I flew from Denver to Phoenix this morning, on a flight that left just as the sun was coming up. I’ve taken this trip so many times that I’ve stopped noticing it. These days, I mostly use the time in the air to catch up on work or sleep.
This morning was different, though.
Today, I looked out past the wing and noticed the sunrise, just as we were about to take off. It was stunning.
After take-off, I gazed out the window and watched as DIA grew smaller. The rural communities east of Denver shrank below, and as the plane continued to climb, I watched the sun crawl up from the horizon behind a layer of clouds, turning the world pink.
At last, we broke through the clouds, where the sunlight was bright white — too bright to view directly — and the cloud layer below us spread out endlessly in every direction. Up above the clouds, I felt a sudden calmness. I gazed out the window for a while, just taking it in.
In the secular meditation practice I study, the sun’s presence above the clouds is a powerful metaphor. From the ground, you might look up and see only clouds in the sky, sometimes so dark and so thick that you can’t see the sun at all. But if you get above the clouds, it is no surprise to anyone to see that the sun is still there, shining over everything, without discrimination — clouds and all.
Those teachings say that the basic goodness of human beings is the sun above the clouds. We might look at ourselves and see only “clouds” — our failures or our shortcomings. But if we go beyond those things, there is a radiant goodness that is always there.
I like this proposition of “basic goodness” because of the hopefulness it offers, but I really struggle to buy into it. It’s difficult when we are constantly bombarded with news of people committing unspeakable crimes. The most recent example that comes to mind — the one I still can’t stop thinking about — is the young man who attended a prayer meeting in Charleston last week and then murdered nine people inside the church before fleeing. How can a murderer be basically good underneath?
And “basic goodness” is also difficult to accept because it flies in the face of how we actually live. It means that no matter where we are in life, no matter what we still plan to accomplish or how we still hope to better ourselves, we’re already enough. That’s a hefty proposition. Many of us have an idea of a better version of ourselves, just beyond our grasp. If we could only lose those last few pounds… If we could just be a little more patient with our children… If we could only make that movie we’ve always dreamed about… If we could only learn another language… When we finally become those better, more-accomplished people we’ve imagined, we think we’ll finally be okay. But not yet. Our mantra is that we’ll be good enough someday, but not today.
I’ve been stewing over this concept for months, really grappling with it. I just spent a weekend exploring it in an intensive meditation workshop. At the end of two days, I think I ruffled some feathers when I told the other attendees that I still don’t buy it. I see basic evil everywhere, and there’s still so much in me that I want to improve.
But then this morning, I was on that plane, soaring above the clouds — flying right into the metaphor I keep hearing. I couldn’t turn my eyes away.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for a beautiful sky. Or maybe I just like stories too much to stay objective when life seems to be writing literary devices all around me. But today I am starting to believe that there could be some truth in all of this. If a sunrise is enough to jolt me out of my tired routine, to get me to put the laptop away and just savor a few moments in the air, maybe life is full of moments that have the power to wake all of us up — to get us all to connect with some fundamental goodness within. Maybe it’s just a question of finding a way to get past our own clouds.
* * * * *
After I landed, I remembered how my workshop ended last weekend. One of the program directors asked me to reflect on the whole experience and say the first word that came to mind, but only one word.
I said, “Awakening.”