I wasn’t always afraid of flying. Instead, like many people, I was ambivalent about the whole experience; I enjoyed the take-off but found the remainder, particularly long haul, tedious at best. Since I’m neither wealthy nor have a job that provides me with the opportunity, first or business class have always eluded me, and there just isn’t much enjoyment to be had in economy, especially since I appear cursed to always end up sitting either next to someone too large to comfortably fit in their own seat and so end up occupying part of mine, or an over-friendly, thick-skinned chatterbox who wants to share their life’s story as we cross the Atlantic.
But after being taken seriously ill whilst on holiday in the early 90s my fear of flying was conceived and delivered in an instant on board the flight back home. It appeared the illness had provided me with an uncomfortable insight into my own mortality, and so I spent the next 10 years avoid getting on a plane unless it was absolutely necessary. Of course with my entire family living in Sweden this wasn’t easy.
After I moved to the UK two things happened that improved things considerably. First my doctor kindly wrote a prescription for valium and told me to take one before flying, after I described how my fear of flying often ruined my holidays as I worried about the return flight as soon as I made it off the outbound flight in one piece. I normally hate taking pills of any kind, but valium was an exception and I gladly took it once I realised how it helped take the edge off the worst of my fear. I was still nervous and gripped the armrest at take-off, and spent a large part of the flight ensuring the plane remained in the air by concentrating really hard, believing that if I relaxed too much it would simply drop out of the sky.
The other discovery was much better and didn’t involve any pharmaceuticals. The cockpit. After informing a particularly friendly flight attendant of my concerns she asked if I wanted to have a chat with the pilot and see what it was like up front. And that was the beginning of a short but very sweet time. Sitting in the cockpit is simply awesome. I realised that in my imagination I had pictured the pilots manically pulling at the rudder, calling out “mayday, mayday” in desperation, their foreheads slick with perspiration, red lights flashing everywhere as the plane hurtled towards the ground. The truth was entirely different of course; they oozed calm and confidence and would swivel around in their chairs as I entered; invite me for a cup of tea, laughing and joking. Sometimes I was even lucky enough to be invited to stay for the landing. At no point did I ever experience fear. From then on I started exaggerating my worries just a little bit, so that I always got to sit up front. Unfortunately 9/11 put an immediate stop to these delightful visits, and so I found myself more or less forced to return to the chemical comfort provided by the pale yellow pills.
In recent months what may be a more long lasting relief has appeared from a completely unexpected angle. Mindfulness. Since I started meditating I have gradually become more able to focus on the moment as it happens, to live in the present. There is still a tendency to let the mind wander, in my case towards the future, and what’s going to happen, or more importantly what may happen; towards what ifs. But it happens less and less, and I also catch myself doing it more easily and can gently steer my mind back towards now. Once I started applying this awareness when flying things improved rapidly and dramatically. When I returned from Sweden just over a month ago I found myself sitting by the cabin window calmly looking out as the plane sped along the runway, and as we took off marvelling at the wondrous experience of flying, of the beautiful landscape spread out beneath me and I was overcome not by fear, but by tranquillity.
Photo from www.nerdseyeview.com