I was on a road trip out East to see my brother and his family. The evening before, I had driven across the bluff over Lake Erie at Erie, PA. I love a blue horizon! Cutting the corner of Pennsylvania into New York and on past Buffalo, I spent the night in Williamsville, just off the thruway.
Next morning, out in the moist summer air, I tossed my bag and my guitar in the truck, and slammed the tailgate shut. In the cab, I set up to listen to some podcasts; even a couple from the nearby Rochester Zen Center. It was a bright, beautiful morning to drive the rest of the way across New York and into Massachusetts. I had breakfast at Bob Evan's and hit the road. Good grub and coffee for my belly, and some new podcasts; nourishment for my brain.
My route would take four hours or so to Albany and then just into Massachusetts to Chester. Around Albany, I-90 heads into Massachusetts and the NY Thruway heads Southeast and becomes I-87. As long as I made the turn to stay on I-90, I didn't have to think much to navigate.
On the south side of Batavia, NY5 comes alongside the toll road. My brain was simmering in the warm juices of an interesting podcast. My eyes are open, hands at “10 and 2,” but the auto pilot is engaged. Physically, I'm tooling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Mentally, I'm sitting in the Rochester Zendo listening to the deliberate, even tone of John Pulleyn. Its warm and comfortable, a good dharma talk. Its quiet, feels safe and over there to the right is a RAMP TO I-90!! WHAT?!? Did I miss my turn already!?!? Where am I?
My brain grinds a few gears and roars into panic. My foot pulls back from the accelerator. I'm scanning the traffic beside and behind me, checking if I can still make the exit. On right shoulder is a solid guardrail. There is no opening; no gap for the exit. The ramp goes up and over a knoll and curves over to join my lane. It takes almost a mile for it to sink in that I was looking at a sign on the wrong highway. The sign wasn't for me, it was for the people on NY5 who wanted to join me on the Thruway.
If you aren't present in the present you are not really living your life. When we are consumed with what should have or could have happened, or perhaps, wishing something had not happened, we are stuck in the past. The paunchy former star athlete, or the aged former beauty queen, still trying to live their “glory days” are clichés of movie and song. We can't make good decisions for our current life if we are not actually living it. When consumed by the past, we are living in a world we can't change because it has already happened. We are reading signs on the wrong highway.
If you are consumed by the future, you have great plans, great hopes for some moment to come, some thing to happen. Consciously or not, we put things off today for those fabulous times to come. We can be consumed by some nebulous goal even while not making any actual progress toward it. Life is passing us by because we don't see it. The kid in the back seat whining “Are we there yet?” is not enjoying the ride. He can't see anything interesting along the way because he is not looking. When great moments, or great possibilities, come to us in the present, we cannot see because we are looking just passed them at some unfocused potentiality. We are reading signs on the wrong highway.
When we obsess about how things should be or are going to be, we cannot see how things actually are - reality. In order to move forward, in a direction of our own choosing, we must know where we are going to start. We must accept reality; accept things just as they are. In this accepting, we don't wish something else had happened. We don't ignore things as they are because we “aren't there yet.” When we are carefully aware of just where we are, good decisions can be made about where we want to go from here, and what we want to do next. We are on the right road and reading the right signs.
When a tool is designed, it is designed to "do" something. A tool has no sense of being. It has no essential nature. As soon as the tool is in the hands of someone else, like a mechanic, it may well be used in any number of other ways. Tools lack purpose. The tool is only meant to do. It's nature is situational. Is it a wrench or a hammer or a pry bar or a belaying pin? It IS what it is being used for. Vice Grips are a special, adaptable friend of truckers everywhere.
Vice grips hold open the release lever on the Tandem Axles of a trailer. A heavy load, rusty rails or a trailer parked on an incline can make it impossible to adjust the axles. A pair of Vice Grips clamped on a partially pulled lever will often help release them. Further, when I had Satellite Radio, I had a pair of Vice Grips clamped on the outside of my cab with the magnetic XM antenna attached to them. This antenna base, a rusty old pair of Vice Grips, has over 200,000 miles on it. I've even used Vice Grips to pin open a curtain in the window of my sleeper.
Today, in our Ceaseless Society, we expect human beings to multitask; multiple doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that Human Beings should really be called Human Doings, because we concentrate much more on doing than being. We can't focus on doing something well while multitasking. If the coin of the realm is multitasking, hyper-doing, there is no time for, or any emphasis on, just being. No time to spend discovering our true purpose.
I heard this vivid phrase somewhere on NPR: Continous Partial Attention. Set your iPhone down for a second, if you are not giving full attention to what you are doing, you cannot do the best possible job on that task. If we live in the buzz of multiple tasks, we can't possibly be living the best possible life. If we are constantly switching from this task to that one, are we giving the people we love any real attention? any dedicated face time? Do we really know what we actually want to do with our lives? When is the last time you stopped and really thought through what you want to do next? what you really want to do for a living? where you actually want to live? What is your true nature? What is your purpose?
Doing sounds like action, but it is essentially static. The tool goes from one task to the next without growth. There is no choice, just the next task. When you are doing, you are not living or growing. Being is dynamic but does not exclude accomplishment. While Doing is the mindless accomplishment of artificial, unconsidered goals, Being is the accomplishment of goals on a path; toward a purpose. These are handpicked, specific goals, chosen to further your life rather than simply to get someone off your back or to get that report off your desk. Purposeful Goals add up to a life worth living.
Can we just 'be?' Do we spend any time to quiet the world long enough to hear ourselves? We are making priorities every day under the crush of To Do Lists, Five Year Plans, Lunch appointments and Meetings, but do we know what we really value? Is there happiness and joy or stress and misery? Without some quiet “being time” to get in touch with what we really value, can we safely decide on anything? Are we even aware of a purpose beyond getting the next task done?
Fortunately, you are not a tool. A tool would never rather be doing something else. It has no sense of anything else, nor of a purpose. As a human, there is much greater depth in purpose. This depth, however, is unreachable when doing outweighs being. When a person is consumed in hyper-doing, they become like the tool; an inanimate object. There is no compassion, no empathy. There is no joy in the life of a tool.
When we can reconnect to ourselves and develop purpose, we can live in parallel to our essential nature rather than opposed to it. We can find joy and compassion and real living. Stress and misery are absent, because living toward a purpose, by definition, is effortlessly doing what we should do because it is what we want to do. In Being we are investing time rather than spending it. So invest a moment in being. Quiet the world long enough to truly consider what is worth your time. Accomplish something essential; something parallel with your purpose. Just be.