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What Good is Meditation in a Plane Crash?

An Interview with Allan Lokos

Photo Credit: Stephen Nessen

On Christmas Day 2012, Allan Lokos, founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, was in a plane crash in Myanmar. Lokos was severely burned, and many of his doctors did not think he would survive. His new book, Through the Flames, tells the story of his recovery and how his longtime Buddhist practice helped during the healing process.

Earlier in life, Lokos had a career performing in musicals, opera, operetta, recitals, and concerts, and was cast in the original company of Oliver! on Broadway. His previous books include Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living and Pocket Peace: Effective Practices for Enlightened Living. He spoke with S&H at his Upper West Side apartment.

What was it like to be in a plane crash?

When the accident happened there was chaos in the plane right away. And the first thing I did was calmly stand up and say to everybody, “Shh, easy, easy. We’re all going to get out. We’ll be okay.” Nobody was listening to me. They were just trying to push to the front. So we, too, tried to move forward, but almost immediately my wife, Susanna, said, “No, I’ll never make it. I’m already choking.” We saw that the emergency door was open, which might’ve happened at the time of the crash. But to get out that door, you had to jump through the flames, because the flames were coming from all directions. It was blazing and coming into the plane.

We agreed immediately that we were going to have to jump through, and I said, “Come on. I’ll give you a push.” And I did, and out she went through the flames. I had a quick thought that we would be okay because I remembered how, when you run your fingers quickly through the flame of a candle, you don’t even feel it. She went right through. And my intention was to follow her.

But, unfortunately, my foot caught on something, and I couldn’t see because everything was black from the smoke. And I was right at that emergency exit, so I was in the fire and not able to move. I remember being really scared, and calling to see if anybody could help me. I’m using logic to remember that I was scared because I don’t remember the fear itself, but I must have been terrified because I’ve never in my life called out to someone for help.

Eventually, I got out of the plane. I would assume that I was at that point in shock. I remember, in this big crowd that had gathered, a woman saying to me something that I think I’ll probably always remember. She leaned out of this crowd of people looking at me with horrified looks and she calmly said, “You will be all right, sir.”

In what ways did your meditation practice help you during this event—both at the moment of the crash and during the healing process?

Leading up to the accident, I guess I had maybe 20 years of active meditation practice altogether. And, even though I was scared, I also remember being completely clearheaded and realizing I had to do something to free myself, even though I couldn’t see it. To be calm in a moment like that, I would attribute to all those years of meditation practice. Can I prove that? No, I cannot. But it just seems to make sense to me.

Exactly how meditation practice helped, to be absolutely honest, is very hard to say. The one thing that I would feel quite certain about is, because there is so much research being done now regarding stress and the fact that stress is just simply an enemy of the human body, that if I deal with less stress than let’s say the theoretical average person, I have a better chance.

While I did go through a period that was awful, I don’t think that I compounded my injuries with stress. I think I gave my body the best possible chance it had to recover and to heal. And the human body is just unbelievable. It’s miraculous.

One of my biggest takeaways from the book, actually, is just a reminder of how miraculous it is that the body starts to heal itself.

We see it in small ways and we pay no attention to it. If we’re in the kitchen and the paring knife slips and you cut your finger—the instant you cut your finger, the cut starts to heal, and you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to pray. You don’t have to believe in anything. If you put a Band-Aid on or you wash it, that’s good; it’ll keep it from getting infected. But the body heals. It can’t always heal from everything, but what it wants to do is heal.

So just by not interfering with that, or, as minimal interference as possible, by not bringing stress to it, I think that was a big contribution of the years of practice that preceded the accident. That’s one thing that I feel pretty certain to say. Outside of that, through the years of practice, I have developed a sincere, positive feeling about life. I enjoy life. I previously enjoyed life. I probably enjoy life even more now, maybe because I realized I almost didn’t have it anymore. But I always enjoyed life, just basic things. I love food and people, and I can mostly deal with the difficult stuff. I think that a sense of humor is invaluable, because we all go through rough stuff. Somehow you have to be able to see it’s okay.

Did your Buddhist practice deepen as a result of this experience?

Other people tell me yes. People tell me I teach differently now. But, of course, it doesn’t feel different to me, so I wonder, “Am I teaching differently, or are you listening to me differently?” And I don’t know, and it probably doesn’t matter because if there’s greater benefit out of what’s happening, then that’s terrific.

I think the answer to whether my practice has deepened is probably yes, because there’s nothing like tangible proof. It’s kind of like the Buddhist idea, “Don’t do this because I say so. You should try this yourself and experience it. If this is of benefit to you, then do it. If it’s not, then don’t bother.” So I have a sense that all of the time that’s gone into practice has been of benefit. The fine line between whether I was going to live or die—who knows what pushed it in my favor this time?

So I would tend to lean toward my practice being significant, but I also acknowledge that I wouldn’t know how to prove that. It’s just been my experience. May you not have my experience—but I would say that I don’t think I would’ve lived through this without the practice that I had previously.

A couple weeks ago I read an article by Meghan Daum titled “I Nearly Died. So What?” She writes about how we expect transformation after a serious injury or trauma, but that transformation doesn’t always occur. You certainly don’t want to encourage people to seek out painful experiences so that they can grow.

You’re absolutely right. You have enough negative happening in your life anyway, not because you’ve done something wrong, but that is the actual nature of life. It’s just woven into the fabric of life. That’s exactly what the Buddha was saying when he said, “I have seen the noble truth of Dukkha.” It’s not something that’s bad. These are events that are happening, and they might have an unpleasant tone. Because they do, we tend to want to push them away. We want them to stop. But we can’t stop those events from happening.

According to the Buddhist teaching, our experience has to be changed within. Each of us has to gain that insight of, “Ah, if my life is going to be more pleasant, that pleasantness has to exist within me, and it can’t be brought from the outside, nor can I change the events on the outside so that they work better for me,” because the world doesn’t tend to cooperate that way. You don’t have to go through a plane crash to have that realization.

What insights into the mind–body connection has this experience given you? What are the parallels between healing from a physical accident and healing from a mental, emotional, or spiritual struggle?

I did not mean to suggest earlier that the body does all of this healing on its own. In many cases, it certainly can. Minor cuts and scratches I don’t think need too much participation from us. But something major—an illness or an accident of this nature—requires more. I worked with so many therapists after the accident. My occupational therapist, who was working on my hands, said to me at one time, “All of us who are helping you, we’re just adjuncts. The body does the healing, and we just try to help it along a bit.”

But my practice, as I’ve been taught it, addresses both body and mind. Mind in terms of bringing awareness to thoughts and feelings as they arise, perhaps intensify, and then fade away. Through this process we come to see that which arises die away. Everything dies away without exception, including you, me, everything in this room. If it has come to be, it will ultimately fade away.

The same thing is true of physical sensations. I think that working so many years with physical sensations during meditation was a big help in dealing with physical pain—not in stopping physical pain, but in dealing with it differently—so that I wasn’t being driven nuts and had to take painkillers.

Before all this happened, you literally wrote the book on patience. Has the research and writing of Patience come in handy during the healing process?

Yes. And maybe because I spent a lot of time researching that book and then experimenting myself, there weren’t many instances where I had to say to myself, Be patient. This is going to work out. I think it was just there.

It’s also hard for me to remember earlier in life. Did I have a propensity toward patience? I can remember myself as a young person being very impatient at times, but I was never just a patient person or an impatient person. It’s what arises in the moment. We tend to think, “Oh, I’m an impatient person because I got annoyed when the two-year-old was screaming.” Two-year-olds scream and that’s just part of parenting. Becoming impatient is also part of parenting, but you do not need to characterize yourself as an impatient person.

It’s what comes up. We’re complex beings. Sometimes it seems easier to say, “I’m the kind of person who . . .” And I remind people, “However you end that sentence is going to be inaccurate,” because as soon as the moment comes up when everybody else is impatient and you are calm, you will think, “Oh, I guess I’m kind of a patient person.” Well, you were in that moment.

Have you ever had the thought Why did this happen to me? or regretted getting on the plane?

Never any of that. Because, truthfully, why not me? Why would I be exempt from going through stuff? I went a lot of years with cuts and bruises and divorce and the usual painful stuff, but that’s all part of life. So this is kind of a bigger event. But there isn’t any “Why me?” because, for me, the only response to that is, “Why not me?”

And regrets? Not at all. I made the choice. My wife and I together made a choice to go to Burma, and we had good, logical reasons for going when we went. The country is just opening up. It’s not filled with all kinds of tourist attractions. It’s very much a Buddhist country, and I really wanted to see a country like that.

We chose the flight that we were on, or we agreed to it with the travel company. We walked on the plane and we even picked our own seats. If we had been in different seats, we might’ve walked out totally injury free, which happened to many people on the plane. So just conditions—we were in a certain spot at a certain time. The couple sitting directly in front of us got out of the plane without a scratch. The woman sitting directly behind me was our guide, and she was killed. So we were somewhere right in the middle.

Doesn’t the randomness of that upset you?

I don’t see it as random. I see it as causes and conditions.

Even the seat selection?

Yes. We don’t know in advance that this is going to be a safer seat than that. Ultimately it’s all going to come down to causes and conditions. It’s funny. When teaching a group of people and trying to explain about causes and conditions, I used to use the expression, “Well, nothing just drops out of the sky.” Now I have to add a caveat to that.

But, no, I don’t think it’s random. You’re sitting in that seat right now, and you’re there for a series of conditions that preceded that. You had to walk in the door. You had to come up in the elevator. You had to make the decision to come. The Tibetans love to go back and back and back. They’ll go all the way back through your parents, through their parents. And the expression they use is: “From before beginningless time this has been going on.” And every event that has happened participates in your being where you are right now, at this moment.

So, for me, it’s not random. There’s a logic that brings us right to this moment at this time. Not from a perspective of fate or destiny, but a perspective of logic. There’s a logic that because you think the way you do, and because you have had interests that you have had, that all participates in you being right here, because you’re interested in this event that happened to me.

I certainly agree with the idea that there are causes and conditions for what happens in this world. But when it comes down to really small decisions—such as choosing one seat instead of another—it seems random in the sense that there would be no way to anticipate that a particular seat means life or death.

Well, here’s how I think about it. I was in this accident, but what I don’t know is how many times prior to that I just missed being in an accident. When someone driving a car happened to make the decision to stop at an amber light. I think that’s going on all the time, only we don’t know it until there is something specific that happens. Somebody stops at the light and then when it turns green, goes, which happens to be when someone steps out. And had that person gone through the amber light, that incident would not have happened.

But that’s the great web of life. The web keeps forming itself and keeps evolving, and we’re all part of that, only we don’t pay much attention to it until something really grabs our attention, which can be a very positive and wonderful event or a not so wonderful event.

In some ways it seems like you see this experience as something positive.

I ultimately came from this black, black hole to a place where suddenly one day I said, “You know, if I could turn back the clock and this event never happened, I wouldn’t do it.” I would do it for only one reason, to get my wife out of pain. But she’s already been through the trauma. That’s already happened. I mean, she’s not out of the trauma yet, but she’s been through the traumatic event. And I see her progress, and she’s going to be fine. But the only reason I would go back is I don’t want to see her in pain. But, for me, I wouldn’t go back.

I can have a really good life now. And I don’t mean that in the sense of, “Well, in spite of the accident.” I don’t feel that way at all. Sure, you can look at these fingers and see that they are bent. That means absolutely nothing to me. It just means I use my hands slightly differently—minor inconveniences. But what matters to me, the things that are significant in my life, are in many ways much better than ever.

Sam Mowe is a Zen practitioner, former editor of Tricycle, and frequent contributor to S&H.