18 July 2011

Not-Zen Driving

Driving home from story telling group - this is a drive that feels much the same as when I’m returning home from seeing my therapist, driving done with mindfulness and attention to the moment, aware of having opened myself to another, of being vulnerable in the world and thus more part of it – sort of Zen driving, if you will.  The route differs, but my awareness of myself as driver, and of other drivers on the street, all of us in charge of our machines, of the need to attend to our own driving behaviors while watching out for others, scanning ahead, knowing what’s going on around us – all seems heightened on those drives.
What I notice on those drives is not the power I wield behind the wheel, not the possibility of speeding up to get there faster (though I am looking forward to home, where I can process my experience in quiet).  I’m aware instead, during those journeys, of my part in ensuring the safety of the experience, and of the need for each person behind their own wheel to know and follow the ‘rules of the road,’ so that we can each get where we’re going in one piece.
On this particular Friday though, a green Chevy, a rather banged up vehicle, pulled into the lane behind me and its driver came right up my tail pipe.  The driver was female.  She was so close behind me I could see her bangs, and the graduation tassel hanging from her rearview, blowing in the breeze of her open window.  What I couldn’t see was the front of her car.  She was that close.
Gone my mindfulness – the Zen moment fled – and what replaced it was a combination of fear and anger.  Now I am a good driver.  All of Manuel Stevens’ kids were taught well, to always be looking for “a place to put it,” to not overdrive our brakes or headlights, and so forth.  My dad was a critical and rather harsh teacher, but we couldn’t drive his car til he was sure we could do it well. Defensive driving, what my dad tried, in his own way, to teach us, isn’t about emotion, but about attention to what is happening.  Nevertheless, both emotions jumped right on top of my chest as that speeding chick in her banged up Chevy stayed on my tail.
Now, driving in fear or anger causes accidents.  I know that.  And this wasn’t the first time somebody had waxed my tail on the road.  Usually I can simply keep an eye on the rearview and do whatever I need to stay calm, to maintain focus until the other either passes me or I can get out of their way.  Not this time.
The fear was simple.  I could not move to the other lane, filled with cars, nor could I speed up to make some distance between us because of the cars in front of me.  It was also complex.  I wondered if she was crazy, wouldn’t care if she hit me, was “looking” for a wreck, or if she was even paying attention to how she was driving.  I wondered if she was drunk, or high.  Mostly the fear came from powerlessness.  There was nothing I could do but keep going, but, instead of being able to focus on what I was doing, I was focused on what she was doing, or might do.
And that powerlessness was where the anger came from as well.  I felt pushed, shoved, forced – as if I had to give this chick what she wanted.  And I wanted to push and shove back – to tap my brakes and either make her hit me or slow down.  Fat chance of that last, since she was so close I doubt if she could even see my brake lights.  Mostly I wanted to stop, force her to stop too (don’t ask me how I thought that would happen) and unload on her.  The anger was, I see as I write this, in some ways healthy.  I WAS being endangered by her driving, and that’s an appropriate time for anger.  The fantasies of what I wanted to do with my anger – understandable but not so healthy.
Anger also rose up because, well, this crazy driving woman had spoiled my peaceful mood.  Maybe that’s the most important learning from the journey.  Maybe all this writing poured out of me to remind me how quickly I give away my power, my hard-won serenity.  There are few enough experiences in daily life that provide us with opportunity to feel at peace in the world, that encourage us to feel grounded in our own authentic power.  And, it seems to me, the world offers us plenty of experiences of the opposite kind – more than enough to tip the scales toward living continually in fear and anger.
Now that I think about it, maybe the lesson here has little to do with the experience, with a dangerous driver or an few minutes of emotional reaction.  Maybe what I’m supposed to learn has more to do with searching out more times and places and people and activities that promote my own serenity, my own sense of inner grounding.  Maybe if I had more of those in my life it would be easier to weather the crazy drivers and other dodgy encounters that will, certainly, show up on every kind of road I travel.

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