Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dharma Road - A Short Cab Ride to Self Discovery

Excerpt from "Dharma Road: A Short Cab Ride to Self Discovery" by Brian Haycock

I'm driving back from San Marcos with a fifty dollar bill in my pocket, feeling pretty good. The sun's out, but it's not blasting away. I've got the radio on, an old Johnny Cash road song going. I've been to Buda, Marble Falls, Pflugerville, Cedar Park... I'm thinking I'll work some calls from the radio when I get close to Austin, then try to get something going downtown, maybe make a big day out of it. For a cabdriver, this is heaven.

A 'Vette flashes by on my left, doing eighty. It's silver, lean and hard, and it's just eating up the highway. I can picture the guy inside, in his leather bucket seat, listening to the surround sound, or whatever they have in 'Vettes, watching the highway flow on by. I wish I had a 'Vette.

I'm thinking he must have a radar detector. No one does eighty out here without one. I've been thinking about picking one up, but the cab company doesn't really like to see them in the cabs. Besides, it's not in the budget. I pick up the speed a little, watching the back of the 'Vette pull away up the road, watching for his taillights.

I wish I had a radar detector. But I won't be buying one anytime soon. And I definitely won't be buying a 'Vette on what I'm making in the cab. Or on anything I can even imagine myself making doing something else. That fifty-dollar fare to San Marcos doesn't seem like such a big deal now. Most of it'll be gone as soon as I stop at a gas station to top off the tank.

I'm not feeling so good now.

The Buddha taught that we suffer because we crave what we cannot have. Whatever we have, we always want more. We're never satisfied. There's always something else, something that would make our lives just right if we could only have it. It just eats at us until we get it. And then we lose interest in that and go on wanting something else. It just goes on and on, and it seems like there's no way out. The guy in the 'Vette probably wants a Ferrari. Or an airplane. And he's no happier with his 'Vette than I am with this cab.

I'd like a Rolls Royce with the cab package, a fast meter, and a never-ending gas card, but I probably won't get that. I'd also like to date Jennifer Aniston, climb Mount Everest, and discover a cure for cancer. It's not going to happen. Not for me. Not this time around.

People wonder about Elvis, how it could have gone so wrong. I think I understand. It was harder for him. Most of us think we'd be happy if we only had a little more money, a better car, a prettier girlfriend. And we keep trying. At the end, Elvis knew none of that could save him. With all he had, he was still empty. He was as destitute as a crackhead curled up in an alley with his teeth grinding down. He wanted something he couldn't have, something he couldn't even name. And he knew he'd never have it. It wasn't the pills that killed him. It was the emptiness. The pills only finished him off.

More than anything, we fear losing what we already have. We become attached to the things in our lives that bring us pleasure, but those things are only temporary. Fleeting. So we hold on, tighter and tighter, but that doesn't work. Everything is changing, all the time, and all our attachments will be broken in the end. The rock-and-rollers will lose their edge, their records will stop selling, and they'll be doing nostalgia tours, wondering where it all went. The beauties will lose their looks, the athletes will slow down. Change is the only constant. Nothing lasts forever. You can't go home again, no matter where you're from.

Most of the changes in our lives are slow and subtle. We don't even notice them. But they add up.

Driving around Austin, you get a sense of constant change in the landscape. There are construction cranes and wrecking balls everywhere you look. It seems like they've always been there. Living here for over twenty years, I feel like I've moved to another city, a little at a time.

When I first moved to Austin, there was a place near where I lived called Beer Park. That's right, Beer Park. This is Texas - people think like that here. There were picnic tables set up, a horseshoe pit, a makeshift stage. Sometimes there were people playing guitars, just kicking it around, having fun. I'd go there after work with some of my friends, have a roast beef sandwich, a glass of beer. It lasted six months. The University of Texas bought the land, tore everything down, and built a maintenance facility on it.

Our lives change more quickly and surely than any landscape. Friends drift off, move away. We move, change jobs, join clubs, take up causes, lose interest in them, fall in and out of love. It's not always a bad thing; we all want some variety, some change to make things interesting. Some of the changes are for the better, some for the worse. But very little in life lasts for long. And nothing last forever.

According to the Buddha, the events of our lives have no independent existence. They are only temporary. It's all a house of cards. Everything arises and fades away. Ashes to ashes, all fall down. This is a world of shadow and light, nothing more than a show. It's fun to watch, but that's about all.

The suffering we feel isn't caused by the fact of impermanence itself. Impermanence isn't good or bad, it's just the way things are. It's like gravity, or gas prices or the long cab lines at the airport. The problem is our habit of craving what we cannot have and becoming attached to things that cannot last. Then, when they're gone, we feel the loss.

I've gotten attached to the cab I drive, number 119. It's an ex-police car with a big V-8, heavy-duty brakes and suspension, about as well built as a car can be. I spend more time in the cab than I spend at home. A lot more. I've driven so many miles in it, I feel like it's an extension of myself, a suit of clothes I put on in the morning. Sometimes it goes in for service and I have to spend an afternoon in another car. I feel uncomfortable, awkward. Everything just feels wrong, and I can't wait to get back in my regular cab. But 119 has over 200,000 miles on it and there's a vibration in the transmission that shouldn't be there. It won't last forever.

When the cab goes down, I'll move on to a new one, and I'll get used to that and I'll probably get attached to it. It's all right. I've got some perspective on it. It's only a car, after all. But when we form strong attachments to things in our lives that cannot last, they lead to suffering in the end. Like anyone, I look back at some of the good times I've had, and I wish I could go back, live that way again. But I can't.

In Buddhism, four sources of suffering are unavoidable: birth, sickness, old age, and death. Birth and the process of growing up are painful, both physically and emotionally. Sickness, old age, and death are great sources of suffering for most people, but the real problem is only our reactions to these changes in our lives.

Life begins with suffering. We are pushed from the warmth and safety of the womb to find ourselves in an uncertain and dangerous world, gasping for breath. The first thing we do is cry. It's a good thing we can't remember our birth. We'd be traumatized.

Old age can only be avoided by dying, so old age is really a good thing. The elderly are fortunate to have lived so long. But it's hard to think of it that way. They have aches and pains and can't do the things they used to do. Old age is hard because we're so attached to our youth. We remember the things we could do then, how good it felt to be young and strong, how fresh and new the world seemed. And we miss that.

We're attached to our good health while we have it, so when we're sick, we suffer from more than just our symptoms. Some people have had health problems for years, and they've gotten used to a certain amount of sickness in their lives. It doesn't seem to bother them as much. People who have been fortunate enough to enjoy good health for most of their lives are in for a shock when they get sick. I get a cold every few years, and that's about it. So far. When I get a cold, I'm the most miserable person on earth. I'm pathetic. I just whine and complain until it goes away. My time will come: I'll get really sick, and I won't be able to handle it at all. That's how attachment works.

And then there's death. We all know it's coming, so it should be easy to accept, but it isn't. We're attached to our lives and want them to go on forever. But they don't, and people who have to face death are truly filled with suffering. Even if they don't know it.

When the Buddha began to teach, he was asked what his teaching consisted of. He said, "I teach suffering and the end of suffering." Now, after twenty-five hundred years, the Buddha is still teaching the end of suffering. He's teaching it to us.

The way to end our suffering is to let go of our cravings, to give up our attachments to the impermanent events in our lives. If we can learn to accept the temporary nature of all things, to see them simply as events to be appreciated for themselves without trying to hold on to them, then we can live without suffering. That is the basis of Buddhist practice, the entry to the Eightfold Path, the blueprint for a life free of suffering.

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