A SHORT CAB RIDE TO SELF-DISCOVERY
DRIVING WITH A MIND WIDE OPEN
Hi. Where would you like to go?
That’s what I always say to people when they get in the cab. It’s a friendly greeting that breaks the ice and gets things going on the right foot. I smile when I say it and I turn partway around, make a little eye contact.
It’s a good question. Where do you want to go? Barton Springs for a nice cool swim? Out to the Oasis to watch the sun go down over Lake Travis? Downtown, maybe to a club on Sixth Street to hear some of that good Texas music we like so much here in Austin?
How about a journey of self-discovery? A ride down Dharma Road?
Tuesday afternoon I’m working downtown, checking the hotel stands, cruising the streets. Cab 119, ready to go. I load a woman at the Four Seasons, take her up to the Capitol, then take two men from the Omni to the Doubletree. I take a radio call at Brackenridge Hospital and load an old man with a broken leg in a hard cast. He’s headed home to an apartment on East Fifth, riding on a hospital voucher. He needs a lot of help getting inside. Then I’m back downtown, loading at the Hilton, taking a woman in a gaudy green pantsuit up to the university, listening to her talk about how much she likes Austin, saying, “Yes, ma’am, I like it here, too.”
It’s a typical afternoon in the cab business. It’s a lot like yesterday afternoon. Or tomorrow. It’s a lot like your life. There’s always something going on, but in the end you wind up pretty much where you started.
Then again, it’s not typical at all. It’s unique. It’s a completely new day, one that will go past and never return. The people, the traffic, the sound and feel of the city. The way everything moves. It’s all new and it will never be this way again. It’s all in how you look at it.
Cruising down Congress Avenue, I hear a whistle, see a man wave at me from across the street. I’m all over it. I make a tight U-turn and coast up to the curb in a New York nanosecond. Smooth. Three men in matching dark gray suits going to an office building north on the Interstate. One of the men sits in front. He acts a little nervous, fidgety, like there’s an important meeting coming up and he’s spent the day drinking coffee to get ready for it. He’s ready now.
On the seat next to me there’s a well-used copy of Seung Sahn’s classic, The Compass of Zen. It’s sitting on top of the pile of maps and guidebooks and the clipboard I use to keep track of my cab company paperwork. He picks it up, stares at the cover. “You reading this?” he asks.
“Yeah. It’s something to keep me occupied on those long waits at the airport.”
“You really understand that Zen shit? It’s pretty strange stuff, all that one hand clapping shit. That’s Zen, right?”
“Yeah, it is. It’s a koan, a puzzle.”
“And you get that?”
“Well, not that, no. Koans are pretty advanced, more for full-time monks. People with the time to put into it. You can’t really do that if you’re driving a cab ninety hours a week. But Zen’s not as confusing as people think. Most of it’s just an appreciation for everyday life. The basics are pretty straightforward, there’s some philosophy, meditation practice, ethics, that kind of thing. And then you can go on from there, build on that.”
He grunts, already losing interest, leans back over the seat and jumps into a conversation about amortization depreciation allowance something or other, a topic that makes as much sense to me as the one hand clapping does to any of them.
When they get out, he hands me a twenty and says with a grin, “Good luck with that Zen shit.” Then he turns and trips over the curb, loses his briefcase as he gets his hands out to catch himself. The case pops open and papers spill out across the stones.
That’s Zen, right there. That moment, the one you didn’t expect. The moment when you notice that your life is one little surprise after another. The moment when you realize that ordinary life isn’t ordinary at all.
Then again, maybe he shouldn’t have called it “Zen shit.” That couldn’t have been good for his karma.
Welcome to Dharma Road. It’ll be a fun ride. Think of it as an introduction to Zen practice for people who live in the real world. People like us. We’ll go over the basic ideas of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha and the others who have followed in his path. We’ll talk about morals, meditation, mindfulness. Just the fundamentals. And we’ll get started on the day-to-day practice of Zen. This can be pretty serious stuff, but it doesn’t have to be. We’ll take it easy, make it as clear and concise as possible. And we’ll take it out on the streets, see how Zen practice applies in everyday life. We’ll try to have a little fun, a few laughs. Because if you’re going to put in a sixteen hour shift behind the wheel, you’ll need to have a sense of humor. Maybe we’ll even figure out how to make a few dollars along the way. Just like the cabdrivers do. And after that we’ll sit back, do a little speculating about what it all means. It’ll be quite a ride.
People think of Zen as mystical, inscrutable. Pretty strange. But the basic idea behind Zen is a simple one. We experience the world through a filter of expectations and preconceptions built up over the course of our lives. As a result, we fail to see the world as it really is. With the help of a program of morality, meditation and mindfulness we can overcome this veil of delusion and see through to our own true nature. We can learn to see the world directly and to understand our own place in it.
Simple, isn’t it?
It’s simple if you only read about it, but in the end you’ll have to do more than that. Zen isn’t something to read about, it’s a way to live. To really understand what’s going on here, you’ll have to take it into your life and see where it leads you. All I can do is show you the road, fill you in on a few of the moves. The rest is up to you.
Don’t worry too much about the cabdriving. You don’t have to learn all the streets. Maybe you’ve already got a career. You may be a doctor, a lawyer, an internet billionaire. Maybe you’re a secret agent battling to prevent a vast ultra-conspiracy from achieving total world domination. Maybe you’ve put too much into your career to throw it away for this. That’s all right. We can’t all be cabdrivers. You’ll see that life on the streets isn’t so different from your life. We all have stress, distractions, delusions. We all get lost sometimes. And we can find ourselves if we try.
So here we go, off on an epic journey of everyday discovery. A sightseeing trip for the soul. Don’t forget to buckle up.
(© 2010, Hampton Roads Publishing. Infringinators will be hunted down and devoured by a pack of feral hyenas dressed as lawyers.)
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