Doha’s International airport could be equated by many to be the melting pot of the world. On any given moment, one could take part in an international costume party of color and diversity. From incandescent orange sneakers to bougainvillea saris specked with gold, jet-black burkas and flowing white gowns topped with twisted turbans, the count, if finalized, would display- ‘’all present’’. For those who have travelled little, the Doha stopover could be considered ‘’quite overwhelming’’ and either experienced as an assault to the senses or a true cultural elixir.
It is interesting to witness the mind as the gaze shifts from one costume to another. Preferences, preconceived notions and even judgments float to the surface. There are even stories that are attached to them, real or unreal, relating to these migrating thoughts. Some evoke deep attraction and others, strong aversion. These are the two motivating forces that, if we are not mindful, drive us toward sukha, good space or dukha, suffering and in turn, will create a sense of infinite separation.
Flight Q89 was called to board. As always, I had pre-selected an isle seat enabling me to have the liberty to circulate when the flight becomes just a bit too long. We boarded from the back of the plane. My gaze led me down the narrow isle, counting silently with the intention of seizing my seat, 23B, from a distance. I whispered under my breath, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23…23A, 23B… To my surprise and disappointment, 23B turned out to be a middle seat where I would be sandwiched between two people for the next 7 hours! I squished in between the two already occupied seats. To my left, a discrete woman dressed in a sky blue hijab and matching abaya or cloak (ironically defined in Sanskrit as ‘’no fear’’) and to my right, a middle-aged man in a long white gown topped with a kufi (which I later learned is a prayer cap worn by African Jews, Muslims as well as Christians) covering his bronzed head.
Slightly annoyed, I sank into my seat and shifted my body to the right offering him my back. I wished that I was more ‘’appropriately’’ covered and or that I was seated between two women. I was startled by my reactivity, feeling my body retract and contract noticeably. Having traveled extensively throughout my life, I had never noticed any particular aversion to any culture but there it was right in my face, a moment of truth that unveiled my unexplainable reaction. I cringed with shame and humility at my own uncomfortableness and then quickly sent myself meta, loving kindness,remembering the words of Lama Yeshe, ‘’Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.’’
As we left Doha and soared across the endless sky, I continued to watch, to observe knowing that this moment was the perfect teacher. I searched for obvious reasons why I needed to ‘’protect’’ myself and, as life would have it, there were none. In fact, the man to my right, from a culture I knew little about, was rooted in humble peace oblivious to my internal hysteria. I took out my book on Buddhist compassion as he took out his book. From the corner of my eye I glanced over my now slightly softened shoulder in order to catch a glimpse at what he was reading. At that precise moment, my heart became the most tender of hearts. In hand, the man to my right was holding a book on compassion with an Islamic twist. One in the same, same in the one.
There, at that moment, that perfect moment, which became my soulful teacher and which has left an indelible mark on every cell of my being, brought me something so soft yet so transformational. My heart filled instantly with overwhelming compassion and love for this gentle being to my right. I naturally I extended my heart out to him with great respect and humility. Jiddu Krishnamurti spoke of a mind that is always comparing, always measuring, will always engender illusion. He asks, ‘’can the mind be aware of its conditioning, can it look at it without any distortion, without any bias? Is it possible to look at anything, the tree, the cloud, the flower, the child, the face of a woman or a man, as though you are looking at it for the first time?’’ He goes on by adding, ‘’to observe what is, to see it, actually be familiar with it, there must be no judgment, no evaluation, no opinion, no fear’’.
I then remembered how fear of dissimilarity, of the unknown and of the misunderstood distorts the truth and causes us to judge wrongly and to search for greater differences between us. We harden and shut down narrowing the scope of the mind and the flexibility of the heart. ‘‘The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.’’ (Pema Chödrön)
So the next time we are face to face with a sudden need to contract and judge, we can soften into that perfect moment, offering ourselves the expansive space to witness and connect. From there, we can allow ourselves to look courageously into the eyes of that person in search of the endless similarities between us that connect instead of disconnect. This opens the soul to the essential truth that we are all infinitely connected, sharing the same warmth of the sun and breathing the same air regardless of who we are or where we come from. Every single being on this planet without exception seeks love and happiness and, although we might appear to be individual waves, each one unique in its own way, we make up the splendor of our great oceans.
There is not a day since that flight that my thoughts and heart haven’t extended their sincere love and gratitude to the man on my right for this invaluable lesson. As they say, we never truly know whom we are dealing with. The man to my right might just have been Buddha, Mohammad, Krishna, Jesus or a manifestation of the Divine herself.
“What if our religion was each other, if our practice was our life, if prayer, our words. What if the temple was the Earth, if forests were our church, if holy water the rivers, lakes, and ocean, What if meditation was our relationships, if the teacher was life, if wisdom was self-knowledge and if love was the center of our being.” Ganga White