! Not a hint of the usual post-flight tiredness. The symptoms that I’d been experiencing over the previous months seem to recede into the distance from this state of peace.
This new inner world of mine feels welcoming, soft, open. The obstacles that I’ve weathered the previous two months stand in stark contrast to this moment. As if to offer me confirmation of my world shift, a stewardess approaches me at baggage claim and with a smile hands me a First Class care package. I am touched by her gesture of kindness. By luck, I’ve placed an unopened balm from Hawai’i in my purse the night before, so I hand this small gift to her. We hug warmly as if old friends. I can see tears welling up in her eyes as we wish each other well on our next journeys.
Next in a busy train station, I pass a flower stand, where cheerful sunflowers grab my attention. My favorite! The thought crosses my mind: I should hand out flowers to people as I make my way to Staten Island. As usual, when this kind of thought comes to my mind, I keep walking. This time, I stop. What am I waiting for? This moment feels so significant. I have only right now to live, so live it. I turn around and buy the sunflowers. For the moment, these sunflowers are my greatest teacher.
I step into the experience with an open mind and full heart, knowing I could be met with any response. Any reaction is good if I can honor it and honor myself while taking this walk.
The first lady whom I approach appears as if she has endured a long tiring day at work. I approach her with a smile and reach a flower out towards her. “This is for you,” I tell her, and really mean it. She looks at me, not changing her expression, and tells me, “No, thank you.”
I feel honored to hear her truth and to be able to respect it. For the moment, this woman is my greatest teacher.
I wonder to myself whether everyone is going to say no, but I don’t let that doubt stop me. The next person I see is a large man selling bottled water on a very busy sidewalk with hoards of people passing him without even looking up. His voice bellows out into the air, “Ice cold water!” I approach him and extend my hand with the sunflower. He accepts it! A wide grin spreads across and lights up his face, and I continue on my way.
The rest of the sunflowers seem to spring out of my hands, bringing delight to each receiver. What fun!
How I experience the world seems to have magically changed when I recognize the invaluable offering of every single moment, and see that it is my greatest teacher.
Don’t you love that story, too?
[drawings by Sarah Hodges]
Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!
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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)