It is told that the Buddha attained enlightenment by meditating under the Bodhi tree. Here I invite you to seek the mindful path of the Chevy Tree.
What does it mean to be mindful? The practice of mindfulness is the process of returning one’s attention to the present moment. In this way, driving an old car is a perfect opportunity for practicing mindfulness.
The thing about old cars is that they pull you into the realities of driving, forcing you to attend to the present moment. The pavement screams a little louder, the ground just seems closer. Suddenly the gauges that you take for granted in your other cars seem to be constantly conveying important information that could change at any minute.
To be sure, the degree of mindfulness I have while driving my truck may have something to do with the fact that I put most of my truck together over the last 15 years. I know myself, and I know that I am not a great mechanic. Driving the truck then, is an act of some faith*.
*you should know something about cars though: Cars actually like to run. If they can run 20 miles without any trouble and sit and idle in traffic without overheating, smoking or stumbling, they can usually run much further. The little things that break, i.e. windshield wipers, window cranks, these are part of the adventure.
On the open road, the engine thrums the V8 chakra: oommmm ommmmm ommmmm. The windwings are open, buffeting you with cool wind. The engine fans push the hot air from the engine bay into the cab (okay so this part of riding in my truck is just plain uncomfortable–more on this in a second). To drive an old car is to be pulled into the present moment in a wonderful way, to be reminded of the physics involved in moving a two tons of Detroit Iron and glass down the highway.
The Chevy Tree is a great place for mindfulness practice because it naturally draws its riders into its presence. It is amazing to watch people interact with the truck for the first time. Most aspects/features of the truck are present on newer cars, but the way it was engineered represents a different way of solving problems that we don’t see in modern cars. The first time people interact with the truck, they notice the chrome door handles feel cold and heavy in a way that the newer plastic ones do not. The dash is covered in knobs–which I contend are a better design choice than buttons–that have a pleasant analog feel to them The dash is a flat, steel panel, barren except for essentials: heat, defrost, radio, gauges, glove box. Wires and controls hang below it like spaghetti, inviting your gaze to see how moving the heater controls actually moves levers and cables to change the flow of heated air into the cab. When people first get into the truck, they touch everything–nobody does this in my Honda. There is an excitedness, an enthusiasm for the present moment to see things for the first time–things that every car has, but are presented in a novel way where they are not taken for granted.
I can tell people are excited by the way they slam the doors of the truck. I think this is a behavior manifested by the present moment, it is the realization of how heavy a car door is, coupled with the excitement of novelty–hence the extra energy expended to shut the door. It should be noted that the doors of the truck close quite easily by themselves. I think the door-slamming behavior is due to the present minded-ness foisted upon us by the old Chevy Tree.
The truck is not comfortable in the way that my Honda is. In fact, there are times when it is downright uncomfortable. Last week, I had to run to the steel supply store, which is deep in the industrial core of Los Angeles. When I exited the freeway, I was greeted by a long line of semi-trucks, idling through stoplight cycles, moving like elephants in the hot savannah. The truck is equipped with modern electric fans and a large radiator, so I do not worry about overheating. That said, there are holes in the firewall–the piece of steel separating the cab from the engine compartment. When the fans kick on, they pull cooler air from in front of the radiator, which exchanges heat from the radiator into said air, and send the hot air right into the cab. The truck has no carpet, no headliner. On a sunny day, it is quite literally, a large tin can with two monster fans pushing hot air onto your legs.
In better times, all the senses are addressed by old cars. The old fabric and upholstery, the unburnt hydrocarbons (hopefully not too many–gotta tune that carb), the aged materials have sense of inherent nostalgia. The curved windshield warps the views slightly, adding a slight teal tint to what you see outside. It is a wholly immersive experience.
Much of the truck’s issues will be fixed in time–as they should be, but there will always be an essence of “old car” that will never be as comfortable as a new car. This is a perfect analogy for the present moment: it is often not as comfortable as we would like. If you were to sit still for 30 minutes or more, as people do during mindfulness meditation, chances are some part of your body will become uncomfortable. More likely, during such practice we are confronted with “negative” thoughts and feelings, ruminations about the unfolding life stories we tell ourselves. In practice, we’re taught to observe these discomforts, adjusting only as needed to address any pains–mental and physical. It is taught to return to the present moment, surveying the surroundings, and observing mental phenomena as sticks in a stream floating by. The discomfort is meant to be an object that can be observed and not judged, not avoided.
The truck is a machine meant to deliver stimuli, some stressful, some relieving. The difference between sitting in the Chevy Tree and sitting in a meditation is that the Chevy Tree has real consequences for drastic mindwandering. The brakes, for one, are not as good as a modern car. The steering feedback is terrible; it takes massive movement of the steering wheel to effect a change in direction. As such, the traffic must be observed diligently, at all times. In this way I see the truck as a shortcut to mindfulness practice; if you care for life and limb, each moment must be attended to–exactly as it should be. Find your Chevy Tree.