Growing up with a dad who was a hot air balloon pilot meant I had many experiences in the sky. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how out of the ordinary this actually was. For me, it was a normal thing we did every calm summer evening; Soft Skies Balloon Rides was our family business. We spent many evenings preparing for the flight while explaining the mechanics to awed and excited customers who were about to experience it for the first time. 

This is my parents in their hot air balloon in 1983.

The process became second nature. We began with checking the wind, and then watching the direction of the helium balloons we would send up beforehand, rolling out the balloon in the field next to our house, connecting the basket, listening to the the sound of the fan blowing air into the balloon, checking instruments, velcroing seams together at the top, pulling material, holding ropes and then finally lighting the fire. The burners would ignite, drowning out all other sounds while the balloon went from laying on its side to floating over our heads. Passengers would climb into the basket, the ropes would be released and we would slowly rise off the ground. As the youngest in the family, I didn’t add much weight to the basket which meant I got to go along for many rides. 

Floating in the sky above Wisconsin farmland was a big part of my childhood. It was a familiar space and one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Not only did I have many adventures, but it also has given me some insight into perspective taking and letting go.     

Many of the people we took for a balloon ride would be surprised to learn that you cannot steer a hot air balloon. The balloon follows the path of the wind and you must go along for the ride. All that you can control is going up or down; adding more heat by lighting up the burners (up) or releasing hot air through the top valve (down). 

The balloon ride can be a great metaphor for life. There is so much we cannot control. We cannot control the direction of the wind and if we struggle against it we will only waste our energy. When we allow ourself to surrender to the wind we may notice the things around us in a different way. When we go up or down in the balloon our perspective will change.

The distance from which we look at something impacts our experience.

 When we are flying low to the ground, everything seems large and appears to be moving quickly. When you are flying high in the air, everything seems small and appears to be moving slowly. We can’t control which direction the wind blows us, but we can choose to rise above the struggles of the day to see them from a distance. When we create distance from our negative thoughts or feelings they don’t seem so big; mountains become foothills, houses become toys, people become ants. 

This distance gives us a bigger picture and often we can see things we couldn’t see before. We might notice other details or possibilities.  

What I’m describing is a process called cognitive defusion which is a component of acceptance and commitment therapy and has shown to have a huge benefit on mental health and wellness. The goal is not to escape or avoid those difficult thoughts or feelings, it’s just to see them from a different angle. To create some distance, so that we are looking at them rather than from them.  

Many of us learn complex information and concepts best through the use of story and metaphor. Metaphors are especially useful when understanding concepts of cognitive defusion. Finding an exercise or metaphor that works for you can be a useful tool for the difficult  moments. 

The hot air balloon metaphor is one of many ways to practice this technique of defusion. Other common exercises include observing your thoughts as a train on a track, or leaves on a stream, or playing with the words themselves (de-literalizing language). 

When you find yourself overwhelmed by a thought or feeling, you can jump into your hot air balloon basket and float above it. Notice how your perspective changes as you float above those difficult thoughts and feelings. You can go up and down to change your distance from them while you surrender to the path of the wind and see where life takes you. 

For a step-by-step guided practice click here 

To see some pictures from my family’s ballooning adventures scroll down.