Mindfulness can make every action important, and then what were moments in the zone become an inner art. Matching skills and challenges, you are now flowing in a ocean of air, alive in the river of life.
Each moment of flight is unique. Completely alone in the history of the world as the only moment of flight exactly like it. When I’m going around the pattern banging out landings — hit and runs I’ve heard people call my touch and goes — each is its own. Different wind. Different approach path. Different weight and balance by the amount of fuel burned. Different mindset. If am not mindful of this I will miss it. And then it is gone.
We've known this for a long time. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is credited with saying, “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.” In 1212 Japanese author Kamo no Chōmei wrote, “Ceaselessly the river flows, and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment.” Every time we fly it is different. We just need to pay careful enough attention to notice, and learn.
Zen emphases the seemingly simple practice of paying attention to what we are doing right now. Really paying full attention. Ever eat a meal and not remember it half an hour later? Instead try focusing on your food. Each chew. Each sensation. Every meal. Now turn this mindfulness onto flying. Feel the controls. Know the flightplan. Notice the weather. Pay full total attention.
When thoughts of laundry to be done, or union politics undone or whatever intrude, acknowledge the thought and let it go. Get back to flying. On final approach it’s easy to be in the zone with all earthly thoughts forgotten. But for the majority of the time flying is a lot less intense. This is the time you mirror the monk sitting zazen meditation. He is looking inside. You are sitting and looking outside. Get back to flying. Feel the controls. Notice the weather. Really review all the instruments. And practice this for years.
A common description from those in the zone is the experience of losing track of time. It’s total absorption in the moment. While the phrase 'in the zone' is new, the nature of humans is not. We've lost ourselves in time thing since the start of language. The Greeks actually had two words for time: Kairos and kronos.
Kronos time is what we live with on a daily basis. It is regulated by clocks, clicking off in discrete hours, minutes, and seconds. It often seems to be more of an enemy or taskmaster than a friend. There is rarely enough of it, and we feel stressed out as we race the clock to go about our regular activities. Kronos time is what we have to make flightplans in.
Kairos time is different. It flows gently — allowing us to be in the moment. We participate in kairos time, rather than racing to catch up with it. Kairos time may occur during personally meaningful activities, in meditation, during any creative process, or landing on the short runway with the big trees at both ends. You are wholly absorbed in the moment. These are the moments that really matter. Measured by a clock these times can happen in a second, or an afternoon. By minding the details, we make it more likely that we will live in kairos time.
One of Sam’s favorite authors, Henry David Thoreau, returned to this timeless theme many times. His journal entry of 23 April, 1859, put it this way, “Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” Seems he was looking for kairos time.
Being in the zone is a true pinnacle experience. It is the absence of much that we dread in life. No fear, no problems, no desires and no sad comparisons. While working at the maximum, you feel at peace, one in body and mind. Individual movements that took years to master come together in a union of body and mind that comes and goes like a thief in the night. Living in unity is part gift and part grit. It is the reward given to those who spend the time necessary sharpening the skills to consistently perform at a level few achieve. But being in the zone can’t last longer than a tricky approach or an intense dogfight. We need something less intense that lasts a lot longer.
This state is called flow. Yoga teacher Shiva Rea defines flow as, “the ability to move freely in an unbroken stream of awareness uniting your mind, body, breath with your creative intelligence.” That’s not bad, but as pilots we need some more concrete understanding of this concept.
Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying what he calls flow for years. He began in the early 1960s studying a group of artists for his thesis on creativity. Noticing how many became oblivious to their surroundings while they worked, he went on to investigate whether other activities and even jobs produced such absorption. What he found was that if people made the doing, not the ending, what was important then many things became a happy flow rather than a tedious chore.
In papers and books, verified and expanded by other research groups, he has presented a theory that if man notices the clear goals, concentrates, experiences immediate feedback, and is engaged in a balance of skills and challenges, then a state of happy flow may follow. Intense examples would be Michael Jordan charging down the court in the last thirty seconds or a marksman hitting moving targets, but flow is much more general and common than the intense feelings of being in the zone. Flow can happen sweeping the floor.
People experiencing flow are more productive and more happy. What some see as work others see as an intrinsically rewarding activity, which becomes almost play. Another word for this is autotelic, derived from two Greek words that describe doing something for its own sake (auto=self; telos=goal). The work contains its goal within itself, we don’t need external rewards to prod us as it is intrinsically rewarding, the beauty is inside the activity, inside ourselves.
Research has found that performers interviewed about what being in flow is like include descriptors such as “felt easy", “complete task focus", “totally relaxed", “enjoying experience as it occurs", “totally absorbed in what I am doing", “endless supply of energy", “things happening automatically", “nothing else enters awareness", and “leaves you feeling great". (Jackson, 1996). Sounds great. So how do we set-up this flow?
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory holds that eight dimensions constitute the conditions necessary for the occurrence and continuation of flow. These dimensions are valid across many different occupations, demographic groups and cultures. And they all clearly apply to flying! They are:
Clear goals and feedback
Balance between challenges and skills
Action and awareness merged
Concentration on task
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Altered sense of time
Autotelic (self-rewarding) experience.
People find flow in many activities, but I believe what Sam showed me, that flying meets all the dimensions and is at the root of peak piloting. The goal of any flight should be clear. Safety, movement from A to B, learning, proficiency, or the many aerial missions. The feedback in flying is immediate and accurate. How was the landing? How much gas did you burn? How many mistakes? There are endless challenges and skills. While being in the zone is momentary, being in a flow state lasts longer, and is more rewarding.
However, no one can sustain a flow experience all the time. But that’s all right. Dr. Sue Jackson, who has worked with Csikszentmihalyi and interviewed many athletes in several decades of studying elite performance, has found they use memories of flow as a motivator to slog through deliberate practice. One top athlete described it this way:
Flow is what gives you the buzz to keep doing what you are doing, keep doing the sport. Because once you’ve got it, it just lifts you. Once you lose it, it can be a real slog until you get it back again. And once you’ve got it back again, and you’re just grooving along, everything’s going well, that’s great. That’s just what you want it to be. (Jackson, 2012).
So how can we encourage this happy state, this optimal experience? Much of what Sam taught is directly applicable. Concentrate, set and monitor goals, fly for the fun and precision of flying. Flow theory also shows we need to balance tasks and proficiency.
Mihaly has presented this chart of challenges versus skills. With some thought it can be seen how it makes sense that when your skills or proficiencies match your challenges or tasks you could become involved in the activity and enter experience flow.
(from Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly: Finding Flow, 1997, Figure 1, Page 31.)
Low skill and low challenge is watching boring TV. Channel surfing apathy soon sets in. Low skills and high challenge is taking a test for which you have not studied, pretty scary high stress stuff. High skill but low challenge can be cruising for hours in the flight deck of a modern airliner. Neat view, but yawningly boring for thousands of miles. The fun begins with high challenges joining high skills. This is focused flying — indeed life — made worthwhile, interesting, endlessly fascinating. It’s hand-flying the night ILS to minimums, or tight formation aerobatics, or a glassy water landing in a seaplane, or slowly gaining altitude soaring a glider in a weak thermal.
As pilots we can actively match our skills and challenges to encourage flow. We can make our practice productive. A high challenge task in an area where our skills are rusty must must be avoided. This is safety management. Let’s say we are holding a few miles from the airport, waiting to land. It is night, it is snowing, and the crosswind is gusty and growing. Now the airport authority says braking action is poor on the runway. If we are not very well practiced, this sounds like a good time to divert to another airport. The challenge may be above our skills.
More common — in wasted time if not number of accident reports — is apathy, boredom and undue relaxation. Here is the perfect time to increase the challenges. By noticing more, by demanding better performance, we are automatically increasing the challenge of flight. While others sit bored, we are seeing that the groundspeed has slowed and wondering if a wind shift means a weather change. While others relax, we click off the autopilot and hand-fly some straight and level. While others sleep, we look to see what airport we’d land at if both engines quit right now. We add challenges to match and engage our skills. And in that matched state we may find the happiness of flow.
Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a mindfulness expert and author of many important books about the brain and the mind, has proposed an outline of the neurological process of flow. It’s tentative, and certainly not settled science, but certainly interesting:
We are aware with a dominance of a sensory stream but without much, if any, self-observation. Perhaps the energy distribution curve profile would have the knowns of flow arise directly from the plane without much filtering by restricting plateaus that alter perception. In this way, energy in the plane would have deep awareness while energy beyond the plane, as rising peaks, would be in as pure a state as possible, not constrained by prrior expections. (Siegel, 2017).
That’s reaching the limits of my understanding, but it’s interesting that neuroscience and psychiatry folks are working on the differences, connections and mechanisms of mindfulness, flow, awareness, consciousness and more.
What I do understand, is that pilot who seeks the flow state is not only having a better time, but she has better sharpened skills ready for the unexpected challenge. Good stuff this mindful flow flying!
All pilots know what it feels like for the mechanical cockpit to disappear and for a while you are really flying in the sky. One with the wing would say Sam. Flowing in the zone would say the psychologist. No-mind would say the Zen teacher. A real pilot would say the real pilot.
In his book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig gives an already good word even more meaning. What some call right effort or flow, he calls 'gumption.' He says that gumption is what a person experiences when he becomes wholly absorbed in what he is doing:
The Greeks called it enthousiasmos, the root of 'enthusiasm,' which means literally 'filled with theos,' or God or Quality…. A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.
Flow, or mindfullness, or gumption. All sound like good places to be when you are going places in an airplane. There are a million things to look at and think about and feel on every flight, but often we sit bored. Instead of wasting our time, we can flow on the wind. Matching skills and challenges. Becoming a master of the wing, a king of the wild blue yonder, a good stick.
When you know, after the first few minutes, that the whole mechanism is working perfectly, the sensation is so keenly delightful as to be almost beyond description. More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.
Happiness is absorption.
T. E. Lawrence
Good seamanship in more than just experience; it’s seeing the connections.
The genuine masters of their craft — I say this confidently from my experience of ships — have thought of nothing but of doing their very best by the vessel under their charge. To forget one’s self, to surrender all personal feeling in the service of that fine art, is the only way for a seaman to the faithful discharge of his trust.
From artists to athletes, the state of flow is defined as the ability to move freely in an unbroken stream of awareness, uniting your mind, body and breath with your creative intelligence.
Time sometimes flies like a bird, sometimes crawls like a snail; but a man is happiest when he does not even notice whether it passes swiftly or slowly.
Being in the moment … time just sort of stops still, and at the same time seems to go by very quickly… it’s a blur. But I love it. I love when it feels like it’s really going well. I’m just in tune, in harmony with time. It’s a great feeling.
Forever — is composed of Nows.
When it’s time to get dressed, put your clothes on. When you must walk, then walk. When you must sit, then sit. Don’t have a single thought in your mind about seeking Buddhahood. What Dharma do you say must be realized, and what Tao cultivated? What do you lack in the way you are functioning right now? What will you add to where you are?
I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In golf, there is no short cut to better scoring. Better golf is attained through infinite attention to detail.
There were times when I saw the ball leave the quaterback’s hands in slow motion. I had time to consider the spin on the ball, and I could see the gap in the white stripe. It didn’t happen all the time and seemed to be related to my level of concentration.
I stepped into another world, a timeless one where there was no effort, no clocks, no yesterday, no tomorrow. I floated along for 15 minutes, aware of nothing, just drifting.
When I am consistently playing my best tennis, I am also consistently in the zone…. once you think about being in the zone, you are immediately out of it.
In Judo, he who thinks is immediately thrown. Victory is assured to the combatant who is both physically and mentally nonresistant.
Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free: Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.
It is moving within a multitude of sensations and forces effortlessly, fluidly, without a trace of inappropriate exertion or tension. It is being danced by God at each moment, pirouetting, leaping, eluding all forces that work to trip up and snare the Dancer.
Match your strategy to your skills.
The vast flood rolls onward, but yield yourself and it floats you upon it.
In motion, be like water.
At rest, like a mirror.
Receptive, but not permanently so.
Respond, like the echo.
As your faith is strengthened you will find that there is no longer the need to have a sense of control, that things will flow as they will, and that you will flow with them, to your great delight and benefit.
I would make those landings good ones; I would be relaxed yet alert, like the man in the textbook, and ready for anything.
When you are learning basic forms, you Don’t think anything. But gradually, as you advance, you begin to consider various strategies, so you begin to think. But at the final stage, eventually you have to put yourself back to keeping nothing in your mind. The most important thing is to return to the basics.
Speed? Really the whole process is the reverse of speed, how to eliminate it. It doesn’t exist for me except when I am driving poorly. Then things seem to be coming at me quickly instead of passing in slow motion and I know I’m off form.
A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.
Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.
You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.
The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.
In order to be utterly happy the only thing necessary is to refrain from comparing this moment with other moments in the past, which I often did not fully enjoy because I was comparing them with other moments of the future.