feathers, & the beginner’s mind
So what happened was, we were queuing to board our flight back from Toulouse when there was an announcement. Mesdames et Messieurs. They were short of space in the overhead lockers, and would appreciate it if some passengers would volunteer to put their carry-on luggage into the hold. We already had two pieces checked in, so it didn’t make much difference. There were a couple of laptops in the carry-on, so we took those out and Kath went ahead to sign in the case. Which meant she took her seat on the plane first.
The seats on these planes are arranged three by three, either side of the aisle. What we normally do is sit two in front and two behind, Martha and Jess, me and Kath. When Kath went to sit down, she found that the third seat was taken up by a young guy who for some reason had ended up in the seat immediately behind his wife. They were newly married, and it seemed a shame, so Kath volunteered to do a swap. She would sit with the girls in the three seats behind us; the guy would sit next to his wife by the window, and I’d be in the aisle seat next to him.I didn’t mind. It was a short flight, late at night, and I probably wouldn’t be all that sociable anyway. Everyone settled in. The young couple next to me were halfway through a film on a netbook, sharing some headphones. I tried to figure out what the film was. A slick, supernatural thriller. Tense shots of glossy people at a cocktail party in a skyscraper. Every so often they paused the film so the guy could explain a plot point. No – you see, it was his brother who did the deal. So now he’s the one trying to stay out of Hell. But the girlfriend has the book and she hasn’t found out about the ticket yet… When the guy finished explaining, his wife squeezed his arm and gave him a kiss, the kind of kiss that sneaks up the arm, smiling, eyes open. They would lock like that for a while, then put the headphones back on and unpause the film.
I watched the cabin crew demonstrate the emergency exits. When we’d taken off, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate.
There’s a technique I’ve been trying to learn called ‘noting’. It’s a way of dealing with distracting thoughts. You don’t fight or try to control them, because the effort of doing that will become as distracting as the original distraction. If you see what I mean. The idea is simply to ‘note’ that you’ve become distracted, a light acknowledgement – as light as a feather touching a glass – and then gently bring the focus back to your breathing, and the business of being in the moment.
I was using the feather a lot. The young couple were about as distracting as it’s possible to be without training. Apart from continually stopping the film, explaining what had just happened, leaning into each other for elaborate shows of reassurance and affection, rearranging the small mountain of coats and bags that surrounded them like a nest, they were as exercised by the menu choices on the snacks trolley as they were about the film. Hot chocolate or a glass of wine? Pretzels or peanuts? What do you think? No what do you think? Reassuring kisses. I checked the expression of the air stewardess waiting to take their order, but she was as professionally neutral as the safety demonstration, perhaps even more so. (Note to self: check out any courses in mindfulness endorsed by EasyJet.) Finally they made their order, everything passing inches in front of my nose, despite me trying to make whatever adjustments I could to minimise the risk. Money going backwards and forwards, complicated transactions. But finally it was done, they had their drinks and were back into the film. I closed my eyes again and thought about a giant feather swinging into the side of a glass house like a wrecking ball.
The boutique trolley came round.
The guy thought he might buy a watch, because they were twenty percent off. Should he, or shouldn’t he? You should treat yourself. You’ve done so much for everyone else. Why not? But I don’t know… You’ve been saying for ages you wanted one… yeah, but – really? When the trolley stopped in the aisle he tried on a few. The whole range, as far as I could tell. Holding each one on his wrist, his wife saying yeah.. but a brown strap? The turbulence was getting so bad I was worried about the stewardess. She had to brace herself with one hand on the overhead, her legs apart still maintaining the kind of professionally passive look you only see on saints and contract killers. Finally, after a great deal of tryings-on and comparisons, the guy settled for a Boss watch. Sixty-three pounds and twenty pence. His card was declined. Horreur. Not normally a problem. His wife offered to pay on hers, but he was adamant the stewardess try again. She did. Mon Dieu. It worked (although I was suspicious; I think she faked the sale, happy to pay sixty-three pounds and twenty pence so long as she could move on with her trolley and her life).
I went on with my meditation. Fell asleep. Had a dream I was sinking beneath a stormy sea. Woke up with the guy’s coat over my head.
‘Sorry! So sorry!’
The plane had landed; everyone was getting ready to leave.
There’s another technique in meditation: ‘Beginner’s mind’. It means that no matter how experienced or practised you think you are, you should try to approach every session as if you were coming to it for the very first time.
Waiting at the baggage reclaim, I told the girls about my experience with the young couple. Jess listened patiently, then touched me lightly on the shoulder (like a feather touching a glass).
‘Basically – what you’re telling us, Dad – is that you sat next to two perfectly normal human beings.’
The bags came round on the carousel, including the extra one we checked. I dragged them off, and we all headed out of the terminal for the taxi.
Thanks for reading – and a Happy New Year!