We can invent machines to do work for us, but then we must deal with the pollution of industrialization. We can invent technologies to speed us up, but then we must deal with the stresses of an increased pace. We can invent conveniences to make life easier, but then we must deal with the negative impacts to our health. In short, there is no way to avoid the Yin and Yang of life. As the Buddhists say, there are no one-sided coins.
While we have grown and changed and advanced as a species, the human experience hasn’t really been altered at all. We still have the same set of emotions we had before each invention, and our happiness will never depend on how easy or hard life is, it will always depend on our appreciation of what is, rather than our desire for something that isn’t.
This steady shift has translated to a generation of people that were raised almost completely within the world of abstract thought. Smartphones and concepts like social media are all thought-based. You “go” there in your mind. You travel via your imagination. You visit friends, see places, and watch events all within your mind. This has created a world where people are so lost in thought that their ability to comprehend the outside world has literally become nonsense.
Case in point: yesterday I drove behind a woman who was clearly very busy reading and writing what she felt were very important text messages. As each light turned green, she would make the entire line of traffic wait until she finished what she wanted to write, and then she would pull away. Even more telling of her mental state was this: in the span of four blocks, her right tires hit the curb on six separate occasions.
Let’s stop for a moment to really think about this. Even making a course correction is a sign that we’re distracted. Travelling at 65kmh (30mph) this woman lost control of 3,500 pounds of steel and glass and struck a physical curb six times over a very short distance, and yet that hard fact did not shake her free from feeling that her text exchange was more important than her operation of her motor vehicle.
In her mind, this shocking and insane set of circumstances was entirely acceptable. Striking two big pieces of physical reality together in a dangerous way was secondary to text messaging. You wouldn’t want to be a cyclist near that. And when two of these people arrive at an intersection together and collide, that is not an accident—it is an inevitable.
People claim they want to be spiritually healthy. They claim they want to be better at living in the now, and yet their actions say otherwise. Because where could Now be more useful than when operating a vehicle? Last week I saw a guy start texting prior to coming to a complete stop at a light. He must have turned the wheel a bit as he looked down, because he veered over sightly as he rolled forward, and he ended up breaking his passenger side truck mirror against another truck’s driver’s-side mirror! How much more unaware can we be? What if that was a person?!
Understand: if your brain is reading or writing, then it is absolutely not driving. You can lie to yourself all you want about multi-tasking, but repeated brain tests have shown that you are taking into account small percentages of what truly aware drivers are seeing.
Don’t tell people you’re a good driver. Don’t bother telling people that you’re “spiritual” or that you’re “studying Buddhism,” or don’t bother going to Yoga to calm down if you’re just going to leave the studio, temple or church and then go right back to being a mindless thought machine. If you can’t even get from home to work in an aware state of mind then your serious spiritual practice needs work. If you want to find Now, then start actually looking for it where and when you are rather than thinking you’re going to find it in a text message between the next two intersections.
I have overheard rural firefighters discussing a noted uptick in the number of inexplicable head-on collisions. Well-maintained vehicles, travelling on clear and dry roads, and yet one driver slowly wandered over the center line so far that they collided with oncoming traffic head-on.
In cities you never used to see black tire marks on the curbs half way down a block. Why would anyone hit a curb halfway down a straight street? How truly insane have we become? How many things are we checking off as acceptable that are truly crazy? Just because everyone begins doing something does not make it wise. We still have all of the responsibility to make the decisions and choices that will impact our lives.
Drive your car. Actually drive it. Because if you can’t tell me if there’s a shadow of a kid underneath two parked cars up ahead, then you’re not noticing as much as aware drivers are. If you fail to notice that your lane ends before you reach the actual barrier, then you too are not noticing as much as aware drivers are. If you’re not aware enough to know the tendencies of the drivers around you, then you are not noticing as much as aware drivers are. And if you can’t tell that if you just moved forward a tiny bit, that an entire lane of right-hand turns could go behind you, then you are not noticing as much as aware drivers are.
When your car isn’t in motion you are still driving. You still have responsibilities. Driving doesn’t start and stop with the motion of the car. If your car is on the road and not in a parking stall, then you are driving whether it is moving or not. Putting on your makeup, or shaving, or doing your hair, or reading your paper, or texting your friends or co-workers is a distraction. Drive. It’s a verb. It’s very Now. Start using it like a spiritual training exercise. It’s a form of meditation.
When you get in your car from now on, treat it like a spiritual sanctuary. Put your phone in the back seat, and focus on the road as a spiritual exercise. Let the importance and safety of driving be what prompts you to stay attentive to the Now.
I’m not kidding that this can be a very useful daily exercise in learning to live in the now. But to succeed at it you will have to consciously decide that your genuine spiritual development is actually more important than your latest text message. That shouldn’t be difficult. And if it is, then at least you’ll know that your spiritual development is further away from you than your office is.
Drive safely. Drive aware. Live consciously. Be present.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.
PS Please consider watching this powerful documentary created by Werner Herzog. It really is the sort of video that will save lives:
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.