Why do I need a mindfulness/meditation teacher? Why isn’t it enough to use mindfulness books, Apps like Headspace or the talks you offer online?
Apps, books and recorded talks are great and if you’ve found a source that works for you, I suggest you stick with it. Here’s the problem. At first meditation may provide some relief, which is great. Eventually, you’ll discover that regular practice takes you outside your comfort zone. If you came to meditation for relief, suddenly you find it’s difficult and at times, downright unpleasant. There can be a number of reasons for this “dis-ease”. An experienced teacher will not only explain what’s going on, but show you how to learn from difficulty. Without a teacher, progress is slower, achieving your goal will be harder and the tendency is to give up.
Whether it’s learning to fly a jet, preparing for a marathon or learning mindfulness meditation, personal growth only happens outside our comfort zone! Your professional guide (teacher) on this journey of discovery and self-improvement can help you achieve your goal far better than a generic “one-size-fits-all” or “do-it-yourself” approach
What is Mindfulness and Meditation practice?
In simple terms, mindfulness refers to paying attention on purpose to what’s actually happening and not our story or interpretation about what’s happening. Pausing and paying attention in that brief moment between identifying which engine has failed and pulling a fire handle, you’re demonstrating a form of mindful awareness. The term also refers to the quality of awareness that results when we do a series of practices and a particular kind of meditation. The quality of awareness includes the ability to observe our present moment experience in a less stressful, openly curious, non-judgmental way. The advantages of this quality of awareness for pilots are reduced stress, an improvement in situational awareness, a reduction in expectation bias and improved resilience when facing difficulty and challenges.
The basic instruction for the meditation part of the practice is to focus on the direct experience of the sensation of breath in the body. Then, (when the mind inevitably wanders off into thinking) remember that intention to focus on the breath and bring awareness back. It’s like lifting weights or doing reps at the gym. Mindfulness meditation isn’t about clearing your thoughts or relaxed bliss, it’s a training in paying attention (like shutting down the correct engine) that improves over time.
Is TM (Transcendental Meditation) the same thing as Mindfulness Meditation?
No. In the world of meditation there are many different kinds. Different kinds of meditation can produce different results. Simply saying you “do sports” doesn’t really explain much about your actual routine or athletic ability. TM (which uses a mantra or phrase that is repeated in the mind) can be a valuable practice, but is not the same thing as Mindfulness Meditation (which relies on bringing awareness to a direct experience such as the breath in the body).
Will Mindfulness cause me to “Lose My Edge” as an effective pilot?
No, on the contrary. Mindfulness and meditation practice improves situational awareness and reduces ruminative, distracted, autopilot modes of thinking. It creates a state of mind that’s better able to respond (rather than simply react) in a knee-jerk way.
Pausing to verify (before pulling a fire handle) is a form of mindfulness in which you intentionally direct awareness to what’s actually happening “in the moment”. Mindfulness also reduces expectation bias, something that can cause pilots to screw things up like a V1 cut or a go around.
Mindful awareness improves our ability to work/play well with others. This is one reason the military uses it and why Phil Jackson taught it to NBA teams! For interesting stories about this simply google “Phil Jackson mindfulness meditation” or “Marines Mindfulness Meditation”.
For an 18 minute audio recording on this subject Click Here
Is Mindfulness a religious practice?
No, it is not a religious practice when it is taught/practiced in a secular way. It has a history in Buddhism but does not include any belief systems or religious dogma. Meditation (like living by the ten commandments) is a good idea but living in this way doesn’t automatically mean you are practicing religion.
Mindfulness meditation does not require the abandonment of existing religious practices or beliefs. In fact, many people report that the practice renews their commitment to their established faith.
I think of mindfulness meditation as a form of psychology in which we develop the capacity to reduce our own suffering through meditation, reflection, practical experience and insight.
Do I really need to meditate every day and for how long?
This really depends on the individual and what that person’s goals are. Many of the crew members I teach basic meditation to, do not meditate every day. They report feeling better when they practice regularly, but don’t always find the time. For others, (particularly those who do the longer programs) I strongly encourage them to find some time to practice daily. Even if only for a few minutes. For me, if it came down to a choice between meditating or brushing my teeth, I’d meditate. After all, which would you rather lose your teeth or your mind?
Richard Davidson (UW Madison), one of the most widely recognized researchers on the science of mindfulness says that measurable changes in the brain structure can happen with as little as 8 minutes of meditation a day. He feels that doing it daily is really important and suggests you begin by deciding how long you can devote each day to practice (for thirty days) and start by committing to that. Even if it’s only a few minutes.
I love to use analogies, especially when teaching pilots. If you want to see a benefit from meditation, you should think of it as “changing the momentum” of a mind that has a lifetime of negative learning. Think of riding a kick scooter uphill. The second you stop kicking, the scooter begins losing momentum. The longer you go between kicks and the smaller the effort, the slower you go to the point of stopping and even going backwards. If you do stop or lose your momentum, that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up, just start again. Meditation itself is a practice of failing (to sustain awareness on the breath), wandering off into discursive thought, recognizing it, and returning to the breath again and again. If you’re lifting weights, you aren’t failing when the weight moves back to the starting point. In this regard, (unlike Gene Krantz quote regarding Apollo 13) failure is not only an option, it’s required! Put in your best effort and if (when) you fail, start again.
When I started meditating in 2008, I did 20 minutes a day and started realizing big improvements after about a month. Play with it and see what works for you but never use it as a reason to beat yourself up.
Why is it better to do meditation sitting instead of lying down?
Some of the crewmembers I work with actually need sleep more than they need meditation. If you want the benefits of sleep, get more sleep. If you want the benefits of meditation, you won’t get them if you’re falling asleep! Meditation is an exercise in paying attention, not relaxed bliss or any other such nonsense.
Lying down may not be a problem (if you stay awake) and may actually be required depending on an individual’s physical condition. The best choice is sitting upright in an alert posture. If you’re still falling asleep try standing up, even walking can be acceptable (with some instruction on how this is done).
For more information on postures check out the Articles section of our Resources page.
Do I have to sit cross-legged on a cushion to meditate?
Absolutely not! I get so tired of magazine covers and articles that promote mindfulness meditation showing some beautiful blonde model sitting cross legged on a cushion, smiling away and holding her hands in some goofy praying position or upside-down OK sign. Fake News!
I’ve been meditating for more than 10 years now and have sat with hundreds of people for hundreds of hours and I’ve never once seen a person meditate like one of those magazine cover beauties.
I’m a guy, I’m not pretty, I use a chair, and my hands are resting on my lap. Plain and simple. Of course, they’d never show me on the cover if they wanted to sell magazines!
For more information on postures check out the Articles section of our Resources page.
What about chanting, mantras, incense, bells and all that stuff?
Not my bag Man! I do use a meditation timer app that has a recording of a bell, but that’s about it. All that religious woo-woo hippie stuff is culturally specific and unnecessary for basic secular mindfulness meditation. Thank goodness!
I’ve tried to meditate, why can’t I “clear my mind”?
This is one of the greatest misunderstandings or myths about meditation. I don’t know where this idea of “clearing your mind” came from but it doesn’t help. Based on my experience with meditation, trying to clear your mind is about as useful as disagreeing with gravity. In meditation, we’re paying attention to what’s going on in our direct experience* instead of being distracted or lost in our world of stories, concepts and ideas about what’s going on.
Meditation is counter-intuitive and hard to do at first, but don’t give up! It’s seriously worth it once you get the hang of it.
*If understanding the difference between direct experience and concepts and ideas is hard to grasp, I suggest listening to the “Guided Raisin Eating Meditation” in our Free Audio Recordings in our Resource section.
If I’m using meditation to reduce stress, am I required to “self-disclose” this on my FAA application for medical certificate?
The short answer is no. Experiencing stress is a normal part of being human and I would suggest that a person who never experiences any stress at all may well be a psychopath. Yoga, breathing exercises, working out, meditation and even the occasional “adult beverage” or pint of Ben and Gerry’s are all ways of dealing with stress. Some are more helpful than others, but that’s another topic.
In my case, I really didn’t understand how much stress I was experiencing until my wake up call (what I call my “Ass On Fire moment). I was in a near car crash and didn’t feel any different than I do on a normal day. I was clueless about my own symptoms of anxiety and tried ignoring them. Because I waited so long to get help, I wound up going out on medical for a year. Once I had a diagnosis of “generalized anxiety disorder”, I had no choice but to report it on my FAA application for medical certificate. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Most crewmembers grappling with stress issues do the same thing. Don’t do like I did, delaying to the AOF point! The sooner you get help, the easier it is to deal with and avoid the dreaded “diagnosis”.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a “psychological disorder” or suspect you may be suffering from one, the self-disclosure topic becomes more complicated. If you’re not sure where you fall, I strongly suggest you contact me, or have a confidential conversation with Matt McNeil. Matt is a fellow airline pilot and a clinical mental health care professional. He really is the best in the industry at what he does and I know that if I had contacted him before I went out on medical for a year, I would have stayed in the cockpit and my stress issues would have been resolved much faster. He can be reached through his website www.liftaffect.com.
I also have an article in our Resources section titled To Self-disclose or Not, The Difficult Conversation.
Do I have to give up alcohol in order to practice meditation?
No. If you find alcohol interferes with meditation then use your own judgment. In my own experience, I found that my relationship with alcohol changed and became healthier with regular meditation. However, my fondness for the occasional beer (ein Pilsner bitte) remained intact!
If stress is an issue, drinking alcohol can actually increase anxiety. It can also have a negative impact on the quality of sleep we get and that can have its’ own negative impact. Be honest and reflect on your relationship to alcohol.
Is the science supporting mindfulness meditation real or hyped?
Yes, the science supporting the benefits of mindfulness meditation is both real and hyped leaving me optimistic and skeptical about reports on the subject. If you chose to seek out the science around mindfulness practice, take time to learn and understand the difference between bogus (fake news) and solid peer reviewed scientifically validated studies. The science supporting the positive aspects of mindfulness and meditation is what got me to start practicing, but it isn’t why I continue to do so. I’m doing my own science experiment on the only human who’s experience I have direct access to and that’s myself. The results have been life changing and extremely positive. Your results may vary, but I’m willing to bet they’ll be positive.
How does Mindfulness and Meditation improve SA?
Each of us has only so much “working memory” to handle a given situation. If awareness is preoccupied with distracted thought, then the distracted thinking is the situation we will be aware of. Having our working memory tied up with distracted thought is like having a dirty windscreen on a jet. Cleared to land, will you see the idiot crossing downfield? Mindfulness and meditation practice effectively frees up working memory (cleans your dirty windscreen) allowing awareness to see more of what’s actually going on “in the moment”.
The experience of anxiety, worry and stress often has to do with inner dialog or how busy our mind is. As pilots, some of this business of mind is useful and necessary, but not all of it.
Mindfulness and Meditation improves our ability to discern what is useful mental chatter and what is not, which can reduce our stress producing ruminative thinking and improving our ability to pay attention.
I’ve got a training event coming up and I’m stressed about it, can meditation help?
Perhaps a little, but expecting meditation to be an instant fix is a bit like finally starting to brush your teeth the day before going to the dentist for a filling. Mindfulness and meditation practice creates a healthier momentum of mind, but it isn’t a magic pill. Practicing regularly can make stressful events like training easier to deal with and even enjoyable. But it takes time.
If you are facing a training event and just want an exercise to reduce stress, take a few long and deep breaths. Bring your attention to the sensation of the breath in your body (particularly the out breath) and as you breathe, simply know that you are breathing! If you find this helps, take some time and do the Short Introductory MP3 program available on this website. It’s free!
If you’re interested in breath work as a form of stress reduction, I recommend this Ted Talk video from Ted Strom.
If you’re interested in a long term strategy or just want to learn more about stress reduction, contact me for a free consultation.
Is Mindfulness a legitimate intervention for addiction?
No. There are recovery programs that use mindfulness and meditation as part of treatment (such as Refuge Recovery) but the practice alone is not enough. I’ve received training as a Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) teacher and have helped pilots in this regard (alcohol and prescription painkillers) but it is not an intervention.
Many pilots fall into the “recreational drinker” category. If this isn’t an actual addiction problem but a crewmember wants some help “making better choices” around alcohol, meditation can sometimes help.
I offer a Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) program that many find useful for dealing with cravings and our relationship to them. You are welcome to check out MBRP here.
What’s the difference between the free audio recordings you offer and the paid programs?
The free programs and recordings are intended for crewmembers who want to give meditation a try. For some, this may be all they need or want.
The paid programs are “full on” Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) style courses or programs specifically made for pilots. All our paid programs can be done remotely and also include one-on-one instruction tailored to the individual crewmember. These include MBSR, Mindfulness Based Situational Awareness (MBSA), Relapse Prevention (MBRP), Pain Management (MBPM) and more.
Keep in mind that personal growth happens outside your comfort zone. When meditation gets “uncomfortable” the tendency is to quit and the opportunity for growth is lost. Whether you do the short course or the full on program, having a personal trainer will help you make the most of your practice in the shortest time. For a free consultation, contact me.
I started meditating and my stress level increased, what the hell?
Our minds are busy, and a relentlessly busy mind is a stressed mind. Many of us are attracted to meditation because we realize our busy mind is a source of stress, and we don’t know what to do about it. We hope that meditation will “calm” our mind or quiet our “inner critic”.
We get the basic instructions for meditation, sit, focus on our breath and almost immediately realize just how busy and scattered our mind is. Congratulations! This isn’t necessarily bad. It’s actually an insight into the workings of your own mind! Now that you can see this, you can begin to do something about it.
I like the analogy of our mind being like a snow globe. The swirling snow represents our mind, busy with thoughts, concepts and ideas. Meditation is like setting the snow globe down. Our goal is to allow the snow to settle and see (gain insight into) what’s revealed when the visibility improves. The things in life that have been keeping the snow swirling, (agitating our mind) might be external and obvious or internal and obscured by the snow itself.
If some of the things that are keeping us agitated are issues we’ve been psychologically avoiding, (intentionally distracting ourselves from) then allowing the snow to settle might reveal them. If our mind reacts to this with aversion and agitation, it can shake up the snow and obscure our view again in a feedback loop we experience as stress or anxiety.
Also, some people can have trauma around their breath. People with a history of breathing difficulty, (perhaps asthma, a scuba diving incident or some other unpleasant breath related history) may experience more stress when trying to meditate. In this case, something other than breath meditation might be a better option.
For individuals with a history of trauma, abuse or diagnosed psychological disorders, meditation alone probably isn’t enough and may actually increase anxiety.
My recommendation is to try the meditation for a few days and see if there’s any improvement. If there isn’t, Contact Us for a consultation. This can be done confidentiality on this website.
I’ve heard people talk about Mindfulness Meditation retreat practice, is this required?
No, it’s not required. In order for me to maintain my UCLA qualifications and IMTA certification, I’m required to do at least one, week-long retreat per year. I think it’s incredibly valuable but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.
Mindfulness meditation practice has a history in Buddhism and many of the retreat centers around the country have a religious theme or are run by aging hippies who wear beads, burn incense, like to chant and talk about peace and love. Not my bag baby!
The retreats I attend are secular and focus on mindfulness and meditation without all the religious hippy guru nonsense. If you’re interested in discussing this or going on retreat, I strongly suggest you Contact Us first.
I keep falling asleep when I try meditating, is this a problem?
Many crewmembers are operating in a sleep deficit and may need sleep more than they need meditation. If the goal is practicing meditation, falling asleep is not meditating.
If you find that sleepiness is a persistent problem there are many solutions. Try a different time of day, meditating with your eyes open, sitting up straighter, trying a different time of day, standing up or simply trying to bring more energy to the practice by being curious about your experience. If all else fails, try a double espresso!
If you still struggle with this, Contact Us for more suggestions.
I’ve got tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and it’s very irritating, how am I supposed to ignore that when I meditate?
I have tinnitus myself so I’m very familiar with this. Part of what we’re doing when we meditate is training ourselves to be “OK” with some discomfort (both mental and physical). This is why we stay still when we want to move or scratch that itch.
The ringing in the ears is simply sound. Like the sensation of breathing, it is a physical sensory input that’s happening in the moment. We call the breath our “anchor” because it’s what we bring our awareness to over and over as our attention wanders off into thought.
Try paying attention to the ringing instead of having aversion to it. Make it your anchor instead of the breath, particularly if it’s the most predominant thing in your direct experience.
Being irritated by tinnitus is optional. Irritation or hating it is an aversive story about the ringing that’s created in our world of concepts and ideas. In other words, if there is irritation about the ringing, you are the one putting it there on autopilot (unintentionally). The ringing is just ringing. Trying to ignore it or hating it actually makes it worse (turns up the volume). Simply notice it and label it silently in your mind as “ringing”. Ringing is happening. Notice how it changes and try being curious about it. It’s hard to be curious and irritated at the same time.
I’ve been meditating for several days and I don’t feel any different. Why isn’t it working?
Meditation is like going to the mental gym and working out to create a different momentum or strength of mind and change our relationship to experience, thoughts and thinking. You wouldn’t come back from the gym after a day or two of working out to see if you looked like superman in the mirror. Give it some time.
If mindfulness is practiced by “warriors and elite athletes”, why is it always depicted as a “peace and love” practice in the media?
I think it’s because of the pre-conceived ideas people have about it and the audience that magazines cater to with their cover photos. Based on Time Magazine, Newsweek and other’s you’d think that being a blonde model, sitting cross legged on a cushion and holding your hands in some goofy position would be a prerequisite for meditating. The peace, love and hippy perception of meditation is changing but it takes time. As I write this the Golden State Warriors just won the championship and Steve Kerr’s stated 4 core values for the team include Mindfulness!
Can Mindfulness Meditation be used instead of counseling, psychotherapy and drugs such as antidepressants?
The short answer for those diagnosed with a psychological disorder is generally no. Crewmembers suffering from anxiety or depression are often looking for a solution that doesn’t involve self-disclosure or formal “medical” treatment. In this regard, I put Mindfulness Meditation more in the category of regular oral hygiene, and actual psychological disorders as a need for a filling or root canal. Beginning meditation early may prevent larger problems and disorders later on. For some, Mindfulness and Meditation may be enough and for others, it may be used along with traditional therapies. It becomes a matter of degree and symptoms. If there’s any question or doubt and you want to speak confidentially to a licensed clinical mental health professional (who’s also a pilot), I strongly suggest Matt McNeil at LiftAffect. www.liftaffect.com