Soul Gazing

Marcilaughlin
6 min readJul 21, 2019

I had just parted ways with Javier at Termini train station. I could feel the tears rising and that achy lump in my throat. With his penetrating gaze and just a single phrase he had managed to explode all the defenses around my heart.

I barely know Javier. I met him just the day before when my friend Sonia and I were on the beach of Bracciano, a lake about an hour outside of Rome. With his self-effacing demeanor, he approached us on the beach, and in a mix of Italian and Spanish asked, “Can I leave my backpack with you while I take a swim?” He moved and spoke so calmly and deliberately, he struck me as a bit unusual.

When he came to reclaim his backpack, he directed his attention to Sonia, and asked if she might know if there was a taxi stand nearby. He needed to get to the train station to return to Rome that evening. She said she didn’t know of any taxis, but she would be happy to give him a ride back to Rome since we had come with her car. His ocean-blue eyes sparkled and a gracious smile enveloped his face. He half bowed to us as he thanked us and introduced himself as Javier from Spain.

On the drive back to Rome that evening, we learned that Javier was in Rome to study ancient Greek for 3 weeks. He was a philosophy teacher in a high school in Murcia, Spain and attending a 3-week class. Inwardly, I chuckled to myself. Of course — a philosopher! I could hear the clicking in my mind as the dots connected. When a storm had suddenly blown in and chased us off the beach in late afternoon, we had spotted him inside the shore-side restaurant deeply immersed in some books. He seemed oblivious to the sudden gale and the fact that his back-pack was left unattended on the beach. And when I’d come later to collect him at the agreed upon time in the restaurant, he also seemed unaware to the fact that we were nearly 40 minutes late. I found him in an enchanted state taking pictures of the swans bathing on the shore. “Es muy muy hermoso!” he said excitedly as I approached. As he gathered his books, and other belongings, I returned to the car where my friend was waiting and said, “Fortunately he doesn’t seem to notice we were late. He has his head in the clouds!”

On the drive home, Javier explained to us in Spanish that he was waiting for his book to be published in the fall. The book was an exploration of the concept of Will, which he felt was overlooked by the ancients who privileged Destiny and Reason as the motivational forces for mankind.

“If you’re a philosopher, you can’t leave Rome without seeing Tivoli first,” said Sonia, a native of Tivoli. “You must see Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana, named after Emperor Adriano, who was first and foremost a philosopher.”

“I would be delighted!” responded Javier.

So the next day Sonia escorted us both to Tivoli, located just 30 km east of Rome and near the village I used to live in. After a lunch together, Javier immersed himself in exploration of the two villas for several hours, while Sonia and I immersed ourselves in less philosophical pursuits such as chatting, eating gelato and drinking coffee.

Villa Adriana, Tivoli

In the evening Sonia drove us back to Rome and dropped us at the last station of the blue metro line. On the ride back, I discovered that Javier knew English though it was rather slow going. We had just enough time to exchange some basics: I told him I was in Rome for 3 months for healing purposes and that I’d lived here 10 years ago; I’d been married with an Italian and lived in a small nearby village before divorcing and moving to Rome. I now lived in California. No kids. No current relationship. Big question mark regarding the next chapter of my life. He told me he’d never been married, but had come very close twice.

“Maybe you were never in love enough,” I suggested. “Perhaps.” He replied, looking reflective. “Maybe not enough to give up my freedom, which I value a lot.”

Within minutes we arrived at Termini, the main station, where we both had to get off. As we exited, he took my elbow and escorted me to escalators leading to the red metro line which I needed to get home. As we went down the escalator, his eyes searched my face. His penetrating gaze made me feel uncomfortable. His next words took me aback: “I feel you have suffered a lot. If I can help you in some way, I would really like to.”

I had to look away. I felt as if a spear had gone straight through my heart. The armor I didn’t know I wore had been pierced. But I couldn’t let myself be this defenseless, so I grabbed it back. I held my breath, retrieved my smile, and replied, “No, not really. No more than anybody else. We have all suffered, haven’t we? I’m actually lucky; my life has definitely not been boring!”

At that moment my train approached. I hazarded a look into Javier’s seeing eyes, and said, “Thank you for your deep caring and kindness. I’m sure you’re a gift to so many people.” I delivered the usual good-bye kiss on each cheek and promised him we’d all get together again before his departure from Rome.

As I journeyed back home, I waged a noble battle to suppress the tears and waves of emotion that had suddenly been triggered. In a flash of an instant, I had been profoundly moved. Not just by the gaze that had somehow SEEN beyond what normal eyes see, but by the deep compassion that Javier had offered. He had surprised me. I had been very mistaken in my instant judgment of him. My diagnosis as someone with his “head in the clouds” was far too simplistic and superficial. With my label, I had overlooked something else: an ability to be intensely present to the moment.

I am reminded of a quote I’d heard cited by meditation teacher Tara Brach: “The mind creates the abyss and the heart crosses it.” Somehow Javier’s heart had crossed the abyss. It crossed the abyss of language, culture, “story” and mind. It enabled him to SEE in a way that few people do.

My encounter with Javier made me reflect on why so many people love travel. Travel often enables that crossing because it can interrupt the tyranny of the mind, so we have a better chance at opening our heart. When we embark on travels, we are more disposed to SEEING because we temporarily set aside our normal lenses. We step out of our usual routine and our race against time, trading in our endless To-Do lists for a willingness to be open to the new. In so doing, we become more able to be present.

I continue to think about how different our day-to-day interactions with people would be if we could all really SEE each other! If we could all soul-gaze in the way that Javier did. How radically different life would be if we could see the suffering of others and meet them there.

I used to think Big Commitment and Grand Gestures were required to change the world. Now I know that all that is required is the simple act of SEEING.

Originally published at http://marcilaughlin.blog on July 21, 2019.

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Marcilaughlin

Globe-trotter, coach, master of deep conversation. Loves coffee & correctly using the subjunctive in Turkish & Italian. Happiest when opening minds & hearts.