Steering Toward the Curves

I struggled against the wind and rain, in the dark, driving across the cattle plains of South Texas. Squall lines roared in off the Gulf of Mexico. The inky, black emptiness of the prairie made the refinery lights look like cities across a big lake. Biblical torrents of rain filled ditches and slathered the road. Air cushion shocks make my ride nice and smooth, but with every gust of wind, the cab lurched on its squishy platform. Right after, the trailer leaned over like a schooner digging her leeward rail. Each squall line brought its own series of sickening double lunges.

Then two lanes funneled down to one and shifted off center in a construction zone. I hurtled through a swerving, narrow pass only a roller coaster masochist could dream up. There was mud and gravel to my left and a continuous line of Jersey barriers to the right. The rain gave everything a sinister reptilian slickness. In the skittering gleam of my headlights, it all rose and fell like the ribs of a cement and asphalt striped lizard.

Flying through, my forward motion animated the ruts and ravines of construction mud. A flash and crack of lightning woke the beast and tentacles of mud began to writhe. Every ditch was a mudbound kraken waiting to pull me into a slimy abyss.

On the right, the ghosts of a thousand traffic fatalities howled against the barrier surfaces; like hamsters clawing at aquarium glass. In their deafening silent screams, I heard the story of each hellish demise. Their agony could only be mitigated if my trailer clipped the barrier with a staccato ricochet and I joined their plaintive chorus after my own diesel fueled apocalypse.

In real life late night driving, if the tires on just one side of my truck got into that mud, I might as well be drug down by giant muddy tentacles. Likewise, in the pinch points of the curves, too tight a turn could cause the trailer to catch on a barrier. The impending disaster would be dramatic and just as likely acrobatic. I was hauling a light load down to McAllen, but still must have had 40,000 or 50,000 pounds of momentum twisting, turning and lunging.

When a driver concentrates too much too close, the tension builds with every yard of asphalt. Pretty soon, the steering wheel is jittering back and forth in a thousand desperate micro-corrections, while the foot unconsciously lifts off the accelerator. Every driver panics the first time through or they're lying about it.

You have to start with faith in the system. The construction workers are going to set it all up so that trucks can make it through. How could they not? Besides, a hundred trucks have already gone through ahead of you. If there is no wreckage blocking your way, they've made it.

After that leap of faith, the key is to take a deep breath, slow down a little if you must, and look a little further down the road. If you steer to the curves as they come toward you, rather than worry about what's up close, you will make it easily. Success comes with smoothly anticipating your way rather than reacting in a panic.

Life is a lot like getting through a construction zone at night – in the rain. Take a deep breath, trust you can get through and then steer toward the curves that are a little further down the road.
Image used without permission. Lifted from http://ozplasmic.deviantart.com


A Wreck on the Highway

A small disc of fabric cartwheeled across the highway as I was catching the wrecker. We were just getting through Chattanooga, TN and the traffic was finally thinning out. My truck didn't quite have the oomph to pass in the mountains, so I backed off the cruise control and stayed in the granny lane.

The throttle governor that limits the speed of the truck can be frustrating. I'm not opposed to governors per se, but none are set at exactly the same speed. If you're behind a truck whose governor is just a half mile an hour slower than your own, you will catch up to it and feel like you need to pass. Trouble is if you're only going a half mile an hour faster, it will take you 10 minutes to get by the slower truck - on the flat. In the mountains of Tennessee, hauling a heavy load, passing was just not practical. After swallowing my pride and settling in behind the wrecker, I began to notice the debris. The wrecker wasn't towing anything but appeared to be following the truck ahead of him.

Little things catch my eye out on the highway. The wrecker hit a patch of road debris that scattered spectacularly. The clumps of fibers, some kind of stuffing, burst like a hive of snow snakes. Bouncing on an expansion joint, the truck in front of the wrecker scattered little clods of dirty that trailed dust toward the shoulder like they were smoking.

As we dropped into one of those beautiful Appalachian valleys, three or four more little pieces of fabric danced across the highway in a cascade of delicate sadness. It was then I squinted into the twilight, suddenly curious of the truck in front of the wrecker. I felt a pinch in my chest as his cargo came into focus. I could see it fine, even in the dwindling evening light, but my brain struggled to make sense of it. Unusual finger shapes, like an open hand slightly askew, trembled as they bounced down the highway. The truck, a flat bed, was carrying the nearly unrecognizable remains of a completely burned out semi tractor. Two corner edges of the sleeper were the anguished skyward fingers. In the hints of a cab, I finally realized the grim tale before me.

Did the driver survive? Was he inside when the fire started? Was it an accident? Were there others involved? I hadn't yet wired my CB radio, so I couldn't inquire. Either driver in the somber convoy would have had no obligation to respond anyway. I could only sit and wonder. The upholstery was burst open like popcorn, shedding swatches of fabric. The mattress, still in there somewhere, couldn't keep its own stuffing from jumping out in the wind. The smoking clods must have been ashes or the residue from fire extinguishers.

Passing a truck accident can give me pause, but following a wreck for over a hundred miles, I was quiet as a pallbearer for two hours. Unanswered questions rolled around in my head. All I could do was consider the possible explanations and openly offer my compassion and empathy as the silent forests buzzed by.

Naturally, I thought that could have been my truck. Three years ago, I had already driven a half a million miles. Now that I've started  driving again, I am back in this statistical pool. But this is not a preachy, stilted riff on being safer and more vigilant on the road. As I drove up I-75, following the nightmare possibility of the burnt cab, I was struck by the beauty of impermanence. The driving might be just a job, but the drive through the lush valleys and vivid green forests of Eastern Tennessee was beautiful. Besides the traffic and the hum drum of whatever it is each day, this job is a tour of wonder. Instead of sitting at a desk in front of the same patch of wall, or feeding lumber into the same machine all day, I get to sit here and watch beautiful sunrises, wonderful mountain vistas and stars reflecting on rivers. 

I also see pollution billowing from smokestacks, trash along highway shoulders, and completely wrecked semi tractors. There is beauty and there are troubling sights, but all are impermanent. The Buddhist concept of impermanence is often misunderstood. Some think it must be a certain emotionless, Spock-like aloofness. In my opinion, to deeply accept impermanence is to cherish the beauty in each moment we have, in the people we're with, in whatever stuff we have – just then. Everything, and everyone, is impermanent and therefore all are beautiful. Just like cherry blossoms or fall colors, the allure is the beautiful sight that you were privileged to see at that moment. Whether you're driving a truck, working at a desk or feeding a machine, consider it a privilege. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi used to say “Just to be alive is enough.” Once each moment is seen as a privilege, one can relax and just enjoy life.


Dharma of the Floating Floor

Traditionally, the word 'Sangha' referred to the community of Buddhist monks and nuns. Today, especially in the West, the term denotes the entire community of Buddhist practitioners, lay and ordained. In Western Protestant terms, Sangha is the church community of a Buddhist temple. We have our regulars, people who attend when they can, and we're often blessed with new faces as well.

In less than two years, the Sangha had outgrown the little storefront temple space in which we had started. The search for bigger accommodations was arduous, and we feared that we would have to leave the downtown Grand Rapids area. In the end, however, we found a wonderful location in the 400 block of South Division, just up the hill from the new downtown farmers market. The bigger space needed new paint, new flooring and lots of clean up.

Our expanded version of the Three Refuges Chant refers to the Sangha as the “shining light that supports me.” In fixing up our new temple space, we got to experience that support in more tangible ways. Working together strengthened the fiber of our community. There was plenty of work to go around, and we all chipped in on the various projects. Thoughtful Sangha members brought food in to replenish the energy spent on all the good work.

One of the last projects was installing a laminate floor, sometimes called a floating floor, in the Dharma Hall. Four of us began the work early on a Saturday morning. Alisha had already started working with the planks and had developed a system. She taught us to lock a short end into the last plank, bend the long edge just so, hook it into the previous row, and then tap the plank into place with a block and hammer. Some of us were instructed it was a finesse job, others needed to whack at it – based on our potential for damage. It took a couple tries to get the hang of it, but soon we were all tapping away. A floating floor grows diagonally across a room as you lay it down similar to putting up a brick wall, but horizontally.

During the day, the crew had time to chat and share stories, and along the way we chuckled at the small gems of wisdom we were stumbling upon. Sage-like, Alisha instructed us to “Be patient, it doesn't look like anything is happening, but it is.” As the shiny new laminate overtook the rough subflooring, someone said “look, there is more floor than not floor.” Another reminded that it was “all floor anyway.” Good people and a common cause can make hard work go more easily. It was a long day, but in the end the hall looked wonderful – even without the base moulding installed.

As I drove home and pondered a job well done by a bunch of volunteers, I felt the warm support of my community. We had come together, grown together and did some good work too. That night the temple was still not quite finished but every day it was a more special place than the day before. It occurred to me that the more tightly knit Sangha was even more supportive, more conducive to the deepening of each other's experience. This intangible community support was given a physical expression in the tapping of laminate floor planks. As each of us crawled around on the floor, working on our own row of planks, we could actually feel the help of the others as their tapping reverberated through the floor. It seemed to me like the heartbeat of the Sangha.


Paint Roller Nirvana

The most useful insights often seem so simple afterward it is embarrassing to relate them. My day job is in the Finishing Department at a company that builds wind turbine blades – very large wind turbine blades. We sand, prep and paint a blade 45 meters long, weighing 10 tons. Moreover, because this is a new contract, and we are a relatively new company, a 150 foot long paint booth has not yet been built. Therefore, the blades are painted by roller to keep the operation within environmental regulations. It is quite a task to paint a 150 foot long wind turbine blade with a 9” paint roller.

I'm one of the lucky few who often have a paint roller handle in hand. Not long ago, I was painting a blade with a partner who is a little quiet, reflective even. We do just fine in conversation, but we will occasionally go for long stretches without much talking; which is just fine, it turns out, with both of us. Painting starts at the blade's tip with a team of two on each side. After the first several meters, the blade gets tall enough that the other team might as well be in another building.

We were painting along in silence. The paint we use is a heavy paint for ship decks imported from Germany. In our routine, the first painter slops a lot of paint on the blade with a roller just sopped and dripping. The second painter re-rolls the surface with a slightly dry roller, smoothing it out and catching any defects. As the second painter, I was doing this clean up and had nothing on my mind but watching the effects of my partner's painting, and re-rolling the blade's surface. At a certain point, I was completely lost in the gentle, undulating rhythm. I'd pick a spot, about a half roller width off of the previous strokes and reach way down under the bottom of the blade to start a long stroke toward the other edge, sometimes as much as 15 feet high. Up, and then reaching down again, I simply watched the texture and coverage of the soft grey paint as I rolled.

As we neared the other end, what we call the root, I realized that I had been humming along for half an hour or more without really thinking about anything. I had practically become the paint roller itself, not existing in any essential way outside of the function of the painting. Before we began cleaning up, I stopped and stared at the long blade. It is more like a bird's wing than that of an airplane. From the muscular root, it curves upward and crests to flow down again toward a graceful curve, like the wing of a Swallow. The other guys, had they noticed, would have presumed that I was admiring our work. Actually, I was reflecting on the ease at which I had blissed out. My concentration had been such that all else had disappeared. Sure, thoughts came and went like usual, but I had not grabbed hold of them. The thoughts became fleeting gossamer wisps rather than the first scatter of pebbles before an avalanche.

This Paint Roller Nirvana taught me a much easier way into my meditation. Even the most basic instructions will tell you that 'thinking about not-thinking' will get you nowhere. Concentration is prescribed as the solution. I've spent the last several years trying to develop this “single pointed concentration;” so called Samadhi. For the most part, this vague goal had escaped me. I'm not saying that I've always got it now, but it is definitely easier to enter after the paint roller.

Using my breath while meditating was not concrete enough for me. I kept seeking concentration separately. Counting my breath was something that I did while I searched the caverns of my psyche for some concentration. Just as the Buddha taught, however, we are already complete. We already have everything we need. The paint roller taught me that I already had the concentration I sought. If I just did the breathing as a task, like painting, I would find it right there waiting for me.


Zen Driving Again

There is an old zen saw that 'you should meditate for a half hour every day, unless you think you're too busy then you should meditate for 2 hours.' Another old saw says 'every little bit counts.' The trouble comes when even the little bits don't happen. The good news is you will soon realize just how good that meditation you are no longer doing is for you.

I've written about road rage before; I had it figured out. My busy life, however, had gotten in the way. Alright, more accurately, I had let my busy life get in the way. The meditation bench that I had built was helping this old body sit still for longer periods and my morning meditation had nearly become a habit. Then a good stretch of overtime at work and habits started to slip. It's hard to remember to get to bed before 8:00 pm. When you're getting up between three and four in the morning, eight o'clock is not really even soon enough.

I don't like to be rushed, so my practice was to get up early enough to have a meditation and cook some breakfast. Of course, I also tend to get involved in too many things. There were meetings, to-do lists, writing and reading. Pretty soon, I was cutting corners at each end of my sleep cycle. I started stretching to nine or nine thirty before I was in bed. When I got up in the morning, it was just in the nick of time to crash through breakfast and out the door. At a certain point, I had lost the morning meditation habit altogether. I still meditated, but not with any regularity.

Then it happened. I turned out on to 36th Ave. to get to Chicago Drive, the main thoroughfare on my, and many other peoples', way to work. There was lots of room between my turning and the guy who was coming down 36th, but I suspect he didn't think so. To add insult to his injury, I dared to come to a complete stop at Chicago Drive to look before turning into 55 mph traffic. When I did turn, the minivan roared around me to pass. It was the perfect moment to smile and let it all go, but this is Michigan where we take cars and driving seriously. I punched my own accelorator to the floor.

With some glee, I noticed the left lane had not yet been plowed. That bum to my left was careening through the icy nastiness still trying to pass me. I kept on him (or her, who knows). For more than a half mile we were neck and neck like some 1950's drag race song, except it was dark and icy and we were just two old poseur dudes on our way to punch the clock at five in the morning.

Somewhere north of ten over the speed limit, the lumpy vomit stain of stupid started to soak into my ass like I had sat on the wrong spot of couch at a frat party. This is not who I want to be. This has not got anything to do with my real life. This is jsut two guys showing off the ravages of anger, greed, and ignorance. What did it matter to me that someone else decided to drive like an idiot? What did it matter that I was childish enough to respond? What difference did it make to the world?

The difference it makes to both of us, and to the world, is karma. Karma is not the proverbial cosmic balance sheet that most Westerners think. Karma is more a momentum where doing good makes good deeds easier. Conversely, doing bad deeds makes more bad deeds more likely. Pretty soon it's a landslide in the wrong direction. This works on the universal level as much as the level of the individual. Our foray into road rage was simultaneously the result of, and a precursor to, more stupidity. That morning, each of us contributed to making more anger, greed and ignorance in the universe.

I'm working at my morning meditation habit again.

Image taken without permission from Bostinno