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By Arthur Paul Patterson

[The following article is taken from a talk given on October 4, 2003, at Watershed’s annual Fall retreat. Click here for audio version.]

I HAVE A pernicious fear of flight. The danger of the take-off doesn’t bother me. Instead, I panic when the plane levels off above the clouds. My stomach and mind turn inside out sensing that rather than going up and forward, I am actually going down and backward. I have no idea why this visceral illusion grasps me – but it does and it makes my flying experience hell. Every fiber of my consciousness is persuaded by this flawed experience, no matter how much I read about flight, talk to confident fellow travelers or how many deep-cleansing breaths I take. I can’t relax when I fly.

I had a dream.

I feel the hum of the engines, the whirl of the propellers, the vibrating seats. My fingernails are digging into the upholstered snug chair, my heart is racing and my mouth, full of frightened prayers, is dry as dust. There is no stewardess doing the regular safety ballet that always scares the hell out of me. In fact, there are no other passengers, just the pilot and myself in a bubble-shaped helicopter taking off for an undisclosed location in the southern United States where I am going to lecture.

"There's something exhilarating and frightening about our position in theuniverse which compels us to take a personal, spiritual or existential stance towards our placement."The pilot and I are object lessons in opposition. He leans forward, wide-eyed over the control stick; I strain backward, pale-faced, trying to squint my way into mental oblivion. There is a nervous silence in the cockpit until my pilot tilts his Indiana Jones fedora, winks and starts fishtailing the aerial dragonfly from side to side, banking erratically around jagged cliffs punctuated by cityscapes of casinos.

I whine, quickly inhale air and cry out plaintively…“Stop! Stop! At least slow down!”

After having his fun, he levels off, leans back, and, taking his hands from the controls, smiles. I shudder and clutch the brown bag I retrieved from the complimentary passenger pouch. “What are you so damn scared of?” he says. My one word response, “Crashing.” Hands behind his neck, he laughs again and says, “Impossible, this thingy here flies itself.”

Then came the didactic part of the dream where something or someone inside your head does the running commentary you barely remember in the morning.

eye of the universe graphicThe voice tells me I am the swashbuckling pilot and the frightened passenger. The pilot is my over confident pagan self - my mini-ubermensch, whereas the passenger is my religious security self, a safety-seeking wimp. The oracle leaves me with a wise nugget of advice, “You’re not afraid of flying. You fear life and want to control it. Lean into life’s wholeness and you will be free.”

These musings on my flight phobia and dream interpretation seem a far cry from the promised topic, “Getting the Cosmic Story Straight.” Yet it is not as large a stretch as it appears. There’s something exhilarating and frightening about our position in the universe which compels us to take a personal, spiritual or existential stand. It is this intimate, personal level I want to tease out in my talk but first I need to say a bit more about story.
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