My friend Tim Piering recently invited me to join him for a helicopter tour of Los Angeles. Immediately, my mind filled with excuses, searching for just the right one that would allow me to graciously decline. My conscience must have been switched on that day, because I was unable to fabricate an excuse. "If you are not going to go," my conscience said, "then at least tell Tim the truth: you are terrified."
I was terrified because over 20 years ago, in India, I had gone up in a helicopter similar to the one Tim said we would use: you know, one of those tiny things that looks like a kid's toy. To me, the helicopter was nothing more than two lawn chairs in a Plexiglas bubble, underneath a whirling blade, which would ascend hundreds and thousands of feet into the air. My earlier experience was a nightmare. I'm sure the pilot was drunk, and once we were in the air he said something to the effect that he had never flown a helicopter before. I was screaming the whole time, he was laughing, and to this day I don't know how we survived. I vowed then and there that I would never, ever--for any reason whatsoever--fly in a helicopter again.
Regardless of that vow, I accepted his offer. I mentioned my earlier experience and confessed that I was afraid. Tim was great, full of compassion and kindness and understanding, all of which helped calm my mind--until the day came when I was standing on the tarmac with one hand touching the damn bubble I was about to go up in. The terror came back. I did my best to manage it, listening intently to Tim's introduction to the machine, a Robinson R22, listening to him tell me how safe it was, how many times he had flown, how easily he could land the helicopter even if the rotors stopped turning.
My terror would have none of it. My terror became deaf to what Tim was saying, and blind to what was actually happening in the moment. My consciousness had completely merged with the fearful memories of the past. I can't remember if I was even breathing.
Finally, the moment arrived. Tim opened one of the doors (if you could even call them that) and invited me in.
Tim gets in. We fasten our seat belts and put our headphones on. He goes through a thorough pre-flight check list, flicking buttons and switches. He starts the engine. I cannot believe I am doing this. I am praying that this is a dream from which I'll wake up just in time.
No such luck. Oh my God... we are lifting up! Okay, it's not so bad, at just ten feet off the ground. Maybe we could tour L. A. at this altitude, not much higher than a stepladder. I could probably handle that. But Tim had other ideas.
Up we go. My body is stiff as a corpse, and I'm breathing like one. My eyes are closed. I want to die.
Then, something occurred to me. Like an arrow through fog, this thought hit some bull's eye in my brain. Is your fear related to what is happening now, or to what happened 20 years ago?
There was enough strength and honesty in that question to penetrate my fear. I didn't know if I was afraid of anything now, because I wasn't even present. I hadn't yet experienced what was happening. My fear had created a barrier between me and my real time experience. My fear had to be based on the past. It was that past which was creating my present experience, and creating the dire scenarios I kept imagining were only moments away.
Again came the arrow: Is your fear related to what is happening now, or to what happened 20 years ago?
Now there was enough room in my consciousness to work with this question. If there was something to fear now, in this moment, in the helicopter with Tim, then at least let me get in touch with it, let me experience it.
This internal dialogue helped to dissipate some of the fear and tension. I opened my eyes. I relaxed into the seat and let it hold me. I unclenched my hands. I began to breathe, consciously. Deep breaths, into the belly...and slowly out. Again. Again. I looked out, and down.
The past was being replaced with the present. I kept breathing out tension and letting go of images that were a part of the past. Suddenly I noticed how smooth the ride was. I could hear Tim point out some landmarks in the headphones. I began to marvel at the view, and how much freedom we had to go wherever we wanted. Circling the Rose Bowl, dipping down over hidden mansions, hovering near office buildings, skipping just over the waves of the ocean off the Santa Monica beaches.
My body had become completely relaxed, my mind at ease, my breathing steady. I was present. And in the present, there was no fear. I became very confident and sure of our safety. I remembered how Tim explained to me that even if the engine died, the rate of descent would cause enough airflow through the blades--making them continue to whirl--to allow for an easy landing.
The more present I became, the more I experienced the freedom of the flight, the amazing views and perspectives of L. A., the peace of such solitary and easy movement above the congestion below. How wonderful!
I lost track of time, and was surprised when I heard Tim's voice in my headphones saying that we were approaching the airport and would be landing in a matter of moments. I heard myself utter a disappointed sigh and realized how far, indeed, the journey had been. Certainly more than just an hour; certainly more than just a broad circling of Los Angeles. I had journeyed from a nightmare to a daydream, from fear to excitement.
As we approached the landing strip, I thought that the helicopter had been like a Plexiglas cocoon, a chrysalis, in which the body of my old fears had been dissolved and discarded in favor of new wings, bright wings, wings which would carry me to more adventures, more joys.
There is a big life lesson in this experience, one that far transcends dealing with the fear of flying. It has to do with the fact that we must become fully present in order to experience what is happening now, in order to know what is happening now. How tragic to go through life a prisoner of the past. I was reminded to monitor the source of my tension or fear or anxiety to see whether it had anything to do with the present, or whether it was the past interpreting the present.
Relax the body. Breathe deeply. Keep the eyes open. Let the feelings and sensations come cleanly, not through a window caked with the mud and dead insects of the past. How wonderful the present can be, when we are present with it.