Years ago, during a class on human behavior, a psychology professor said that when teachers are speaking, only 11% of the class is actually paying attention to what is being said. On the other hand, 23% of the people are thinking about a personal problem, while 66% are having a sexual fantasy. According to the professor, no matter what he said that day, at least two-thirds of the class was sure to have a good time.
Isn’t this the problem that most folks have? No, not sexual fantasies. I mean paying attention to the thing that most deserves your attention. In the classroom, it’s the dialectic that deserves your attention. In a car, it’s the road that deserves your attention. Flying an airplane also demands that we pay attention, but not necessarily in the way we normally think. After years of pondering this, it’s now clear to me that those with an extraordinary ability to keep themselves safe in the air do so because they—there’s no other way to say this so I’ll just say it—mimic the behaviors of what the self-help literature calls the enlightened individual.
Whoa! Hold on Kwai Chang Caine. I know you’re thinking, “Don’t shimmy that Sholin up my sleeve. This is aviation pal, and its subjects are ruled by laws, equations and test tubes. So back off, Monkman.”
Not to worry. I share your sentiments, having gone through my “New Age” stage in my early 20’s. My kick in the karma came at a seminar where an unemployed engineer claimed to channel a wise, 30,000 year old spirit. For $20 a pop, you could ask the spirit anything. So I asked him to sing a song from the Late Pleistocene’s Top 10 radiocarbon list. I realized that I had just lost 20 bucks when I heard something similar to Mowtown’s Four Tops. Perhaps I really heard the Four Triceratops. Who knows?
No, none of that jumbo for you, but only the best mumbo from me.
The fact is that the term enlightenment has both historical and respectable roots and this makes it an idea worth exploring. My thought is that a person’s enlightenment in any realm of life (be it aviation, car racing, or muffin making) has nothing to do with his or her ability to speak sotto voce from the lotus position. The answer is (thank goodness) more practical than that. The enlightened person is someone whose situation-specific behavior is guided by a single dominant and permanent thought that both informs and influences his behavior in a meaningful way.
Either because of practical experience or proper training, a person acquires the habit of sustaining one important thought in the background of his consciousness without having to work at keeping it there. His or her behavior is now permanently moderated by this idea. Let’s call it “background awareness.”
For instance, research on consistently happy people—I would certainly call these individuals enlightened in the area of life—indicates that their permanent and dominant thought—their background awareness—is that of gratitude. These individuals are seldom unhappy, because they sustain an awareness of the good things (relatively speaking) that they have in their lives.
Of course, it goes without saying that enlightenment in any area means nothing if it doesn’t further the values of the culture in which the enlightened individual resides. In other words, you may be an enlightened Satanist, but you and your pitchfork shouldn’t plan on receiving an invite to Friday night Catholic bingo.
So, just what does all this have to do with you, the pilot of an airplane?
In my opinion, pilots with an extraordinary ability to fly safely—enlightened pilots—have also learned, either through directed training or the good fortune of having had an appropriate role model, to sustain one extremely important thought as part of their default background thinking.
What is that thought? It’s one that produces self-referential thinking. Said another way, it’s the type of thought that compels a pilot to objectively evaluate himself, his airplane and the environment in which he’s flying. It’s as if, by thinking the proper thought, the pilot has an “OOFE”—an out of fuselage experience—and is now able to examine all three critical conditions as an independent flight observer.
For many pilots, mentally stepping outside their fuselage begins with the thought, “What’s happening to me?” If a single thought can be the catalyst that initiates an awareness of one’s environment, an evaluation of the airplane’s performance and an honest assessment of a pilot’s present mental acuity, this has to be it. I can think of no other idea that so completely informs a pilot about his or her present level of in-flight safety.
When this thought becomes a dominant and permanent part your background consciousness, then you’re certainly closer to cockpit enlightenment than most other pilots.
The important question is, “How do you make this thought a permanent part of your background thinking?” While there are many paths to the same endpoint, the simple answer is that you force yourself to think “What’s happening to me?” until it becomes part of your reflexive behavior. In this instance, practice makes permanent.
Unfortunately, other than constant practice, there is no easy way to cockpit enlightenment. There’s no Zen-koan question to accelerate the process. Besides, if I asked you, “What is the sound of one cylinder firing?” I know you’d say, “That sounds like a rental.”
Copyright 2010 by Rod Machado