Until quite recently, every time I have flown, I have had this little moment – right at the point where I stepped from the the air bridge walkway on to the plane.
I looked at the doorway in front of me, the mechanisms and rivets and bolts and levers. Looking for something, a stain, a dent, any imperfection that might alert me to something, I didn’t know what. In fact, I didn’t know anything about what I was looking at. I’d see the bored faces of the ground crew milling about outside the aircraft, and the relaxed easy smiles of the cabin crew waiting to greet me as I entered, and found reassurance in their seemingly uneventful day.
I stepped through the door and in that moment, surrendered myself to the will of fate. I willingly incarcerated myself in a metal tube, knowing full well that it would soon lurch me and my fellow prisoners forward to a speed of 150mph before somehow elegantly lifting itself up into the sky.
As the plane would turn on to the runway and the engines would begin to throttle up, I would silently join with the plane, ‘Go baby, go!’ Thrust back into my seat as we heaved forward, “keep it straight, keep it level, go go go!” Faster and faster, “Isn’t this fast enough?” And then, the ground would gently tip away and suddenly drop out below. Forced down into my seat. “what’s that rattle, whats that whirring sound”? A little lurch to left, “whoa! no… ok..we’re ok we’re up we’re up”. My grip on the armrests would gently loosen, as everything began to smooth out and quieten down. Then the cabin crew would unbuckle and begin their duties, I could breathe a little deeper. Then, with a gentle ‘bong’, the seat belt signs went off and I would come back to myself, relaxing and loosening my belt. Out of the window I would watch the tiny cars below streaming along the tiny roads, worming out into the distance, many miles away.
It was always incredible to me. Always like a child in awe at the fact that I was thousands of feet above the ground screaming along at over 400mph.
And as we climbed out into the sky, breaking through the clouds to the stars or the sun, I would settle in for the journey.
But then, came the bumps! A little shudder at first, then a heave and a drop, “Why does it always start just as I’m about to eat or have a drink?” Sometimes after a big lurch or drop, the seatbelt sign would come on and we were confined to our seats. “shit! I hate this, please stop” Sometimes I’d wobble myself around just to confuse my body enough to not feel the turbulence throwing me around. I just couldn’t let go and accept what was happening. I was trapped in a superstitious belief that if I relaxed into the situation I’d be punished with even worse turbulence or even the unthinkable. I actually thought that my fear was necessary to hold the plane together. A totally irrational but overwhelming emotion. Then the episode would pass as we moved into clear air, ‘bong’ went the seatbelt sign and once again my body relaxed and I’d drop down in my seat, exhausted with the fear released.
Then, a few years ago, something changed. Something deep inside shifted to a new place.
I received a Birthday gift. A flying lesson at a local aerodrome in North London.
I arrived feeling a bit nervous. After a half hour explanation of avionics and the basics of how a plane works, we headed out to the little Cessna aircraft.
Buckled in and headphones on, I was watching carefully as my instructor prepared the plane, started the engine and headed off to to the runway. After a quick ‘ok’ from air traffic control, he threw the throttle to full and we roared off, weaving and bumping along the grass field. We climbed gently up to two thousand feet, just below the scattered clouds. The rolling green fields of Hertfordshire spread out below us.
“Ok, ready to take control?” He asked with a smile.
“Uh yeah.” “Ready.” I responded, not really sure if I was.
“Ok, you have control.”
I gripped the wheel tight. “Ok, I thought, “keep it level, nose a bit up, what else?” “What else did he say I have to do?”
“You ok?” He asked, sensing my clear tension. “Just relax your grip, let the wheel move freely. The plane will stay level.”
I loosened my grip so that my hand was more or less just feeling the wheel but not gripping it. All was well. The plane bobbed a bit but yes, it was staying level.
“Thats better.” “Just the lightest touch on the wheel and keep an eye on the instruments.”
We putted about for a few more minutes before I noticed we were heading for a some rather thick clouds.
“what do I do in cloud?” I said.
“Nothing.” “The plane will bounce and heave around a bit, just keep your hand near the wheel.” “Let it find it’s way.”
“Ok, I thought. “I can do that.”
We entered the cloud and immediately the plane started bobbing left and right, a little lurch and heave, but I kept my hand loose and relaxed. The plane hopped and dropped, wobbled and lurched but I felt the movement through the wheel, just like in a car going over a pothole. It stayed level and straight. Then we popped out the other side back into sunshine and all was smooth again.
“Okaaaay, we’re going to head back in now, would you like to do the approach?”
“Yes, yes I would”. I was relaxing and gaining confidence.
I did indeed guide our plane, under my instructors watchful eye, back and down towards the runway.
“I’ll take over at 40 feet.” He informed me.
“40 feet? “Yes, ok, I think?”
“You’ll be fine, thats it….steady, keep it level…good.”
We descended under my control in a perfect approach and at what seemed like the very last second, he took over and we bounced down, rumbling along the grass.
The engine roared as we slowed and taxied back to our parking spot.
I was totally pumped.
“Thank you so much, that was fantastic!”
I shook the instructors hand and headed off to my car.
Driving back through the Hertfordshire country side, I was struck by the fact that cars were zooming past me in the opposite direction at over 40 miles an hour with barely eight foot between us.
“Driving cars is so risky” I thought. ” I do this every day but I never realised how close we are to each other.” ” Flying is so much…safer.”
That was it. The moment I let go of my fear of flying.
But it got me thinking, Maybe, this was a lesson about more than just flying. Maybe this was a lesson in trust and surrender. That I can relax my grip on life, give it some room to move, trust it.
I decided there and then that I wanted to let go of anxiety and tension in my life, to see what would actually happen. To call the bluff on my fear.
It was tested soon enough.
I was about to fly to Cape Town – a 12 hour overnight haul from Heathrow.
As I stepped on to the plane, I felt a deep sense of calm and surrender. I was in a totally relaxed space. I settled into my seat feeling content. It was like I just knew that whatever was to be was to be. It had less to do with actually flying and everything to do with an inner shift from anxiety to trust. From fear to acceptance.
As the plane roared along the runway, I felt excited about leaving the British winter, getting to Cape Town and having breakfast in the warm sunshine of a southern summer. As we gently banked over the sparkling lights of London and headed down over Surrey, I was free of any anxiety or concern.
We cruised on into the night and as is normal when flying down over deepest darkest Africa, we encountered some tropical stormy weather. I awoke at 4am to the old lurch and heave of the plane as it ploughed through the wild night.
But now, I was totally undisturbed! No fear and no tension in my body. I visualised the plane bouncing over the clouds like a bus on a bumpy road, feeling the speed of the plane adjusting and steadying itself naturally, through the jolts and bumps.
Rocked and soothed by the movement, I drifted back to sleep. Four hours later, I awoke to a silky calm sunrise over the red dunes of Namibia.
As I stepped off the plane, I felt refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
It was clear that something very big inside had dissolved. Yes, I had lost my fear of flying but it was more than that. It was deeper and bigger. I had to some degree, successfully lost a fear of life itself!
What had become so real and embodied in me was that, just as the plane did not actually need my fear to keep it in the sky, so did life not need my anxiety, to keep things from falling apart.
It was like I had experienced a new perspective in microcosm. How fear dominated my experience of life, every day and in every way. But even more, how because of this irrational belief that anxiety and tension had served me in some way, I had become addicted to it. An insane notion that without a mind and body overwhelmed by negative thoughts, fear, tension and stress, everything would collapse around me.
I realised how I had allowed external forces beyond my control, to throw me around. From fear to relief, tension to relaxation and back again. Bounced around on the turbulence of circumstance, like my plane in the night, bouncing from cloud to cloud, heaving into warm air and dropping into cold.
I saw how I was always throttling back, unsure of the path ahead, and consequently always losing height, losing perspective, losing vision.
But just like me, my plane was designed to handle rough weather. It’s body, designed to be flexible and soft, able to absorb and deflect the massive forces set against it. Its mind, capable of re-adjusting toward the destination, keeping it level and moving, moving, always moving foreword. Without motion there could be no lift, no ability to navigate or steer a course. Without forward thrust there was only one way to go. Down.
This has now become an understanding from which I aspire to live. To understand that stress, fear, anxiety and tension, have only ever caused me to become brittle and inflexible. Easily shattered by the winds of fate. A victim of circumstance. Now I choose as much as possible to move with the wind, to roll with the changes. Money in the bank, or no money in the bank. A woman by my side, or no woman by my side. Clarity of purpose or just foggy confusion. Good health or poor health. Starting a new project, showing up, stepping into life, taking a risk or deciding to wait until the right moment. But whatever my state of mind, I know that I have to keep moving, always moving foreword, gaining lift and speed. Climbing ever higher, expanding perspective to a distant horizon. Letting go of my addiction to fear and anxiety. Realising that it never has, and never will, serve me. Accepting the truth that I am free to fly.