Zen and the Art of Suburban Driving

Zen Pictograph

Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.

I don’t know if you remember a book from the early 1970’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It was a freakish best-seller that caught on with everyone from hippies to philosophy professors. It recounted a motorcycle trip by the author and his son, narrated by an alternative persona named Phaedrus. Phaedrus attempts to reconcile the classic view of life and reality with the romantic side, or the rational with the spiritual, emotional and intuitive parts These lofty considerations aside, one comment I would make about the book is that Phaedrus is totally crazy about maintaining his machine. Now, I’ve never even been on a motorcycle, much less ridden one, but I do know that bicycles take some maintenance. And maintaining one wasn’t what I would call a high point in my life, and I certainly didn’t burst with joy when I had to do it. Call me insensitive, but that’s how it is. (A bit of free advice here: never, never, never, I repeat, never attempt to adjust the spokes on a bicycle. You’ll end up with a wheel whose shape might charitably be described as resembling that of a hippodrome. Oval wheels don’t make for a smooth ride, so just bite the bullet and pay someone to do it who knows how.)

The book sometimes ended up in the car/truck/train/airplane motorcycle section of some bookstores, and I’ll tell you why. This is a well-kept secret, so don’t tell anyone, but people who buy for bookstores don’t read every book they put on the shelf. Neither do librarians. They read reviews, and this practices sometime got school librarians in trouble when a book contained material unsuited for students. We English teachers didn’t have that problem because we were required to read every book we taught. This didn’t cause much strain on us since English teachers like to read. We also understood the importance of becoming familiar with everything we taught. One teacher didn’t preview a film called The Golden Fleece and ordered it, thinking it was about Jason and the Argonauts. It wasn’t: it was about sheep ranching in Australia. If I had done this, I wouldn’t have told anyone about it, but she told everyone.

All this is a prelude to my latest attempt to save money and gas (but not time). I have taken to driving at the speed limit (not five miles over, which seems to be the norm around here) and coasting as much as possible. I have found I am able to coast most of the way from Caton Merchant House where my Dad lives to my house. I have learned several things from this experiment:

  1. If you’re going to do this, don’t try it with a long line of traffic behind you. You’ll either be shot or run over.
  2. Expect to become very aware of the topography of the region. Since I started doing this, I find myself looking for a route with as many downslopes as possible. Of course, that means going uphill on the way back, but into every life some rain must fall.
  3. Deliberately slowing down induces in me a state resembling that of meditation. We all live busy, harried lives, and driving is a big stressor. It doesn’t have to be.

I have not run through a tank of gas yet doing this, but I’ll let you know if it works. If it doesn’t I can always go back to driving like I’m in a stock car race. Old habits are hard to break.

All this does have a spiritual side. I believe God honors us when we are still, when we take our time, when we are more aware of God’s creation all around us. I hope whatever method you choose to achieve these states of mind, it works for you and that it works well and allows you to let God work in and through you to the glory of God and the coming of the heavenly kingdom.



One Way

One Way Sign
John 14:6-7: Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

I don’t know if you have ever driven yourself to distraction. I used “to distraction” rather than “crazy” in an attempt to be sensitive to mental health issues, but every time I hear either phrase, I think of my mother who used to say to my brother and me, with great regularity, “Boys, you’re going to put me in Staunton!” By this, she meant the men in the white coats were going to take her away to the Western State Hospital, a state run mental facility located in the Shenandoah Valley. I assumed all the mothers whose kids drove them over the edge were taken to Staunton until I met some people from Tidewater who talked about being taken to Williamsburg, the site of the Eastern State Hospital. I don’t recall how state mental hospitals came up in conversation, but apparently it did.

I was thinking about being taken to Staunton about a month ago when I realized I have been driving myself to distraction by trying to multi-task. I know, multi-tasking is the hip and fun thing, and all the cool kids are doing it, but just trying to do so had just gotten to me. (I’m even not sure it is possible to multi-task: some studies indicate that when people are multi-tasking, they’re not really doing several things at once, but rather shifting their attention rapidly from one task to another. And, as you might imagine, it’s rather easy to drive yourself to distraction doing this as well, multi-taking or no.)

I realized I needed to stop trying to do more than one thing at a time as the result of what psychologists call a “precipitating event.” Paul being knocked off his donkey is a classic example of such an event. I had come home one afternoon and, as was my custom, as I climbed out of the car, I took up in my hands the bag containing leftovers from lunch, about three Food Lion bags of groceries, a stray tool that needed to come in from the car and mail for the day. Before I loaded myself down, I had put the strap from my laptop case over my shoulder. And because I had my hands full, I held the key to the door in my teeth (don’t try this at home and don’t tell my dentist) so I would be able to open the door without having to take the key out of my pocket. I did all this because I am a guy and I am too lazy to make another trip. Hence, multi-tasking.

Being right handed, I needed to use my right hand to open the door, so I shifted the grocery bags so that their handles hung from my left wrist, which also had the effect of turning the thin plastic straps into a rather effective and extremely sharp blade. You know what I’m talking about.

So, as I was trying to get the key from between my teeth and hold on to my heavy burden, disaster struck. It was a disaster of my own making, but it was a calamity nonetheless. As I took the key from its resting place, the plastic bag garrote cut into my poor defenseless extremity and then parted in the middle. My food supplies for the next couple of days landed with a crash on the hard porch and, suddenly relieved of about thirty pounds on the left side of my unfortunate body, I lurched to the right under the malevolent influence of gravity and my fourteen-inch laptop. The net result was that I fell over in a heap, twisting my torso to avoid falling on the computer and pulling some very large abdominal muscles in what turned out to be an extremely painful episode.

As I said, it was my fault for trying to multi-task, save some time avoid walking an additional 100 feet and get on to something else. I had no need to hurry: it was a pleasant 70 degrees; there was no precipitation, and I wasn’t being pursued by wolves, jackals, ocelots, zombies or middle schoolers.

It was at this point that I began thinking seriously about doing one thing at a time and doing it well And so I have tried to do so this past month, and I think it has created a remarkable change not only in my behavior and also my attitude. I relax and take my time. As a result, I’m not frustrated or harried as much, and I haven’t damaged $17.00 worth of groceries so far this month. I feel more relaxed, and even find myself driving slightly below the speed limit, that is, if there isn’t a BMW hot on my bumper.

The spiritual implications of this are, I think, clear. We need to relax, slow down where possible, do what we do well and take the opportunity to use and enjoy the gift of each millisecond that God has given us. We won’t do everything God has for us to do in this life, or even half of it the tasks God has for us. God is bigger than that, and because of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have all the time of eternity. Amen.