Driving on the highway, my car breaks down. Just before I left for the Sierra mountains, I’d had the car tuned up as it had been sitting for months in the rain while I traveled in Europe. My mechanic’s office assistant had warned me before I drove off to remote mountain roads.
“I’ll let you go, but I don’t like that you are driving so far. Don’t go over any potholes and check your radiator fluid regularly,” she warned.
On the way back to the Bay, just as I start over a massive mile-long six-lane bridge, I hear a pop in the engine. Then, steam gushs from under the hood. There is nowhere to stop. Descending, the battery light turns on and I realize I can no longer accelerate. I drift to the side of the highway safely across the bridge.
I call my insurance for roadside assistance and wait. Somehow the estimated wait time they give never decreases. It’s 30 more minutes for two, then three, then four hours.
It is in moments like this when everything is crashing down that what’s most important rises to the surface. Sitting on the highway as cars speed past me, my phone erupted with texts.
My mechanic’s office assistant becomes my advocate. “You need to call them and tell them that you are sitting on the highway in a highly unsafe situation. This is unacceptable!”
I agree and I do, but the tow company won’t budge.
My 75-year-old zen buddhist teacher, sometimes surrogate mom, pretending to be my actual mom to get through the phone system’s security, called my insurance company to protest, but they only reply “a complaint has been filed and there’s nothing more we can do.”
I am still many miles away from home. I need to make a plan for where to bring my car and how to get off the highway as quickly as possible. Options swirl around my head. The more I think about it, the more complex the whole situation seems and the more options I create. And yet, none of them are just right.
I try walking meditation in the meridian. I sing. It helps pass about 45 minutes.
I try to think of who to call who might be able to get me off the highway and home, but the only person who comes to mind when scanning through my phone contacts is an ex. But it seems wrong. This door is closed. I think is this really the only person who would come this far to pick me up? What do you really want? I put my hand over my heart to offer myself some self-compassion.
“This isn’t the time for the moral high ground. Do it,” my Zen teachermom chides me, “You need to get off the highway.”
I wait. I realize I don’t want to think calmly about the options. I’d much rather have a meltdown.
I call her back and say, “Do you have a moment to talk about what’s really on my mind? I don’t really care about the tow truck, my car, or the highway. I don’t think I can figure out how to take care of the situation until I say this out loud to someone”
“Yes, I’m here” she says.
I lay it all out. The most gritty and vulnerable. The whispers of truth that nest in my heart coming to the light.
She interrupts for a moment and I snap, “Please don’t interrupt me. Please. I just need to get all the way through this.”
On the other side, she says, “Well I’d say that story contains all kinds of distortions, but you got at the real problem. You know the work you need to do. You know it’s not a quick fix and not easy. You are really smart, but this sort of stuff — smartness won’t help you there. It’s something deeper. Facing this may be one of the hardest things you’ll do in your life, but you are worth it, you know.”
Grateful for her, I relax at last. The sun has gone down. The tow truck arrives and loads my cars on the back. I still don’t know where to tell him to bring the car and so I just pick a place, letting go of all my rationalizations of the pros and cons of each option.
The tow truck goes five miles and breaks down. I can do nothing but laugh. The tow truck driver and I become fast friends over Jack-In-The-Box french fries outside a gas station.
A few days later, my mechanic’s office assistant tells me my car is not going to be a quick fix. They are going to have to take the whole car apart to get to the root of it.
I think as I hear her words that’s like my mind. To be conscious, to liberate my heart, might mean looking under the hood of the whole mystery to get at the core assumptions and letting it weave itself back together in a conscious dance of healing.
In using this metaphor, I am not saying my mind is akin to an objective machine. If anything, the subject machine is the subject mind. The car’s engine is made of the consciousness of metals.
I think of systems theory and Joanna Macy.
“The creative function of a cognitive crisis” is to “motivate the system to self-organize in more inclusive ways, embracing and integrating data of which it had been previously unaware” says Joanna Macy.
A car’s breakdown on the highway is one way to arrive at such a cognitive crisis. Meditation is another. Joanna Macy goes on to say the following:
“Rather than eliminating noise to extract the message, the meditator switches off the message to attend to the noise. The exercise amounts to a deliberate mismatching, or production of positive feedback, as awareness widens to the rush of psycho-physical events where the impersonal habitual “I” is no longer discernable.”
The car breaking down is a mirror. The car’s crisis instructs me in the mechanics of the psyche by pushing me into the fray of the highway noise, “switching off the message”.
When the tow truck grinds to a halt carrying the car’s busted engine of misperceptions, it’s time to let go.