Emotions on Vacation

May 21, 2013

Flight Risk

Much to the endless amusement of my sister, I am afraid of flying.  It’s gotten a lot better over the years but on a recent flight I was more nervous than I have been in a long time.  Before we pushed back from the gate I kept hearing the wings make a jarring mechanical sound followed by an alarm sound.  Over and over.  And over.  I did what I needed to do to keep myself from jumping out of my seat and running out the door.  Eventually I was able to convince myself that the pilots had figured out whatever was triggering the alarm sound.  No more alarm and we were ready to push back.  But then just as we were getting ready to take off the sound happened once more.  All efforts to remain calm were lost.  I looked over at the middle aged man sitting next to me to see if I might be able to make some comment and have something reassuring said in reply.  Instead I got a brush off as he returned to reading his men’s magazine.  I glanced down to see what he was reading.  The article featured a photo of a man’s cut torso from neck to just below the hipbone.  From either side of his chest a woman’s well-manicured hands were caressing his body.  The accompanying article was explaining how to get the abs women swoon over, which apparently took precedent over acknowledging the person in the seat next to him.

That’s all it took.  My judging mind was out of the gate and sprinting down the track.  Here was this jerk face who was happy to objectify women but not talk to them, he has a wedding ring his poor wife must be so lonely, I bet he has a female assistant and he is a jerk to her too, a Guy Like That has never known anything but privilege, and how much time each day is spent working on his body while his poor mind is left unexamined, reading this magazine he is just grooming himself to perpetuate the hurt in our culture….

And on and on.  At least the judging sprint kept me somewhat distracted from takeoff.

Learn To Fly

Once in the air and settled into a good book I could feel the worry begin to fade out of my body and mind.  And with this receding of worry there seemed to be a corresponding pulling back out from my myopic concern with myself to see things a little more clearly.  I was coming home from a trip that had been hard for me.  Here we all were on the plane, coming or going somewhere that is taking us out of our daily routines.  It occurred to me that walking through the airport I must have seen someone who was preoccupied with concern for a loved one who was very ill.  Or perhaps they in fact were the one who had just been given a scary diagnosis.   Or perhaps they were feeling the pain of loving someone who can’t love them back.  I felt my heart soften a bit.  How many people we see every day – at the grocery store, the bank – and we walk past each other completely unaware of when someone might be awash with grief or fear or loneliness.  How easy it is to see someone’s outsides and think we know something about their insides.  What funny illusions exist between the space of what we can see of someone’s external being and their internal experience.

And yes.  Then I made the connection – although much more slowly than you might expect.  I didn’t know the first thing about the guy next to me.  Maybe he just lost the love of his life, maybe reading a men’s magazine is his moment of escape, maybe he really is preoccupied with having a perfect body in which case I only have sympathy for him also being hurt by our culture.   The only thing I can know for certain is that I will never know his story, but I know he is a human with a beating heart and that should be enough for me to see him with my heart soft and my mind clear of assumptions.

Epilogue:  Don’t Mix the Paint

I could stop writing here, but there is an epilogue to this post.  I knew I was experiencing more unpleasant emotions than usual and it was a rookie move to not be frequently checking in and asking myself what I was feeling.  Bringing awareness to my emotional experiences would have let me see my situation with more clarity.   By the time I looked at that man’s magazine, I had at least a dozen emotionally charged experiences coloring my perceptions.  I could have been aware of the dozen different colors in my painting that day.  Instead it was as if all the colors had just blended together into a dull brown haze.  In this haze I became stuck in my own story.

It can be so tempting to ignore feelings when they are unpleasant.  But it is precisely these moments when it is most important to check in with yourself.  Stop and take a slow breathe.  What do you feel in your body?  That thoughts are in your mind?  Pull out a list of emotions if you need to (anyone who works with me knows I do this all the time in my practice).  And then?  Don’t judge.  Don’t push the feeling away – that’s a futile effort anyway.  Instead slow down for a few minutes and give yourself some company.  Perhaps try saying Sylvia Bornstein’s compassionate phrase to yourself:  “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”  (I highly recommend you read this full explanation of that phrase.)  See the color for what it is, and know that it can just be there.  Many more colors are yet to come.

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