Remember the plane that crashed into the Hudson River and the extraordinary presence of mind of pilot Chesley Sullenberger. He had seconds to take action when a flock of geese flew into the plane’s engines, disabling them and leaving the plane in imminent danger of crashing into New York. He made the decision to land on water, knowing it would mean the end of the plane but had the possibility of saving lives. How was he able to keep that presence of mind when most of us would have frozen in terror, panicked or been overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing our impending death?
The answer he gave in his autobiography, was not that he was superhuman, switching off emotion and operating with ice cold logic. He writes “I knew this was the worst aviation challenge I had ever faced. It was the most sickening, pit of your stomach, falling through the floor feeling I had ever experienced”, but alongside that he was able to do something that is often elusive. He was able to feel the emotion without becoming the emotion. Even in the most critical moment of his life, he was able to experience the emotion, whilst also holding onto the cognition that he knew what needed to be done.
Contrast that with how those of us not trained as pilots respond to challenges which have no life threatening implications. Take yesterday, when I received a piece of news related to my work that was insignificant in the grand scale of things. How did I react? Not like Sullenberger. I became the emotion. The sinking feeling in my stomach was converted into negative thoughts. Within minutes I had catastrophized the meaning of this event, for my working relationship with a client, and had created a future that only heightened my emotional response.
What I had lost access to are the skills that come with not being caught in being the emotion: the ability to focus on what needs to be done in that moment – to deal with the job at hand, rather than being caught by thoughts of the future. The difficulty was quickly resolved when I regained control of my emotions, and just asked ‘what do I need to do now to fix this?’.
Sullenberger talks of having developed that ability to focus through his training as a pilot. The Head of Leadership at West Point Academy in the US, Colonel Thomas Kolditz sees it as a key skill developed in military training. He talks of sharpening focus and turning outwards in times of high risk, rather than getting dysfunctionally excited and self absorbed. If soldiers can learn that skill when faced by danger to life, how can those of us without that discipline become better at managing our emotions to stay in control of our brains.
The answer that many people are now discovering is mindfulness. Learning how to pay attention to the present moment, non judgementally – to be able to notice the emotion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the emotion is at the heart of mindful practice. Adapted from Buddhist practice, research is now supporting what Buddhists have long known: that mindfulness improves ability to focus attention, it increases flexibility of thinking, it speeds up the processing of visual information and enhances psychological well being.
What this means is that the processes trained into pilots and soldiers can be learned by those of us not on the front line, so that when we face our own challenges we have the resilience resources generated by mindfulness available to us.
If mindfulness is a new idea for you then check out the website of Michael Chaskalson, a leading practitioner of bringing mindfulness into working life. www.mindfulness-works.com