I’d just returned to my seat from a pit stop to the lavatory on a flight last week from Chicago to Santa Ana, California. I buckled my seatbelt and eagerly reached for my headphones. I was excited to watch the last half hour of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a movie that got pretty awful reviews but that I found surprisingly entertaining.
Just as I raised my headphones…“Are you going home to Orange County or just visiting?” This from the older woman sitting to my left, spoken with a clear Irish lilt. Great. Just as I was about to get back into my thriller, I get this.
Now I’m a fairly gregarious, extroverted guy, but I’ve always hated airplane small talk. For me the routine has always been put bag in overhead bin, sit in seat, fasten seat belt, put on headphones, grab book, tune out world, land, leave plane.
I’d helped my seatmate earlier in the flight with raising and lowering her tray table and had gotten the feeling that she may have wanted to chat, but had successfully warded off any attempts at engagement.
I responded, “I’m headed home. How about yourself?” She said she was on her way home after visiting family in Chicago and Michigan.
We’d chatted no more than two or three minutes when the subject of her husband came up. “He died six months ago.” Two seconds later tears streamed down her cheeks. Without even thinking, I grabbed hold of her hand. Told her how sorry I was to hear this. “We were married for 44 years. He was such a kind man. And so good to me.”
My reaction to seeing Margaret break down in tears was a normal, human one. Only the coldest of the coldhearted would have said, “Yeah, sorry to hear that, but I’ve gotta get back to my movie now. Good luck!”
But something odd happened. It literally felt like a light went on inside me. Understanding this requires some brief background on my journey. Six and a half years ago, after my Hollywood writing career had circled the toilet for one too many years, I began a regular meditation practice. This led to exploring the entire spiritual arena and, recently, to my decision to leave Tinseltown to focus on spreading meditation to the hinterlands.
The scores of hours of meditation these past years have definitely made me a calmer person. And the extended time spent in solitude has brought me closer to god, the universe, the Tao, whatever you want to call it. I’ve come to realize that god is not to be found “out there” in the world but in the silent stillness within.
So what does all this have to do with the poignant moment I encountered 35,000 feet in the sky? I felt like that light that came on was a slap on the head from a higher power telling me, “Hey, you. Mr. Spiritual. Wake up! This woman is hurting. Deeply. And you’re bent out of shape because you want to get back to some movie? Stop being a selfish jerk and help her. This is what it’s all about. I didn’t get you into doing all this work on yourself so that YOU can feel awesome all the time. It’s about becoming the best YOU so you can be there for others. Now get off the sideline and get in the game.” This all came to me in the instant I saw Margaret’s tears.
So I immediately put the headphones down and plunged head first into a lengthy discussion with Margaret about everything under the sun. The fact that she and her husband didn’t have kids. That she was the youngest of 13 children and that she felt like her children were the many nieces and nephews she had. The dangers of living in Belfast during “The Troubles” in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether she was going to keep the golf membership at their club. (I urged her to keep it because it would be good to be around people.) The odd fact that Margaret’s tiny Northern Ireland had three major golf champions in Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.
Through it all, the only thought I had was “Just be present and listen.”
The point of all this is that far too often those on the spiritual journey, like me, can unwittingly get sucked into the path of self-indulgence. Spiritual work becomes about me, me, me. How can I get calmer, more peaceful inside. You blow your kids off so you can go meditate. Or sometimes the truth of the matter is that you meditate BECAUSE you want to get away from your kids. Or you’re always cleansing, fasting, whatever, in the quest of fully purifying your “vessel.”
My experience with Margaret provided a valuable reminder that spiritual work, for me, is about being as present and conscious as I can be. Wherever I am. At the store. By myself. With my family. And yes, on airplanes.
It also reminded me that the highest service you can offer begins with your immediate environment. Being good to your wife, your kids, your friends, your siblings, your neighbors and strangers on airplanes. If after doing that you want to go save the whales or make sure that every child on earth has enough to eat, great, go do that. But, as Eckhart Tolle often says, the greatest gift you can give the world is to be present. So thank you, Margaret, for teaching me this. And as the Irish say, “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, and may the sun shine warm upon your face.”