Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Air Conversion

Whenever I travel to a distant place due to work, I always have this morbid feeling that I will perish in an air crash. Ever since 9/11 this thought has risen to the surface, something that I always tried to keep below consciousness. It is an irrational fear that strikes though fleeting that I can effectively control. The days before the travel are spent trying to keep things in order but I never do explain my affairs to my loved ones in case a tragedy does happen. I used to travel frequently although not in a world class way that some real travelers do. But there was a time when I did travel at least once a month. Depending on the project, there are times when the travel is frequent and times when it is sparse. But I did enjoy those air flights especially during the early year when smoking was allowed in flight and the liquor was free. I had always indulged in wine and brandy during flights on Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, and JAL.

Since then, austerity and cost cutting have reduced the alcohol while health reasons took away the tobacco. Travel has also been minimized with the latest trend in conference calls and video meetings. But still one cannot take away travel as face to face interactions are always important in projects. So one still travels although one has lost that old thrill of discovering new cities and exploring new cultures and adventures. The excitement has gone away with the free booze and smoking in flights. Now one has a jaded feeling despite living in a new city or country. The only place that still inspires the feeling of romance is the Middle East, Central Asia and remote Tibet and certain places in China and perhaps the historical places of India. But now one must be content with the American cities that one is faced though an experience previously enjoyed vicariously in Hollywood movies and reading books. It is like discovering an old place that one has seen in the screen or re-created in one’s imagination.

Travelling in this trip had given me that feeling that something extraordinary would happen to me. I had attributed this feeling to my infrequent dread riding in airplanes and the possibility of a plane crash. But midway in the flight the old fear faded away despite the person sitting next to me was watching a movie about a plane crash that decimated a town’s football team who were on their way to a school game. The movie is a tale of how the town rose up from that tragedy and thereby healed itself of the loss of the young men in the
crash. But I had brushed away any feeling of dread and read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’.  As his words crept into my consciousness I knew then that I would experience some sort of conversion up in the sky as I watched the terrain below the plane at about 2100 feet above sea level. I glimpsed the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Utah as the plane made its way to Nevada. I realized that I had to reconstruct myself if I wanted to achieve my goals.

Tolle’s teaching is really not new. It’s something that one would usually read in the Buddhist texts or the teaching of J. Krishnamurthi or the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. But his teachings are expressed in today’s words and context which makes it easier to understand. He is a very intelligent teacher who started out as a distinguished student in Oxford who transcended his earlier academic studies into the realm of spiritual truth. His teaching is actually a story of his own quest and how he had broken through the illusions of daily life similar to the stories of Buddha before he became an enlightened one. ‘The Power of Now’ is simply to focus on the present moment and be alive to all the possibilities of that moment which can only be achieved by silencing the mind. The mind is the culprit that drives us to our follies. Something that I have struggled with all my life. His teaching is to be ‘mindful’ following the mindfulness meditation that spiritual teacher and now mainstream doctors are recommending to manage stress and pain. To live in the now by gently stopping the mind from thinking or just watching the mind flit from thought to thought without judgment and realizing the folly.
Travelling to a distant city, living in a hotel alone and eating good food is the ultimate fantasy or illusion. One can either indulge himself with all the temptation that it brings which is what one normally does in these circumstances. Or does one control one’s thoughts and live in the now without allowing the mind to wander and dream all those silly adventures. Reading Tolle was like one’s conscience speaking wise truths before the plane touched down into one of the states that rewards indulgence and excess. Perhaps it is fitting that one experiences some sort of spiritual transformation in this place of gambling, legal prostitution and other distractions readily available. But the transformation is profound because focusing on the 'NOW' frees up ‘space’ as one’s mind is no longer filled with thoughts, fears and anxieties. Instead one has the opportunity to cultivate one’s authentic presence.

These trips have always been something like a transformative experience for me. Initially it was the discovery of the new that drove me despite its bent towards indulgence and wistful fantasies. But after many years of travel, one does not change much. It is the inner journey as Tolle said that makes the difference. One must understand the limitation of the outward journey while one must undertake self-discovery as the true aim. Heady stuff especially reading these words up in the clouds with the thoughts of dying in a crash close at hand. It’s enough to convert perhaps the most jaded of hedonist like Prince Jeffri of Brunei who is estimated to have spent billions in sinful extravagance. I am reading an article about him in Vanity Fair. I had brought the magazine together with Tolle’s book and Harold Bloom’s ‘How to Read a Book’. Before travelling I had watched a clip on writing which I had wanted to do for a long time and which I crammed on Saturday night because of my trepidation on my next day's travel.

Stopping thoughts does not necessarily mean one should not do self-reflection - being another form of thought. I guess there are constructive thoughts as well as destructive thoughts. I examined my current life in this new land, with new places and new people and work experiences so much different from my old life in Asia. Sometimes I have tried to cope by reading more books or watch more movies or more travel – is it to be a better writer or is it the mind with its constant need for churning? I realized that it was the latter. One must be careful of the activities that one engages in - in pursuit of a skill because the mind can take control and bring it forward to unwanted experiences, self- justifying itself until one is old and grey and realizes the folly of his past life. In this land of abundance, one must be careful and Tolle’s work is a welcome guidance. Organized religion like Christianity is still providing the tire old words though still relevant like the immediacy of the present.  Tolle is a welcome spiritual teacher in today’s world.

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