Monday, February 05, 2007

In Charge. But In Control?

Have you ever piloted an airplane, actually been at the controls and flown it?

My mentor used aircraft as tools so me and others could deepen our understanding of certain principles and concepts for more effective living. Planes were our training platforms. The first lessons were designed to illustrate how conditioned we were to transferring past circumstances onto present situations. Here’s one of those initial lessons that we used to do live inside real planes. Reading this will be different because you’re limited to using only your ability to visualize. You can heighten your internalization by involving your body in the process while you visualize. Getting the body involved in any mental process dramatically increases understanding, application and the probability for desired results.

Imagine you are sitting in the cockpit of a small two-seater aircraft like a 1967 Cessna 150. Put yourself in the left had seat – where the pilot-in-command sits. The co-pilot or instructor (in this case, me) sits just to your right. There are a number of instruments on a panel in front of us, and we each have something similar to a steering wheel forward of our chairs. Put your left hand on the one in front of you. At our feet we each have two peddles - left and right. Rest your feet yours. In the space between our seats you’ll find a lever coming out of the floor and atop it is a button that either of us can depress allowing us to raise or lower the lever. Reach down with your right hand, depress the button and click the lever up through a couple of notches to it highest position. There it stops and will go no further.

Assuming you’ve never piloted before, what do you think the wheel you are holding is used for? Turn it left and then right. Interesting thing about it – if you push on it, will move forward into the panel… and if you pull on it, it will come back almost to your chest. With your right foot push down on the right peddle. What’s its purpose? What about the one your left foot is resting on … what is it for? Push on it. What happens in your imagination? If you are a pilot, of course you already know the answers to these questions in reality; but do you recall when you first sat in a cockpit and began to make sense of these things?

Almost always the first response from someone brand new to flying is: “Turning the wheel is – hmmmm, well it turns the plane.” And once they see that the wheel can be pushed and pulled, they say something like – “I guess this is what makes the plane go up and down. Pull back and the plane goes up; push forward and it descends… or … maybe if you pull back it will slow things down, and if you push forward we go faster?” As for the feet, often heard is, “Well, the right one’s must be for the gas – that’s our accelerator - then the left one’s gotta be the brake… and because we have no gears (or this thing has an automatic transmission) there’s no need for a third peddle which, of course would be the clutch.” What’s happening? Assumptions and transference, that’s what.

We are sitting in an environment with an arrangement and display familiar to us because we are used to driving cars. Most student pilots begin their journey into pilot-hood through an introductory process that allows them to see how quickly they act on old assumptions and begin to transfer past experiences into what they are viewing in now time. They are challenged to confront a past that has very little relevance to what is actually in front of them. If you were to try to taxi or fly the airplane and use that wheel to turn with, or the right peddle for pouring on the gas, or the left peddle to slow down and stop, or the lever between our seats as a parking break the results would be silly (at best) or deadly (at worst).

I remember my first experience taxiing the Cessna 150 that I would eventually own. I hopped into the cockpit thinking “finally I get to be in charge of an airplane.” For the next few moments I was told exactly what the peddles were for (and they’re not for gas or breaking) and exactly what the wheel is for (actually it’s called a yoke and it has nothing to do with turning right or left on the ground), and what that lever is for … and I was instructed on exactly how to taxi in good fashion to the end of the runway. My instructor then started the plane. All I had to do was execute a ninety-degree left turn, head straight for the end of the runway and then keep us going that direction. Yet, once I was put in charge my feet and hands seemed to have a mind of their own. They did exactly what they had been conditioned to do by past experience … not what I was supposed to do to succeed at this task. My hands turned hard left, but the plane kept going straight. So my left foot “hit the brake”… and we executed a fast turn to the left that went well past ninety degrees. Off course my hands tried to steer back to the right, but the plane kept going in a circle. I even pulled on the yoke as if the plane was a horse. I could hear myself saying “whoa, whoa, whoa!!” Soon I was zigzagging all over the grass, into some weeds and almost ran into a fence. Because my course corrections were based on an old set of beliefs and patterns imbedded my mind/body system nothing was going the way I wanted. I got scared and frustrated; and the more I slipped into those two mental/emotional states the more obsessed I became at trying to make my unproductive action work. (It was kind of like talking to someone who doesn’t speak your language … so you talk slower and raise your voice. Ever do something like that?) My past mental models took over and things got worse. Soon my instructor took over and brought us to a stop. I was sweating. He was laughing. Yep, finally I was in charge ... but in control – hardly.

In Meditations (CE167) Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Very little is needed to have a happy life. It’s all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” That’s a very positive and uplifting notion to put forth, and one that has been stated by many other great minds – before and after the day that Aurelius wrote those words. But he could have just as easily worded his idea as an admonition for the reader to guard against counterproductive ways of being. He could have said, “Very little is needed to have a frustrated life. It’s all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

If our thinking orients towards the now, how we communicate and how we attempt to understand and learn from what is happening in the present in order to constructively move forward we are more apt to succeed than if our thinking orients to the past in an effort to maintain control by looking through lenses constructed of what we already know (or think we know). Not that the past should be discounted or ignored… not at all. Use the past, but use it with a sense of balance - wisdom and discretion - for what it is … past.

The pilot-in-command of an airplane is a decision maker; he or she is in charge. But that doesn’t mean they have control over everything. There’s a big difference between being in charge and being in control. You have a lot of authority if you’re a PIC sitting in that left seat. Real pilots-in-command have the authority to override all decisions and desires made by any and all other human beings. Most of the time, though, a PIC follows set procedures and responds to the requests or orders of others in authority – the control tower personnel, the aircraft owner, a chief of operations or the president of the airline. Why? It’s a matter of trust and because most of the time things happen as a matter of routine. But at any moment, should the PIC determine that a situation warrants something other than what’s been instructed by an authority outside of the cockpit then he or she can do anything he or she wants to ensure safe flight of that craft because the PIC has enormous life/death responsibility at his or her fingertips. But authority to override others does not come without a price. When the aircraft finally comes back to earth the PIC must account for, face the consequences of, and if need be pay the prices for all the actions he or she took.

Think about it. When was the last time you felt out of control in a new situation – a new job, a budding relationship, a fresh approach to company governance, whatever - and you got excited because you thought you were finally going to have a little more control in your life and the freedom that you thought might accompany this control. But soon after jumping into the cockpit (if you will) of this new job, relationship for form of governance, you got frustrated or scared or thought things wouldn’t work out and maybe you threw up your hands and wanted to quit. What old data was your mind/body system automatically applying to your new situation? What old thoughts were you bringing forward from your past into the now? There’s nothing wrong with using the past to help the future – it’s part of the genius of being human. But, more often than not, people reach into the past in an attempt to control the now before they truly understand what is really in front of them and what the now actually needs.

How do you know if you’re applying past mental models to a new situation? Listen to your mental chatter, that’s one way. Are you making silent comparisons, seeing someone else’s face in place of the person who’s actually in front of you … or who you’re actually talking with. Are you hearing an old voice? Do you find yourself saying, “Just like son-and-so.” Looking at the results is another way. Do you see old, undesired results creeping into the new scenario? If you do, then it’s time to slow down, stop, and step aside from yourself and ask yourself about what is really going on. Sit quietly. See what comes up for you as you look for patterns. Ask a trusted friend or professional to be your “co-pilot” for a moment or a while – someone who will have no agenda about winning your favor if they say something you like, or losing your favor if they say something you don’t like. Yes, you may be in charge. But in control … this can be an illusion.

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