It was the photo that sent me over the edge. I hadn't seen my cousin in three years and when she posted a picture of her kids walking down the airport terminal, I cracked. They were just so big. Basically adults. The passing of time hit me like a swift fist to the gut and I booked a ticket right away.
The next afternoon I arrived at the airport and promptly lost my bearings. Dodging construction workers and safety cones, I weaved my way to our "secret" parking garage only to find that it was a secret no longer. Feeling strangely violated, I stuffed down my indignation and eventually found a parking spot.
When I stepped into the elevator I stared at the buttons like they were printed in Mandarin. I was so disoriented that it took me a minute to process and punch the right button. When the doors slid open, I made my way across the catwalk into the terminal and down the escalator, into the main check-in area. Once there, my disorientation threatened to evolve into full-blown panic.
Too many people. Where the hell do I get my boarding pass? I can't believe I need a boarding pass. Why didn't I just use the app? Which security line am I supposed to go to? I broke out in a sweat and tried to stay cool.
I chastised myself for being so nervous. After all, I've flown all over the world by myself. I felt like an idiot.
Once past security, the chaos abated. I patiently waited at the gate through delay after delay and finally boarded the tiny jet and settled into my window seat. The skies broke open and pulses of lightning flashed, sending workers on the tarmac skittering for shelter.
Of course, I thought, my first time to fly in a year and a half and it's in the middle of a storm on a plane the size of a matchbox. Perfect.
Shifting my attention out of my head and into the moment, I watched the ground crew emerge after the weather cleared and pushed back our plane for takeoff.
The process was elegant. That is the only word that suits the delicate dance of people and baggage carts and fuel trucks and airplanes of every size as we taxied to the runway. Pilots and crew were racing to pull out of the gates and wend their way across the giant traffic lanes crisscrossing the airport grounds. Like a colony of ants, each part seemed to move with precision and single-pointed intent. I sat with my face practically glued to the window, utterly fascinated.
As the wheels lifted and the landing gear retracted, I watched the city fall away below. Shrouded in gray, I could see sheets of rain in the distance and I gave thanks that we'd managed to take off at all.
The plane climbed higher and higher, pushing through the clouds until burst into the blue skies above. What I saw brought me to tears.
We were at the edge of a massive storm system that stretched out below as far as I could see. Low, steel-gray stratocumulus clouds blanketed the city. Above pulsed huge, anvil-shaped cumulonimbus clouds, morphing and shifting in a cacophony of color as the sun settled lower and lower on the horizon.
I took picture after picture as the plane flew around the edge of the storm while tears streamed down my face. I just couldn't believe how beautiful it was. I had forgotten what our planet looks like from up there and the truth of it shocked me. How many times had I taken it for granted, this gift?
Had I ever truly seen it before? I wasn't sure. Flying above Greenland and the arctic circle hadn't brought me to tears. The white cliffs of Dover? Not even a little sniffle. Table Mountain in South Africa? Nope. The Napali Coast at sunset? Nada.
But now? Now it was all I could see. The beauty of creation. The power of nature. It was like God or the Universe or Energy or whatever It is that makes this all possible was offering me the sweetest of honey and I reveled in it, humbled and grateful and weeping.
This, I realized, is what Buddhists call shoshin or "beginners mind".
When we are free from our views, from our preconceptions and expectations, we have beginner's mind. Like a cleansing of the glass or a breath of clean air, beginner's mind is open and eager and fresh. It is seeing things as if for the first time with a mindset and attitude that is judgment-free and absolutely present in the current moment. Even if we have advanced knowledge, we maintain the open attitude of a beginner.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki
It dawned on me that my entire experience with this flight - traffic detours, security line blunders, rain delays, ground stoppages, people-watching, taxiing, and finally, ecstasy among the clouds - had been glorious. It had been glorious not because the circumstances had been perfect, but because I experienced it all as if for the first time.
The gift of cultivating beginner's mind is the experience of "regular" life as meaningful, powerful, beautiful, and inspirational. Being present in the moment moves us from our "fight-or-flight" sympathetic nervous system into the relaxed and restful parasympathetic nervous system. It dramatically reduces our negative response to internal and external stressors, improves stress-related biomarkers, and promotes neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. So in addition to transforming the everyday into a magical experience, cultivating beginner's mind literally reduces the risk of Alzheimer's.
Two years ago I would have breezed through check-in and security with nary a thought. I would have sat with my nose buried in my phone or a book instead of looking out the window. I would have felt irritated with the delay and frustrated with the mumbling pilot I couldn't understand. But not this time.
It turns out that the best flight of my life wasn't first-class on a double-decker jumbo jet on the way to Paris or Florence or Cape Town. The best flight of my life was on a tiny puddle-jumper to El Paso, Texas, because it was the first flight of my life that I ever truly and deeply appreciated.