I’ve had several conversations lately with friends who report an increased awareness that there’s an underground river of anxiety running underneath our lives. We are surrounded by so much more information about the suffering on the planet and the suffering of the planet that it’s pretty hard not to worry. We know intellectually that “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. “ (That’s a quote a friend sent me, and I do not know its origin.)
Most of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer that reminds us to take action on things we can control and let go of the rest. But I’ll bet if you surveyed people in war-torn countries, or even in this one where the war is political and ideological, you’d find that anxiety is rampant.
Back in 2013 my book Flying Lessons: How to Be the Pilot of Your Own Life came out. Since the impetus was exploring the fear I felt while learning to fly a plane, I almost sub-titled it “A Journey Beyond Fear.” I decided against that, since I figured people don’t like to think about fear. But here it is, right in our faces. And this is not a chosen fear like the privileged venture of learning to fly; this fear seems to have sneaked up on us and taken over.
I’d like to resurrect the book now, partly because I have boxes of books left in storage, and partly because I think especially the first of the seven flying lessons for life is so relevant today.
The first lesson is “Know Where You’re Going to Land.” This doesn’t refer to your destination or your goal. Instead it has to do with what you’ll do if your engine fails, if your usual source of power gives out. How will you find solid ground then?
Your usual source of power might have been your job, or your primary relationship, or your financial security or you family. Or, it might be faith in your government, or confidence in the health of the planet. All these are, as we discover on this journey through life, impermanent and vulnerable. So they don’t make great safe landing places—at least not any more.
A good safe landing place when you’re flying is a flat stretch of land that’s clear of obstacles and within range. And the first thing you do if your engine fails is look around and find the best safe landing place you can glide to and start heading there. No changing your mind. No time or space for that.
In life, what would be a reliable safe landing place? What would not be impermanent, or subject to destruction?
I think such “places” are in the unseen world, the inner world. If you believe in God, you’re in luck. Your faith is a gift, because in times of crisis it can be pretty hard to find any evidence of God; you have to believe that the Source is there, even when you can’t see it, hear it, or feel it.
But everyone does not believe in a Divine Power. And for many, a good safe landing place is nature. Of course the natural world has erupted into fire and flood and earthquake of late, so it may not seem as tranquil as it has in the past. But still, if you walk out and sit under a tree for awhile, things have a way of calming down inside. Nature is neutral. Accepting.
Another possible safe landing place (I refer to it as your SLP) might just be Life, or the Life Force. Without having to use the God word, you can focus on the Mystery that pushes flowers out of buds, that ushers green shoots out of formerly dead-looking soil, the Mystery that creates a baby’s laugh, and the full-heartedness you feel in a touching moment. Or, you might choose to name this force Love.
Spend some time thinking about your SLP, identifying what makes it up for you. And then the next step is a kind of fire drill, a rehearsal for times when you’ll need that feeling of solid ground under your feet.
What image or experience came to you when you thought about what your SLP is? Can you use your imagination to create that experience?
For example, if you thought of a natural setting, what would be your ideal natural setting? Go to a place you conjure in your magical imagination and feel the temperature of the air there, hear the sounds there, see all the sights there. Practice going there as often as you can. This is…that’s right, meditation practice.
Once you can go to your SLP, you can choose a word that you program into your mind. Let’s say you choose Love. Now when you say “Love,” speaking the mantra will lead you to the experience of safety. You can also choose a part of your body (I like the ring finger) to hold as a signal to go to your SLP. Once you practice this enough, you can go to an experience of safety in the middle of an argument with your partner or a traffic jam that’s annoying you, or even a panic attack.
Safety just ain’t what it used to be, but one way to look at that is that this crisis is also an opportunity. We can become pilots of our own lives if we practice navigating our inner world and all the weather we encounter there.
Wishing you a happy flight!