When we take an Uber or are taxied somewhere by our many generous driving friends, we are reminded of when we watched the Cars films and were intrigued by our strong emotional response. After all, the characters in those movies are cars! Each has a distinctive personality, along with a face: eyes in the windows and mouths above the front bumpers. We were pondering how deeply we felt, and suddenly we were reminded of the beginning of our book Spiritual Literacy where we began with the idea that loving, honoring, and caring for things is the first step on the path of everyday spirituality. We used as a catalyst this thought from writer Anais Nin:
"The value of a personal relationship to things is that it creates intimacy and intimacy creates understanding and understanding creates love."
We come to know things intimately only when we enter into partnership with them. Some people name their cars and establish what Martin Buber called an "I-Thou" relationship with them. Writer Shaun McNiff in Earth Angels: Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Things notes that most people don't notice the energy that passes between them and their cars. But not so for a fellow he calls Joe. Joe establishes a very strong connection with his car that eventually moves beyond maintenance and transforms the way he views himself.
"I can see Joe having a far more expansive relationship with his Mercedes," writes McNiff, "wiping it down every day, polishing and vacuuming it once a week, changing the oil and filter himself, observing subtle changes in engine sounds and tire pressure, keeping the trunk neat and clean, spraying rubber freshener on his radials, parking it carefully to avoid dings, charging plugs, making sure the shocks are perfect so that his ride is always smooth and no unnecessary damage is done to the car, cleaning the engine, and generally having his life structured within the intervals of these rituals. He is able to adapt himself to the life of the machine, which requires a significant commitment. . . .
"Aside from maintenance, the various ways in which Joe might interact with the car activate different energies. I imagine it making many changes in his social life.
"Let me offer some possibilities. He loves the feeling of people turning to look at him when he drives with the top down, and he has become aware of the subtle glances that less demonstrative types cast out of the corners of their eyes when he passes them on the highway. The car becomes an extension of himself, and it is the agent of new ways of being with people. They stop to admire it outside his house or when he pulls into the gas station or the parking lot at the supermarket. As people lavish this interest on the car, he feels it coming into him, and it is a good sensation. There is a sparkle in their eyes, a passion and enthusiasm, a desire to engage that was never there before. What difference does it make if it is the car or him that is the stimulus, because he is getting the attention. He actually likes it better this way. There is something delightful about indirect admiration and the way positive regard for the car affects its caretaker. He remembers how invisible he felt in his old car.
"Many of us fear that if our objects leave, our identities will go with them. It seems that only the advertisers understand how we are defined by our relations to things and the company we keep. On the whole this need for things cultivates soulful and interdependent living. None of us exist alone, and alienation is the inability to appreciate the things around us and our interplay with them. But just as our involvement with other people may become too dependent at times, we can become overly reliant on things and expect too much from them.
"The car can also influence Joe's spiritual contemplation. I see him sitting next to the Mercedes, reflecting on its presence or just luxuriating in the feel of the wheel and the views from the driver's seat while parked at the beach or the park. There are so many different qualities of his desire for the car, which becomes a beloved partner, a means of transport that is not restricted to physical movement. As he unites with the car, Joe travels and glows with its spirit. He loses himself in its being.
"It is remarkable how the presence of a thing can change the structures of our lives."
Rereading this passage, we are struck by how complicated our relationship with cars can be. We may take them for granted one minute and lavish them with special attention another. We may use them to try to get attention for ourselves and risk becoming overly dependent upon them for our identity.
The Shadow and Soul of Cars
We can appreciate what cars do for us, and at the same time, we can't ignore their shadow side. More than 42,000 people die in automobile accidents every year, and countless more are injured. It has been estimated that one million animals are killed by cars on U.S. roads every day. Add to this the trees and other plant life destroyed to make room for highways and parking lots and the air pollution and greenhouse gases produced by automobiles, and we have to admit that cars can be toxic.
One of the values of spiritual practice is that it enables us to see life for what it is at the same time as we deepen our connections to all aspects of the world around us. And let's face it, cars are a very big part of that world. Rather than ignore their soulfulness or condemn their destructiveness, we can use practices to enhance our relationship with them. Here are some suggestions.
Pay Attention to Your Car: When you first get in, take note of your car's being. Notice its smell; the texture of the seat, floor, and ceiling; the colors around you; the accessories that enhance your driving experience and make you feel comfortable. Say a heartfelt word of thanks to your car for being such a good and faithful addition to your life. Create a prayer for every time you put on your seatbelt.
Harvest Your Memories: All of us have memories of things we have experienced in our cars. Take a few minutes to recall some of the best ones: places you have been, sights you have seen, things that have happened. Or you can try harvesting memories as you drive past familiar places. The main point is to share this source of positive energy with your vehicle.
Be a Courteous Driver: The roads are dangerous because so many drivers are aggressively rude and crude; some regard their vehicle as a toy; others, as a weapon. You and your car can set a new standard for courtesy by using your signal, looking before backing in or out of a parking space, dimming your headlights as another car approaches, letting a person into the lane from a side-street, and refraining from using your horn. Keep in mind that all drivers and cars on the same road are connected with you; your actions will affect those behind you, in front of you, and beside you.
Take Care of Your Car: We know we need to do repairs and upkeep to keep our cars safe to drive. But there's another way to look at maintenance. It's an expression of affection and appreciation. In Not That You Asked, Andy Rooney models this approach:
"My station wagon is being fixed now and I hope everything comes out OK. It's good to have a car you don't worry about denting. The wagon was always the one that got left out in the rain and snow. If there was a dirty job to be done, I did it in the wagon. I saved my good car because I wanted the good car to last. I've had three good cars since I bought the wagon. The wagon, mistreatment and all, has outlasted the cars I pampered.
"When I get it back, the first thing I'm going to do is give it a nice full tank of high-octane gas, some clean, fresh oil and a warm bath. I want the wagon to know that it's loved."
Deal with All Emotions that Arise: We experience many different emotions in our cars. Usually anger and impatience surface in the midst of traffic jams. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh's spiritual practice (from his book Peace Is Every Step:): "The next time you are caught in a traffic jam, don't fight it. It's useless to fight. Sit back and smile to yourself, a smile of compassion and loving kindness. Enjoy the present moment, breathing and smiling, and make the other people in your car happy."
Drew Leder in Sparks of the Divine: Finding Inspiration in Our Everyday World sees driving as a spiritual exercise that enables us to cultivate character qualities as we confront our emotions on the road:
"Driving is a lesson in self-honesty. We may take pride in our kind and generous nature but don a cloak of anonymity (since you do not know the other drivers, or they, you) and the beast within emerges. We may find ourselves honking, cursing, and falling into all kinds of sexist, racist, classist, and ageist forms of stereotyping and condemnation. Love thy neighbor? Hah! Not on the highway. Road rage is more like it, for this one drives too slow, delaying us with her dilly-dallying, and that one is too fast, riding our tail like a macho cowboy. Terrible drivers, each and every one. It rarely occurs to us that our neighbors, blessed with the self-same mentality, think we are the bad drivers.
"Driving is a lesson in prudence. Finally, we must deal with the reality that the road does not belong to us alone — that we must accept our neighbor, adjust to his or her patterns. We must or else we die. In ordinary life, we can steamroll others. Get out of my way, bud, I'm coming on through. Try that on the road, and you risk substantial expense, inconvenience, bodily injury, even death. If driving gives license to our insane side, it also provokes communal sanity in order to preserve life and limb."
"So next time you're driving, realize there's no better spiritual exercise — no better way to exorcise your demons of impatience, pride, and selfishness. Can you accept your neighbor; be courteous and giving; forgive the faults of others; be humble about your own skills and tendencies; work well with fellow drivers to facilitate everyone's progress; meet life's red lights and traffic jams with equanimity; and know that it matters little to arrive a few moments early; but it matters much that the journey be good? To learn to drive well is to learn how to live."
Look for Teachers: According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average person spends one hour and thirteen minutes driving just to get to work. Franz Metcalf in Just Add Buddha! cites practices he learned from Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton Sensei:
"As for the lame driver blocking your way, just take a breath and think: 'This person is a bodhisattva; he's protecting me from driving too fast; he's making me aware of my own impatience; he's my teacher.' Naturally, the other half of this practice is to stop tailgating the slow driver and just pass naturally, thankful for the moment."
Road signs can also be teachers. Contemplate the broader meanings of "Stop," "Yield," "School Ahead," "Detour," "Animal Crossing," and "Do Not Enter."
Say Blessings: Another spiritual practice is to use your car as a private mobile chapel that provides you with a chance to connect yourself with the fellow travelers on the road of life. Here are some prayers you can send out while you sit in traffic or as you travel down the highway:
- Send a blessing of peace, happiness, and well-being to drivers who pass you or are traveling in the other lanes.
- If you pass a stalled car or a wreck, send out prayers for help and comfort for those in trouble or peril of death.
- If you pass by a dead animal, pull your car over and take the body off the road so that it is no longer subjected to abuse. Offer a prayer for this creature's safe journey into another world.
- Say of prayer of intercession for all those whose lives have been turned upside down or who have lost loved ones due to the negligence of drunken drivers.
- Send out a blessing to truck drivers and others who make their living on the road: may all their efforts come to fruition and may their labors be beneficial to all beings.
Be Open to Unity Consciousness: Clarice Bryan, a Western Buddhist, conveys another perspective in Driving to Nirvana: A Woman's Path for Drivers Without Cellular Phones. She knows that when she is mindful in her car, she feels connected to others. But occasionally, something happens and she experiences something more. Here's how she describes it:
"The first time it happened, I was driving on a two-lane highway near the Trinity Alps in a well-wooded area of Northern California. It was a rolling, gently curving road, and there was no other traffic in either direction. All at once, I became the car. I could feel my tires rotating on the pavement and a divine sense of union with the road. There was no conscious effort to turn the wheel or press on the accelerator, because I was the road as well as the car. I was the harmony of the car and the road. I was the melody of the universe. I was bursting with joy and a feeling of oneness. My body was totally aware of everything around me; the eucalyptus trees along the roadside, the manzanita bushes, with their dusty green leaves, the tiny cloud overhead, the clicketyclack of the tires, the purr of the engine, the smell of fresh air. My body was all these and so much more. My whole body smiled in this union as we floated along together through the forest and out into the sunshine. Words are totally inadequate to describe the unbelievable happiness I felt.
"I am unable to achieve this ultimate unity when someone else is with me in the car. But when I am alone, and on a curvy road, and traffic is at a minimum, I reach Nirvana. This unbelievable feeling of compassion and acceptance and oneness is overwhelming.
"Everything is so beautiful and so simple, so refreshing and invigorating. I actually get high on this relationship between myself, the car, the road, and the universe. I become an undivided individual embedded in my environment, accepting everything, expecting nothing. This is not an adrenaline rush or even an endorphin rush. It is oneness-ism and it lingers for months and years."
Imagine Life from the Car's Point of View:This may sound trivial after the profound practices mentioned above, but this simple practice has been meaningful to us as another way to stay connected with cars.
For years, the loud shrieking of car alarms on the street below our windows used to drive us crazy. Then one day we realized that the cars might just be venting all the anger they felt for being left alone so often. Or in the midst of winter, they could just be crying because their tires were so cold. In the event that the alarm was actually signaling trouble, it was conveying the car's fear of real harm.
So now whenever we hear a car alarm go off, we gently whisper, "Calm down, everything is going to be all right." And many times — actually, most times — the alarms stop soon after.