Today, I flew. Less as a passenger and more as a little child, full of wonder and marvel at the passing clouds, the tiny life scurrying about beneath my feet, and at the feel of the yoke in my hands as I worked to steady the small cabin that held us a thousand feet in the sky. It was my first flying lesson.Training Martial Arts and Zen in One Flight Lesson

Since childhood, maybe 5 or 6, I had a handful of goals: Become an Archeologist or an Astronomer — or both, own a motorcycle — more specifically a chopper, become a Pilot of small planes — as I pictured myself flying from dig to dig, observatory to observatory, the cargo hold laden with tools and star charts with big red markers highlighting my theories, discoveries, and breadcrumbs, and retire at 45, sell everything I owned, in exchange for a Sailboat, and disappear into the sunrise, mast sinking ever deeper behind the horizon in search of new adventures.

It’s funny how we don’t often follow our childhood dreams. More so, that we rarely recognize where those dreams are seeded. Today, however, I took the first step in becoming The Pilot and going in search of that singular landscape where last I saw The Little Prince. –But, that is a story for another day.

Today, the lesson in flight is a lesson in training… a lesson in Zen.

Two Blade Numerada Training
Two Blade Numerada Training

Two things struck me as life long learning tools that, while we may try to practice them regularly in our every day, as you climb thousands of feet into the sky, they take on an additional importance. Firstly, my instructor asked me to ignore the instrumentation. He said, “It’s so easy to get overwhelmed. It’s total sensory and information overload. [The instruments] suck you in and then you can’t see what is right in front of you, just outside the windshield. Learn to feel the plane and fly by sight. The instruments are always there later, as back up.” How interesting, I thought, that something I expected to be so technical was being described as something so sensual — as something to be experienced. So I did. I let myself feel everything there was to feel and the plane, it seemed, could feel me. When I worried about what I was doing, when I shot even just the passing glance at the dozens of gauges and switches and measurements, I drifted, we bobbled and hiccuped, for a moment, as a reminder to just Be. When I simply felt the yoke in my hand and the rudder controls at me feet and kept my eyes on the horizon and the sky, when I allowed myself to just enjoy my trip through the clouds, we were level, relaxed, on course.

And that is, after all, the way it is in practice and in life. When we micromanage and control each and every aspect, emotion, thought, and movement, things fall to pieces, we drift from the course, we bobble and hiccup and struggle just a little more than we need to. When we over concern ourselves with the exact moment in the kata when we are expected to kiai, we often lose the opportunity to express our spirit at other moments during the form. When we deny ourselves the movement forward because all indicators signal a turn, we neither find our way forward nor do we make the turn that was signaled. That is the irony of information: We need to take the information in, in order to make a more informed decision and move ahead. However, the surplus of information leads only to stagnation and paralysis, if you let it. It’s the guy staring at the beautiful woman across the room, trying to decide whether to risk crossing the room and starting a conversation… “Where will it lead? What are the chances she’ll respond? What if she responds with rejection? What if she responds with acceptance? I’ve seen this play out before…” And he can choose to continue to stare at her from across the way, debating an elaborate argument in his head, weighing pros and cons, ifs and whens, while the woman, tired of not being approached finally gets up and walks out of his life… Or, he can decide to get up, cross the distance and say, “Hi.” Neither choice changes the possibilities, only the odds.

So, I relaxed and let the little Cessna tell me what to do. How and when to turn. How far. And it was entirely magical. I was in the air, with only a few sheets of metal and rivets between me and the stars.

When we landed, my instructor said, “Most people get bored with the foundation because they forget that every maneuver is a combination of the very basics. If you can really learn the basics, with just a bit of practice, you can perform any maneuver, but, if your basics are weak, you’ll never get your license to fly.” And there it is again, concept versus technique, depth versus breadth, understanding versus memorization. When your foundations are solid, the storm may shake you, but it cannot break you. You can build any type of structure on top of it, and it will be sturdy and capable of holding anything you add to it. Every room of experience enhances every other. Where there is contradiction, a strong foundation can help find harmony. Where there is harmony, the rooted foundation can help nurture and maintain it.

Today, I was blessed to see how quickly the smallest of gestures can generate the wildest results, how a touch becomes 200 feet, and how both left and right are equally and simultaneously responsible for the harmony of a straight taxi down the runway. I rediscovered the benefits of continuous pressure and the joys of complete release. But mostly, I was reminded that right now is pretty intricate and requires all of my attention. I can’t fly tomorrow. I can only fly right now.

-Liz Sensei

(Written August 6th, 2012)