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The Phantom Wing - Dancing Buddhas Books

I once took a flight from Paris to London in the company of my inamorato of the time, a tall, eccentric, English aristocrat. He was so aristocratic, in fact, that I felt unable to bother him with my minor life-threatening problems, such as the fact that the plane was about to disintegrate in mid-air.

I knew the plane was about to disintegrate in mid-air because I had recently read an article about metal fatigue. Metal fatigue, I had learned, was a newly tagged engineering malady that quite unexpectedly struck the fabric from which airplanes are made, somewhat the way a virus strikes you with the flu. You can recognise metal fatigue, I recalled the article telling me, by the gradual meltdown of the sheets that bind the plane’s skeletal structure. And of the flat-bellied rivets that hold them together.

The riveting rivets

The rivets run in rectangles up and down the panelled skins’ outer edges, and if, from the outside, you look carefully beneath the airline’s painted logo, you can usually see them clearly: long patchworks of robust metal stitching.

A Solar plane with lights on the wings

I was sitting by the window at a seat directly over the wing and was looking at these rivets now, clearly reflected on its upper surface. It was night and we were cruising at 25,000 feet and there were these pretty rows glistening in the dark, reflecting the glow from inside the cabin and the moon in the sky like parallel strings of fairy lights. Although fifty or so people sat at window seats, reading, gossiping or, like me, gazing into the night, how many of them, I wondered, had views over the wing and were actually in a position to see what I was seeing now – the little lines of glistening rivets gradually beginning to lose their pristine geometric angles and adopt curves, bulges, and at moments disappear altogether?

The wing’s surface was disintegrating right before my eyes.

A disaster about to happen

Could it be true that this 100-seater Trident was about to come to bits in mid-air and scatter across northern France like so much fertiliser?

Too catatonic with fear to act, I fixed my gaze through the window. No, I was not imagining it – the melting sheets were stretching their stitching of rivets into unimaginable shapes. This is the last moment of my life, I thought. And knowing nothing about meditation at the time, and having never had a taste of the deathless, I simply melded with the armrest in terror and became part of the furniture. What am I going to do to prevent this disaster?

My cool company

My eyes rotated. The flight attendant, unawares, was nonchalantly hovering with her little tray of drinks. Does she know that this is her last moment of life? My Right Honourable companion was lost in aristocratic literature (Tolstoy!). Is he aware that at any moment he and his lineage will cease to exist? Shouldn’t I, right now, spill the beans, unburden myself of the terrible truth: that the wing is melting; that we are all kaput; that there is nothing that can be done about this fatal situation? We are all, in one bumper burial, destined for a quick transition from the literal heavens to the mythical.


And then, just as I had surrendered myself up to my inevitable demise, it clicked. The plane was not after all breaking up; in fact I had no way of knowing if it was or wasn’t because I was not actually sitting over the wing at all, but was located in an altogether different part of the cabin, staring down through a cloudless night sky at strings of street lights on Normandy soil, changing their shapes as imperceptibly as the Trident’s speed permitted.

I had simply imagined the wing – a phantom wing, you might call it.

The power of imagination

Doesn’t this perfectly illustrate how our minds pluck something – anything – from the past to create sense out of the mysterious present? And won’t our minds do that whether we want it or not? – take control of every situation, harness past experience to fabricate perceptions that likely as not have no connection with present events, and plop them slap on top?

Without my memory of an article about metal fatigue, I might never have given myself a wing on which to identify sheets of exhausted metal and their equally weary nuts and bolts. I might have just observed those “rivets” for what they appeared to be – and indeed turned out to be – fine pinheads of light strung in man-made patterns in the night’s deep suede black, lazily changing shape.

Twinkling lights seen at night from the sky

This little story was originally published in an expanded form in The Osho Times International.

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