The strange intimacy of viewing oneself from a distance

When the plane begins to descend for landing in my small city, I rubberneck, trying to pick out my little house and car amid the tree-lined streets about a mile southwest of downtown. After being flung through the ether in a tin can, it feels important somehow to locate the structure of my life, to identify new proof of the solidity of my existence. It is not just the minuscule outline of my home I seek, but an anchor point to a reality that has come to seem less real during my time away from home and away from the earth.

For a moment last week, as I peered out the plane window, I felt a kinship with those who say they’ve had near death experiences. Such individuals often describe hovering above their physical bodies, up near the ceiling, or higher, watching with detachment as EMTs labor over their inert forms, or as frantic friends urge them to “wake up.” What has always struck me about these accounts is the equanimity, peace, and detachment that so many of these people describe as they view the elements of their physical lives, including their own bodies, from an external point of view. Many death experiencers describe having their fundamental sense of reality permanently altered after watching themselves from a distance this way.

When a friend is caught up, mired in, and drunk on the drama of life situations — dealing with a difficult child, a bad breakup, or a conflict at work— we may reach a point where we encourage them to step back in order to view the situation with greater perspective. Of course, many of us know from our own experience just how impossible it can feel to unstick ourselves from the gnawing details of physical life challenges when there is no space between us and our problems. “Step back” is a metaphorical suggestion, of course, whether directed to oneself or to others, for we can’t actually step out of our physical selves to get a wider view, can we?

Some of us recall the poignant inner shift of seeing for the first time an image of the earth as it appears from space. For some, the experience of seeing it included a sensation of stepping out of our earthly home, of turning back to view our planet in all of its precious wholeness, an experience so powerful that it is sometimes credited with fueling the environmental movement. By now, of course, the “big blue marble” image is commonplace, just one of many wallpapers to choose for one’s phone screen. But the image reminds us that when we can re-see our physical reality from an outside, distant perspective, it can trigger a transformative shift in consciousness.

When my plane’s approach to my hometown airport is just right, I can pick out my house from among the myriad gray, brown, and black rooftops. And it is an eerie sensation. For although I know that I am the being who is sitting in the plane with a Kindle in my lap, in that moment it also seems that my life might be going on below uninterrupted, as if I’d never left, as if I were in it there now. From high in the sky, it can feel as if I am looking down at myself, tucked away in my house or moving along the highway like a corpuscle through a vein. In those moments of viewing my life as a mere ant farm, none of it seems to matter very much. But, at the same time, I sometimes feel so unnervingly close to myself, so struck by the astonishing energy of being me, that I almost want to look away.

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