West's stress on mindfulness after serious flight errors influenced by vipassana

Tenets of Eastern culture have formed the foundation of business management and control over the mind that the West is practising under different names

West's stress on mindfulness after serious flight errors influenced by vipassana
An Air France crew underestimated the takeoff weight by 100 tonnes. Image courtesy: AirFranceKLM Group

Distraction, loss of concentration, carelessness and loss of attention are causal factors in a number of aviation occurrences. This is because the mind is either preoccupied with too many thoughts or we are unable to focus our attention at the right moment by decluttering our mind. Recent incidents of erroneous takeoff performance or approach on the wrong landing surface are a few examples. A 100-tonne error in takeoff weight by the crew of an Air France cargo aircraft in Paris, or the crew of Air Canada approaching a taxiway with four aircraft, with almost 1,000 passengers' lives at stake is extremely important.

In allowing things to be just as they are, the experience of those very things change.

Late in 2018, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) released two documents that attempted to bolster safety standards.

1. Safety mindfulness methodology

2. Startle effect management

Both these documents have the essence of the Eastern concept of mindfulness or vipassana. The Satipatthana Sutta: the discourse on the establishment of mindfulness, and the subsequently created Mahasatipatthana Sutta: the great discourse on the establishment of mindfulness, are two of the most celebrated and widely studied discourses in Buddhism, acting as the foundation for contemporary vipassana meditational practice. These discourses stress the practice of mindfulness “ for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the extinguishing of suffering and grief, for walking on the path of truth, for the realisation of nirvana.

Morality, mindfulness of breathing, and reflection

Vipassana-meditation uses mindfulness and calmness, developed through the practice of mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence as observed in the bodily and mental changes, to gain insight into the true nature of this reality.

Future Sky Safety is an EU-funded transport research programme in the field of European aviation safety. It started with an estimated budget of about €30 million and brought together 33 European partners to develop new tools and new approaches to aeronautics safety, initially over a four-year period, starting in January 2015. The first phase of the research focused on four main topics:

1. Building ultra-resilient vehicles and improving cabin safety.

2. Reducing the risk of accidents.

3. Improving processes and technologies to achieve near-total control over safety risks.

4. Improving safety performance under unexpected circumstances.

Even though the content of the document is inspired by the principles of high-reliability organisations, the concept of mindfulness is somewhat misplaced.

Startle effect management does include deep breathing and techniques as a part of training to mitigate the effects of startle and surprise. The concept of recognising the present state and enhancing situational awareness too comes from the Eastern concept of mindfulness.

Why is focusing important?

The first question we might have is why use any focus of attention at all? We are, after all, trying to develop awareness. Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens to be present in the mind? In fact, there are meditations of that nature. They are sometimes referred to as unstructured meditation and they are quite difficult.

The mind is tricky. Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that, we mean that we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain. One thought leads to another, which leads to another, and another, and another, and so on. Fifteen minutes later, we suddenly wake up and realise we spent that whole time stuck in a daydream or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or whatever.

Also read: How a Vedic solution can make all the difference in pilot-training

We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as a distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.


What did so many of history’s greatest warriors stress as the key to success and optimal performance? Being calm.

And it wasn’t one random samurai mentioning it off the cuff.

We’re talking about some of the greatest samurai who ever lived, writing about it over and over for 500 years.

The video 'The Fly', is an anime-style video of a samurai sitting in meditation. With solemn dignity, this samurai takes his seat and closes his eyes... and before long, he begins to hear the buzzing of a fly. This fly is not what he had in mind! Irritated, the samurai begins swatting at the fly, but the buzzing just continues. And grows. He keeps swatting. Eventually, he draws out his sword and is in a full-on battle with the fly. The more he swings the sword and fights, more flies arise and his irritation grows bigger. Finally, discouraged and defeated, the samurai drops the fight entirely. He nods his head in acceptance as if to say, in the words of Tara Brach, “yes, this too, even this.” And that’s when the magic happens.

In allowing things to be just as they are, the experience of those very things change.

Suddenly, it’s as if the flies have become flower petals raining down upon the samurai. It’s a nice story, not because it ends with flower petals, but because it illustrates how our “not liking” can bring on resistance; which often only serves to make things more painful for us. If, however, we can allow things to be as they are – because, let’s face it, they already are that way – we can navigate through difficult situations without increasing our distress about them. The desire to rid ourselves of whatever is bothering us is a completely normal response of human life. In fact, it’s part of our hardwiring, and it has helped us to survive as a species. But most of the time, in our lives, survival isn’t actually in question, so the resistance-hardwiring that we’ve developed through millennia isn’t helpful. It just feeds our stress response. As Rick Hansen often reminds us, “We’re wired for survival, not for happiness.”

When we slow down and pay attention, it’s easy to see how prevalent this way of being is in our own lives...

How we try to avoid uncomfortable emotions like sadness and anxiety, loneliness and shame. How we try to avoid physical sensations like hunger, knee pain and itchiness. When we practice being with sensations and experiences that create resistance in us, we grow our ability to be with discomfort. And when we allow ourselves to meet everything that arises in life with some equanimity, even just a little bit, then we have more space and composure to take meaningful action in uncomfortable situations... instead of just living in reactivity and fear (which often only serve to make things worse).

I actually had a very similar 'fly' experience. I was sitting at a retreat. I entered the hall, bowed, made my way to a cushion and took my seat. Before long, I could feel that a fly had landed on my cheek. Without even being aware of what I was doing, I reflexively waved it away. I didn’t want the fly to interfere with my 'real work'. But of course, it came back (as flies do) and not surprisingly, I swatted it away again (as people do). This time I had the added thought that the fly should go bother someone else in the room. Well, being that compassion is a core value of mine, having this thought activated a sense of shame in me, for wishing discomfort on someone else in order to spare myself. I sat with this for a moment.

And suddenly, I had the realisation that this detour, this unexpected complication, was the real work.

The distracting fly and everything that came up for me around it was the work – and I was disappointed to have missed the opportunity! Then, the bell rang, which signalled the beginning of the meditation. I was delighted – I hadn’t 'failed' after all, that was only 'pre-meditation' and now I had a chance to really practise as if there’s truly any distinction between what happens when we sit still and when we go about the business of our lives! I had to chuckle at the silliness of my own mind. And... not surprisingly, the fly came back.

But this time I allowed it. I opened up to the experience.

I could feel the sensations on my face as the fly walked around my left cheek. I became curious about the sensation. It fell somewhere between tingly and itchy. I watched my reaction – a tightening, an urge to be rid of it. And through it all, I held my seat. I sat still and practised allowing things to be as they are. Allowing this fly to walk across my face. After all, it was just a fly. I wasn’t in any danger, I just didn’t like it, and moving from 'not liking' to allowing, I could feel my body relax. There were more ease and openness.

Released now from my reactivity around the fly I asked myself, as I had been instructed to do, “What else is here?” I found a few things, including a well of sadness. Opening to that too, I again asked myself, “What else is here?”

To my surprise and delight, what arose was, “The fly! The fly is also here with me.” It felt as if I had a friend, I wasn’t alone. It was me and the fly. And also the sadness. And also delight at my realising the interconnectedness of all beings. All sitting together, for this moment anyway. I realised that we’re never truly alone, we just can’t feel the interconnectedness sometimes. We just forget.

And to think, I had twice tried to avoid the company.

Samurai trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always 'be prepared' (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)

Research shows that preparation reduces fear because when things get tense, you don’t have to think.

Who survives catastrophic scenarios like samurai battles? The people who have prepared.

The West takes the Eastern cultural concepts as being retrograde, but historically, these very tenets of Eastern culture have formed the foundation of business management and control over the mind that the West is practising under different names.

Captain Amit Singh is a training and safety expert with over 30 years of experience in the commercial air transport industry. He has been associated with two startup low-cost carriers and has hands-on experience with their needs and challenges. He has been a part of the senior management at IndiGo and Air Asia India. Captain Singh has been speaking at international fora on training and safety. He is also the author of mindFly the Human Factors blog.

(This article first appeared in safetymatters.co.in)