Flying, Flow and Awareness

At 2615′, over the west ridge of Mt Tamalpais, looking south back towards San Francisco Bay

All last week we waited for the clearing after days of rain. On Thursday morning I could see the summit of Mt Tam first thing in the morning. I saw wings in the air as I drove up to the west ridge, and found the little parking lot full of fellow pilots. I rigged quickly and deliberately and felt calm and confident on launch, waiting for the right cycle.

I launched and made my way to the shoulder of the ridge where it seemed most likely to find lift. With constant work, there was just enough to maintain altitude. This state of mind—in flow, the mind open with full attention, maximum awareness, and intuitive decision-making switched on—might seem like something that ‘just happens’ while doing adventure sports. And it is. It’s also something that just happens while playing music, making art, dancing, running, and writing. I think it’s also essentially the same state of mind that is the goal of many forms of meditation.

Consciousness is the feeling of what it feels like to feel something. To be aware of being aware. Consciousness is what makes us human—and—consciousness gets in the way of being human. In this mode, in flow, I lose consciousness. There’s no time, space, or need to be conscious of my thoughts when I’m so absorbed in something so dynamic, so fully compelling. Sometimes I find myself thinking: “should I turn here? But I never find myself thinking: “I’m aware of myself thinking ‘should I turn here?’” And, by the time I complete the “should I turn here” thought, I have already turned, or not. It would be too late if I had to think through each decision, too slow. Air moves and changes more quickly than the conscious mind.

The only way to stay aloft while flying a glider is to have my full awareness available, to be open to intuitively read the infinitely variable, three dimensional land- and air-scape, mostly without conscious interpretation. To translate perception directly into action. This open, fluid awareness is so radically valuable to me, and not just while flying. As with so much in life, we get good at what we do, and it’s clear to me now that we can get better at being aware and at fluid, intuitive action.

These are skills that we can bring to all parts of life. How many times have you been walking down the sidewalk, only to find someone standing in your way, staring down at their phone, or otherwise unaware of their surroundings? It’s not just that they’re in your way and unaware, they’re in their own way and unaware. What better way to learn to look around—and act!—than flying, or running, or playing music, or writing, or meditating.

The only other secret here is that this open awareness is actually our normal state of mind. While in modern life we generally have to engage in specific practices to provoke its emergence, flow is the state that the human mind evolved to be. And, as we know from all of these practices (including sports, meditation and creativity), we can once we re-learn what open awareness is like, we can conjure it up quite readily—not only while flying over the west ridge of Mt Tam on a Thursday afternoon, but also while standing on the sidewalk waiting for brunch on a Sunday morning.