Meg Ash PhD
Meg Jaffe Ash, Ph.D.
clinical psychologist, meditation guide, and mentor
What new mother or father hasn't found themselves standing over their baby's crib, mesmerized by the wondrous sound of their baby's breath. Without even thinking, our breath slows down as we watch over our little one. We take up our baby's rhythm and breathe in tandem, that slow rising inhalation and easy peaceful exhalation. We walk away from the crib but are drawn back over and over to watch that precious body expand and contract. We turn on baby monitors so that when we leave the room we can continue to listen. What are we listening to? We're listening to life. We're listening and watching and maybe more than ever before, we're in touch with the rhythm of life.
How easy it is to get away from the rhythm. We're immersed in our work, the stresses of our daily life, the worry over the current instability in the financial markets and how the downturn in the economy will impact our personal accounts, war in Iraq and problems across the globe. We focus on these troubles, and we hunger for relief. Some of us seek escape in addictions: food, alcohol, drugs, overwork, and television, to name a few. But what begins as solace all too easily becomes a nightmare. Anxiety and depression are rampant and not only affect mental health, but our physical health as well. We'd like to be able to take a seaside vacation, to stand by the ocean and synchronize ourselves with the steady rhythm of the waves crashing and receding like loud long reverberating universal breaths. And yet a seaside vacation isn't possible for most of us, much of the time. But the secret is, you don't need to go to the beach, and you don't need a brand new baby to gaze upon. It's like in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, when the good witch Glenda tells Dorothy who is desperate to go home, "You had the power all along. Click your heels three times and say, 'There's no place like home, there's no place like home.'"
Isn't that what all of us want, to feel centered and connected, at home in our bodies, at home in our families, at home in this world. Even if chaos swirls around us, even if we're sitting in a prison, literal or figurative, we want to find and feel and be home. How to get there is one of the greatest spiritual questions a person can ask. Some find their answers within religion and prayer, others find it through long walks in the forest, planting a garden, or reaching out with love to those in need. I wouldn't presume to tell someone there is a right or wrong way to go about answering this question, but for me breathing techniques and meditation have held a central place in my staying in tune with life's essential rhythms.
It seems we are in an age where more and more of us are asking questions of a spiritual nature. We're concerned about meaning and purpose in our lives. Eckart Tolle has topped the best seller charts for months with his book, The New Earth, picked last spring by Oprah for a worldwide web book club selection that catapulted Tolle's insight's to millions who were captivated by his cogent argument for living fully in the present moment. Many readers came away eager to live more fully and yet needing more guidance in putting these ideas into practice. Meditation practices can help to return a person to the natural rhythms that are the sacred ground underlying all life, the rhythm you feel at the ocean, or watching over your sleeping child. I'm reminded of an enigma I puzzled over as a young child. How was it that a large conch shell that I'd picked up on a beach vacation, still had that amazing sound of the ocean in it when I pressed it to my ear at home, hundreds of miles from any ocean? Little did I know that I had that same steady rhythm in me. Everyone has access to these natural rhythms experienced very easily in meditation. Though, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we're blind to the power we've had in us all along.
What if you knew that you could not fail, that success and failure are just concepts in the human mind.
What if you knew that you were here to have many experiences and that all you had to do to navigate through life was to point your compass towards those that felt the best.
What if you knew life was like a magnificent dressing room filled with every style and color of dress imaginable and that if a dress didn't suit you, you could let it fall to the floor and not even hang it up.
What if you knew you were the essence of love and no matter how many dark anxious feelings you tried on that you could never change your essential nature.
What if you knew the slogan "Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal" was false and that each moment you were being offered a perpetual clean slate.
What if you knew that every dark night of the soul was giving you the opportunity to turn mud into gold because you are the supreme alchemist.
What if you knew you were held so tenderly in the web of life that you could never fall.
What if you knew the light of your being was burning so brightly that the last remnants of fog obscuring the true Self didn't stand a chance.
What if you knew how amazing you are.
What if you could sense that just being alive is magic.
Darling, what if you knew.....
The plane from Portland to Atlanta was jam-packed, every seat filled as my 14 year-old daughter Marcia and I inched along the aisle of the crowded airplane. It was noisy and the air felt stale as people ahead of us hoisted their bags into the stuffed overhead bins. Looking further into the plane I saw a severely overweight man, with a navy wool cap pulled low over his forehead, sitting in a window seat with two empty seats beside him. He was scowling markedly and seemed to be radiating anger. Two thoughts simultaneously flew into my head. The first thought was, I don't want to sit next to him, and along with it was an intuitive flash that it would indeed be my seat. And it was.
Marcia gave me a brief look of alarm, and I wordlessly assured her I would take the middle seat next to him. I nodded to him as I approached and his glare intensified. Even being a petite woman, I could hardly fit into the two- thirds of my seat that remained vacant. The other third was filled with his very large arm and his bulging thigh. He had already lifted the arm of the chair between us, or he couldn't have fit into the space at all. The uncomfortable physical intimacy with an angry stranger left my muscles aching within minutes as I tried to shift my weight away from him. There was no way to lean back in my chair without squeezing tightly against him, and no way to awkwardly sit sideways with my back twisted for a five hour plane ride. With my shoulders hunched forward, I realized the situation was untenable, and yet there was not one remaining seat on the plane to which to move.
Even more powerful than the physical discomfort was the emotional tension I felt as the recipient of this man's negativity - a vibe so strong I'd picked it up while still walking down the aisle of the plane. I decided that I needed to talk to him and hoped that might diffuse the tension. "Sir," I said, "how are you today?" I know it was a bland thing to say, but I was at a loss for words and I didn't feel I could address our uncomfortable seating arrangement. He rolled his eyes and with a big sigh said, "HUH?" and gave me a brief irritated glance. The stewardess was walking by with blankets and offered one to my seatmate saying, "Sir, would you like a blanket?" With disgruntled abruptness he said, "No," but there was something in his tone of voice that struck me as feminine, and I began to wonder if, in fact, this might be a woman, who may be feeling offended in being called "Sir" by me and now by the stewardess.
She or he was wearing hiking boots, cargo style pants, a masculine-looking bulky sweater and the wool cap completely covering his or her head. It was impossible, given the clothes and the person's size, to be certain of sex, and her facial features, though at first seeming male, now struck me as ambiguous. Thinking back on my uncertainty as to her sex, I see that it was a gift and gave me my first window into questioning all the assumptions I'd made. I didn't know this person, not even whether he was a he or a she. I had assumed anger but what if she (I now began to think of her as a she) was worried and on guard to the displeasure she would surely face by anyone having to share their seat with her. And from ten feet away I had been that person, that person that didn't want to sit with her. The negativity I had felt was in fact mine. I was the bearer of the negative energy. Now I was ashamed. I had grown up in a culture in which a great deal of emphasis was placed on being thin, and many judgments were made about those who were not thin. It always maddened me. I struggled with my own weight throughout my teen years and early twenties and was upset with the widespread pursuit of thinness, as if it was analogous to personal worth. I was someone who championed not only the rights of overweight people, but the need to never define them through such a narrow judgmental lens.
I began to feel more empathic with my neighbor, but was still physically so uncomfortable. I could also sense the tension in her body. Her hands were clenched, her muscles rigid. The air between us was as heavy as pea soup. Without thinking much about what I was doing, I closed my eyes and tried to send her love. I imagined white light suffusing her body from the top of her head down to her toes. I said in my mind, "Please forgive me. I accept you just the way you are and I send you love."
What happened next was really quite remarkable, affecting me as much as her. In unison, our breath began to slow down, our muscles unfurled. I sank back into the seat beside her, every inch of our arms touching, and felt as comfortable with her as if she were one of my own family. After awhile I opened my eyes and noticed that she had fallen asleep, the tension completely drained from her face. The air between us felt soft and light, like after a heavy storm. The stewardess came by with the drink and snack cart and I collected an extra water and package of crackers to give her when she awoke. She seemed pleased to receive the snacks, and we ate companionably side by side, saying little. Then in a low voice, very quietly, she whispered, "You're an angel to me, you know."
It brought tears to my eyes, not because I saw myself as angelic, especially on this day when I was still thinking about my automatic reaction of not wanting to sit next to her. Without thinking, I had seen her as so different from myself. I am a woman. I thought she was a man. I am petite. She is large. I am white. She is black. I am fairly benign in demeanor. She had seemed so fierce. Now the scene felt transformed. We were three human beings sharing the row on this particular plane, on this particular day. I felt keenly aware of how my energy, my not wanting to sit there had affected her, and how her guarded energy had affected me, and how all of us constantly affect each other.
Hours passed. My daughter and I read our books, and our companion mostly slept. Evening came and Marcia and I remembered the Oscars were showing that night. We turned on the little TV monitor on the back of the seat in front of us and watched the Hollywood stars walk the red carpet. We whispered back and forth admiring the floating gossamer gowns, the beautiful sleek hair styles. We felt in no hurry to get home. Could this be the same situation that felt untenable? Had my seat grown larger? Had my neighbor shrunk?
The stewardess with the snack cart came by a second time, and again I collected extra water and snacks. This time, the stewardess having walked ahead of our row, suddenly turned her head back and asked quizzically, "Are you traveling together?" and gestured towards my seat mate. "No," I said. "I just thought she might be thirsty when she wakes up."
Immediately I regretted my answer. True, I knew what the stewardess was asking. Did we arrive together? Would we leave together? Were we together? And yet the truth I felt I'd unearthed on this trip is that we're all traveling together, all of us, whether we acknowledge how we impact each other or not. Being on a plane intensifies that knowledge. If someone has TB, everyone on the flight is at risk for inhaling that germ. If a hijacker has a gun, or a terrorist has a box cutter, you bet you'll know you're traveling together. But all of us, whether in dramatic ways or quiet subtle ways affect each other. Our energy fields converge and overlap just as surely as my arm lay against my neighbor's. Underneath all the differences, we're all energy; we're human, we're kin. You can hear this message in any church or synagogue. I've heard it countless times, but somehow it was different feeling it firsthand on this plane ride, feeling tension transformed into peace, seeing how acceptance, even of unpleasant aspects of reality, alters them completely.
If I define an angel as someone who comes to you at a particular time in life to teach you a special lesson, then I would say this woman was surely my angel. The plane landed and we wished each other well. Within minutes I could no longer see her as hordes of people converged and diverged in all directions. I looked around for her as Marcia and I took the long escalator up to baggage claim. Everywhere I looked I saw people of every shape, size, and race. I saw Asians and blacks and whites and Hispanics and couples and people carrying babies and older folks. All of us were on that long escalator, heading up to the top of the stairs where we were greeted by the huge picture of Centennial Park, full of children splashing in the water fountains, welcoming the world to Atlanta. In my head a phrase replayed, "We're all traveling together." I knew I'd never forget this woman, this plane ride. I knew I'd given the wrong answer to the stewardess's question. I wished I could go back and say, "Yes, we're traveling together. We're all traveling together."