Flying the Extra 330LX in formation at Oshkosh 2015.
Sitting at home one recent weekend, I didn't have an air show, but I sort of wished I were at one. I missed the action, excitement, seeing my friends, and the focus and concentration I would have while getting ready to fly. I gave this some thought and realized that if I were at an air show, I'd probably be counting the hours before I could take off and head back home.
What the heck, over?
When I'm sick of being home, I'm thinking of being somewhere else, but when I'm away, I'm homesick! That's not very Zen thinking. Why can't I "Be Here Now" according to Baba Ram Das? Not very "mindful" or "present." After all, as the saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are."
The whole premise of Zen Buddhism, which has influenced our way of thinking since Alan Watts introduced it to Western Culture in the 1960s, is to be "in the moment." When you're cutting vegetables, for example, cut vegetables. When you're waxing your airplane, wax on, wax off—enjoy each thing you do, no matter how simple or repetitious it is. Every moment has the potential to be a "meditative state" where we can be completely present, and therefore, happy. And, each moment has the potential to be an "awakening" into our deeper nature. After all, the present is really all that exists, and this is where we find peace and calm our restless souls.
Buddhist thought stresses that attachment (to people, places, things) creates suffering. Therefore, lack of attachment is something to strive for. Is it just human nature to want what we don't have? Happiness, that elusive state of being, is always just out of reach even when we should be quite content. Every moment is created anew, so it's ironic that the human state is to be always looking for the next thing, or perhaps living in the past.
I try, but I'm very aware of my own personal failings at being present and "mindful," and I'm sure this is one of the reasons that flying appeals to me so much. I'm restless. I daydream, I get nostalgic for places I've been, homesick for things I've left behind, places that have inspired me and helped me understand that life is greater than the sum of me. I ache for the freedom in Australia's open spaces, Alaska's edge and danger, rainy nights in Tokyo, flying over elephants in Kenya and firefighting in California.
But flying, by nature, is self-focusing. When I'm flying, I'm content because I'm really present in the moment. We all need help in attaining peace of mind. It demands our attention, presence and our 100%. Some people sit and meditate, but my Zen and meditation happens to be flying, and, in particular, the intensity and challenge of aerobatics and flying low and fast.
I flew competition aerobatics full time for 12 years, and I adore what it gave me in terms of requiring commitment, dedication and practice. For any serious athlete, their sport is all-consuming. Also, a big part of what I loved most about competing was having a sense of mission. My goals changed as I got better, but the mission to be the best I could be remained throughout. Having a mission is the cornerstone of achieving goals. Knowing with certainty what your mission is every day is a way of keeping you "present." It's comforting and makes life easier. If I wasn't flying, I was planning for the next season, thinking about my routines, working on my airplane and running through the compulsory routine in my head every night before I went to sleep. I never had a doubt as to what my mission was, and this kept me on a straight and narrow path with no deliberation.
Because competing wasn't easy for me, I was always searching for ways to improve my performance. I thought a lot about "flow" or being "in the zone" when I entered the competition box. Flow is that famous but elusive state of mind where time slows down and you're completely present in the moment. Flow is considered focused motivation and, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi (I can't say his name either), "single-minded immersion is perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task…"
Flow, then, is the ultimate in being present. It shuts off the mind's wandering, the yearning to be somewhere else, the negative self-talk we sometimes experience. There were many times in competition, especially during practice flights, that I experienced this concept of flow, and I still do when I'm practicing or flying an air show. Flow and having a mission are intertwined; they both make it easier to leave the ceaseless mind chatter and worry on the ground and find a way to be "present."
You can take a sense of mission into other areas of your life. I found that cool sense of mission again when I was aerial firefighting in California. I woke each day with the clear sense of what life was about: to help firefighters on the ground put out fires. The biggest decision I had to make each morning was what color t-shirt I would wear under my flight suit–navy blue or grey. Then after preflighting my airplane, all I had to do was wait for the "alarm" to go off alerting us to get to the fire ASAP. When I was flying, I was totally focused—looking for the fire, helping direct tankers in to the Fire Traffic Area, working the radios and getting us back to home base safely.
Flying an instrument approach in actual conditions is another very "Zen" thing to do. Your world revolves around nothing but the gauges and airspeed, altimeter and making small power corrections while making your way down the glideslope. This is total presence of mind, and if it's not, then you're in deep trouble.
There are lots of ways to be "present." But, for me, it's flying. I think that part of what makes it so self-focusing is that I can't allow any self-doubt to creep in when I'm flying. I must be confident—the master of my world. I think this is why we love watching top athletes in almost any sport—they perform under pressure, have a singular focus and, of course, they make it look easy.
A focused state of mind comes with practice and experience. Situational awareness is the ability to keep laser focused on a task while still keeping the big picture in sight. We don't start flying instrument approaches to minimums right after we get our Instrument rating, and we don't do inverted ribbon cuts the first year we perform at air shows. We practice, get experience, we learn the cues, the sounds, the skills, and then our awareness and focus gets narrower, while the big picture gets clearer. In any extreme activity, it takes time to be able to distinguish the forest from the trees.
I found a nice quote from Harrison Ford: "The focus and concentration and the attention to detail that flying takes is a kind of meditation. I find it restful and engaging, and other things slip away." Nicely said. It's more than flying low or shooting an approach to minimums, it's flying in general that demands mindful presence and the best of us. If we're smart, everything we do around flying is important enough to keep us from getting distracted.
Wax on, wax off. Even if you hire people to detail your airplane, it's good to do it yourself from time to time. It's a chance to look at every screw and every rivet—to give it a really good preflight and to become one with your airplane. Once we're in the air, we're clear of the mundane aspects of our earth-bound lives, and we can really soar with the eagles above the clouds.
There are times when I get close to home after a long cross-country, and I don't want to land. Again, this is ironic, because anyone who travels as much as I do loves to come home. I miss my dogs, my kitchen and my own bed, but the reality of it is that life gets complicated again as soon as I land. Do things ever get simpler? I'm going to meditate and think about it, but then I'll probably get confused. Maybe I should just find a reason to go flying instead.