In Through the Flames, Allan Lokos tells the terrifying story of being on board a plane on Christmas Day with his wife, Susanna, when it crashed and exploded in flames. Lokos was severely burned in the accident, and in the days and weeks following the crash, Susanna was told by the many doctors who examined Lokos that he would not survive.
As founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, Lokos had spent decades cultivating compassion and non-attachment. Since the plane crash, his Buddhist practice has been mightily tested. In this inspiring account of his against-all-odds recovery, Lokos uses his experience as a window through which to examine the challenge of human suffering in general and addresses the question of how we can thrive in the midst of pain and uncertainty.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Once, when I was being interviewed for a magazine article, the journalist tossed an unexpected question at me. “What is the role of mindfulness or meditation at a time of complete crisis?” The words I heard come out of my mouth spontaneously in response: “I wouldn’t wait.”
Of course, some people do wait for the bottom to fall out from under them, for an emergency, for some kind of disaster before they reach for a resource like mindfulness, and even then it may well provide some support.
But if we can strengthen mindfulness in times of more ordinary stress and challenge, in a regular day, the qualities that come from mindfulness—compassion, balance, awareness, and openness—develop as a kind of muscle memory that accompanies us right into times of great fear, despair, or upheaval. These qualities reveal some sense of what is intact and whole within us, no matter what. They bring us back to the essential aspects of ourselves, like the capacity to love, which cannot be destroyed, even if everything else somehow does feel like it already has been or may well soon be destroyed.
Now, and I suspect for the rest of my life, whenever I think of that response, “I wouldn’t wait,” I picture Allan Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss.
Having done so much of my meditation training with Burmese teachers, and feeling such a strong affinity for the country, I follow a few different sources of Burmese news on Twitter. I saw right away the reports of a plane crash on Christmas Day 2012. I knew several people in Burma at the time, but I didn’t see any reports of Americans injured or killed. I watched some YouTube videos of Australians who had been on the plane who seemed perfectly okay. What I didn’t consider was just how much depended on where on the airplane your seat was.
A few days after the crash, I got an e-mail from Susanna, saying she and Allan had been on that plane. At that point, they were in Bangkok. From the time of that e-mail onward, I had the chance to bear witness to the ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic picture of the new world of injury, trauma, resilience, and healing they had entered.
Through the Flames recounts Allan’s depiction of the crash and what follows, via the lens of his own experience, and for the immediate experience and aftermath, what he has gleaned from Susanna and medical records, and via the perspectives of others. It is also the story of the mindfulness, balance, and compassion Allan brought forth from within himself to meet the intensity and shock and pain of the moment, first in order to survive, then in order to recover, and ultimately to flourish. It is the story of the patience and the kindness we are all capable of, no matter who we are or what we go through. It is the story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit and the fact that we can each learn how to access and trust it.
More than anything, Through the Flames seems to me to be a love story. It is the story of Allan and Susanna’s love for each other. It is the story of the love for humankind displayed by medical personnel. It is the story of the love of friends who will go the extra mile to help out someone who needs them. It is the story of the extraordinary, grace-filled love of life Allan demonstrates, a love that is so much bigger than any circumstance.
We probably all know people who go through pain or suffering and get ensnared in a sense of isolation, bitterness, or self-loathing. Seeing someone right in the midst of their vulnerability and distress turn again and again to awareness, love, and compassion is inspiring beyond words.
Recently, a friend ran into Allan and saw how calm, kind, and at ease Allan seems these days. He put it succinctly: “You can’t see Allan without thinking his recovery is nothing short of a miracle.”
I phrase it like that myself sometimes. But in truth, most often, when I think of what Allan and Susanna have gone through, when I think of what we so often go through in our lives—the tremendous joys and the sorrows and everything in between—and the potential we have for understanding, for awareness, and for love, I find that I fundamentally and repeatedly come back to, “Practice now, strengthen those qualities right now. I wouldn’t wait.”
This tale is one that, until the end of 2012, I would never have imagined writing. After all, one should have the appropriate knowledge and experience to write about a specific subject. I can honestly say that I wish I did not have the experience or background. Yet the thought that sharing the unimaginable and terrifying event that I lived through could be of benefit to others inspires and motivates me.
I wanted to present the details as accurately as possible with no exaggeration, no aggrandizement, and no “poetic license.” In order to do so, I had to rely heavily upon my wife, Susanna, since much of the time described in part one, “Christmas,” I was unconscious, dazed, in shock, or in a drug-induced state. Even when I was awake, my memories, particularly of the first few weeks, would have to be viewed as unreliable. Susanna was with me through just about every minute offered herein. She was definitely awake and aware. She had to be if I was to survive. Fortunately, she is bright, articulate, and usually imperturbable. I believe that between us we have produced an authentic account. Truth does not need embellishment.
I began taking notes for this narrative in April 2013, and wrote the actual manuscript from June 2013 through March 2014. I did most of the “writing” with dictation software, which was essentially a new experience for me. (The reason for the dictation method will soon be evident.)
Since I had written my previous books, articles, and stories using the more standard computer and keyboard method, I was concerned that my brain-to-speech process might not work as well as my more familiar brain-to-hands process. I found the dictation method amazing, frustrating, and amusing: amazing because it actually works, frustrating because of how often it does not, and amusing because of what it creates when it falters. As an example, “Myanmar” (Burma) became “Me and Ma.” We battled endlessly over the spelling of my first name, with me clinging desperately to that which was chosen by my parents so many years ago, while it created numerous clever and innovative alternatives. Even so, I remain amazed at how all my spoken words became zeros and ones, and they in turn became printed words, all in less time than it takes to say “Me and Ma.” Nevertheless, I got the hang of it and began to find the process quite seductive.
THE CORE significance of dukkha (Sanskrit: suffering, stress) in Buddhist thought has led some casual observers to suggest that Buddhism is a pessimistic ideology. The emphasis on dukkha, however, when viewed as intended, does not present a negative view but rather a practical and realistic assessment of the human condition. The Buddhist view is that all beings experience suffering. This includes, but by no means is limited to, sickness, old age, and death. It incorporates every moment of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, discomfort, displeasure, and more. Dukkha is intricately interwoven with the joys, delights, and beauty of everyday life. The most accurate appraisal of the Buddhist philosophy is that it is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic.
The reality is that what happened to me is unlikely to happen to you. If it did, just like me, it is highly improbable that you would survive. I was just fortunate/blessed/lucky/being watched over, or as the Buddhists might say, the conditions did not quite come together to bring about my demise.
All of us experience dukkha. I have lived through some of the most challenging dukkha imaginable and have managed to maintain, and in some ways improve upon, a previously wonderful life. I have been asked again and again how I have done that. I do not want to mislead—it has often been a struggle beyond what I ever could have imagined. There were days when it felt as if the mountain was just too formidable for this mere mortal to climb.
SOMETIMES WE dismiss the counsel of others because we feel that they could not possibly understand; no one could understand. We feel we are absolutely alone: No one has ever had to endure what I am going through. While there is some truth to that lonely perspective, I believe that the greater, more accurate view, and certainly the more beneficial view, is that we are in this together. I assure you that I have been in the fire with you and I have come through the flames.
The ensuing narrative may appear to be about one person’s journey, but in truth it is about reality; the reality of suffering; its cause; and a path that can lead to its cessation. It is my chosen path, and just as I have had to carve out a trail for myself, you will have to do the same for yourself. My hope is that my experience might serve as a guide.
In part one, “Christmas,” we start out enjoying a holiday but end up in a nightmare, a devastating event occurring thousands of miles from home. Professional opinions in Myanmar (Burma), Bangkok, and Singapore were that I could not possibly survive. Back home in New York City the prognosis was the same. Fortunately for me, they were wrong.
The writing of “Christmas,” the first section of this book, was a stressful endeavor and at times quite upsetting. While acknowledging that parts of this story were difficult to write, I also want to mention that there may be those for whom “Christmas,” in particular, could be difficult to read. Please be wise, and when necessary, slow down and/or take a break.
Part two, “Healing,” moves through the travails of surviving all the way to thriving, acknowledging, among other diverse phenomena, the extraordinary resiliency of the human body; the physical and mental effort required to come back; and the amazing team that supported that effort. Along the way I had to learn how to make the transition from giver to receiver, one of many transitions that became necessary in order to tread the road to survival.
Part three, “The Path,” is a real-life exploration of the practices that can move us from disaster, physical pain, and emotional turmoil to a life of love, joy, and fulfillment. I know this path not just from study and the generous offerings of my wise teachers but because now I have walked it. I have fallen down face-first in dung. I have wiped away the blood, stitched up the wounds, and then taken the next step. When I have finished, I will have made a comeback that few would have believed possible.
Along the way I made new friends, some of whom are not as fortunate as I. Their prognoses say that they will not walk again or that they have little time left to live. There is no known cure for their condition, yet they have healed. Their stories have inspired me and I believe they will you as well.
I use the terms “heal” and “recovery” throughout. “Recovery” refers herein to the recuperative process from an illness or injury. “Healing” is often used for a similar purpose, but in a broader sense encompasses the view that we are all healing from something—a relationship, a loss, a fear, a disease, a discomfort, our upbringing, and so much more. We will explore how complete healing is possible even when a cure is not.
ALL OF our lives are filled with subtle and major dukkha, and every gradation in between. The range of dukkha is so great that I often choose not to translate the word; I simply write “dukkha.” Fortunately, in spite of what at times feels like dukkha’s pervasive nature, it is only one aspect of the human experience, woven inextricably with life’s exuberance, delights, triumphs, and pleasures. Also, fortunately, we know a great deal about the nature of dukkha. Consequently, we know how to practice and bring it to an end. That is The Path.
One aspect of communication involves the brain receiving information communicated by another and comparing it (instantaneously) to data it has previously stored. If there is comparable information we say, “I understand.” If not, we can request an explanation, go to Google, or just let it go. When we attempt to share an experience that is far out of the norm, we often add adverbs such as “very,” “extremely,” or “awfully” to emphasize the uniqueness of our experience. But these additions can easily become repetitious and lose their meaning. This is a way of saying that I do not think I could possibly do justice to the profound nature of the experience outlined herein, so I have opted, for the most part, to let it speak for itself. I am confident, extremely confident, that you will get it.
It was not possible to bring this story to a conclusion because it is ongoing. It will, of course, come to an end, but even at that, my wish is that you carry on what I have offered here.
May you never know my experience, but may you benefit from it, and may all beings be happy, safe, and free from harm.
You Will Be All Right, Sir
On December 17, 2012, Susanna and I headed for Myanmar for an eighteen-day holiday. A week or so before we left, we saw pictures in the newspapers of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strolling through the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, which was one of our scheduled sites. Our already whetted appetites were now more so, and we were truly excited to go. Our first days, spent in Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay, were delightful, with old and wonderful sights and literally thousands of ancient temples available for exploration. I had been studying the teachings of the Buddha and practicing Buddhist meditation since the nineties, so this trip had meaning on several levels for me. This essentially Buddhist land was beginning to take its place among our favorite destinations alongside our African safaris and excursions to India.
The evening of December 24, there was a big party at our hotel in Mandalay, with lots of people, food, music, and gaiety. Then, the morning of December 25, Christmas Day, we, along with some sixty-nine others, boarded Air Bagan flight number W9-011 for Heho Airport near Inle Lake, an area popular with tourists for its floating markets and unique method of fishing. (Fishermen stand with one leg in the boat, and the other in the water with a paddle tied to it. The paddle leg navigates the boat, leaving both hands free for fishing. This method apparently is not practiced anywhere else in the world.) There were some patchy low clouds outside as Susanna and I took seats a little more than halfway back on the left side of the plane. The twenty-five-minute flight left at 8:30 a.m. but never arrived at its destination. About a mile before the airport, we crashed.
At first I thought we just had a bad landing, so when Susanna said, “We’ve crashed,” I thought she was overreacting. The plane went dark right away as we skidded, swirled, and bounced on the ground for five hundred or so feet. The cabin immediately began to fill with a dense, noxious, black smoke and the smell of jet fuel. We had torn through electrical wires as we came down and we could see outside our window that the plane was already ferociously on fire. We were in real and imminent danger.
The passengers started pushing toward the front of the plane. I held up my hands trying to calm them: “Easy, everyone, don’t push, we’ll all get out!” No one paid attention to me and I realized that they did not care what I was saying. I pulled Susanna in front of me intending that we also exit through the front of the plane. There was tremendous chaos and we were making no progress moving forward. Susanna turned back to me and said she did not think we could make it to the front exit, as she already could not breathe. We were near the emergency exit and although it was engulfed in roaring fire, we would have to jump out through the flames. With a nod of consent from Susanna, I gave her a push and out she plunged through the flaming doorway to the ground below. In retrospect I now realize that I had no idea what I was pushing her into or how far she would be jumping. There was no choice. It was all instinct. Jump or be scorched.
The open emergency door revealed that the plane was now seriously in flames, with the fire’s searing arms blazing in every direction. As I made my move to follow Susanna, there was what proved to be a disastrous moment. My foot caught on something and I was stuck. I was not just surrounded by fire; I was now in it, and I could not move. I called out for help but no one responded. I was frightened. Perhaps more accurately, I was terrified. I could feel my heart pumping in my throat, yet at the same time I was fully present to the situation and quite calm. I worked quickly to release my leg and after a ferocious battle (which later Susanna told me took close to a minute), I freed myself. I also learned later that such was my effort to survive that I tore through the leather of my left shoe trying to free my leg. I jumped through the flames to the ground, but I was already severely injured.
There is a blank space in my memory from the time of struggling to free my leg to the time I was on the ground. I have no idea what happened in that time, but it must have been when I was most seriously burned. My trauma therapist refers to this type of memory loss as the work of the “benevolent brain.” Susanna recalls those moments:
Allan gave me a push and I leaped through the fire trying to land as far as I could from the plane, but my main concern was getting through the flames. I turned around and looked at the open door expecting to see Allan, but he didn’t appear. I kept screaming his name again and again, but still no Allan. The heat of the fire was so intense and the smell of the burning fuel so nauseating that I couldn’t keep facing directly at the plane and ultimately had to move back some distance. I don’t know how long it was, but it seemed interminable. I thought that perhaps Allan had found a way to get out the front of the plane because I saw other people sliding down the escape chute up there. As the time dragged endlessly on without my seeing Allan, I began to fear that he was dead and I would never see him again. Then, suddenly, he appeared in the doorway. I screamed to him, “Jump! Jump!” and he did.
On the ground Susanna immediately grasped my arm and began to drag me away from the plane. I could not move my legs, but we gave it all we had until we could no longer move. She also did not know that she had suffered four broken vertebrae in the crash (not that anything would have stopped her from trying to carry me). A crowd was gathering and two teenage boys ran down and tried to help drag us up the slope where the plane had crashed. If I looked straight ahead, I saw the faces of the gathering spectators, who, as they stared at me, looked truly horrified. If I looked down, I saw large sheets of skin hanging from my hands and legs. That skin and those faces should have scared me, but I think I was simply too numb, too dazed, or too deeply in shock to realize the seriousness of my condition.
Kimberly and Marty, two Americans who were also passengers on the plane, escaped injury. They wrote an account of the event for family and friends that included the following:
A tall man had just jumped out of the wreckage and he was badly burned. A French-speaking passenger replaced one of the boys on the man’s left, and Marty got on his right. The man was burned terribly, and unfortunately, it looked like a scene from a war movie. As they slowly walked, I tried to clear away the sharp dried rice stalks, since the man’s clothing was mostly burned away, leaving him with no protection. He was obviously in shock, or fueled by adrenaline, because he said, “People say burns are painful, but I can’t feel anything.” Then he added, “I must look really bad. I can tell by the way people are looking at me.” Marty wanted him to stay calm and said, “Nah, just a little sunburn.” As we walked, the man told us that as he tried to jump from the plane his leg got caught on something.
We got away from the plane just in time and we heard four loud blasts as it exploded. It was more than a year later when I saw for the first time the “official photo” of the plane just before it exploded. The flames soared more than twenty feet high and the thick black smoke rose another thirty feet above that. It was a frightening sight and the realization that I had been inside that plane was numbing. The ground, a dried-up rice field, was rough and brambly and it slanted upward, making our trudge even more challenging. We were heading toward what seemed to be some sort of abandoned stone temple. We walked by passengers who had been on the plane with us, some hugging each other and others shedding tears of gratitude. Many of them escaped unharmed. There were other people lying on the ground with injuries of varying degrees of seriousness.
I heard that two people were killed in the accident. One was a motorcyclist who was in the field where the plane had crashed. It was months later that I learned that the other victim was Nwe Lin, our guide, who had been with us from the day we arrived in Myanmar a week earlier. Nwe Lin was in the seat right behind me. I lived. She died. The words of a song that I love come to mind: “Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”1 Buddhists account for these things by citing the “law of dependent origination,” sometimes called “causes and conditions,” or simply “conditionality.” It means that nothing just happens. All phenomena are preceded by the causes and conditions that come together to make up each moment in time and space. While I believe this to be true, sometimes it is not enough to fill the emotional emptiness, the immense void that is left within me when there simply are no answers.
AS SUSANNA and my two new friends dragged me up the hill through the throng of stunned spectators, a middle-aged woman with a serene face and an equanimous demeanor leaned out of the crowd and looked directly at me. When we were about an arm’s length from each other, she quietly said to me, “You will be all right, sir.” I never saw her before and I have never seen her since, but I cannot imagine that I will ever forget her. Surely there is no such thing as a stranger in this world. How many times in my moments of deepest despair have her words come back to me? “You will be all right, sir.” Yes, my sweet nameless friend, I will. I will be all right. A moment of kindness, a compassionate smile, can not only uplift another being, it can save a life.
Since I was barely conscious, here is another account from Susanna:
There was the sound of a siren and we were loaded into an ambulance. This so-called ambulance was actually a panel truck that had a metal shelf attached to one wall. Allan was placed on that shelf, and I was laid down on the floor. The ride on the bumpy, hilly, curving “road” was often unbearable. I’m sure if I had not been so focused on Allan I would have vomited. The ride to the town of Taunggyi took about forty minutes, and the hospital was absolutely on a par with the ambulance. There was no electricity because when the plane crashed it tore down all the power lines. The room into which we were placed had two cots with no sheets and no pillows. There were no medical supplies, and no curtains on the window to shield us from the hot sun. There was a nonfunctioning sink hanging loosely from the wall, and like everything else in the room, it was filthy.
“You will be all right, sir” had been the prognosis of the woman on the hill. The doctor, however, did not agree. His professional opinion was that I could not possibly survive the injuries I had sustained. (This was spoken quietly to Susanna and I did not hear it.) Nevertheless, he did the “doctorly” thing. He hooked me up to an IV line and gave me a tetanus shot, even though Susanna told him I had had one three weeks earlier. That was the extent of my medical care in Myanmar since we never saw a doctor again. He assumed I was going to die and never returned.
There then appeared a woman named Miu Miu, a local bed-and-breakfast owner who was looking for one of her arriving guests whom she thought might have been on our flight. It turned out her guest had canceled at the last minute so Miu Miu said she was now there to help. She brought us sheets, pillowcases, water, and clothing. Susanna’s pain was increasing and she was practically immobile.
Miu Miu took care of me. She gently washed me with bottled water and asked if she could cut off the pieces of burned clothing that were melted to my body, including my underwear. I said yes. As she did so, she quietly said to me, “Now I am like your mother or your sister.” She then dressed me in some clothing her husband had brought for me. I remember having a vague thought about feeling no discomfort with this woman removing all my clothing and washing every part of me. Nothing seemed to have any meaning; things were just happening.
Miu Miu was a gentle person and treated me with great kindness and respect. She was a Buddhist practitioner and would sometimes remind me, “You are not this body,” words I had heard often through the years when I studied with the venerable Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Knowing that we are much more than just a body is an important part of the teaching offered by the Buddha. Miu Miu’s practical help was invaluable. She knew how to pay the nurses to get Susanna use of a bathroom and to buy some toilet paper. She got a wheelchair for Susanna since the pain she was now encountering made walking all but impossible.
SUSANNA: Allan was in very bad shape and rapidly getting worse. I had no concept about what burns did to the human body. It may be that I thought burns simply affected the surface of the body, the skin. Now I was learning that with burns of this depth and magnitude, the entire system is affected and Allan’s body was shutting down. He was beginning to swell. His fingers, his legs, his face, all became puffy, with a gray-white color. His left eye closed completely, as his left side had suffered the worst burns.
No one spoke any English except Miu Miu. Then, as I was lying in the bed desperately trying to figure out some way to save Allan, a voice spoke gently in my ear, “We are here from the American embassy and we are going to help you.” I was meeting Sai Oo, and his colleague Daniel Jacobs. They had been vacationing at Inle Lake with their wives. When they heard about the accident, they came to investigate and see if there were any Americans on board. They were told to go away; there were no Americans. Even so, they felt they wanted to see for themselves, just in case, so they came to the hospital in Taunggyi, where they found us.
Table of Contents
Foreword Sharon Salzberg xv
New York 28
Home, (Mostly) Sweet Home 51
The Miraculous Body 57
The Dream Team 65
The Work 72
3 The Path
Friends I 145
Friends 2 173
Out of the Ashes 219
Suggested Reading 231
What People are Saying About This
“There is a statue of Buddha from a thousand years ago that has no eyes and no hands, and yet the truth and love of the Universe seem to glow where it’s eyes and hands once were, as if the statue had endured and weathered time solely to reveal that truth and love. Allan Lokos has suffered and been worn like this, and truth and love glow from his person and his words. Through the Flames will make you feel what is tender and listen to what is lasting, and make you want to carry what matters through everything.”
—Mark Nepo, author of The Book of Awakening, The Endless Practice and Reduced to Joy
“Through the Flames is the story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit, and the fact that we can each learn how to access it and to trust it.”
—from the foreword by Sharon Salzberg, New York Times bestselling author of Real Happiness and Lovingkindness
“Through the Flames illustrates how we can awaken our hearts through whatever events unfold through our lives. With deep wisdom, honesty and humanity, author and Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos shares the inside story of not just surviving a deadly plane crash, but being profoundly spiritually transformed through the harrowing aftermath. Whether your crash is a divorce, death of a dear one, loss of financial security or serious illness, this beautifully written story will guide you in finding the blessings of love, peace and freedom in the midst.”
—Tara Brach, Ph.D., author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge
"As founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York, Allan Lokos has an arsenal of tools for coping with stressful situations."
—Rachel Lee Harris, New York Times