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Finding peace and calm when a storm is brewing (both inside and out)

A simple mindfulness technique can turn (your mind's) gray clouds into a blue sky

The pilot stopped the plane and shut off the engines just as rain started to splash against the windows. “Uh oh”, I thought. “Why is this happening right now?!” My mood was about to turn as gray and stormy as the sky was outside.

​Just minutes before, we were taxiing on the runway and about to depart on a three-and-a-half hour flight to sunny Arizona from Chicago. My husband and I were flying on a short vacation trip. We had joked in the car ride to the airport about how it had been almost three years since we had been on a plane together, and even longer since we took a “real” vacation. The fact that we were on a plane together was a big milestone – we felt our spirits lifting as we settled into our seats, unaware of what nature had in store for us that day.

Our growing excitement was quickly cut by the pounding rain and lightning happening above and next to us. We weren’t going anywhere – the pilot announced it would be at least an hour before we could consider taking off. Kids started crying, their parents nervously attempted to calm them, and the rest of us waited in anxious silence, uncertain as to when (if ever) we’d be at our final destination.

Time passed slowly. The rain poured and water splattered patterns down the plane window as I gazed outside, watching the elements, the puddles, the grass, the gray and white sky. There was nothing to do but wait….

My default tendency in situations like this one is to shift into panic mode: a thousand thoughts a minute, coupled with heightened sense of unease and anxiety, surfacing deep feelings of disappointment and guilt over a plan gone awry. Victim-mode is really the best way to describe this reaction. It’s an egocentric way of operating, as it can turn an uncontrollable event (the weather) into a powerful force “designed” to make my life miserable. Woe is me, indeed.

As I sat there immobilized, I recalled a concept described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his famous book, Wherever you Go, There you Are. With meditation, he writes, we can start seeing “…the process of thinking itself as a waterfall, a continual cascading of thought. In cultivating mindfulness, we are going beyond or behind our thinking, much the way you might find a vantagepoint in a cave or a depression in the rock behind a waterfall. We still see and hear the water, but we are out of the torrent.”

Remembering this, moments after starting my descent into misery-town, I took a few slow, deep breaths, while observing what was going outside my window. I sat quietly and watched with wide eyes open, letting my thoughts flow over me and pass away. I tried relaxing behind the waterfall of thoughts as my body was sitting behind the actual waterfall outside my window. Slowly, the grip of fear and anxiety, of ego, lessened. I continued to watch and observe.

Two hours passed. Still in my seat on the runway, I felt calm and peaceful, at ease. Then, just as quickly as the storm came, the rain began to cease, the clouds cleared, and the sun’s rays shone. The plane ascended into the faint blue sky, and the clouds moved on as if it was any other day on earth. What a good day it was.

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