The Inner Art of Airmanship

Mindset Three: Voices In My Head

We all have an inner dialogue, the voice in our head that talks to only us, that we think is us. And while there are many times we need to think actions through using our inner dialogue, there are other times we must somehow quieten the voice. And trust another inner self.

Take a quiet moment, and imagine a pink flying pig. That done, now clear your mind and try not to think about a pink pig flying on little pink wings. Go ahead. Try.

It’s not easy is it? you’ve never seen a real pig fly, with or without wings, but somehow this make-believe mental construct was in your head and you could not get it out. So just how much control over your inner dialogue do you really have? Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has studied our lack of success with thought suppression, and indeed has experimentally verified that we can’t just push negative thoughts away. He also dug deep to find an 1863 quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, "Try to post for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” So we've known about this mental limitation for a long time.

And not only are we poor at pushing out unhelpful or irrevelent thoughts once we've had them, they do crowd out a more useful calm we could be enjoying. Consider this; while you were thinking about a pink porker flapping its little wings, you were not able to think of anything else. Unless you are hearing several voices in your head at the same time (in which case you have real problems), you can only think about one thing at a time. Our powerful inner dialogue, what we think of as our own very personal center of being, is limited to thinking of only one thing at a time. It would seem clear that when landing a plane, we’d best not be dreaming of flying pigs. We need focus.

The voice in our flying head should be a suspicious double-checking always-questioning voice. This flying voice stays ahead of the airplane. What is the latest weather report? Has our fuel burn changed? What would I do if an engine quit at the outer marker? Where is the traffic? How will the wind change on final?

The practiced patter of the inner voice is an important and enjoyable part of being a pilot. There are many things to think through. From planning alternates to cruising altitudes, to being actively aware of how the flight is progressing. Passing a checkpoint a little late may be within normal margins of error and measurement. Or maybe the winds aloft have changed. A dramatic change in the winds aloft from those forecast may indicate the weather patterns are different. Our inner flying voice says check the destination weather.

Our seagoing fellow travelers have long had a good understanding of this inner voice. It’s a solid part of seamanship and forehandedness and the attitude of continual prudence. A publication of the international shipping association BIMCO put it this way:

Prudence is the assumption that things invariably go wrong, it is the ingrained ability of spatial awareness and the need for sea room, the likelihood that the person on the other bridge does not comprehend the collision rules and is mad, blind or drunk. (Grey, 2001).

We must think the same of traffic we see in the air. We should be thinking about what to do when the other plane suddenly slows down, or goes around, or crosses the runway, or doesn’t clear the runway, or whatever.

The inner voice teaches us to fly better. In the cockpit, if I’m thinking about what is for dinner I am not thinking about why I am 30 feet off my altitude. (Remember there is only one thing in the conscious mind at a time.) If I am thinking about being 30 feet off my altitude, it is the start of being on the right altitude. If I am thinking about dinner, it is the start of never being able to exactly hold my altitude.

Jim Fannin, a performance coach to many star athletes says you should, “go on a mental diet and think about what you think about, the intended result being a clear mind with less thought.” He claims that, “the average person has between 2,000 to 3,000 thoughts a day,” of which some 60 percent are chaotic and not really useful. However after learning to train the inner voice,  “the superstar has 1,200 and every one of them has a purpose” (Ketcham, 2005).

Mario Andretti, one of the most successful automobile racers we've ever seen, a driver with 109 wins on major circuits and the only person ever to win races over five decades, told a sports psychologist that:

Before a race, I need my space to collect my thoughts and weed out distractions. I set out to control my mind around a single objective. I become possessed with being excellent that day. Only one objective and all my thoughts are on it. When I am in ‘the zone,‘ I am in a trance and time does not exist. (Barrell & Ryback, 2008.)

We might say he was mindful. A very good thing in flying. A good defination of mindfulness states it is “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment” (Hölzel, et al, 2011). This is powerful stuff. Nonjudgmental. Awareness. Present. We want all that as good pilots.

The experience of flying tends to focus the mind anyway, it’s something people love as the worries of the world get left on the ground, but we should work on our inner voice on the ground as well. Pay little attention to impatience, gossip, prejudices, anger, jealousy, envy and other negative thoughts that crowd our heads. All whining, negative thinking and excuses need to be ignored and eliminated. You have one voice, let it be positive and useful. Let it be aware of the present moment.

The inner voice leads us through memory items. There should be a list in your head of the actions to do when an engine quits, or the cabin depressurizes, or there is a fire. Your train the inner voice with ground school and quiet personal mental review. Your train the inner voice with checklists and reading magazine articles or buying ‘seven habits of successful pilots' books. But then making the plane do what the thinking mind has decided is part of another inner self.

There are several kinds of expert knowledge that come together in expert performance: knowledge of, knowledge how and knowledge when and how much. Knowledge of facts and rules, that landing aircraft have priority in a traffic pattern, standard holding pattern is right turns and whatnot is called declarative knowledge. How knowledge  is called procedural, and is the knowledge that enables us to perform music, to move the muscles in the tongue to talk, or to land in a crosswind on an icy runway. Conditional knowledge is when to abandon the approach and go-around.

Procedural and conditional knowledge is difficult or impossible to write down and is difficult to teach. It is best taught by demonstration and best learned through practice. Even the best teachers cannot usually describe what they are doing. Procedural knowledge is largely subconscious. The voice that talks us though declarative knowledge (turn right at the holding fix, start the time when abeam outbound) really does not help us for procedural tasks (wind is 20 gusting 30, you’re cleared to land). The traditional inner voice just gets in the way sometimes.

We train for procedural knowledge using repeated practice, both mental and actual. We immerse ourselves in the task and learn to let it happen without worrying about it. Without the voice in our head criticizing and slowing everything down many skills will become smoother and more automatic. Legendary astronaut Story Musgrave said that, “you have to train the body how to do it, the mind alone is not enough.” So how can we learn to focus, how to teach the inner dialogue to be quiet and let the rest of the body and mind get on with the job in hand.

After golfer Pádraig Harrington won the 2007 Open Championship in Carnoustie in an exciting play-off against Sergio Garcia, he described what had gone through his mind as he sank the putt that won him the championship and the six million dollar purse:

No conscious effort whatsoever went into that putt. There were no thoughts about this is for the Open…. This was as pure as you like. I stroked it in. It might just be the most fluid putt I’ll ever hit in my life. (Jones, 2007).

The first Irishman to win the Open Championship in 60 years sounds like he mastered the art of silencing his inner voice.

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years as a way to focus, as a way to silence the yap yap yap of the babbling inner voice. However, it is only recently that its effects have been scientifically proven. In his 2002 keynote address to the American Psychological Association in Chicago, Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical school, reported that mediation has been shown beyond any reasonable doubt to quiet the central nervous system. It’s no longer a viewpoint or a hunch — it’s well-tested science.

There are now loads of good examples in the scientific literature. A review in 2006 of ninety-six research papers concluded that “the central nervous system function is clearly affected by meditation” (Cahn & Polich., 2006). Exactly how is still unknown, as our understanding of how the brain works is still quite elementary. However training seems to change many regions of our brain, with German researchers finding evidence that “mindfulness practice is associated with neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures.” (Hölzel, et al, 2011).

sitting pilot

A 2007 paper showed that three months of intensive Vipassana meditation led to significant improvements in the information processing capacity of the brain (Slagter, et al., 2007). And its not just internal processing that is affected, another paper reported that among Tibetan Buddhist monks the degree of control they had over certain aspects of visual perception was related to the amount of time spent in meditation (Carter, et al., 2005). Short term effects have also been recorded. A 2009 study at George Mason University found that following 20 minutes of Deity Yoga (that is, sitting quietly and holding the focus of attention on an internally generated image of a deity), experienced meditators had vastly increased processing efficiency of complex visual and mental tasks (Kozhevnikov, et al., 2009). The dramatic improvements were not seen in the control groups that either did open presence meditation, were not experienced meditators, or merely rested for the 20 minutes.

A 2005 paper reported that meditation experience results in increased cortical thickness measured by MRI machines. The brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were actually larger in 20 meditation participants than in the matched controls (Lazar, et al., 2005). This was the first structural evidence for experience-dependent brain plasticity associated with meditation practice. In 2009, another team of neuroscientists using MRI data found that years of meditation practice results in increases in gray-matter in the lower brainstem (Vestergaard-Poulsen, et al., 2009). They believe the observed structural changes to the brain caused by meditation explain the cognitive, emotional, and immunoreactive improvements that have been seen in many studies of different meditation practices. A different team studied baseline brain function, finding that there is significantly higher cerebral blood flow in the prefontal cortex, parietal cortex, thalamus, putamen, caudate, and midbrain in experienced meditators compared to non-meditators (Newberg, et al., 2010). The observed changes associated with long-term meditation are in the brain structures that underlie the attention network among others.

In 2010 a paper was published in the influential scientific journal Psychological Science that showed three months of meditation practice produced improvements in visual sensitivity and sustained attention (MacLean, et al., 2010). This impressive study at the University of California, Davis, had 60 participants divided into two groups evenly matched for demographic factors, ethnicity, meditation experience and psychological characteristics. One group went to a full-time retreat and received five hours of training a day for three months, while the other group waited and acted as a control. Then that group went on the meditation retreat and the first group acted as the control. They were all tested several times using visual perception and attention tasks. The results showed improvements in visual discrimination that were linked to increases in perceptual sensitivity and improved vigilance during sustained visual attention. Certainly all good skills for pilots! Five months after the initial study, follow-up experimentation compared the reported time now spent in daily meditation was compared to the results of a visual discrimination test. The amount of visual threshold was significantly predicted by the amount of daily meditation. The researchers concluded that, “these findings suggest that it is possible to produce general improvements in mental function that can benefit daily activities.”

Before you dismiss these results — oh sure, three months doing five hours a day of meditation — you should know that the U.S. military approved university researchers to give a much shorter meditation training to a group of marines getting ready to deploy to combat operations in Iraq, and yes, the results show increases in working memory capacity and positive emotional stability (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong & Gelfand, 2010). Twenty nine marines received a total of 24 hours mindfulness training (what they called MT) over several session, and spent a day in a silent retreat. Their performance on several tasks was compared with equivalent groups of civilian controls and another group of marines getting ready to ship out to combat. The researchers found that working memory capacity may be bolstered by MT practice and that the group that conducted MT practice had less negative emotions. The more time spent doing MT during the rigorous preparation for deployment, the better the increases in cognitive functioning. A journalist reporting on the study described 12 hour days of rifle qualifications, counterinsurgency training, emergency medical courses, and, “men sitting in the lotus position in their field uniforms with rifles across their backs” (Gregory, 2010). This was no group of easy to convince California undergraduates. These experienced marines found that MT gave them increased athletic performance, relief from anxiety, better sleep, stronger memory and more agile minds. “I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,” said Major Jeff Davis, a 39-year-old infantry officer. It seems clear that in the future, military training may have as many MT meditation sessions as there are PT physical workouts.


Another published study by different researchers at different universities different gave 40 undergraduate students five days of 20-minute Eastern meditation practice using a CD course guided by a trained integrative body-mind coach. They found these students, compared to 40 similar undergraduates who had the same amount of time doing relaxation exercises, had improvement in “conflift scores on the Attention Network Test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, and higher vigor on the Profile of Mood States scales, a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol, and an increase in immunoreactivity” (Tang et al., 2007). Yeah, 20-minutes a day for five days!

You don’t need to be a Buddhist for this. You don’t need a robe or a shaved head. You don’t need special equipment or expensive trainers. You don’t need to believe anything more or less than you do now. And you don’t need a mat or an incense stick.

You do need to sit in silence for 15 minutes.

It is the cheapest, simplest, quickest and easiest thing in the world. Unfortunately, despite being cheap, quick and simple, it is not easy. Turns out that doing nothing, just sitting and thinking about nothing, is one of the hardest things in the world.

In some loose comfortable clothes find a reasonably peaceful private place. Set a timer for 15 minutes or so. Sit down on a cushion or rolled up towel in stable cross-legged manner, with good upright posture, hands rested on the knees. Rest your eyes a few feet in front of you, not really looking at anything but not closed (we don’t want to fall asleep). You don’t chant (although some practices do: it’s called a mantra) and you don’t have to try the most pure Zen meditation, which is to empty the mind. Try counting breaths, deeply and slowly to ten. Then start at one again.

Slowly now. Breathe, one, breathe, two, why am I doing this. Aha! The yap yap yap of the inner voice intrudes almost immediately. Learn to let it come, acknowledge it, and then let it go. Bye bye. One, breathe, two, breathe, three, my leg hurts. Let it go. Quiet. Peace. Breathe, one, breathe, two, I think I’ll have pizza tonight. Boy this is hard. One, breathe, two …

The timer will go off eventually, and your 15 minutes is done. Now try doing this every day for a few weeks. See if your concentration improves. See if you can find a little inner peace and calm. Study after study shows that lots of people do become more calm, have more focus, and can concentrate during intense activities better than those that can never silence the voice in their head. If it is true that performance equals potential minus interference — then mediation may be a way to remove a limiting part of the human equation.

Since all this is actually much harder than it sounds, let me suggest a few good ways to learn. Pema Chödrön has a wonderful set of five CD’s called How to Meditate: A Pratical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind that my Catholic wife found work great, and the book/CD Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program is also a fantastic practical introduction. Soon enough you will see your thoughts as what Tibetans sometimes call writing on water; that is, they are fleeting, a few neurons firing together. As pilots we can imagine our thoughts as skywriting. Sure seems impressive, but really just smoke blowing in the wind.

Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied meditation for 20 years. Using MRI machines and Buddhist monks his researchers have seen brains unlike any they have observed elsewhere. The actual neural physiology is different. The monks' left pre-fontal cortexes are far more active than those in nonmeditators' brains (Conlin, 2004). And with more sensitive equipment and the benefit of an explosion in this area of research, researchers are now seeing brain changes in people that havn’t sat in meditation as much a monk. A team centered at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have seen changes in gray matter concentration (GMC) for participants in a study that lasted eight weeks with an average of about half an hour of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation (Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, et al., 2011):

Holzel et al (2011)

Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, et al., 2011.

In addition to the increase in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, improvements were seen in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum for the MBSR group compared with the controls who received the same testing but did not practice the meditation exercises. The authors concluded that the, “results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” So we don’t just have controlled studies that show meditation improves certain mental and physcial skills, we know have studies that show the changes in the brain that occur thanks to practising inner peace. 

This is powerful stuff. Simple meditation really does alter the physical biochemistry of the brain for the better, just as running or weight training or yoga changes the body. 

A very practical application of the skills learnt through meditation is the management of cockpit distractions. Many accidents occur when pilots are focusing their thoughts on stuff that does not matter as much as flying the plane and situational awareness. They are not centered. Flight instructors are required by the FAA to introduce 'realistic distractions' to the student during training, having the pilot reach for a pencil on the floor or find some information on a chart during a critical phase of flight. The student must learn to prioritize. This is good training. Even better training is the mind that can let all mental distractions go. The mind that notices the distracting whatever, and lets it fall away. Flying the plane. One with the wing. You recognize petty irritations for what they are, and simply let them go. Sam reminded me that although events may be beyond my control, my reactions to those events are entirely controlled by me and me alone. He stayed positive. He stayed focused.

Talking about flying with Sam when the morning clouds were still too low for pattern work, we spent some time discussing trim in the C-152. It’s light enough on the controls that you don’t have to use the trim a lot if you don’t want, yet imprecise enough with the slack and give in the cables that you can fiddle with it more then you want. Students need to learn to put the airplane where they want it, then trim. They have to think this through a few times, as well as learn about not flying the plane through the trim control. Then they have to trim without thinking. You cannot enjoy flight if you are spending all your time thinking about the trim. That voice in your head has to silence. So trim already, relax the controls, rest the voice in your head, and fly.

The human brain is a world consisting of a number of explored continents and great stretches of unknown territory.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal

Outside consciousness there rolls a vast tide of life which is perhaps more important to us than the little isle of our thoughts which lies within our ken.

E. S. Dallas

Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world.

Miguel De Cervantes

There are elements in man that escape rational description, that lie beyond the measurements of science. They may exist at distance beyond the body, yet still exert an influence within.

Charles Lindbergh

Be present and react to whatever is happening.

Richard Petty

Sitting Buddha

Our life is a long and arduous quest after the truth and the soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.

Mahatma Gandhi

In quietness the universe can be observed, the inner moods felt, and real truth obtained.

Yeh Ming-Te

Inner peace is the key: if you have inner peace, the external problems do not affect your deep sense of peace and tranquility.

Dalai Lama

Given a disciplined self, all things are possible.

Alan Shepard

Focus on what you can do.

Deion Sanders

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

Edmund Hillary

Have a clear mind. Only think about the task at hand. Keep it simple.

Matt Williams

The focus is so clear that you shut your thoughts off, and you trust in yourself and believe in yourself. you’ve already prepared for years and years. All you do is go, it’s very natural. you’re very relaxed.

Kerrin Lee-Gartner

Knowing what you are doing while you are doing it is the essence of mindfulness training

Jon Kabat-Zinn

It became important to think as well as fly…. Good line pilots held an alternate in their minds for every eventuality. If this did not work out, then they would do that. Expecting the worst, they skipped one emotion when trouble appeared, and thus moved without pausing past disappointment to decision and action.

Ernest K. Gann

Rebellion against your handicaps gets you nowhere. Self-pity gets you nowhere. One must have the adventurous daring to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities and undertake the most interesting game in the world — making the most of one’s best.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

You cannot hit and think at the same time.

Yogi Berra

The undisturbed mind is like the calm body of water reflecting the brilliance of the Moon. Empty the mind and you will realize the undisturbed mind.

Yagyu Jubei

Action without study is fatal. Study without action is futile.

Mary Beard

The body moves naturally, automatically, unconsciously, without any personal intervention or awareness. But if we begin to use our faculty of reasoning, our actions become slow and hesitant. Question arise, the mind tires, and the conscious flickers and wavers like a candle flame in the breeze.

Taisen Deshimaru

The great artist is the simplifier.

Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Learn to be silent. Let your quiet mind listen and absorb.


The quieter you become, the more you can hear.

Baba Ram Dass

Every day go into the calm quiet where you really belong, face the other way and turn your gaze back; if you do this over the long years, that which is not illusion will of itself reveal itself before you.


When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering, like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.


sitting pilot

I normally do my mindfulness exercises in the morning. It’s the first thing I do when I get up.

Kobe Bryant

To me it’s a work thing — if you meditate, you can get so much work done.

Jerry Seinfeld

The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.

Publilius Syrus

My mind is completely clear whenever I play.

Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima

Peak moments are times when we are completely aware. Our life and our awerness are undivided, at one. At these times, the gap between us and everything else closes…. We are present.

Jan Chozen Bays

Studying about Zen should never be confused with practicing Zen, just as studying art should not be confused with being an artist.

T. P. Kasulis

Mindfulness involves intentionally doing only one thing at a time and making sure I am here for it.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint paradise, then in you go.

Nikos Kazantzakis

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant, and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, and each has exactly the same value. If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh