7 Lessons Almost Dying Taught Me About Living

Ever since I was young, I had wanted to travel to Africa. My husband Jim and I were finally getting a chance to go. The destination was Nairobi, Kenya, to see my sister, who lived there at the time.

As the date grew closer, I became more and more excited. It looked like it truly was going to be the dream vacation we had planned.

We caught our plane British Airways Flight 2069 without a hitch. We spent the first 10 hours relaxing and even slept. We were in the fifth row, a window and a middle seat. As the plane approached Africa, the sun rose in gorgeous streams of color that lit up the sky.

The flight attendants started preparing to serve breakfast. As they did, Jim and I awoke, and decided to get out of our seats to stretch our legs.

After using the restroom, we decided to take a quick look around. It was one of those extra-large double-decker planes and I coaxed Jim into going up the narrow staircase that connected our lower seats (the economy level) with those above (business and first class, and the cockpit).

Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For What Happened

Jim went up first, took a quick look around, then descended. As I followed him back down, I bumped into a man in the middle of the narrow staircase. He was going up and I was going down. He seemed distressed and guilty about something. “Just looking, just looking,” he stammered in an accent.

I reached out to him and put my hand on his back to calm him with a smile. “That’s okay, we were too.”

I thought perhaps he was doing the same thing we were, exploring the plane and going where he wasn’t really supposed to go. I had no idea how true that really was.

We managed to squeeze past each other, him going up, I going down. I caught up to my husband again in the galley, a large walkthrough area that spanned the width of the plane, where the flight attendants were loading up breakfast carts. Other passengers, like us, were using the open space to cross from one side of the plane to the other.

I suggested to Jim that we take a few extra minutes to stretch and look at the sunrise, but he was ready to head back to our seats on the other side of the plane.

Suddenly, the plane lurched and started shaking violently. We were thrown to the ground, a flight attendant’s cart rolling between us.

Jim pushed the cart away so that he could reach me, grabbed me by the shoulders and said “We have to get back to our seats. Now!”

We clamored our way back to the fifth row, crawled over the person in the aisle seat, trapped our seat belts on tight, just in time.

Almost immediately after snapping the belt latches, the plane did a nosedive, 10,000 feet straight for the earth.

Jim looked at me, held me and said, “Sweets, this doesn’t look good.” What I didn’t know is he had just looked out of the window on the other side of the plane and saw the ground. Out of our window, all he could see was the pitch black of the sky above. The plane was on its side.

“This might just be our time,” I said to him. I felt a deep, peaceful sense of calm and love throughout every cell of my body.

I started doing Reiki, a form of energy healing I had studied that can be done remotely. I imagined sending light and love to the pilot and everyone in the cockpit.

The plane suddenly leveled out and several flight attendants sprinted past us. Oxygen masks fell down from above those sitting across the aisle. I heard a scream. (Jim later told me almost everyone was screaming.) Time seemed to slow down.

I had the peaceful feeling of being connected to all on the earth below us, our families and friends who loved us, while also surrounded by something greater, some greater source of love. I felt that loving energy surrounding us, and the continued deep sense of peace within.

To this day, I don’t know whether I was experiencing shock or some altered state. It was as if I was experiencing life in slow motion. I had the awareness that only love mattered.

Jim and I held each other, looked deep into each other’s eyes and said “I love you.”

We talked about how good our lives had been, how grateful we were, all the places we had traveled together, the adventures we had had.

We said good-bye.

The plane plummeted another 10,000 feet. I held his hand tightly. I was sure this was the end.

Then, just as suddenly as the whole thing began, it stopped.

The plane gave one last tremor and leveled out. The loudspeaker came on and we heard the voice of a man, out of breath, inhaling and exhaling deeply. It was the pilot.

“A mad man, a mad man broke into the cockpit and tried to kill himself and us along with him.”  We later learned that mad man was the same person I had passed on the narrow staircase just moments before.

Jim and I looked at each other in shock. We were alive.

3 Things I Thought As Soon As I Learned We Were Going to Survive

I’ll never know exactly how or why we were saved that day. Life is filled with surprises, most that can’t be explained by rational means as much as we try. Sometimes all we can do is try to find the blessings and lessons that can be integrated into our lives.

As soon as the plane leveled out and we knew we were going to be saved I was aware of three things.

1) Love is all that matters. I was incredibly aware of how much I loved my husband, as well as the strong sense of love in my heart and how connected I felt to all the other loved ones in our lives and all others on the earth, far below.

2) I wanted to have children.

3) I wanted to share my writing, which I been doing a lot of prior to leaving for the trip.

While what we want for our lives is personal, I feel as if my burning desire to live more authentically and share the unique essence of who I really was with others is a drive that we all share.

A few minutes later the pilot got back on the microphone and shared that the man had been put into restraints in first class.

Because we were over Sudan and it was not safe to land, we were going to continue traveling to our final destination, Nairobi, Kenya, where we would be met by local authorities.

Was It a Miracle? Luck? Or Both?

We later learned that the man who had seemed so distressed on the stairway was mentally ill and had been hearing voices that Arabs were following him and telling him to crash the plane.

The date was December 29, 2000, nearly nine months before 9-11. (I phoned the FAA after the experience and was assured that this only happened because it was an international flight, and that in the U.S., cockpit doors are locked. If only that had been true.)

The struggle in the air lasted almost five minutes. The pilot was interviewed and said that he believed that if the struggle in the cockpit had gone on for even five seconds longer, we wouldn’t have survived.

Engineers who reviewed the case after the fact were confounded. They couldn’t understand how the tail of the plane hadn’t snapped off under the pressure of the acrobats and roller coaster drop of 20,000 feet, a result of the plane being kicked off autopilot during the scuffle in the cockpit. (We had been at 30,000 feet when it all began).

We also learned that two basketball players from Clemson, who were on a mission trip, had been upgraded to first class  because of their height. It was they who had the presence of mind to break into the cockpit and pull the passenger off the co-pilot (he had already bitten the copilot’s ear in the fight) and forcibly wrestle him away from so that we could all be saved. 

This traumatic and miraculous flight was covered all over the media including NPR, CNN, all the major television networks and newspapers as well as a special on the PAX-TV show “It’s a Miracle.”

Instead of one thing saving us, it was lots of little things, individual people in the air following their intuitive guidance, listening to their hearts and sharing their unique gifts, in the moment.

7 Life Lessons Almost Dying Taught Me About Living

Whenever we have an experience that shakes us to the core like the trauma of the pandemic we are experiencing now, I think it’s human nature to want to learn from it, to reassemble the puzzle pieces of reality that have become so irreparably scrambled.

At first, I became fixated on the unanswerable. Why us? Why that plane? How had we been spared?

Why we were still alive, and why in the course of our seemingly ordinary lives we had found our way, through random booking issues, to be on that flight?

What was that deep feeling of peace I had experienced? Where had that come from? How could I experience that everyday?

Was it simply my body’s response to the shock? 

Did the feeling of peace come from within me, or outside of myself?

There was no way I would ever know for sure.

I Felt Really Clear About This

The truth is no one can ever tell us why or how certain things happen.

Transformational experiences including those resulting from trauma are personal, mysterious, and exploring them often raises more questions than answers.

While I didn’t know how it happened, the clarity I had in those few terrifying moments about what is possible for each of us has since become a focus of my life, my approach to parenting, and the foundation of my work.

What I mean by this is:

  1. We can feel peaceful even in the face of trauma and crisis
  2. It’s so important to share our unique life gift–that unique essence that is who we really are.

7 Things I Learned From Almost Dying

As the years have passed since, here’s how I have made sense of what happened. I try to remember to do these things (although I don’t always succeed!)

As we’ve been going through the trauma, negative news and stress of sheltering in place and the current pandemic, I have found these lessons to be particularly helpful and relevant.

#1: Be Grateful

Facing death taught me to be grateful for the small blessings we experience everyday, each breath we take, our loved ones’ lives. I am especially grateful for our children. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember that if things had gone differently during those five minutes in the air, they wouldn’t be here.

#2: Remember to Love

As I faced death, one thing seemed sure. Love is all that really matters. I believe love, and learning to love others, all others, the best we can in each moment is the goal of our lives. When I was in the air, I felt a sense of this web, this energy that connects us all, and that we truly are all one, all in this together.

#3: Share Your Uniqueness

I will never forget that my first instinct upon knowing we survived was to become a mother and share my writing. I think a core part of being human is sharing ourselves, and seeing our own uniqueness expressed in some way that positively impacts the world. More than ever, I now believe having the courage to share who we really are is our purpose, and really, really matters.

#4: Heed Life’s Warnings

As time passed, and our country experienced the tragedy of 9-11 as well as so many crises since, including the Covid-19 pandemic, I can’t help but think back to the visions of Arabs of the man who tried to crash the plane. Had we been given a warning?

What might be different today if we had heeded it? Why didn’t the FAA decide to secure cockpits as a result of this event, which could have prevented so much needless pain and death?

But our true power doesn’t come from looking back, it comes from being present. Right now, at this point in time, what warnings are we receiving, both in our own individual day-to-day lives and globally?

If the events leading up to this Covid-19 pandemic, and the unexpected consequences of the Covid-19 and shelter in place (positive and negative) were warnings, what actions might life be instructing us to take right now to avoid further danger?

How are we integrating lessons we’ve learned from past mistakes in our lives (personally and as a world)?

#5 Everyone is Capable of Doing Good, and Doing Harm

I have always believed everyone is inherently good. However, my experience with that mentally-ill man, both when I reached out to comfort him right before he attacked the pilot, and my experience of almost dying as a result of his driving desire to do harm rocked me to the core.

I have come to accept that many people, no matter how talented, powerful their position or caring and kind they may be at times, are in deep pain.

Many people are able to keep their pain in check, or even channel it in way that changes the world for the better.

However, inner pain can also drive us, almost like the mentally-ill man who was on a mission to crash that plane, to seek our own gains regardless of how it negatively affects the well-being of others.

I believe we will only understand how to protect ourselves, our institutions and our families from individuals reacting from pain when we learn to understand our own pain.

When we think of our worthiness, happiness or security as rooted in outside sources, we can’t help but feel insecure and fearful, especially when those are in jeopardy or being taken away from us. The pain of that insecurity and fear can trigger us to seek hurtful ways to get us out of that feeling.

However, fear can also be a great wake-up call.

How we react to our fear and pain, and the fear and pain in the world makes all the difference.

Connecting with the unique gifts and goodness we each have within and supporting each other in doing the same, I believe, is what is going to make us all able to better prevent harm, heed life’s current warnings and come up with real world solutions.

#6: Inner Peace is Always Available

Prior to taking that flight, through my study of NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP), hypnotherapy, meditation, creative visualization and energy healing, I had learned a lot about the benefits of tapping our unconscious mind. As a new student at that time in my life, I was very diligent about practicing what I had been learning.

For me, on that day, those benefits of all of those practices became personal. I truly believe that the peaceful response I felt, as well as my instinct to send healing energy were a direct result of how committed I was to applying these practices to my daily life at the time.

While my meditation and energy healing practices have had their peaks and valleys since that time, I know from firsthand experience that the more we practice a specific response to life when we are relaxed, the more that becomes our go-to way of being when we are stressed out and scared.

We can easily access and experience this deep sense of peace, clarity and loving guidance within us at any time. It doesn’t have to be through meditation or getting quiet. We also access this energy and state through flow activities (more on this below), being present with another person, being creative, exercising, etc.

We each have different things that work better for us personally when it comes to accessing our inner wisdom and peace.

#7: Life is a Process (a.k.a No One is Perfect)

I wish I could say as a result of facing death, my life and I have been perfectly peaceful ever since. We all have good days and bad days, happy moments and sad and angry ones. We all do and say things we regret, then we try again.

It’s one thing to know what matters most and how we want to live our lives. It’s another to do that, day in and out.

One of the biggest learnings of the experience was the reminder that we are all human, imperfect, mortal and vulnerable. In each moment of every day as we each navigate the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all doing the very best we can. Our best is different for each of us, depending on how much past pain we have experienced and how we are feeling on any given day.

While 20 years ago, I had some very specific goals for my life I hadn’t yet reached such as publishing my writing and having kids, I was also aware that the experience of love that I felt in the air was the most important message.

Of the five minutes during that harrowing struggle between the pilot and the passenger attacking him, my feeling of love was probably just a few seconds, perhaps a minute.

Yet it had a power that I carry with me even today.

It is crazy to expect that we will experience that feeling of deep love and connection in every moment.

Life, like any creative process, is like childbirth. There are contractions that are painful and then expansions that make way for inexplicable miracles. Over and over again. 

We see a beautiful sunset, have an epiphany or spiritual experience, connect with a loved one, and feel deeply grateful for our blessings. Then we get irritated, lose our temper, or feel resistant and anxious, rather than authentic and peaceful.

We have economic expansion, and then we have downturns, natural disasters, stock market crashes and traumatic pandemics like Covid-19.

This is the way of growth, our lives and the world. 

Yet, still through the ups and downs, there are moments available to each of us where everything changes and we see the miracles in the madness.

Closing Thoughts

How we each navigate the tight spots and expansions of life is personal. It’s like falling in and out of love, being our rawest and messiest, and then returning again to doing our best.

As we navigate hard times, and especially the unpredictability that is facing us all right now, I believe it will help if we can, in whatever way is possible for each of us, focus on the love, forgive ourselves and others when things don’t go as planned, and remember that each of us has a role to play in the madness and magic unfolding before us.

Passion For Flow

Ever since this experience, I have had a deep commitment to doing whatever I can to connect with that peace I felt within in those moments in the air (what I call the True Self) amidst the busyness and distractions of everyday. As we all know, this isn’t always easy.

I believe that there are infinite ways to do this. In addition to meditation, creative visualization and energy healing, something I have found to be incredibly powerful is getting into a state of flow.

Flow is so powerful as a strategy because it is an experience that every single human being has had, at some point or another. We experience flow when we are doing creative things, playing sports, dancing, making music, even reading a good book. Flow is what we as humans are designed to do.

And, flow gives us a direct, firsthand experience of embodying and connecting with our unique gift, the energy of who we really are.

If you want some creative ideas on activities you can do to experience flow, here are 20 Questions to Help You Find Your Passion.

The 28-Day Flow Challenge is an easy and supportive way to experiment with flow, and connect with other like-minded, creative people. You can start anytime by joining our Facebook group of friends

I have also been writing a blog series on the positives we are gaining from going through the crisis of Covid-19 all together.

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Photo credit: cate_89/Shutterstock

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