In 2008 I was an hour into a flight to Hawaii when it turned around. The captain said an engine light had come on and for routine safety they were going to go back to LAX and find out what the light was about. As the 747 did a u-turn over the Pacific Ocean the captain put the plane into a lower gear to start burning off the full tank of fuel but did not make an announcement about it. The plane started shaking and making the grinding noises that a car going ninety down the freeway would if you suddenly downshifted into 3rd gear.
After three hours of circling outer LA—Catalina Island to the Palm Desert to the San Gabriels around and around in this lower gear—we were finally back on the ground. I burst into tears and got off the plane. Those 10 minutes where the cabin thought the engine was done for inevitably changed my life.
A newly developed flying phobia is not convenient for me. Kaua’i (my home) is considered the most isolated land in the world at 2400 miles from any continental land mass. I fly a fair amount: my friends joke that I rent a room at the parking garage at LAX.
At first I was just certain that every flight I was on was probably going down, one way or another. Days before the flight I would stop sleeping. It would be there, this upcoming thing. I tried many tactics to avoid my fear. I would book tickets the morning of. Yes, my bank account suffered. I wouldn't pack my bag until literally minutes before I had to. Yes, my wardrobe suffered. I would skip flights. If a flight were delayed I was glad. I would have small-grade panic attacks during most flights. Take-off was the worst, landing was the best. Drinking a beer helped despite the sideway looks from fellow passengers if it was a morning flight. Fear is a stronger emotion than embarrassment. A Kiwi friend gave me an anti-anxiety pill for a Sydney-Honolulu flight that didn't work. An old boyfriend in San Francisco told me he had the perfect remedy, baby, and gave me a pot cookie. Talk about paranoid. If something could cut the fear, by god I was willing to try it. I was ultimately afraid of death.
I learned every single noise the wings and wheels make, all the various sounds the plane itself makes, including that weird crackling at take-off that sometimes happens. I learned to read the voices of the captains to determine their mood and alertness, I analyzed the make and model of the planes for hours online the night before I’d have to fly and read the safety records of airlines. I literally had a very real conversation with myself about what a life would look like if I simply never left Kaua'i again. I even looked up boat schedules to and from the West Coast to Hawaii.
Then I started looking for and examining all the signs surrounding each specific flight. If they couldn’t find my name in the system or my boarding pass wouldn’t print, clearly it was a sign. When I had to fly on Friday the 13th through the South Pacific I thought for certain that would be it. I remember a take-off on an Arab airline I had never flown and someone came on the loudspeaker while we were zooming into the air exuberantly reciting a long prayer. I assumed the worst. I was so full of fear and anxiety on every flight that it was beginning to really affect my life—mostly to exhaustion. Then something happened, which once again changed my life. Of all places it happened mid-flight 30,000 feet up.
The plane hit turbulence. Instead of identifying with my fear in that moment I identified with the wind that knocked us to and fro. I didn'tseek for this to happen; it just happened. I looked out the window and instead of being nauseated by the height I was mesmerized by the unbelievable beauty outside. We were simultaneously careening above, in it, of it. “We” were “it”. We were not separate. I was not separate from all this energy happening. This blew my little mind into forgetting to be afraid. I just sat back, completely relaxed and happy for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that the mystery of this is so beautiful. No, I was not drinking.
I had been studying non-duality for the last few years. Despite thousands of hours of sitting in meditation and focused study, my true teacher was the Earth itself. I mean the sky and clouds we flew through, the wind and rain swaying the plane to and fro, the mountains and trees and rivers and fields down below. Yes, the way I overcame my fear was by looking out the window at the unbelievable majesty of the Mother Earth and being overtaken. It is really happening out that window! I mean, have you ever really just looked out that window for hours on end? The earth is breathing and we are not apart from that.
How does one invoke and remember what's true in the midst of whatever is arising? The connection is the breath. When the plane got turned around that day I had trouble breathing. We return home when we breathe. If we are breathing then our fear is merely an emotion, not a reality. What is prior to fear is a beautiful truth that words cannot touch. Call it God, call it Divine, call it reality, the truth is beautiful and outshines even the fear of death. Flying is ultimately a lesson in true surrender. And there is a difference between fear-based surrender and proactive surrender. One is weak and the other is strong. I was not able to know the difference until it was taught to me. Now I practice pro-active surrender.
Flying has been a spiritual lesson for me about what it means to be non-separate from “everything else”, or to be not-two. Not-Two is an expression of a non-dual understanding of existence. In simple terms,” Not-Two” means presuming no separation between “me” and “you”, or “me” and “the world”, or "me" and "the airplane" and "the air". Not-Two is a way of expressing prior unity- or the inherent unity of existence at the deepest level. To say that Prior Unity is the real nature of existence does not mean that there is no diversity in life. Not-Two or Prior Unity refers to the root-nature of things deeper than all the apparent differences or temporary materializations. When we stand in this depth, we do not make separation between ourselves and others. We do not engage in opposition, exclusion, conflict, and war. Not-Two is healing—and it is peace.
I've been travelling almost nonstop for the past year and right now as I write this I'm looking out the plane window somewhere between MLPS and LAX. The clouds and the ridges of the earth—you know? The earth is really pretty. It's a being, an energy itself- it's a beautiful feminine energy beyond gender.
Perhaps the real reason for my travels all this while is that I’ve been flying nonstop in order to connect with Her; to learn from her, to come to know her, to love her, to understand her. I’ve had to become quiet so that I can listen to what she's telling me, have had to be in her presence, to let her live me, to be infused with the many sides of her. Have you noticed how each place holds a certain aspect of her in its cities, in its mountain ridges, in its oceanic forms? I get to see her from up high and inside the waves, feel her all around, brushing the plane side to side in her sway, Great Mother. She is so beautiful, constantly balancing herself, full of rainbows after storming, full of spectrum and variety.
Ultimately we are not differentiated from the Giants we are moved by. We are the Spirit of the night, free in our heartbreak, in our midnight laughter. Love Her. Love Her. Love her as your true Lover. Can you feel her? You breathe her even now. One must let Her live you. She breathes you now. She is you: strong. If you create the space for her to live in you by becoming sensitive to her—well it’s a beautiful thing to say the least. This is what the surfers know in the middle of the barrel, dissolved in her folds of mana, what the snowboarders know carving lines of energy in perfect powder. Why do you think they’re so addicted? It is reunion with greater self. It is the yoga of not-two.
I play with the Earth. I feel her spirit, universal and calm—the same in the sky as in the churches dotting Europe and the mountains of Mongolia. Land and sea and sky, this is all sacred. When we dissolve into the perfect truth of not-two we come to rest in a field of infinity. When we are certain of non-duality then all war will stop, and we will embrace our brothers and sisters as our own forearm. We are not a separate organism operating divided from the Great Earth Itself. As Adi Da says inNot-Two Is Peace, “There is a universal Conscious Force that is indivisible, egoless, acausal, and absolute. And everything is arising as an apparent modification of that. Reality Itself is a prior unity. Reality Itself is Intrinsically egoless, perfectly indivisible, prior unity, boundless self-radiance, and limitless relatedness as intrinsic love-bliss itself.”
photo from mpls to lax flight, Aug 2012