I’m writing this from seat 46H of a westbound transatlantic flight. The seatbelt sign has just been turned off, though the way my body is pressed back into the seat tells me we’re still climbing. I’ve been breathing intently, deliberately, and somewhat desperately for the last few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, as the plane zoomed down the runway and took off. I could feel the moment it left the ground: a slight bounce, a suspension like a heart skipping a beat that made me breathe even more, as though my inhalation could will us skyward.
It’s embarrassing to be afraid to fly. So much of my work involves teaching people to deal with their fear. You’d think I’d have this nailed. I know people face truly frightening things – natural disasters, war, Senate hearings – that should put my fear into perspective. I know flying is statistically safer than riding in a car. I don’t care. I’m in a big hunk of metal 32,000 feet in the air. My survival mechanism is triggered.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to be a happy, nonchalant flyer. When I was 11 or 12 my parents agreed to put me on a plane to visit my sister in Boston. I flew out of Newark feeling very grown up, a big round nametag plastered on my jacket that announced I was “Flying Solo!” (What was the airline thinking? But I suppose those were simpler times, travel-wise.)
Zen and the art of flying
I’m not sure how it happened, but I lost the nonchalance. Maybe it’s because I flew less frequently for awhile. I started traveling again when I practiced Zen Buddhism. I was secretary to a Zen master, and we flew together to various meditation retreats. Since I had taken vows, I had a rakusu: a cotton-and-silk rectangle worn around the neck like a bib. It’s a smaller version of the kesa, the robe that monks and nuns wear while meditating. Mine was black with tiny white stitches I’d sewn myself, vertical dotted lines that were supposed to represent rice fields, but which I preferred to think of as a procession of stars in a dark firmament.
When flying, I flouted everything I’d learned about detachment and seized on the comfort of the rakusu and the feeling of protection it gave me. Waiting at yet another anonymous departure gate, I would slide it out of its pouch, touch it to my forehead and slip it over my head. Then I would board the plane and take my seat beside the Zen master – always the middle seat, as the Zen master had long legs that demanded the aisle. As the plane sped down the runway I would chant the Heart Sutra in my head; the Zen master would coolly unfold a newspaper which I suspect he wasn’t really reading. We sat in silence as the plane left the ground. Then, above the drone of the engines and the baffling mechanical sounds coming from the wings, he’d ask me about the retreat we were going to, wanting details, lists, schedules, obliging me to focus on something else. It was a kind way to pull me out of my terror. Then the beverage cart appeared, and he’d order us each a whiskey.
Uncontrolled and intense
Today I’m flying solo, minus the nametag, and the rakusu. I’m sitting on the aisle, since in fact my legs are long, too. I’ve learned not to push away the fear or ignore it, but to acknowledge it, open the door to it, give myself over to it. I think about the people I love. I let my heart beat wildly. I look at what I’ve done with my life, and what I have not. In the time it takes for the plane to pull up its wheels, angle away from solid ground, and stabilize above the clouds, I have more or less made peace with my life and the fact that right now it’s not in my hands.
Courage is not about feeling invincible. Courage is being afraid and moving forward with your fear. It’s recognizing and fearing death as the formidable reality it is, and choosing to live the hell out of your life anyway.
What’s inviting you to be courageous? Maybe it’s when you lose someone you love. When you hear that shitty medical diagnosis. When you have a close call. Anything that makes you realize you’ve been lulled into believing that life necessarily unfolds in a reasonable, predictable, or just manner; that you are in control; that you will live forever. How do you respond to that invitation?
If all goes well, in a few hours the wheels of this hunk of metal will kiss the good earth and I will walk out and see two people I love. Until I forget my mortality again, my fear will make living vivid and intense, and my reunion with my loved ones will be all the sweeter for it.
In the meantime, the beverage cart has arrived. They are offering me champagne.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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