I am currently enrolled in one of Seth Godin’s Akimbo projects, “The Story Skills Workshop”. The first piece is a look at my transition from military aviator to philosopher of mindfulness. It’s been fascinating to go through the process of writing, editing, revising. Learning what the moral was along the way. I hope you enjoy it.
The photos tell part of the story. You can see my grandfather, Frederick Struppa Whitaker, standing on stage of the Pensacola US Navy Flight School theatre, spotlighted before heavy red velvet curtains. His thin, frail body radiates with pride. With crooked hands he pins a pair of gold wings on the chest of his third grandchild, Shannon Michelle Whitaker.
But photos do not tell what happened next.
After pinning on my wings, my grandfather looked into my eyes. His once tall frame now shrunken, we beamed at each other at eye level.
Silence filled the theatre.
Suddenly the Whitaker clan, amassed in the audience below, burst into uproarious applause: hooting, cheering, bellowing and stamping. My classmates and their families, initially shocked by the ruckus, gave in. Smiling and laughing, they clapped hands and hooted in delight. There was no resisting the moment.
Thus was I born as the United States’ newest Naval Aviator. Fifteen years of dreams, detours, doubts, and determination came to fruition in that moment. On a red-velvet stage, to uproarious applause, I was welcomed to my new role, to my new life.
“But what if the problem is _me_?” I demanded.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“What if the problem is not the military? The pay is good. I’m a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, living in Los Angeles, dating a man six years younger than myself. My life is fodder for television. What if the problem is not the military. What if the problem is me?”
More than ten years had passed since the day of my pinning. My military contract was almost complete and I had chosen not to renew it. In less than a year, I would be giving up my social status, walking away from a paycheck, healthcare, and pension, to matriculate as an undergraduate philosophy student in Paris. I was 37 years old. My friends were probably right. I probably was crazy.
Jeff, that was my boyfriend’s name, Jeff, took my hand and looked kindly into my eyes. “What if the problem _is_ the military?” he asked.
I broke into tears, my heart torn in a thousand directions. For more than ten years I had watched the vitality of my life ground to powder under the weight of government bureaucracy. I had lost so many colleagues in this business. Deaths whose violent sadness was overshadowed by the rage of knowing that they died, almost to a man, in vain. Their crushed, burnt, and drowned bodies an accepted cost of the juggernaut of pride and dominance rife in military aviation.
And I had been punished. Quietly, inconspicuously, perhaps even subconsciously. Applications were passed over, status withheld, for daring to speak these truths outloud. I was praised publicly, received good marks. But I was a woman, an audacious, outspoken one, in a man’s world.
Thus it was that the life my family had so celebrated came to a close without so much as a whimper. Eleven years after it was signed, my military commission dissolved back into the nothingness from which it had been concocted. I stowed my leather jacket and flight helmet in a friend’s attic. Without comment and without fanfare, I boarded a flight to Paris.
“What _exactly_ does one get from a degree in Philosophy?” my mother asked on the phone one day. I come from blue-collar folk, practical people who would not imagine spending all that money to attend college just to… to do what, exactly?
The short answer is, I got woke. I was stunned, stricken, moved sometimes to tears by the reality of material casually covered in those lectures. Meaning is created. Gender is a construct. Language is relational. Questions I had carried almost four decades were answered dismissively, as though the concepts were too banal to receive a second thought.
But the very ennui of these professors was symptomatic of a pervasive sickness all too familiar to me. I recognized the pressure to produce that had turned once bright-eyed seekers into disgruntled, ennui-filled publication machines. I recognized the politics and the insidious stressors of a career in which colleagues were pitted against each other, never resting for fear of a moment of status lost or gained.
Despite this, what troubled me most about academic philosophy was the almost pathological aversion to my question, “What about human flourishing?” At worst my professors would dismiss my question as naive. At best, my interlocutor would patiently explain, behind the armor of erudition, that morality is relative.
These men, and they were all men, with their troubled marriages, their backbiting work relationships, their lives spent scratching and squabbling for scraps of status dropped from the provost’s table, these men were simply incapable of addressing the question. It was clear to me that I would not find what I was looking for among this lot.
“What’s on your mind, Babe?” I asked Jeff.
It was a perfect spring afternoon a few months before graduation. We sat on the terrace of our Parisian flat surrounded by cascading wisteria, jasmine, flowers of all kinds. I wore a floor-length rose patterned dress. His hair had grown to his shoulders. We were drinking rosé and engaging in the kind of small-talk that can be so delightful between best friends.
A cloud had passed across his face, his brow furrowed. I waited patiently, daydreaming and lazily fingering my wine glass.
“I want to take the job in Baltimore,” he said.
Jeff had been offered a position to work as an engineer for Johns Hopkins University, a big-deal institution in Baltimore back in the United States. Baltimore, the city where the previous year race riots broke out after a young black man died violently at the hands of police. Jeff had worked with colleagues at Hopkins, had mentioned the idea before. Apparently, he had decided.
I paused for a moment. Took a sip of rosé. “You want to leave this,” I motioned to the vernal glories surrounding us, “for Baltimore?”
“Yes,” he answered. Quietly, but with conviction.
I leaned back in my chair. Took a long swig from my glass. This rosé was simply perfect. Chilled and pinky-pale. Bright, minerally, with a rounded body and a crisp finish. Tiny droplets of condensation encircled the glass. I felt a pricking behind my eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come with you.”
I did not know what I would do when I got to Baltimore, but I knew it would not be academic philosophy.
Several months after returning to the states, I sat in the meditation hall of Zen Mountain Monastery, a Buddhist enclave in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. It is a stunning space. The hall stretches three-hundred feet of wood floors and paneling. Originally built as a chapel for a Christian retreat center, the forty-foot high ceilings draw the spirit upwards. The architecture oozes spirituality.
I had come here almost by accident. Casting about for connection in my new town, I happened upon a local retreat center and attended a seven-day meditation retreat. Much to my surprise, over the course of that seven days I witnessed significant changes in my conscious experience. I watched my frantic mind slow down. I watched my nervous system calm. I watched myself become more open and friendly, less on alert. The weekend after the retreat, I signed up for a thirty-day residency at Zen Mountain Monastery.
Zen is an orderly religion. Six aisles of rectangular black meditation mats were arranged down the length of the hall. At each station sat a cross-legged figure, wrapped in a light-grey robe. Eyes were cast downwards, lids mostly closed.
As anyone who has ever tried meditation can attest, meditation sometimes makes you sleepy. The Zen tradition has a straightforward method of handling this inconvenience. From time to time a moderator walks up and down the aisles with a long, flat wooden stick called a keisaku (kay-SAH-koo), the “Stick of Awakening”. When the moderator approaches, if you are falling asleep, you signal with a bow that you wish to be awakened. The moderator then strikes you, with enthusiasm, on the shoulders and back. You are awakened.
On this particular day Yukon, an elderly monk, was administering the keisaku. He walked slowly, silently between the aisles of meditators, offering a keisaku strike to those who requested it.
I was seated mid-way down one row of meditators. My eyelids were slightly open; I could see Yukon, from knees to bare feet, approach in my periphery. He moved silently, slowly, almost stealthily, his long black monastic robes swishing round his ankles with each step. As he reached the corner of my small black cushion, he shifted the stick from his left hand to his right hand.
And the inside of my body exploded.
I was plunged into a lake of firey water as the stress chemicals erupted into my bloodstream. Every fibre of my being shrieked at me to attack Yukon.
I sat perfectly, perfectly still.
Fortunately, I had been practicing long enough that my frontal lobe stayed online when my stress reaction hit. It was _fascinating_ to watch. My heart pounded, my temperature shot up, sweat broke out on my face. There was an incredible energy in my body, a desire to leap, to attack Yukon.
My body screamed at me. I moved not a fraction.
Yukon continued his slow, noiseless walk and disappeared from my view.
As the “threat” passed, the cocktail of violence subsided within me. My heart rate slowed, my internal temperature cooled, the energy settled. My conscious brain had just ridden an extraordinary roller coaster.
There was still plenty of time that afternoon to sit on my cushion and ponder this curious event. After things inside cooled down, I turned my mind to investigating the experience. Why on earth did I want to attack Yukon?
The answer came quite suddenly. It was not, in fact, _me_ that wanted to attack Yukon. It was my training. I had defaulted to training received in the military. When I saw the stealthy walk and the stick swinging back, my amygdala reacted to a perceived threat. But it wasn’t _me_. Of course _I_ didn’t want to attack Yukon. My brain and body had been trained to sense and respond aggressively to threats. But it wasn’t _me_. It wasn’t _my_ anger or _my_ violence. It was simply a result of the training I had undergone and the life I had once led. _It had nothing to do with me_.
With this insight a rush of the most intense joy filled my body. The emotion was equally powerful as the stress reaction, but now it was wholesome, almost rapturous. I saw my future opening up before me. You are not supposed to smile on a Zen meditation cushion. But hang them, Cheshire’s grin spread across my face. I could feel it in my chest, in my toes, my body sparkled with this new truth. I could be free from the conditioning instilled upon me by the military, by a Western patriarchal upbringing, by anything. It was not that I had lost the neurological and biological reflexes, but those reflexes no longer had to define my personality, my life; they no longer had to control my future. I understood that with practice and perseverance, I could rewire my brain, could undo what had been done. I could purposefully orient my life towards one of human flourishing. And I could teach others how to do this for themselves.
When I first returned to the US, I sought out the company of my former military colleagues. I would travel several hours to meet them in Washington DC for networking events, hoping to rekindle the spark of camaraderie we once enjoyed. But the interactions left me lonely and disconnected. They were complaining about the same bureaucratic frustrations, the same badly behaving bosses, the same toxic culture we had complained about ten years earlier. And my new life seemed to either confound or bemuse them.
In the interim of their complaining, I have become a philosopher of mindfulness. A scholar, teacher, and practitioner. I teach mindfulness to veterans at a VA mental health clinic. I teach mindfulness to doctors and staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital. And I teach mindfulness to Jeff, who does not meditate, does not want to meditate. But every day we engage in conversations about human flourishing. About how to talk with a colleague, how to approach a problem, how to engage life with a spirit of kindness, curiosity, and patience. We talk about being present for what is arriving in this moment, letting go of resentment from the past or fears about the future. We grow together every day.
Some months ago one of my students commented, “My fiancé could really use this stuff. But I can’t get him to try it. What should I do?” I could see acknowledgement on the faces of her colleagues.
“I don’t know anything about him, and I don’t know much about you,” I told her. “But I can tell you something about me. Since I have begun practicing, my experience of the world has completely changed. The world is no longer threatening. There is no longer scarcity. Things are no longer so serious. The world is kind, overflowing, a joyful place to be. And none of this has happened because other people have chosen to take up meditation. Rather, it is because _I_ have.”