Reading the Wind

UnknownI want a windsock–  a nice new one, bright orange that can be seen from miles away, with trusty ball bearings that are quiet and free as– you guessed it, free as the wind.   But please, as kind as both you and I know you are, don’t go rushing to Amazon to get me one.  Let me tell you why.

Wind is invisible to the human eye, but we know it is there because we can see and measure its effects.   It can be still and quiet, enfolding us peacefully, or in its extreme it can carry us away and violently transport us to Oz.   It is especially important to pilots, because it is the very medium through which airplanes fly.   It is the sin qua non avion, the thing without which there would be no flying.

Wind is merely the shifting of the atmosphere, caused by the unequal heating of the earth’s surface.  Heat rises from the earth, and the heat that rises changes the temperature of the atmosphere, which in turn changes the pressure of the air.   Lower pressure air yields to higher pressure air, and that is the wind.   There are, of course, more subtleties, such as Coriolis force, friction at the earth’s surface, and jet streams, but the shifting of air masses due to pressure differences accounts for the vast majority of what we call wind.

In our primary training, we learn to “read the wind.”   We are taught to look for the movements of tree limbs, flags on flagpoles, and whitecaps on the water.  We learn about the wind-reading instrument located on our posterior side below the back and above the legs, which in my family was referred to by its technical name, the “tush”.  And the devices located at airports designed specifically for the sole purpose of revealing the wind’s secrets, such as the tetrahedron or the omnipresent heretofore-mentioned orange windsock.

Reading a windsock is not as simple as looking at the direction it is pointing and how far it is sticking out.   Those are key elements, but are much less important than looking for the things that may truly be “gotchas”.    Besides merely direction and velocity, the windsock will tell you the variability in direction, the stability of the velocity, and the character of gusts.   Friendly gusts will come at you from a single direction and drop off slowly.   Nasty gusts that are intent on ruining your day will suddenly snap the windsock to attention and then just as quickly cause the sock to lose its erection—never a good thing.   Even nastier gusts cause the windsock to dance like a white person, frenetically in all directions, revealing turbulence close to the ground or perhaps even the presence of the invisible pilot nemesis, Morris Microburst.

Our moods and the moods of those around us are like the winds that surround us in that they are invisible to the human eye but certainly there.   With no convenient windsock to tell us which direction those winds are blowing, we sometimes are left with having to wing it and go alone.  If we are fortunate enough to be in an intimate relationship, sometimes we learn to read our partner’s moods by the crinkling of the forehead, or the sudden brisk, snappy retort.   But reading our own feelings can be more challenging.  When my partner asks me what I am feeling, the only feeling I am immediately aware of is annoyance at being asked what I am feeling.   That is because, despite my years of reading feelings in others as a psychologist, and even tuning into my own within the context of a therapy relationship, outside of the therapy room I spend most of my time in my head.  I am too busy figuring out how to fix the refrigerator to label the fact that I am angry enough to kill it, and I am not convinced that labeling that feeling will help me to find the right nozzle for my air compressor.

My own best emotional windsock is the physical cues my body reveals.   Years ago, during a particularly “interesting discussion,” my partner accused me of wanting to leave the room.   I asked her why on earth she would think such a thing, and she pointed out that for the last five minutes I was straddling the threshold of the room; I literally had one foot out the door.   Busted.

Of course these are things I should know on my own.  Do I have a knot in my stomach that might reveal anxiety or fear, or perhaps tension in my face or a shortness in my breathing?  Truth be known, there is a point at which labeling the nature of the wind is helpful and eminently important in effectively managing it.   Knowing I am angry calls for different reactions than knowing I am grieving, just as knowing I have a 15 mile an hour variably gusty wind 15 degrees off the runway calls for a different landing technique than a steady wind on my nose.

That is why I can always use a nice, new windsock, and why you can’t buy me one.

The Raven Over our Shoulders

images-3I recently read an accident report in which a pilot lost power on the rollout, and then when he heard the engine surge back to life, resumed his takeoff.   Just after leaving the ground, the pilot retracted the landing gear, the engine quit again and the pilot died attempting to make the 180-degree turn back to the airport.

In a matter of a very few seconds, the pilot had some important decisions to make.  If he had made the decision to abort the takeoff the first time his engine lost power, he would likely be alive enough today to have learned that his fuel was contaminated with water.   But perhaps buoyed by the engines roaring back to life, he decided instead to climb out.   That was his first bad decision.   The second bad decision was to retract his landing gear before reaching the end of the runway.   The third was his attempt to turn around rather than find a place to land in front of him.   That was the one that sealed his fate.

I don’t fault the pilot for making the decisions he made.   We all make them, even the most experienced pilots.   But I suspect that once he heard his engine quit as he was advancing down the runway, he may have found himself struggling to manage his fear.   We will never know if the pilot panicked, thus preventing him from thinking clearly, or if he calmly made the decisions he thought were the most rational, or most likely, something in between.   But if it is fair to say that what killed him was a series of bad decisions, then I think it is also likely that (especially given his instructors’ statements that he had been a thorough and safe pilot) managing fear is a prime suspect in what may have led to those decisions.

There, I suspect, but for the grace of God go all of us.   I fear all sorts of things, from germs to failure to success.   But I am nothing if not tenacious, and I have learned over the years to try to welcome fear the way Abraham Lincoln is said to have approached his enemies.   While some have said that he borrowed the line from a Roman Emperor, when an elderly woman chastised him for not calling Southerners irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed, Lincoln is reported to have said, “Why, madam– do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Making friends with our fears is the way to master them.  But mastery of our fears does not mean that we eradicate them—it just means that they begin to work for us as opposed to the other way around.   I often think about fear as Carlos Castaneda’s raven of death, which constantly flew just behind his shoulder.  Death cannot be run from.  It will assuredly outfly me so running away from it is a pointless endeavor.  Instead, while I often fail, I know my job is to welcome it into the house, feed it, get to know it.   If we blindly advance the throttle on takeoff without fear of engine failure, it is more likely to take us by surprise and potentially overwhelm our decision-making ability.

A Good Approach

images-1It has often been said that the secret to a good landing is a good approach. In flying, a good approach means that you hit all the altitudes and airspeeds you intended to, you are neither too high nor too low, neither too fast nor too slow, and that, above all, you remain stable.  Remaining stable means that you are not continually fluctuating your airspeed, trying to nail your altitude and constantly shifting to find the centerline of the runway.  Stability, in a good approach, is the key.

While I try to fly my approach in as stable a fashion as possible, I fail more often than I succeed.  I have become perhaps overly confident in my ability to land, because I have a history of pulling it off at the last minute.   This is bad technique, but a license to fly is a license to learn, and I keep learning.

I suspect that most of you have read these posts long enough to know what’s coming next.  Hopefully, neither you nor I are close to our final landing, but to the extent that any single moment could be our last, it is not far-fetched to try to live life as if we were always on our final approach.   And, in that sense, I confess that I have yearned to live my life as stably as possible.   And, as in my flying, I tend to fail more often than I succeed.   I am constantly struggling to find my right “airspeed” and stay on the centerline.

I don’t believe that I intend to live my life unregulated.  I yearn for stability, but for some reason stability and my nervous system don’t want to cooperate.   As I once had a yoga instructor who criticized my warrior pose because I was leaning too far forward, and I thought, “yup, that’s me… always leaning too far into the future,” perhaps my discomfort with stability has something to do with why I find it difficult to maintain stable approaches when flying.

But all this is overly simplistic.   In reality, in order to fly a stable approach, a pilot has to make constant, hopefully small, adjustments.   The pilot remains hyper-vigilant, sensing any shift in the wind and reacting quickly and gently in order to remain on target.   This is by no means a passive activity.   The irony of it all is that it takes a lot of activity to become stable.

That is where the difficulty of flying one’s final approach—and every other approach, comes in.   Just how does one achieve the hoped for “perfect landing”?  How does one face the inevitability of our flight coming to an end in such a way that we gently welcome the wheels to the ground, kiss the earth without having to frantically wrestle with our airplane?

Perhaps it is true that the secret to a good landing is a good approach.   Perhaps what is required is relaxed pressure on the controls, while calmly but vigilantly making the small adjustments needed to maintain just the right airspeed and just the right altitude, such that when our wheels finally come to rest, we find that we have barely noticed that we have eased ourselves onto the tarmac.  That would indeed be a good landing.

A Note from Saigon

Tea HouseI am writing this today from a tea house in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, still referred to by many as Saigon.  My business here is psychology and autism related, and the closest thing I am getting to aviation is the flight on the two miraculous jets that got me here– Airbus’ spectacular double decker A380, and Boeing’s stalwart triple-seven.

Vietnam is a beautiful country.  It would be even more beautiful to see it from a small airplane at a few thousand feet above ground, but that is not possible today because there is no such thing as general aviation here.  The skies are reserved for the military and commercial jetliners on flight plans.

To say that the fact that there is no general aviation in Vietnam is the result of communism is an oversimplification.  One can say with confidence that when it rains in Vietnam the streets get wet, but it seems as though there is little else one can say with confidence about Vietnam.

Yet, there does seem to be a relationship between the fact that the two “mostly communist” governments in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Laos, are the countries that have the least going for them in the arena of general aviation.  Cambodia, which has been beautifully described recently as “vaguely communist” now has a flourishing albeit young general aviation community.   Other countries in the region whose political-economic systems are ostensibly democratic-capitalistic such as the Philippines and Malaysia, have flourishing aviation scenes.

In a previous post I mentioned that growing up in the U.S. I somehow knew that when you wanted to chase another child off a swing you would shout “It’s a free country!”   How interesting it is to be socialized (indoctrinated?) into believing in freedom.  A private pilot’s license grants another opportunity to define and even treasure this thing we call freedom. Here in Vietnam, a country where flying your own airplane is illegal, and one in which the U.S. lost 60,000 of its children and the Vietnamese sacrificed millions of their own, it is difficult for me to not think about it.

It is fascinating to me what a difference a generation can make.  My closest associates here are probably either one or two decades younger than me, and they have little consciousness of the Vietnam war.   Vietnamese themselves learn about the war in school, but it seems that very few carry the deeply felt conflict inside them that I do.  (Today, a receptionist here told me that she “sees it in my grandparents’ eyes.”)

I filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war, although the draft ended before my paperwork could be processed.  Clearly, I opposed the war at the time, but my filing for CO status was duplicitous if not downright disingenuous.  I was against the Vietnam war, and I was against war in general, but I also believed that there was such a thing as a just war (such as the Second World War).

The more I learn about the Vietnam war, the more I believe that both sides were right, and both were wrong.   Isn’t that true of damn near everything?  The North Vietnamese had a legitimate gripe– their country had been arbitrarily torn in half and the south was dominated by corrupt, imperialist nations that had subjugated and tortured their people for generations.   The South Vietnamese treasured their freedom and democratic ideals and were fighting the spread of communism.   These were noble goals on both sides.

The dominoes did not fall when we lost the war.  The Viet Cong did not commit genocide or even torture their own citizens when they won, although they imprisoned many and “re-educated” many others.  In fact, it was the post-war unified Vietnamese that fought off a Chinese invasion and routed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia.  Today’s Vietnam is one in which the communist party is considered “irrelevant” or a nuisance by most Vietnamese.  There is no free press here, but there is widespread Internet access. It is a system rife with corruption, as is the case with governments throughout most of the world.

One of the reasons I love to fly is because I feel a deep sense of freedom when I do it.  I don’t know how to explain that phenomenon.  It just is.  And, perhaps coincidentally, flying one’s own airplane is also a symbol of freedom.  As Vietnam continues its gradual path toward openness, I suspect that general aviation will emerge.  Laos, closely aligned with Vietnam, has its very first flying club, and perhaps that will serve as a model for Vietnam.

Although I see faults in the American system, as deep as those faults can be, it remains one of the few places in the world where I could get in my airplane, start the engine up, and legally fly from one end of the continent to another without letting anyone know about it.  I can even do it legally without turning on my radio.   Sure, Langley will have me on its radar and will be watching every move I make, but as long as I don’t stray too close to Disneyland or Washington DC, they are going to leave me alone.  That is freedom, and that is noble.

Diversions

imagesFlying my Diamond DA40 home from a conference in Las Vegas with two colleagues on board not long ago was uneventful, until I came to the formidable mountains that comprise part of the Transverse Range.    While most of the flight from Las Vegas is over the wide Mojave Desert, my home airport in Santa Paula is tucked in a valley on the other side of those mountains.  The tops of the mountains were obscured completely by a line of clouds that extended as far as I could see in both sideways directions, and the tops of the clouds were higher than my normally-aspirated airplane could climb.

For an instrument-rated pilot this would present no problem, but I have yet to get that rating, so for me it was a challenge.   It wouldn’t have been difficult, mind you, but it would have been entirely illegal, and certainly unsafe for me and the passengers on board given my lack of “actual” (as opposed to virtual) time in the clouds.

After looking in both directions, it became clear that I immediately needed to alter my flight plan and make a diversion.   I disconnected the autopilot, and started a slow, wide turn to the left, with the intention of doing a wide circle while I figured out my next move.   I informed the passengers that there might be a delay getting home, and then called ATC to let them know that I was altering my planned route due to the line of clouds in front of me.    The composed voice came back with the query, “Are you instrument capable and qualified?”

I answered quickly that I was capable but not qualified, which means I have the appropriate instruments on board but was not certified.   The business-like voice simply said, “OK.”

I was considering diverting right or left to see if there was a clearing in the line of clouds that I couldn’t see yet, and what airports lay in wait below or just behind, and what the best place might be to spend the night, when the controller came back on the radio.   “One Romeo Alpha, it looks like there’s an opening in the clouds about 10 miles to the north.”

At about 150 miles an hour, that’s a pretty short diversion, so I thanked the controller and headed north.   Sure enough, there was a nice gap in the clouds that took me over the mountains near Santa Barbara, and I was able to turn south and head down the coast to my home airport with only a short delay.

Most pilots hate diversions.  Diversions make those aboard late, and usually create additional expense in fuel, time and lodging.  But diversions are a necessary part of getting there safely.

I would like to believe that having to divert is one of the more wonderful things about flying.   It forces us down a road that, if not less traveled, is certainly less anticipated.   And it forces us to live in the moment, a skill I have never been very good at, managing to immerse myself in the nostalgia of yesteryears, or the expectations and fantasies of life downstream.

There is a wonderful story that has been circulating the internet for many years now about how being a parent of a child with autism is like expecting to take a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland.  The point of the story is that if you live your life mourning the fact that you aren’t in Italy you’ll end up missing the beauty of Holland.

I do think that people who are good at accepting life’s diversions do so partly because they don’t allow themselves to get too attached to outcomes.   Lao Tzu said it best when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

I hate surprises, but I am convinced that surprise is where the adventure begins.  If the original goal, the runway on which you intend to land, is suddenly unsafe, then it’s time to open the throttle and find another one.

When I think of that simple diversion required of me to keep out of the clouds, I think of some small things I might have done differently.   It forced me to think under pressure, and later to review those decisions and therefore rehearse doing it better the next time.   But we all arrived safely, and enjoyed extraordinary scenery along the way that we would not have seen otherwise: wispy clouds teasing the mountain ridges, the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the California Coast, and the rolling foothills accompanying us home.

 

 

 

When All Else Fails: Regulate

UnknownI don’t like the word “regulation.”  It feels and sounds ugly to me.   I suppose that is because when I think of regulations, I think about them as a set of rules foist upon us by politicians, designed to govern behavior externally– echoes of “make your bed, Ira,” or simply, “you have to go to school, Ira.”

But in my day job as a psychologist, the word “regulation” often appears with the word “self-“ preceding it, and that gives it a different connotation.   Self-regulation means to be in control of one’s self, to have a smoothly operating thermostat capable of turning on the heat when needed and cooling down as the situation demands.   It is a popular word today, perhaps because it is less theory-bound than the term “ego strength,” which essentially meant the same thing but was promulgated by those sex-obsessed Freudians.

Most pilots I know are like most people I know, and they hate regulations imposed upon them by the government.   On the other hand, they tend to be in favor of self-regulation, especially when it comes to things such as determining what medical conditions should prevent them from flying.

As a pilot, I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of accidents are caused by something called “loss of control.”   It can happen at any time, but it often happens when life offers up a surprise, such as a malfunctioning instrument or a sudden weather change.  Accident investigations of such major catastrophes as Air France 447 and Colgan 3407 revealed that the pilots were “startled” by the events unfolding in the cockpit, and that the startle response may have led to a deterioration in the pilots’ reasoning ability.

Regulations designed to prevent such disasters are often aimed at improving training of how to recognize and respond to specific emergency scenarios, which is all good.   But let’s face it, the whole point of the so-called startle effect is that, almost de facto, when faced with a real emergency, the human body is designed to flood the bloodstream with hormones that simultaneously have the effect of muting learned responses and instigating a primitive fight or flight response.

One of the oldest clichés is that a pilot’s license is a “license to learn.”  I deeply appreciate the ongoing training I avail myself of, as well as the early training I received in which certain fundamentals were drilled into my head.   One of those was the mantra that, above all else, one must “fly the airplane.”   That mantra is there because, when the fit hits the shan, pilots and humans in general forget the basics.   Whether panic takes over completely, or one concerns oneself so much with problem-solving that one fails to focus on the simple basics of flying, the failure to self-regulate can have devastating consequences.

“Flying the airplane” is a metaphor for self-regulation.   When the unanticipated bill arrives from the IRS, when the person in the Escalade cuts you off on the freeway, when the process server knocks on your door, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath and simultaneously level your wings.   Slow down if you’re going too fast, or speed up if you’re going too slowly.   Above all, don’t let the airplane fly you.   Self-regulation beats the other kind hands down.

Autism in Love

d0a08b_dea72ec2e51f45c3b2a5a9e1a948da8a.png_srz_p_346_192_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzI am on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, one of the few times I am grateful for having short legs.   I am returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.   It is truly an honor, given the numbers: 6700 films were submitted and only 120 were selected for the competition.   The film, “Autism in Love,” is in the “world documentary feature” category, competing against 11 others in its category for a coveted award.

One of the films in competition with “Autism in Love” is called “In Transit,” a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an AMTRAK train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago.   The stories themselves are captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, creating a kind of metaphor within a metaphor.   Each person seems to be in some sort of transition in their lives, moving internally as they physically move through the landscape.  But on a train, the sensation is that it is the landscape that is moving, so that one’s internal movement is mirrored by the movement of the landscape.  And of course, all that occurs on a screen projecting a “moving picture,” a medium that is, by definition, about movement.

I am doing the same thing now, traveling at 514 miles per hour, four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground.  We humans, through the ingenuity provided by our cerebral cortexes, create and build machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it.   We build machines that move us from one place to another for many reasons, but ultimately we build machines that move us physically in order to move us emotionally.

The film I produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love.  Their lives are very different from one another’s, but they each live in the landscape others have called autism.   I have lost any objectivity I might have had about the film, but judging by the reviews I have been reading, it succeeds in a message I was hoping for; that love is love and nearly anyone, despite having a label that others insist prevent them from loving, can teach us about it.

In college days I was taught that humans, by nature and physiology, are novelty seeking animals.   That is undoubtedly what makes solitary confinement so punishing.  But without the contrast of stability there could be no novelty, just as a figure disappears when the ground around it disappears.

So whether we find ourselves riding the rails of AMTRAK, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757, we ultimately remain figures embedded in the world around us.  We are moving, or being moved.

For more information on “Autism in Love,” see www.autisminlove.com, or better yet, see “Autism in Love” on Facebook.

Mass Murder in the Alps

The Germanwings disaster intrigues me more than most, perhaps because as a psychologist who flies for fun my interests bridge psychology and aviation, and all roads seem to be pointing to the mental health of the copilot who apparently flew the Airbus into the ground, killing himself and 150 others.

Crash investigators are charged with determining the cause of airplane accidents.   Cause is a complex, multi-layered concept.  One can say, for example, that the immediate cause of the Germanwings disaster was the co-pilot’s directing the airplane into a fast descent into the terrain below, causing the airplane and its inhabitants to break into pieces.   But what “caused” the copilot to direct the autopilot to fly the aircraft into the ground?

The word that I hear most often is “suicide,” one of those verbs that disguises itself as a noun.   Because we know that the copilot went onto the internet and looked up ways to kill himself as opposed to ways to commit mass murder we assume his intention was the former, and the others who died were “merely” collateral damage. But does calling the pilot’s action suicide get any deeper at the cause?

Psychologists have come a long way in understanding the ingredients of suicidal behavior.   But it is more difficult to imagine the depth of cognitive distortion, the outrageous amount of blindness that must occur when severely depressed to not feel for the families of others on board.

I have survived the suicide of four of my patients in my career, and scores more who either tried and failed or had strong enough impulses to require hospitalization.   In the vast majority of those situations, the perpetrator and the victim were the same.

I did have one suicidal patient who dealt with his anger toward his father (who had shot him at point blank range when my patient was a teenager) by “putting people in the hospital,” as he used to say.  Occasionally, he targeted police officers for his aggressive attacks, which were certainly suicidal gestures, but each time it occurred the police responded professionally and subdued him.   (On one occasion, two Burbank police officers brought him to my office instead of jail after he attacked a co-worker because they were either insightful or well-trained enough to realize that his aggression was a sign of his suicidality.)

What I don’t understand is the overwhelming number of press reports that refer to the behavior of the copilot as suicide instead of homicide.  One could argue, perhaps not too cleverly, that the copilot’s actions leading to the death of 150 people and his own makes it 150 times more likely to fall under the category of homicide than suicide.

I consider it a character flaw whenever I have difficulty finding compassion for the perpetrator of heinous acts.  Compassion for victims is easy; it is the perpetrators who need it more.  Understanding is helpful in finding compassion, but I don’t know that science will be able to determine the “reasons” why this copilot pointed his airplane’s nose to the ground.   There is no brain left to scan that might reveal a lesion.   We are left only with our theories, our knowledge that depression is often a combination of helplessness, hopelessness, distorted thinking, rage and blame turned inward.

This would not be the first time in history one has used an airplane as a weapon of mass murder.   But most of the others have been in the context of war between nations.   When mass murder takes place in the context of war within one’s own mind, there is no societal sanction to welcome you home.  The punishment of having ended one’s own life in the process does not bring the innocent victims back to life, nor does it lead very far down the road to compassion.

Perhaps more than most I should be able to understand someone whose depression is so great that he is able to transform his own pain into what can and arguably should only be called a case of mass murder-suicide.  But for me that is likely going to require considerably more effort.

Walking a Banana

Walking a Banana

Walking a Banana

More than a few years back, I called my cousin on the phone to ask him some real estate advice. He advised me against the deal I was pursuing, and added this bit of wisdom: “It’s the deals you don’t make that make you rich, not the deals you make.”

That was difficult advice for me. Ever since my early twenties, when I decided that I was done hiding from life, being alive meant engaging, taking risks and making deals. Saying no to something that looks like it might be a good deal feels like a retreat from life; there is no way to win if you keep folding your cards.

But then, knowing when to hold and when to fold is what makes a good poker player, and that is really what my cousin was saying. The poker expert Mike Skelza once said something very similar to my cousin: “It’s not how many hands you win, it’s how many hands you don’t lose.”

Of course, if you don’t ever make any deals, or take any risks, there can never be any gain. And every gain seems to require the pain of mistakes made along the way. Each of us has had it drilled into our psyches that we learn by making mistakes– so why do we fear them so much?

Sometimes it has to do with shame, and sometimes with perfectionism—an overly critical internalized voice that accepts nothing but the best from ourselves and others. Doing something wrong confirms an underlying self-hatred, a feeling of never being quite good enough.

That is why many therapists have their clients practice making mistakes. The iconic psychologist Albert Ellis developed a series of “shame-disputing” tactics that included walking a banana tied to the end of a leash as if it were a dog. Those clients whose fears of mistake-making were based more on perfectionism than shame would be encouraged to make mistakes intentionally and often, in order to ultimately get comfortable with the fact that few mistakes have disastrous effects.

But in aviation, small mistakes can have disastrous effects. Fortunately, it is rarely the single mistake that causes the mishap, but rather a series of bad decisions. That is why good aviation instruction includes intentionally making mistakes in order to learn how to recognize and recover from them. Or, as happened to me a couple of months ago, allowing students to discover their own mistakes before correcting them. After a complex instrument approach, I was told to do a “touch and go” in which I immediately took off after landing. I forgot to raise my flaps, which I didn’t notice until long after I should have. My instrument instructor, Michael Phillips, waited for me to figure out why the airplane was flying with its nose down and tail in the air like a downward dog in order to maintain the airspeed I was trying to get it to. I have done perhaps a thousand touch and goes, and never before forgot to raise my flaps, but now I know what happens when I do.

Focusing on not making bad deals, as my cousin suggested, is ultimately a way of not focusing too narrowly on winning. If we focus too narrowly on winning, we are less apt to notice our mistakes, and correct for them. I was so relieved that I successfully accomplished my instrument approach that I forgot the simple necessity of raising my flaps on my way out of the airport. You can drive full steam ahead toward your goal, but if you hit a deep pothole your axle will break and you’ll never get there. If, instead, you drive determinedly toward your goal but keep your eyes peeled on avoiding the potholes along the way, you may eventually get there.

Whether the arena is investing in real estate, making a business decision, flying an airplane, or teaching a child with autism, mistakes are going to happen. Given their inevitably, it is always a good idea to get a certain comfort level with making them, without letting our fixation on the goal get in the way. If you can’t, there’s always the leash and the banana.

Flying as Therapy

Unknown-1 Along with sailing, polo and race car driving, aviation can be an expensive hobby.   But I am fond of reminding detractors that by and large flying cost about as much as ongoing psychotherapy, and can be equally as effective.  Here’s how.

Piloting an airplane requires complete and thorough attention.  Sophisticated instruments eases that burden a bit, but one needs to constantly monitor them, listen attentively to the sounds of the engine, and keep vigilant eyes out for things that might go bump in the day or night.  Stuff can happen very quickly in an airplane, and a lapse of attention can be deadly.

It is the combination of complete attention and mastery of the fear that accompanies any dangerous activity that in part makes it a therapeutic experience.  But there is another element that also makes it therapeutic.

Humans are outrageously complex organisms, and the human brain functions more efficiently and effectively (at some tasks) than the most complex computers.  What makes the brain so incredible is its ability to manage so many functions in parallel.   At any moment, the human brain is processing and directing multiple complex processes, the vast majority of them outside of awareness.

Some of those processes have to do with attempts to resolve conflicts that arise in childhood and continue to play out in daily life.   These ancient conflicts, along with those that arise in the more recent course of work and family relationships, are streaming through our awareness, and can wreak havoc with our daily lives as we allow them to rear themselves when it would serve us better to direct them instead into the background.

Most people see a good psychotherapy session as one in which the client comes to believe movement has been made toward resolution of childhood conflicts.  But those conflicts are a little like a war that goes on interminably, and, recalling the famous bumper sticker from the sixties, what if they gave a war and nobody came?

That is not to say that it is a good thing to deny the existence of our conflicts, but rather to embrace them and trust in our integrity to be responsible for them and “work them through” when the time is appropriate to do so.  Stepping into a cockpit does not stop the world from turning outside; the world remains unjust, the argument with your partner still festers, but in that moment one’s job is to simply fly the airplane.

We can eliminate suffering not only through successfully resolving conflicts, but also through coming to accept those conflicts and engaging life more fully in the moment.  That is what a “healing exchange” with a therapist can do, and that is how flying, or engaging in any activity requiring complete focus and which forces one to live fully in the moment can be good therapy.