Journeys seem to have a habit of bringing you exactly what you need. My last 2 weeks has seen multiple plane journeys, car rides, tuk-tuks and a lot of hectic travel. But, however hectic, tiring and frustrating travel can be, a journey does one thing very effectively: bring people together.
How many times in life does a situation in life completely melt social boundaries? If you live in a place like London, then you'll know it's not many. Except perhaps, when alcohol is involved, with the premise that we're not really ourselves, not 100% accountable for our actions and opinions, and able to selectively remember what happened in the morning.
On a journey, especially done solo, you are plucked out of your normal and into the unfamiliar. And you are equalised to those around you. Although your purpose likely differs, you are banded together by the common destiny: arrival at your destination. You share frustrations of delays, discomfort and rituals of travel. On a plane you are cut off completely from all of outside life - you are existent only in your bubble, your fold-out table and the sting of the air conditioning from above. You are reduced to compartmentalised and plastic ordered micro-meals, which one of you inevitably spills or drops parts of on yourself, and rigid, uncomfortable naps, in common vulnerability.
Ok, so that's a bit of an extreme description. But essentially, somewhat like at festivals, the normal boundaries of social interaction melt a little, and you find yourself sharing a brief, but profound connection with people you would never normally come into contact with.
This is how I found my two long haul flights to Mumbai and back from Mauritius. Boarding my plane to Mumbai, I was not at my best. Having had 2 and a half hours sleep after putting on an evening science exhibition, had my phone lifted at the airport, and managed to bawl my eyes out on the shoulder of a security guard, I finally found myself shakily boarding my plane. I collapse into my seat, feeling like I could do with a hug, and reassurance. I was facing a week of intensive workshops with kids in a new country, on jetlag and what now looked like exhaustion.
On pulling out my battered copy of 'Awakening The Buddha Within' and choosing a page at random to reach some previous existence of zen, I feel a tap on my elbow. "That looks like a fascinating book" - my neighbour, a middle aged and wise looking Indian lady was initiating interaction. While my initial reaction was to bar off any plane chitchat, as I connected eyes with my neighbour, I experienced a wave of calm descend on me. Warm, wise and caring eyes put me at ease. As we started talking, we discovered auspicious points of connection, common parts to our stories, and a common quest for truth - and unlikely introduction to spirituality. It turned out that I was sitting next to one of the leading figures of the Brahma Kumaris global community - Durya - and she too led workshops on mindfulness all over the UK. She was on her way to a mass family gathering in India, a 7-day joint meditation ceremony in the memory of her late Uncle. The plane apparently had 30 seats occupied by different family members.
We shared food, wisdom, philosophy, and laughed at the wonderful coincidence of being brought together. I shared my scattered story of the hours and days leading up to the flight, and we questioned the significance of the challenges presented to me so far. It turned out she was a spiritual life coach and guru, who coached business professionals, having previously been one herself. After connecting the dots we realised one of her meditation centres is situated a 5 minute walk from my work, and I would be teaching mindfulness at the school of one of her nephews. I am now signed up for one of her centre's 8-week meditation courses. The vastness and yet smallness of our globally interconnected world always makes me smile.
And now, here I am sitting next to one of the chief executives of Roche pharmaceuticals. Someone very different, and yet again, a profound connection. This time, I sat down and noticed my neighbour look up and connect with the Ganesha deity on my t-shirt. I scanned the book my neighbour was reading. 'The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living: India's Timeless and Practical Scripture Presented as a Manual for Everyday Use'. "Looks interesting. Are you Buddhist yourself?" I asked before really thinking. We started talking about Buddhism, corporate life, and soon about being a scientist. He had completed his PhD and a post-doc before transferring into the pharma industry. Little did I know that we would connect the dots to managing managers, integrating self-awareness and letting go of the ego into business, and the importance of communication in relationships. He was talking, mostly, but I was fascinated. Listening has become something I try to actively practise, having not been so aware of the critical importance of properly listening in earlier years.
There was such a wonderful honesty and earnestness to our conversation, the type that is sometimes only possible with a complete stranger. Another interesting piece of information: a group of people in rural Switzerland running a mysterious intensive retreat centre called Casa Betula. He described how in just 3 days at the retreat, everybody had hit some sort of inner discovery and shadow, resulting in a total reset of everything they thought was true about themselves. As I am in the business of designing transformational experiences for people, this had me very interested. The average stay at the retreat was 3 weeks, and was run by a group of highly trained psychologists, healers and light workers, and body therapists (masseuses, nutritionists etc.).
I was honoured to be told about what his profound discovery had been. As a boy, he had experienced a waking nightmare of somebody strangling someone else at the foot of his bed. After that night, he recurringly dreamed about being sent to prison, locked away for the rest of his life. He had been carrying this trauma with him ever since. I was shocked to realise we may all be carrying such buried, deeply subconscious traumas around with us, which would be colouring and dictating our every day lives. Setting up healing centres around the world to help the growing number of people facing their fears, failures and traumas seems to me one of the most important endeavours of our century.
And to be recounted such a deeply personal and private story, by the most unlikely of characters, in a way pays homage to the profound self-work and personal development this man has experienced in his journey. I was grateful for our connection on mine. And curious as to how the clues, connections and nodes of information shared would end up connecting my dots, bringing me what I need in the coming weeks, months and years.