Long Journey Into Night


Delhi-Brussels flight: It’s been a long day’s journey into night, arriving in Brussels at dawn, get out of the plane and I’ll be on top of the world; the Northern Hemisphere. But before that, there’s the journey to get there. Yes, and that’s where I am right now, getting used to this seat that is contoured to fit the human body snugly, enough space for legs and knees with an inch of space from the seat in front – can see through the curtain into the business class, always the grass is greener…. I am one seated among many, perhaps 200 passengers, receiving services from the staff; a baby bird, beak wide open, feed me, please? Mind hungers to be stimulated by images, sound and pretty colours. It’s the movie – or the boredom of sitting in the dark. I choose the movie, kind of observing it, but not wearing the headset; just the silent visuals on the screens. It pulls me in; I feel I need to put the headset on to enter into the illusion more fully. And my hand reaches involuntarily towards the headset ear buds….

But it’s interesting enough without the sound. The structure of the movie is revealed. It’s a put-together thing, screen shots held for 5-10 seconds, a different camera angle presents a mini portrait of a talking head for a moment of drama; mouth moves in silence; face is there to be looked at, the hair style, the costume, fine dentistry, subtle cosmetics, the ‘mask’ – there’s a sense of how it is all so completely hollow.

Then another camera angle on another talking head, same thing again. Portraits of a created ‘self’. Pictures at an exhibition. Each portrait is an icon of the popular image: handsome, glamorous; the enigma of actor’s mask. There’s something about this that has no substance; ‘self’ masks the emptiness of no ‘self’. It hides nothing; nothing to hide, take the mask away and there’s nothing there, the void. Put the mask on again and it hides the gaping hole at the core of my being; nobody at home.

‘… each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” (We) pretend along with everyone else that “I’m okay; you’re okay.” A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel somehow that we’re not.’ [David R. Loy]

A passenger howls like a dog, huge uninhibited yawns – deafened by the headset – immersed in his story; It’s like everything is layered in illusion, let’s pretend we are not here, somewhere in the air, well above the highest mountain peak, no oxygen to speak of…. Just this winged capsule, containing its own created environment and with sharp pointed nose, hurtling through space at 500 mph – as evidenced by the sound of displaced atmosphere shooshing and splooshing all around. And the subtle penetrating vibration beneath the feet. Gone is the reassuring sense of terra firma that was there back in Delhi about 3,000 miles in a sort of back-that-way direction.

There is also the mind-boggling thought that the plane drives itself, there’s no ‘self’ doing the driving. It’s the autopilot. The actual pilot is probably watching the movie, quite unconcerned about the fact that the plane is travelling at this immense speed and there’s nobody driving it? I am concerned, you could say: whelmed – not overwhelmed – there’s sufficient composure; I can see the scale of it and how that fits in with the way things are in our usual world down there on the surface of the planet. We generally avoid the emptiness in the centre of our being by holding on to something else we think will give us stability and security. Up here it’s more of a confrontation, we can’t avoid facing this emptiness all around, inside and out… there’s always the movie, of course and that holds the attention for a while. Then some other desire comes along and there’s always the response to that, and postponing the emptiness can go on indefinitely. In fact, accepting the emptiness is not the problem we make it out to be:

‘… the curious thing about (facing this) emptiness is that it’s not really a problem. The problem is that we think it’s a problem. Our ways of trying to escape it make it into a problem.’ …. Instead of experiencing a sense of lack, the emptiness becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, more than, my usual sense of self. I can never grasp that “more than,” I can never understand what it is – and I do not need to, because “I” am an expression of it.’

So, what is ‘it’, exactly? Buddhists call it Nibbana. Beyond that, there’s nothing here that my present state of consciousness can comprehend. To say it could be this or it could be that is speculative conjecture, and I’m caught again in grasping. Rather than contemplate what it could be, better to understand what it is not. Some time after that, I fall asleep, the passenger aircraft disappears in the dark night and the next day we are in Brussels.

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‘Buddhism is a collection of paradoxes. Perhaps the greatest of these is all Buddhists are striving for a goal – Nibbana – that for the longest time they know virtually nothing about. Most people, Buddhists included, cannot bear living with uncertainty and so over the centuries attempts have been made to fill in the gaps left (deliberately) by the Buddha. Elaborate explanations and descriptions of Nibbana have been fashioned either to inspire or to placate this sense of dis-ease. The presentation by Venerable Payutto in Buddhadhamma keeps to the ‘bare bones’ approach delivered by the Buddha. The encouragement is not to try and reach Nibbana by intellectual acrobatics but rather by humble, sustained spiritual practice.’ [Link to: Buddhist Teachings]

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