Life is like a dead car in the middle of winter

My car died recently. On the coldest winter day, it suddenly refused to start. Since it had been running fine the day before, I suspected it was not a major issue. It was probably something I could have eventually fixed myself, which was just as well because I didn’t have money to have it towed to a shop, and in any case I tend to view auto shops with a suspicion that makes John Mearsheimer look like Forrest Gump by comparison. However, street parking, a rapidly approaching major snowstorm, and the relentless onslaught of General Winter’s troops caused me to throw in the towel, so I found my crunchy granola stick-shift Subaru a fitting resting place supporting the fine programming of Minnesota Public Radio. It was probably a poor financial decision, but it was so easy. Afterwards, I felt like how Atlas must have felt when he found someone to watch his globe for a bit while he ran off for a bathroom break.

My current theory, developed after I got rid of the car, is that I fouled the spark plugs by flooding the engine while trying to start it, which, if true, would have entailed a disappointingly easy and cheap fix. I think the reason I flooded the engine in the first place is that the spark plugs already had some carbon deposits due to the fact that I rarely drove, and only for short distances at low RPMs. A good old Italian tuneup may have done some good. Basically, as I see it, my car died because I wasn’t driving it much. A car wants to be driven.

My mind wants to be ‘driven’ too, so in this story of my car I see a cautionary didactic tale. The use my mind gets at my job seems to me like the equivalent of your grandma driving three miles to the pet food store in her gold 1998 Buick Park Avenue, and my time spent outside of work is not much better. Am I fouling up my brain with the low RPM demands I place on it? Will I meet a similar demise on the cold, snowy streets of Saint Paul? I was okay with getting rid of my car because it was old and I wasn’t really using it, but I do need my brain to be there.

I often think back to my last year of college as a contrast to my current state. I remember this as a vaguely unhappy period in my life, but also as the time when life felt the most colorful and substantial. I had outlets for creative expression through playing in a band, drawing comics, and writing a weekly column in the college paper. Back then, if you threw a rock, you would hit a person having a creative idea. Classes were easy and fun, and something electric seemed to be in the air. Who knows how accurate any of these recollections are, but the memory of this time in my life still stands out for me as a sort of Platonic ideal.

There are some things I find helpful in my current life, such as writing this blog and meditation. But I’m still looking for that wide open highway, or at least a decent Italian tuneup every now and then.

What I’m most afraid of is that, 10 years down the line, I’ll find that whatever ability I have to be creative will have atrophied, replaced by the ability to be productive. The more the universe resolves the details of my life and blesses me with comfort, the more this fear in me grows. I guess this is another way of saying that I can always find something to complain about. So instead let’s focus on the bigger issues facing society, and I’ll hopefully find ways to take care of myself. Thanks for reading.

Being (Mindful) and Time

the monkey mind
I started meditating recently as a New Year’s resolution. When I started, I was hoping that it would help me generate better ideas for Get Rich Quick schemes. The image in my mind was of Yoda meditating on a matter, and, with a flash of intuition running through his body, opening his eyes knowing exactly what the proper course of action is. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a wildly inaccurate picture of meditation. However, I still think meditating is a exciting pursuit, and one that I hope to continue.

One cool thing about meditation that I have read about is that it can allow you to develop supernatural powers. There are stories of meditators who can view past and future occurrences, and people whose bodies start generating impossible amounts of heat during meditation. The great thing is that all of the experienced meditators whose advice I have read consider the development of these powers to be nothing more than distractions from the practice of meditation. I like this attitude of regarding one’s own supernatural powers with a slight annoyance.

Meditation has given me an interesting perspective on time. I have been doing baby meditation sessions of around ten minutes. The funny thing is that these ten minutes can feel longer and more substantive than anything else that I do for the rest of the day. Eight hours at work can also feel long, but once the work day is over it leaves absolutely no impression on my mind. It is simply time that has been carved out of my existence, leaving in its place a blank space and some numbers on a biweekly paycheck. I also spend much more than ten minutes a day reading garbage on the internet, but the end result is often the same as the time I spend at work (this time with no paycheck, of course).

All in all, ten minutes of meditation feels as substantive as, perhaps, sitting through a two hour movie. What I’m trying to say is that meditation seems to be a very profitable use of time. At the same time, it casts an uncomfortable light on just how unprofitable the vast majority of my existence is. It is kind of disconcerting when the most meaningful part of my day is sitting with my eyes closed and doing absolutely nothing.

Meditation feels like a constant battle against what is known as the “monkey mind”—that unfocused, squirming movement of a stream of thought chafing under the yoke of imposed discipline. To my knowledge, this is normal and part of the process of training the mind. Weirdly, this process seems to be good for gaining access to new perspectives, or developing half-baked ideas. I often resist the urge to constantly scribble away in a notebook while meditating, although I recently learned of a meditation movement in which this is an encouraged activity. I will have to give it a try…

All things considered, I would give meditation a thumbs up. Pros include low startup cost, gaining credentials to join the Lululemon mafia, and feeling like at least one part of your day wasn’t totally pointless. Cons include the risk of burning the clothes off your body, and arriving at insights too late to save the Jedi Order due to your diminished ability to use the Force.