Can pilots find inner peace in turbulent times?

 - July 9, 2008, 9:17 AM

 “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans,” the saying goes. I’m sure all of us had plans that didn’t include the events of September 11, and I’m sure God wasn’t laughing this time as those plans dramatically changed the course of our lives.

My wife and I had planned to choose between flying to the beaches of Maui (our favorite retreat), the air races at Reno or hiking in Yosemite for a mini-vacation. The first two were eliminated by the virtual ban on air travel immediately after September 11. That left Yosemite.

Our trip was a blessing not so disguised. We toyed with the idea of staying home and continuing to be “informed” by television reports. By day two I was on information and emotional overload, and the intelligence of walking through the healing fields of nature seemed apparent.

It was as if God confirmed our choice when many travelers canceled their reservations at the Tuloumne Meadows tent cabins that we picked for our destination. Last-minute reservations were no problem due to all the cancellations. The traffic across California from the San Francisco Bay Area on Highways 580 and 120 was light for an early afternoon, typical midweek commute day. The weather, gorgeous.

After we made our choice we began to think, “Why would we go anywhere else, given the world situation?” We both know and treasure the effect of nature on our lives. We spent the last four years before returning to the Bay Area living in the northern New Mexico mountain town of Taos–remote, extraordinarily beautiful and quietly healing. So much so is Taos a healing land that the Tewa people, thought to be descendants of the ancient Anasazi culture who settled this land many centuries before, chose this area for their home. This is the present day home of the Tewa’s descendants, the Taos Pueblo Indians.

Most, if not all, traditional peoples intuitively choose land for their homes that is energetically powerful, healing and sustainable. That’s what drew us to Taos. Those same land energies drew us to Yosemite for healing during this time of recovery.

External Noise

Unless you happen to be a Yogi who has mastered self awareness by meditating on the cacophonous streets of Bombay or Calcutta, we all need periods of quiet to recharge our emotional and spiritual batteries, and heal our souls.

We have raised the achievement bar so high in modern-day life that we continually foul out in trying to clear it. We have lost the ability to “wash off” the stress of an ever increasing life pace through quiet reflection, usually best done in a natural surrounding.

We have numbed ourselves to an increasingly higher noise threshold so that our psyches and souls are imploding in their quest for reflection time. We wonder why we are “losing it” more often than not these days, why there are more road and air rage incidents now when just a few years ago they were unheard of. We have taken for granted that this is the price we must pay for modern-day life.

But what helps to restore balance in your life when you’re whacked out? What helps to stabilize your life? It’s not alcohol or drugs. Breathing is a great place to start– focus on it when you’re afraid or sad or angry, and breathe deeply. Walking in nature, not down a busy street, is another stabilizing influence. Taking a long, hot bath is good. I’d recommend taking one by candlelight but I’m already pushing the envelope.

You wouldn’t attempt a takeoff in an aircraft that was loaded out of c.g. would you? Yet we tackle our daily lives in various stages of “overgrossness” and out of trim, and then we wonder why we so often crash and burn emotionally.

We all make choices in life. Therefore we all have a choice to see life through “rose-colored glasses” or brown-tinted ones. TV weather anchors are notorious for trying to convince us of impending “bad” weather. “Bad” to who? Is rain “bad” for farmers who need it? Is a tornado inherently “bad?” It’s an occurrence of nature. Is a lightning strike a “bad” thing? Only if you happen to be following through with your nine iron when it hits, I suppose.

We have been conditioned to place value judgments on things or events that occur in life. This is symptomatic of classic victim behavior, or someone who’s always suffering from something being “done” to them. Phrases such as “life’s not fair” or “I’m always getting the short end of the stick” apply here.

Step Outside the Emotional Box

Of course the events of September 11 are tragic. I feel the same full range of emotions as millions of others in the world. I shared tears at SFO with 600 other crewmembers at a memorial service for the United and American Airlines flight crews who were lost that day.

But during the grieving process and while honoring the loss of my fellow aviators, I remembered to suspend judgment on the tragedy of this event. There’s far more emerging from these events than meets the eye. I have felt it already in my slower pace, taking the time to be with people in a different way, taking messages into my bones from some of the better movies that are showing these days. Already I have begun to reap the “benefits” of the tragedy, without judgment.

I cried at the death of my father from a fall 17 years ago. But during the grieving process I was offered many gifts: the people who came up to me at his funeral and told me how he had helped them, how he had touched their lives; the newfound emotional and financial freedom that my mother enjoyed after serving him for the past 50 years; the family bonding that resulted from our coming together in ways we never had before his death. These were some of the results that I allowed into my life, without judgment, of that “tragedy.”

Everyday Miracles that Emerge Out of Tragedy

I finished up a tour for my fractional company in Atlanta in late September. The company scheduled a limo to pick me up at the Marriott near DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and take me to ATL, where I would board a Delta flight for SFO.

During the ride to ATL, Ronnie the limo driver and I got into a discussion about the meaning of the events that had taken place in the last two weeks. Ronnie’s simple, profound wisdom, his down-home common sense and deep perspective on racial healing in coming together to mend ourselves and the racial wars we engage in everyday touched me deeply. Something about the events of the past few months allowed him to really hear me, and I him. Had these events not taken place, who knows if I wouldn’t have just taken my seat in the back of the limo and submerged myself in the morning paper, wasting another opportunity to connect with another soul.

When Ronnie dropped me off at ATL, I was supposed to fly to DFW, change airplanes and then go on to SFO on another Delta flight, putting me into SFO late in the evening. I asked the lady at the Delta ticket counter if she could change my ticket to a nonstop flight, leaving an hour-and-a-half earlier than my original departure. She said “No problem,” and not only issued me a ticket on the earlier non-stop flight but put me in first class without my asking.

I spread out my computer and my books and reflected on how I had been blessed by these events that day. Would these events have taken place had the tragedy not occurred? Who knows. I do know that I now have a renewed sense of life, a slower pace and increased peripheral spiritual vision as a result of what’s happened. Since I’ve slowed down from moving through life at Mach One with what little hair I have left on fire, I’m allowing more of life in. I’m seeing more of the world I inhabit. To me, this was all a miracle, but of course, just a normal, everyday one.

Picking through the Emotional Rubble in an Effort To Find Life

If you haven’t noticed, time and space have been increasingly compressed over the last few years–we are being placed in situations, being forced to be accountable to acknowledge our weaknesses, forced to change our ways–in a much shorter time span than ever before. Things are happening in one year that would have taken five or even 10 years before. We’re having to face the real reasons why we’ve been put here in this lifetime and to get on with doing what we do best.

It’s probably not about making as much money as we can, although if that’s a short cut to serving others, then that’s probably a good thing.

You need to remember that you haven’t gotten this far in life without learning something about how to take care of yourself. Most of us in aviation have to be smarter than the average bear, or else we would have killed ourselves a long time ago.

So use what you’ve learned by taking the time to listen to “that still, small voice inside” that knows what you need. Take the time to drop out of the madness of the external world and make friends with your personal INS, your internal navigation system. Once that is programmed with the coordinates of your present position, which requires not moving the platform for a specific amount of time, your INS can take you anywhere you want and need to go. Remember, you’re the expert you’ve been waiting for.