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, 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, marinating in not just the sounds but smells and hot air of Detroit iron and brimstone. 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 slide-rule designed metal and glass down the highway.
The Chevy Tree is a place for mindfulness practice because it naturally draws its riders into its presence. Most aspects 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–an eternally 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, marveling at the effectiveness previously un-noted in their hand’s ability to do work. There is an excitedness, an enthusiasm for the present moment to see old new things for the first time–things that every car has, but are presented in a way where their ultimate function is not hidden behind a solenoid.
I can tell people are excited by the way they slam the doors of the truck. 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 as if one is paying attention to the effort needed to encapsulate a car cab for the first time. It should be noted that the doors of the truck close quite easily by themselves, it is our attention that drives up the effort and engagement in the moment.
The truck is 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 the engine remains cool in any environment. That said, the engine is the only part of the truck that remains cool. The truck has no carpet, no headliner, no foam on the seat, and no power brakes (did you even know your car had power brakes?). Every effort to operate the truck is literally the effort, aided by the physics of leverage, that a car requires to move — your foot is what stops the car, the temperature of the floor is the temperature of the exhaust and reminds you of the 8 hot candles controlled by your right foot that is connected to the device that allows fuel to drip at a measured rate into the engine.
Much of the truck’s issues will be addressed in time. I will restore the carpet and paint, seal the firewall, install the heatshields, — all as they should be. But there will always be an essence of “old car” that will never be novocain numb 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, require 50-80 pounds of force to stop the car and will pull into oncoming traffic when stomped on too violently. The steering requires 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.