Thoughts from 40,000 Feet.

In Essays, Philosophy, Stoicism

These are my thoughts while flying over northern Iraq and then Syria, at an altitude of around 40,000 feet. Considering what happened over Ukraine a short while back when an airplane was shot out of the sky while flying over a war zone, it made me pause from my copious movie watching, and I decided to simply stare out of the window and think about life.

It’s quite strange seeing the world such a height, removed from humanity by such a distance. This must be only a fraction of the feeling that astronauts receive when they are in space and look down to earth. It makes one realise how small we really are, how little we matter, and how stupid many of our quarrels are. The earth is actually so small, we should be able to live together in harmony, but right now it’s not the case.

Just the fact that I was able to have these thoughts, and I wasn’t shaking and sweating and thinking that I was going to die at any minute is an incredible turnaround from how I was a few years ago when I had a strong fear of flying. I now like the feeling of giving up control, control that we actually never even own or have to give up in the first place anyway.

The privilege of being above the clouds is also something truly special. Throughout the ages men and women have dreamed of emulating birds and taking to the skies, and nowadays for many us this is a reality, for what amounts to very small sums of money.

There is a lot to reflect while being so high, so removed from all the world’s problems, and that’s exactly what I want to do in this essay.

Lack of Control

If you’ve ready any of my essays, you’ll know that I am constantly discussing what we can and cannot control. I even wrote an entire essay dedicated to this subject, but that probably doesn’t quite do it justice.

The subject of control is a complex one, but it is absolutely key to understand it in order to live what we can consider a good life. If we don’t, we run the risk of living lives that are marred by disappointment over things that happen that we simply cannot do anything about.

When I talk about understanding, I really mean living. If you live with the constant thought that we cannot control much except our reactions and opinions to the events around us, you kickstart a slow but sure transformation in yourself. You won’t worry about what others think or do, you’ll simply focus on trying to do your best with what you believe is right, and you’ll be constantly trying to improve yourself so that you can be sure that what you believe is right is, in actual fact, the correct way to live.

And so, getting on an airplane can really help us to see the issue of control in a clear light, right above the clouds.

The illusion of control on an aircraft is completely disintegrated.

And so you just have to trust in the system.

You walk into a $200 million dollar machine trusting that the mechanics and engineers have done their job properly, that the pilots are in top form to fly, that your fellow passengers are not suicidal fundamentalists, and that fate will ensure a safe flight and not cause some inexplicable catastrophic failure that will bring the airplane down at hundreds of miles per hour.

The rest of our lives is exactly the same way, but it is simply more obvious when you’re in a metal tube above the clouds

The Stoics always advise us to see things exactly for what they are, and this is something that is echoed in Buddhism, especially when it comes to desire. The Buddhists instruct us to think of anyone we lust after as mere components that make up a human being. Flesh, blood, urine, excrement, mucus, and the like. In this way, we can better control our appetite of sex.

So if we look at exactly what is happening when we are flying on a plane, it is quite amazing.

We enter what can be described as a high-tech aluminium cylinder, which has several extremely powerful engines attached to a pair of wings. These engines provide huge amounts of thrust which propels the plane down the runway at ever increasing speed, until a slight nudge back from the pilot on his controls send the entire machine off the ground and further up into the sky.

Within a short period of time, you’ll find yourself more than 10km above the earth, with the features that you are used to seeing in everyday life reduced to mere pinpoints far below you.

By this time, the temperature outside will be approaching -50C, and you’ll be travelling at over 500 miles per hour.

By this point, the only control you have is choosing your meal out of the few options available, and deciding which movie to watch in the in-flight entertainment.

The beautiful thing here is that this is actually the level of control you have over your own life all the time, but it is just made so obvious on an airplane. If you stop and really think about any other situation in life and what you can control in it, you’ll quickly find that most of what we think is under our control is actually not, but we temporarily fool ourselves into thinking it is, and then we get on with our lives.

So the point could be made that it doesn’t matter if something is, or isn’t in our control, as long as it doesn’t affect the way we live. After all, wishing for the airplane not to crash won’t have any effect on whether it will or not, but you may reach the conclusion that it does because in your experience it has never crashed and you have also wished for this to be the case.

The problem is that life has a tendency to not quite go the way we intend it to.

If we are armed with the understanding that we have very little control, we will be able to continue to live a good life that is generally devoid of negative emotions. This is because we will be prepared with the thought that things are quite likely not go exactly as we wish them to.

If we don’t understand what we control and what we don’t, we set ourselves up for the continuous disappointment that will lead to frustration, anger, depression, and a feeling that we are simply not doing the right thing.

The Privilege to be Above the Clouds

As mentioned earlier, it is a real privilege to be flying above the clouds, but it’s incredible how often I take that for granted when I fly.

I’ve been flying on airplanes since I was young, and because it has become a habitual occurrence, I’ve stopped appreciating something that is actually truly incredible.

During my staring-out-of-the-window session, and looking at the top of clouds that were gold with the sunlight from above, I began to think about how airplanes came to me, and the billions of man-hours spent researching, testing, working, flying. I began to think about all the lives dedicated to the pursuit of allowing human beings the ability to see above the clouds, the ability to traverse the globe in less than a day, all for what amounts to around a week or two worth of wages.

That is amazing, and it will continue to be amazing.

This type of amazement may come under criticism as childish, and the critics would argue that we shouldn’t be so simple minded to be amazed by such obvious fact and should reserve our amazement for new feats of engineering such as visiting a new planet, not for what is now a simple everyday occurrence.

My reply to this criticism is the same as the argument I used to combat the argument that we should have higher and higher standards in our search for luxury, and not be so simple to the basic pleasures that we all have available.

This argument runs along the lines that it is much easier to lower our standards in terms of what we think of as a luxury than to work obsessively to gain ever more opulent belongings. For instance, it is much better to let yourself go thirsty and then enjoy a glass of cold water than to only be able to derive pleasure if you can access the finest of wines.

The reason for this is twofold:

  1. One day you may not have access to these wines, and this will lead to disappointment that you would otherwise not have had. You are far more resilient to change if you can happily live a simple life without too many luxuries. One could argue, as I did, that luxuries are actually what cause us to be unhappy, and we should actively try and remove them from our lives as much as possible, and the few times when we accept them, we do so with suspicion, ready with the thought that they could be taken away from us at any time.
  2. Desires, when fulfilled, have a habit of increasing in number and scope. Exactly because human desires are insatiable, if left unchecked pretty you will run out of money or health trying to fulfil them. This is the basis of what is called Hedonic Adaptation.

So I believe it is a real privilege to fly, and it’s not something that should be taken for granted.

Lack of Stimulus

Once I shut down the in-flight entertainment and just stared out of the window, I realised that I had several hours where I had absolutely no stimulus. This is rare in our media-rich age.

We’re constantly bombarded with notifications, alerts, messages, phone calls, emails, and whatnot, and so it’s a rare occurrence where we can actually spend a couple of hours in our own thoughts, without any disturbance except the air hostess asking if you want a drink.

This is definitely something that I appreciated hugely, and makes me think about a long term plan to do something similar to Henry David Thoreau when he went to Walden, and lived a simple and distraction-free existence in a shed near a pond.

I find that it only takes around 30 minutes of complete lack of distractions for my brain to kick into gear and begin to spin around good ideas and creative thoughts, and from there it is just a matter of making sure to write things down for later, and then develop the ideas into something, or simply mull them over.

This links to the idea that I’ve started mentioning in several of my previous essays, and this is the idea of doing nothing, or of non-action. I believe this is an idea that is very much emphasised in Taoism, but I haven’t studied it so I cannot be sure, but I’m sure this will become a stronger and stronger theme in my essays as time passes by.

Personally, I stumbled on this idea when I tested out skipping breakfast and essentially fasting for 18 hours a day. I realised that this was actually quite easy because when you give up something, all you have to do is nothing.

So this was a much easier challenge than, say, take up running, which requires on to actually take action – i.e. wake up each morning, get dressed, and get out of the house.

This made me realise that perhaps an easier – and stronger – way to change the way we behave is to try and take advantage of this non-action and focus on the things that we can stop doing, instead of the things that we can start doing.

So going back to the idea of the lack of stimulus on an airplane, especially if you just choose to stare out of the window. If you find yourself in this situation, review the clouds, and simply think.

Patience

The flip side of a lack of stimulus is that it requires patience. In fact, life requires patience.

Everything possible that is worthwhile attaining will take a certain length of time, very few things are instant in life, and those that are, well, they often aren’t the things that we enjoy the most.

So patience is the ability to reconcile between what we would like to happen now, and the fact that it won’t happen now. In fact, if we take it far enough, we may even be able to start enjoying the fact that we cannot get everything we want right away because we will have the knowledge that a pleasure delayed is a pleasure enhanced. This is the basis for delayed gratification.

Travelling is a great test of patience, but it’s actually nothing if we compare it to how people used to travel even just a short time ago. Before the age of commercial air travel, if you wanted to reach another continent you would have probably made the journey by ship which may have taken weeks. I recently made a 40-hour journey from Asia to Europe, and that felt long!

So this is worth keeping in mind whenever there is a delay in your travels because nowadays we are, historically speaking, essentially teleporting across the world.