A week ago I was viewing this sunrise from the base of the Flatiron Mountains, looking over the city of Boulder, Colorado. I had an hour to hike in that beauty before catching a shuttle to the Denver airport to fly home. So I took full advantage of the little time I had, even though I only had a shirt and sports jacket to wear into the 46 degree morning. (Of course, other hikers passing by called me “professor” and commented on my “sporty” mountain attire. But I digress).
The rugged scenes of the Colorado Rockies have inspired me since I was a kid. The heights beckon and speak. They say, “Come up here and discover again your smallness in the midst of our majesty.”And so I strike out to be humbled and inspired, even if for only an hour.
That kind of humbling is beautiful and meaningful. But the flight home risked a wild ride through the windy spring skies over the Rockies, which became a form of humiliation. One thing I hate is a wild plane flight.
I know, a pastor is supposed to have faith through any circumstances. And a meditation teacher is supposed to know how to find the calm place of inner stillness no matter what. But for this pastor and meditation teacher, during wild plane rides, not so much!
Racing up through the blustery winds of a cold front which was storming over the Rocky Mountains, our air chariot rocked and rolled and fell and rose. Try as I might, I was not able to convince my body to stay calm. It knew what it was feeling, clearly a crash was imminent. So it flooded me with the fight-or-flight stress response.
The logical mind did not help the frightened body by saying, “It’s only wind.”
The body felt the incredible thrust of the plane and the force of wind that made the plane feel fragile as a toothpick. And the body reacted with the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol, as though they could protect the body from threat. My hand gripped the handle of the arm rest, as though that would help if we fell out of the sky. That arm rest gave no relief. (I hope by now you are seeing the hilarity of a meditation teacher failing miserably to manage his own body during a windy flight).
I tried to focus the mind’s attention on my own feet moving on the floor, stretching out in the aisle. That did not help. I tried focusing on the book and notepad I held in my lap. That was useless. Even my faithful practice of focusing on my breath did little good. The body overruled the mind with each pummeling of gusty wind.
Perhaps sitting in the rear of the plane was a mistake. Or perhaps the body in which I live is simply wired for dramatic reactions to that falling sensation. Whatever the reason, the result was a frightened meditation teacher.
Part of the craziness of the dilemma, and what made the whole thing even more embarrassing, was that the businessmen sitting around me were falling asleep, even the six-foot-five man next to me, who had to be physically uncomfortable in the middle seat. Could he not tell we were about to fall from the sky? The fact that a few young women behind me were at least acknowledging their discomfort by making little noises when we rocked around only helped a little.
So the fact that I am at home a week later, writing this blog, proves I did survive. And the reality that I will go through the same reactions again on my next wild flight proves that meditation is not magic. It is not a practice which guarantees perfect calm in all circumstances. People who find the inner stillness are blessed, but not super-human or super-spiritual. And inner stillness is not permanent. In fact, it is always temporary. No wonder we have to keep practicing.
Which is what I will return to now: the practice of the presence of God in my inner sanctuary. Why? Clearly, I need it. And if a frightened meditation teacher needs daily practice, maybe you do too.