How I Found Zen on an Airplane

How I Found Zen on an Airplane

Be still and remove all judgment on others,” the phrase sticks to me like sticky rice on sushi. I repeat the phrase again, “Be still and remove all judgment on others.”

I close my eyes and begin to ponder that contemplative thought, “be still,” I repeat again to myself. Snuggling into the faux leather seat that has busted open from too much wear and now cushion padding is exposed. I begin to try and calm my mind to think contemplatively about this notion, however, noisy children behind me begin to kick my seat and the captain has turned on his seat-belt sign. “Ding,” the light turns yellow and we’re ready for take-off.

As someone who seeks enlightenment but has yet to make her mind strong like Jedi, when I hear this particular phrase, I interpret it as an observation.

Observing your surroundings, like a passenger on an airplane when it is just about to lift off, watching from the window seat the distancing passage of civilization turn – within a flash of an eye – into mountains, landscapes and rivers. Ultimately, blurring the lines of the distinctive perspective that now ceases to exist. On a micro-scale, what one might experience from the first few 100 feet of a plane ‘lift-off’ is the full-forced view of an incredible civilization.

Man-made infrastructures and populated cities with hustling automobiles, towering building and intricately designed interstates, however, as the plane ascends higher into the sky an entirely different picture can be seen from the view of the window seat. Now, what appears to be within the view of the traveler is rolling hills made from sand and rock, flat lands of desert and widening seas that chant of the seasons and time. Until you have ultimately reached a level of void – there is nothing else to observe but you and the moving aircraft.

To be on an airplane, traveling in the midst of space and time with no proper orientation is a place of observation. Zen masters would call this experience a deep understanding that all separate entities are anatta – without self, and anicca – without permanence.

It is the concept, that reality cannot be grasped in the idea of Being because being is meaningless. According to Zen philosophy, “the true Self is not an idea but an experience – the experience which comes to pass when the mind has voided every metaphysical premise, every idea with which it attempts to grasp the nature of the world.”

However, the Zen scriptures like to make enlightenment seem like this easily accomplished task. Yes! If I just sit here and stare out the window, I will finally become like the Buddha. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For in the midst of my airborne observation, I found children screaming in the back of the ear, women cackling in groups of three and my own busy thoughts. I found myself judging, passing my agitation to them as my entitlement to my own ‘sacred’ space wore me thin.

Except, that is the greatest lesson of all – when we observe individual circumstances from the perspective of a passing plane. We can gather a different, deeper macro understanding of humanity. People are no longer the bustling city landscape that is noisy and filled with distraction. They’re no longer crowded city freeways that leave no room for space.

If we sit with our thoughts concerning individuals around us and we watch them pass by like the scenery from the window seat. We see now – what they really are. We see now the noisy baby, who is crying in her mother’s arms, is scared and is just like you and me. The same beating heart that escalates as we put the trust of our lives in the hands of a pilot. Who is trusting that the men who made the aircraft did their due diligence.

Seeing that we’re not separate but all parts of a whole. All noisy, crowded beings who from a higher perspective make up a beautiful, glowing sea.


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