Mindfulness, West adopting Eastern methods


Distraction, loss of concentration, carelessness, and loss of attention are causal factors in a number of aviation occurrences. This is because the mind is either preoccupied with too many thoughts or inability to focus our attention at the right moment by decluttering our mind. Cognitive Safety prevents accidents. Recent incidents of erroneous takeoff performance or approach on the wrong landing surface are a few examples. A 100tonne error in aircraft weight by the crew of AirFrance cargo in Paris or the crew of Air Canada who flew an approach on the taxiway with 4 aircrafts with almost a 1000 passengers lives at stake, being present in the situation is extremely important.

In allowing things to be just as they are, the experience of those very things change.

Late in 2018, EASA has released two documents that attempt to bolster the safety standards.

  1. Safety mindfulness methodology
  2. Startle effect management

Both these documents have the essence of the eastern concept of mindfulness or vipassana. The Satipatṭhāna Sutta: The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness, and the subsequently created Mahāsatipatṭhāna SuttaThe Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness, are two of the most celebrated and widely studied discourses in the Buddhism, acting as the foundation for contemporary vipassana meditational practice. These discourses stress the practice of mindfulness “for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the extinguishing of suffering and grief, for walking on the path of truth, for the realization of nirvana.

Morality, mindfulness of breathing, and reflection

Vipassanā-meditation uses mindfulness and calm, developed through the practice of mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence as observed in the bodily and mental changes, to gain insight into the true nature of this reality.

FUTURE SKY SAFETY is an EU-funded transport research programme in the field of European aviation safety, with an estimated initial budget of about € 30 million, which brings together 32 European partners to develop new tools and new approaches to aeronautics safety, initially over a four-year period starting in January 2015. The Programme research focuses on four main topics:

  • Building ultra-resilient vehicles and improving the cabin safety
  • Reducing risk of accidents
  • Improving processes and technologies to achieve near-total control over the safety risks
  • Improving safety performance under unexpected circumstances

Even though the content of the document is inspired from the principles of High Reliability Organisations.(please refer to my blog on HRO), the concept of mindfulness is somewhat misplaced.

Startle effect management does include deep breathing and techniques as a part of training to mitigate the effects of startle and surprise. The concept of recognizing the present state and enhancing situational awareness too comes from the eastern concepts of mindfulness.

Why is focusing important?

Mindfulness video

The first question we might have is why use any focus of attention at all? We are, after all, trying to develop awareness. Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens to be present in the mind? In fact, there are meditations of that nature. They are sometimes referred to as unstructured meditation and they are quite difficult.

The mind is tricky. Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that we mean that we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain. One thought leads to another which leads to another, and another, and another, and so on. Fifteen minutes later we suddenly wake up and realize we spent that whole time stuck in a daydream or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or whatever.

We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.


“The Fly” video of the Samurai

What did so many of history’s greatest warriors stress as key to success and optimal performance? “Being calm.”

And it wasn’t one random samurai mentioning it off the cuff.

We’re talking about some of the greatest samurai who ever lived writing about it over and over for five hundred years.

The video “The Fly,” is an anime-style video of a samurai sitting in meditation (you can easily find it on the link above). With solemn dignity, this samurai takes his seat and closes his eyes… and before long, he begins to hear the buzzing of a fly. This fly is not what he had in mind! Irritated, the samurai begins swatting at the fly, but the buzzing just continues. And grows. He keeps swatting. Eventually, he draws out his sword and is in full-on-warrior battle with the fly. The more he swings the sword and fights, the more flies arise and the bigger the irritation grows. Finally, discouraged and defeated, the samurai drops the fight entirely. He nods his head in acceptance as if to say, in the words of Tara Brach, “yes, this too, even this.” And that’s when the magic happens.

In allowing things to be just as they are, the experience of those very things change.

Suddenly, it’s as if the flies have become flower petals raining down upon the samurai. It’s a nice story, not because it ends in flower petals, but because it illustrates how our “not liking” can bring on resistance; which often only serves to make things more painful for us. If, however, we can allow things to be as they are – because, let’s face it, they already are that way – we can navigate through difficult situations without increasing our distress about them. The desire to rid ourselves of whatever is bothering us is a completely normal response to human life. In fact, it’s part of our hardwiring, and it’s helped us to survive as a species. But most of the time, in our lives, survival isn’t actually in question, so the resistance-hardwiring that we’ve developed through millennia isn’t helpful. It just feeds our stress response. As Rick Hansen often reminds us, “We’re wired for survival, not for happiness.”

When we slow down, and pay attention, it’s easy to see how prevalent this way of being is in our own lives…

How we try to avoid uncomfortable emotions like sadness and anxiety, loneliness and shame. How we try to avoid physical sensations like hunger, knee pain and itchiness. When we practice being with sensations and experiences that create resistance in us, we grow our ability to be with discomfort. And when we allow ourselves to meet everything that arises in life with some equanimity, even just a little bit, then we have more space and composure to take meaningful action in uncomfortable situations… instead of just living in reactivity and fear (which often only serve to make things worse).

I actually had a very similar fly experience. I was sitting a retreat. I entered the hall, bowed, made my way to a cushion and took my seat. Before long, I could feel a fly had landed on my cheek. Without even being aware of what I was doing, I reflexively waved it away. I didn’t want the fly to interfere with my “real work.” But of course, it came back (as flies do) and not surprisingly, I swatted it away again (as people do). This time I had the added thought that the fly should go bother someone else in the room. Well, being that compassion is a core value of mine, having this thought activated a sense of shame in me, for wishing discomfort on someone else in order to spare myself. I sat with this for a moment.

And suddenly, I had the realization that this detour, this unexpected complication, was the real work.

The distracting fly and everything that came up for me around it was the work – and I was disappointed to have missed the opportunity! Then, the bell rang, which signaled the beginning of the meditation. I was delighted – I hadn’t “failed” after all, that was only “pre-meditation” and now I had a chance to really practice, as if there’s truly any distinction between what happens when we sit still and when we go about the business of our lives! I had to chuckle at the silliness of my own mind. And… not surprisingly, the fly came back.

But this time I allowed it. I opened to the experience.

I could feel the sensations on my face as it walked around my left cheek. I became curious about the sensation. It fell somewhere between tingly and itchy. I watched my reaction – a tightening, an urge to be rid of it. And through it all, I held my seat. I sat still and practiced allowing things to be as they are. Allowing this fly to walk across my face. After all, it was just a fly. I wasn’t in any danger, I just didn’t like it; and moving from “not liking” to allowing, I could feel my body relax. There was more ease and opening.

Released now from my reactivity around the fly I asked myself, as I’d been instructed to do, “What else is here?” I found a few things, including a well of sadness. Opening to that too, I again asked myself, “what else is here?”

To my surprise and delight, what arose was, “The fly! The fly is also here with me.” It felt as if I had a friend, I wasn’t alone. It was me and the fly.And also the sadness. And also delight at my realizing the interconnectedness of all beings. All sitting together, for this moment anyway. I realized that we’re never truly alone, we just can’t feel the interconnectedness sometimes. We just forget.

And to think, I’d twice tried to avoid the company.

Samurais trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always “be prepared” (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)
Research shows that preparation reduces fear because when things get tense, you don’t have to think.
Who survives catastrophic scenarios like samurai battles? The people who have prepared.

The west takes the eastern cultural concepts as being retrograde but historically, these very tenet of the eastern culture have formed the foundation of business management and control over the mind that the west is practicing under different names.

About Capt. Amit Singh

I think therefore I am https://www.linkedin.com/in/traintofly/ Airlines Operations and Safety balance expert. A former head of operations/training and safety of successful LCC's in India. An experienced member of the startup teams of these airlines has hands-on experience in establishing airlines systems and processes.

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