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What Flying Can Teach Us About Rising Above the Turbulence

I spend a good bit of time on planes. At best, they are uneventful. Perhaps an unexpected conversation with another fellow traveler. Hopefully, no cancellations or significant delays. There is always the wonder of a child in me, marveling how this steel bird takes off. The whoosh of the lift off. This brings me joy, as does the getting to look back at this familiar earth from a novel and beautiful perspective.

And then, there is turbulence. That unloved aspect of flying. The momentary sick feeling of what if the plane stops flying?, and the rush of having to confront, even for a few breaths, one’s mortality.

It used to be worse. In the days of propeller-engine flights, and smaller airplanes, it was easy to find oneself on a flight tossed around in strong winds. Even rain and clouds could send a plane up and down. Like my father, I easily get queasy in car rides. I need to sit up front in a car, and have fresh air blowing on my face to avoid feeling sick to my stomach. How much worse is the experience of being tossed up and down on a flight.

The experience is familiar. I can taste it even now. The plane rocks left and right. And occasionally up and down. When I was a child, I used to love swings, jumping into a pool from a rope, and anything that gave me the exhilaration of speed. As a young man, I used to love the rush of speed in a car. As an adult, somehow turbulence fails to elicit the same response.

I become acutely aware of my body while going through turbulence. First comes a general discomfort. It starts in my stomach. If the turbulence does not smooth away, then the tension spreads to my shoulders and neck. Should the turbulence persist further, a sweat covers my upper torso, and I feel a strange an unpleasant sickly warmth covering my body. At worst, my mouth starts to tingle, and I remember that the barf bags in the seat-back pocket are there for a reason. I don’t actually throw up, but there is always the dread of doing so. Eventually I put my head down and count my breaths, hoping that we reach smoother air or land.

At some point the pilot comes on, and gives a standard message:

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you see, we are going through some turbulent patches. Please fasten your seat belts. It is going to be bumpy for a while. We are going to search for some smoother level.”

Sometimes it is a matter of moving up a thousand feet here or there. But the real relief would come when we would rise, rise, and eventually soar above the turbulence. There is that much-beloved realm: clear skies, sunshine, and a calm far above the storm. There, with such joy I stare down below at the angry clouds, at the very turbulence we have risen through. There, I see the turbulence not as the state of the cosmos, but as a rather thin layer that we had to rise above. I remember that we are meant to be flying like this, soaring smoothly and majestically.

Our hearts are like this too.

How often in life we receive guests of our guesthouse who are turbulent and angry. These guests toss our hearts here and there, bringing so much turbulence. There is unsettledness. These storms of the heart come, bringing so much tension. A life that could be filled with peaceful tranquility becomes queasy, annoyed. We are made sick, not to our stomachs but rather to our hearts.

I wonder if we can find in our own heart our own pilot who will search for more calm airs. Could we move up or down a bit to find a more peaceful state of the heart? Do we buckle up and patiently persevere through the storms of life? Is the turbulence something to avoid and get over, or is it life itself? Part of life?

I know there is wisdom in looking at serenity, not at merely “transcending” the storm, but also in navigating life. We are never promised pure bliss, or perfectly smooth sailing. A mature spiritual life consists of being able to navigate the storms. This I know.

I do remember the teachings of Buddhism, reminding us that the muck that the lotus rises through sustains the flower. This I know.

But I also know that not all of these stages are equally good, equally nourishing, equally beautiful for our hearts. That there are in us, inside us, more peaceful skies. Somewhere higher, or deeper, in us there is also a calm and tranquil realm of the spirit. It is breathing with the serenity above the turbulent clouds that there are blue skies and the warm sun. It is the state of being one with the One, breathing with the Source of all the universe. And what majestic intimacy there is Here. Now.

That serene realm, above the clouds, is not There. It is here, right here already with us.

The sun shines above the clouds, always. Whether we see the sun or not, it is there. We cannot see the sun going through the turbulence, yet the sun remains. I know that the turbulence is us, it is of us, it is none other than us. And somehow the calm skies above the turbulence are… more. More us. More cosmic. More divine.

And as the sages of the Islamic tradition remind us, this is all us. It’s all inside us. We ourselves are the plane, we ourselves are the storm, we ourselves are the turbulence, we ourselves are the moving up and the down, we are the temporary relief, and in us too is the realm of permanent bliss and tranquility.

We have to find our own heart’s pilot, not just moving up and down to navigate conflict, but to soar to that realm where we can look back at the turbulence we have risen beyond.

Each of us has our own turbulence. I have never met anyone whose life is without turbulence. Sometimes it is a difficult partner, sometimes a difficult ex-partner. Sometimes it is the lack of a partner. A child. A parent. A neighbor. A tedious procedure at work. Turbulence is all around. I wonder, next time the turbulence arises in my own heart, if I have the inner pilot to navigate my way around it. Not merely to endure it, not merely to persevere, but to rise above, to soar, to go to that Divine place where the sun resides, and there is warmth.

It is all us. It is all from us, and it is all in us.

Somehow the majestic serenity is both us and Divine, all at once.

I wonder if I can cultivate the inner resources not to escape the turbulence, but to rise above it to that serene realm.

As the Qur’an says:

“The remembrance of God brings serenity to the heart.”
— Qur’an 13:28

Can I, can we, cultivate the practices of remembrance in the heart with every breath, and especially through the turbulence? It is the discipline of this remembrance before the turbulence that becomes not muscle memory but heart memory, spirit memory, soul memory.

A life spent breathing in this serenity recalls this serenity of presence also during the turbulence. Let us soar, friends, through the turbulences of life to that realm of serenity.

Let the warmth of the sun grace our hearts. And let us look back with compassion at the turbulence we have risen through, and above, again and again.

It is in us. Serenity. Here and Now.

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