September 29, 2020

Can you Fly through Challenging Times in the Pilot’s Seat?

The other night I had a powerful dream.

My husband Jon and I were flying our small plane at about 100 feet over the ocean.

Suddenly, right in front of us, an enormous wave rose up—taller than we were. There was no time to climb and fly over it. There was no choice. We had to fly through it. So we did, and survived, with only a worry about what the impact and the water had done to the plane.

I bolted upright in bed.

Each of us has a wave of externals rising up before us: personal crises, anxiety, and frustration over COVID-19; possibly fire, smoke, floods, or earthquakes threatening our sense of safety; and anxiety about the state of the nation and the planet. We seem to have no choice but to take the pilot’s seat and just keep “flying the plane” to the best of our ability.

Back in 1997, when I first started taking flying lessons, I was a little on the cocky side. I had been flying with my lifelong pilot husband for eight years, occasionally taking the controls from the passenger seat on the right side. He would tell me I was a natural, so I figured I would be Clio’s best student ever. Even at age 54.

At my first lesson, Clio gestured toward the pilot’s seat in her little plane, Yellow Bird, and said, “Get in.”

“You’re kidding! The left seat on the first lesson?” I was shocked.

“You’ll be in the left seat for every lesson,” was her automatic answer. So, I complied. And everything suddenly looked very different.

It wasn’t just that Clio’s Cessna 152 is smaller than our 182. All the gauges are the same, and the view out the window is identical. It’s the nature of taking the pilot’s seat that makes all the difference.

Have you taken the pilot’s seat during this fierce turbulence we’re experiencing? Do you feel that sense that you actually have 100 percent responsibility for your life journey?

Am I taking 100 percent responsibility if in my dream I was in the passenger seat?

Of course there are a raft of external forces over which we have no control. That is only too clear. But so is the fact that all we do have control over is our response. It’s our job to “fly the plane” using all the skills, intuition, observation, and wisdom we’ve gathered over the years.

I’m working these days on calming my anxiety about the wave before me by naming what parts of it I cannot control and trying to let go of those, or work with them. There’s no point in trying to “rise above” them by pretending they don’t exist, or by escaping. We’re humans, here on the planet, and Ram Dass would remind us to “Be here now.”

That’s one meaning of Lesson number three in my book, Flying Lessons: “Take the Pilot’s Seat.”

When I’m in the passenger seat, flying is so much more relaxing. I can take photos out the window, be as dreamy as I want, and just enjoy the view. Or worry about weather out on the horizon without having to take full responsibility for it.

But from the pilot’s seat, the view is entirely different. No dreaminess. Just presence. Alertness. Decisiveness. Mindfulness.

Can I control that weather on the horizon that could do me in? Of course not. My job is to decide whether to go around it, above it, or to turn around.

Whenever I would get freaked out during a flying lesson when too many factors were overwhelming me, Clio would bark out an order: “Just keep flying the plane.”

And Jon would remind me later of priorities he learned in Navy flight training: “Aviate, navigate, communicate.” Keep control of yourself first; then worry about your destination and route; and only then, communicate about it.

All those spiritual and psychological mentors of mine would remind me that the only way out—is through.

No choice but to fly right through this wave.

Will we depend on someone or something else to do that for us, or will we take the pilot’s seat?


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