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START YOUR ENGINES
Every journey has to start somewhere. For most people taking up a spiritual practice, the starting point is a personal crisis of some kind. It doesn't have to be something dramatic. We're simply unhappy with the way things are and we want to try a different way of living. So we find a new job, a new girlfriend, move to another city. Or we look into a spiritual practice.
If things are going well and we're happy with our lives, we probably won't want to change anything.
It was like that for me. I'd quit drinking, cut way back on some other things. I thought my life would change for the better, and in some ways it did, but I just felt empty. Getting rid of bad habits wasn't enough for me. I had to replace them with something better. So I signed up for an adult education course: Introduction to Zen Buddhism. It could have been Santeria or Channeling Your Inner Space Alien. I didn't put a lot of research into it. I got lucky. A very nice woman taught the course at her suburban home, with meditation practice in her basement zendo. She was a great teacher, and the class immediately became the high point of my week. It was a perfect way to get started.
Buddhist history is filled with stories of Zen masters who forced their disciples to wait by the gates of the temple for years to show their determination before they could begin practice. One disciple is said to have cut off his arm and presented it to the master to gain admission. They don't do that now. In major cities, people can walk into a Zen center, get some basic instruction, and start attending functions. Usually there's not much training. Maybe a brief lecture, some instructions on zazen, the Zen style of meditation. Then the newcomers join the activities and figure it out as they go along. Outside the cities, people with an interest in Zen might form their own zendo and help each other to learn. Others just buy a few books and a cushion to sit on and start out on their own. In the end, it doesn't really matter. You get out of it what you put in. No matter where you start, it's up to you to make it work.
It's the same with cabdriving. You're on your own, and you can do what you want. You can sit at the airport and wait for the money to roll in, and when it doesn't you can blame the company for not training you well enough. Then you can give up. But if you make the effort, it can work out well for you even without any real training. And you might have a good time doing it. It's not how you start—it's how you proceed.
Cabdrivers usually start out when things are going wrong. Most of them show up at the cab company as a last resort after other things have fallen through. No one writes cabdriving in their high school yearbook next to career path. They just need a job, any job, to see them through until something better comes along.
That was how I started. I'd worked for an environmental organization for a number of years only to find myself unemployed, broke, and without any real prospects. I knew I'd face some very hard times if I didn't come up with something fast. There was an ad in the paper. I didn't really put a lot of research into it. I went in. I got lucky. Two days later, I was a trainee. That's right, a cabdriver trainee. I was so proud.
The company training program goes on for hours, but most of it is just common sense. The cab business is pretty simple. People get in the cab, tell you where they're going. You drive them there, they pay what the meter says (plus a nice tip), and get out. Then it starts all over again. There's a dispatcher on the radio, putting out calls using a simple set of procedures. You can take calls, letting the calls lead you around. You can sit in cabstands at hotels and restaurants or in a long line at the airport. You can cruise around downtown, see what happens there. You can work the late-night business, covering the clubs downtown. And you can watch the veteran drivers, see how they do things, learn what you can from them.
In Austin, some drivers own their own cabs and pay a weekly fee to one of the companies to cover insurance, permits, and dispatch service. Other drivers lease their cabs. Between the payments and the cost of gas, it can cost a driver more than a hundred dollars a day to stay on the road. That's not easy to make up. A lot of drivers wind up falling behind on their payments and find themselves out of the business. You have to stay focused, and you have to put in the hours. The company training program doesn't really dwell on any of this. If the rookie drivers knew what was coming, they'd probably make a run for it while they could.
Something good about the cab industry: since the drivers are paying the company, rather than the other way around, it's fairly hard to get fired. It happens, but you have to really mess up. In one of the Austin cabdriving legends, a driver managed to run over a passenger who'd gotten out of his cab. Then he drove away. He got fired, but it took the company a week to make the decision.
That story may or may not be true. No one really knows. There are a lot of stories around, and some of them must be true. The streets are paved with urban legends. But the point is, if you've driven a cab, you know: it could happen. It's a pretty strange business.
But then, most businesses are pretty strange. Once you get inside and see what really goes on, you wonder how anything useful ever gets done. Everywhere I've worked I've seen colossal screw-ups, gross incompetence, and outright larceny. Everyone laughs about it over an after-work beer, and nothing ever seems to really change. If you've ever had a job, you know: the working world is a circus. And the clowns are running the show.
Here's another cabdriving story: One night a driver got a package delivery from the airport going to a hospital. It was a cooler, like you'd use for beer. It was kind of a long drive, and he was tired, so he stopped off at home, figuring he'd get some sleep and finish the trip in the morning. After all, it was just a package. You guessed it. There was an organ in the cooler. The cab company had to send another driver to wake him up, collect the cooler, and bring it to the hospital. This sounds crazy, but I'm pretty sure this one actually happened. (No, it wasn't me, and hey, thanks a lot for thinking that.)
For my training, I watched a fifteen-minute video on the proper way to deal with customers. It starred a cabdriver who was polite past the point of being annoying. He looked like a dorky Richard Pryor character from an old movie. He was actually wearing a tie. Then I went out with a veteran driver to spend part of a shift on the streets with him, learning the ropes. He laid rubber getting out of the cab lot.
And he wasn't wearing a tie.
Of course, out here on Dharma Road, we're not really focused on making money. And we're not worried about the inner workings of the cab industry. It doesn't really matter what kind of work we're doing. Most of us are putting a huge chunk of our lives into our jobs, so we'd better get something out of them besides a paycheck. On Dharma Road, we're in this for spiritual growth. Development. Enlightenment, even. We're here to learn something about the way our lives move along these streets, how to make them move more smoothly. How to make them lead somewhere.
We're here to experience our true nature.
Okay, that's enough of the driver training. Now let's get to work.CHAPTER 2
THIS SUFFERING WORLD
It's around noon on a Tuesday. I take a call at an AIDS clinic in a strip mall near the interstate. It's a place for patients without insurance. There's a black woman standing under the awning out of the sun. She looks about thirty, but it's hard to be sure. She's thin—too thin for this life—and she's crying. I pull up, she gets in the back. It takes her three tries to tell me where she's going. "St. David's," she finally tells me, then she starts crying again. St. David's Hospital.
It's a short trip. A half mile. A few minutes. When I pull up at the entrance, she hands me a tear-stained cab voucher. I wish her good luck, but I don't think her luck is going to change that much. I watch her walk in through the sliding glass doors, maybe for the last time. She stops in the lobby and stands there a moment, looking lost.
For the next few hours, I work the streets, thinking about the woman and what she must be going through. Being admitted to the hospital. Going through tests. Seeing the sadness on the faces of the nurses when they look at her. She's scared. Maybe she's alone. Maybe she'll die that way.
The afternoon wears on. It's hot and getting hotter. I'm sitting third in the cabstand outside the Omni, drinking bitter, lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam cup. I'm thinking about the way my life is going—I'm struggling to make rent, let alone save enough to make a way out of the cab business to something better. I haven't been sleeping well, and I have trouble getting up when I have to. I've got a molar starting to act up and an ache in my lower back from trying to wrestle a hundred-pound suitcase into the trunk. If everything goes well today, I'll be out here tomorrow, doing it all over again. If anything goes wrong, I might not be here at all.
This is my life now: ninety hours a week in a cab, hustling fares, fighting traffic. It wasn't supposed to be this way. My life was going to mean something. I was going to make a difference. I was going to save the world from itself. It didn't happen.
Maybe you had a dream like that. Maybe yours didn't come true either.
"Life is suffering," the Buddha said, and he wasn't kidding around. It's not the uplifting, cheery message you'd expect from the man you see in the statues, the chubby guy with the serene smile and kind eyes. Life is suffering. That was the Buddha's original insight, the one that led him to develop a system of morals and ethics, a program of transformative psychology and a set of guidelines for deep spiritual development.
Everything begins with suffering.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small Indian kingdom. For his first twenty-nine years, he was protected from the harsh realities of life by his doting father. He stayed mostly on the palace grounds, living in luxury, his every desire fulfilled. But he knew there was more to life than simple indulgence. When he finally left the palace and saw the real world for the first time, he was shocked to see the way the common people lived, the hardships that filled their lives. He saw a beggar, a sick person, an old man, and a corpse. Just seeing them changed his life. Poverty, sickness, old age, and death. He was determined to understand why there was so much suffering in life and to learn how it could be overcome. He abandoned his life of privilege and became a wandering monk. Everything in the Buddha's teachings, everything he learned about the human condition, began with that original quest.
I'm watching four young men stand around as a bellman loads their golf bags into the back end of a white stretch limo. They're looking good, wearing their Ban-Lon shirts and their Ray-Ban shades, tanned and fit and more or less rich, heading out to some country club for a round of golf, drinks, some dinner, whatever they want. They don't look like they're suffering all that much.
Maybe they don't need to know about the Buddha's search for understanding. Not today, at least.
But it won't always be this way. During their lives, trouble will find them. It won't all be stretch limos and drinks at the country club, prime ribs on the patio. Today could be the high-water mark of their lives, the day they'll always remember, the one they'll wish they could go back to. Tomorrow it could all go wrong, and they could be left shattered by the loss of what they once had. It can happen.
For most of us, there won't be a spectacular fall. Life is more subtle than that. For most people, life is a mixture of good times and bad. And the better the good times are, the harder the hard times seem. The people who have the easiest lives just get spoiled. They never learn how to cope. They don't think they'll ever have to. Think of Britney Spears going off on a crying jag because her little accessory dog crapped on her $10,000 gown. Or Paris Hilton crying for her mother as she took that limo ride to her week in jail. She could use a couple weeks in Darfur to gain some perspective. Or she could try driving a cab for a while, just to see.
Psychologists have studied happiness as a social and cultural phenomenon. Surprisingly, they've found that people today are no happier than they were a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, or at any other time in recorded history. Rates of depression are up, and there's no end in sight. All the material progress that's been made hasn't translated into real happiness. And the rich aren't much happier than other people. Outside of the truly destitute, there is very little correlation between wealth and happiness. The cabdrivers are about as happy as the trust fund kids riding out to the club for a day of golf. They just have different things to complain about. And to appreciate.
Consider Elvis. Once he was the king of the world. He was the King. If anyone should have been able to avoid suffering, it would have been Elvis. He had everything he could ever want, and if he ever saw something else he wanted, he could have had that just by pointing to it. And yet his life turned into an ordeal of emptiness and sorrow, ending in a drug overdose that killed him while he sat on a toilet. If Elvis couldn't achieve real happiness in this life, is there hope for any of us?
Sometimes when I get home, I turn on the TV to help me unwind, and I watch a few minutes of one of those celebrity shows that cover the tragic lives of the icons of our culture. (What can I say? I get home at three in the morning and I don't have cable.) It's a litany of DUIs, eating disorders, and secret heartbreaks. The storybook weddings all seem to end in bitter divorce. How many of the most fortunate wind up in jail, rehab, or both? Too many to count. Or even care about.
And those are the rich and famous people, the ones who've made it big. The celebrities. In a culture obsessed with celebrity, even the celebrities suffer. And so does everyone else, just not in the glare of the spotlights. Take a walk through your local supermarket or down your own Main Street and have a good look at the people you see. Are they happy? Are they satisfied with their lives? Are you?
That's not to say that life is nothing but suffering. Of course it isn't. There are some great ups and crushing downs and a lot of in-betweens. Life is long, and some of it's a lot of fun. But some of it's hard to take. Or it's short, and that's even harder. Like Jim Morrison said, "The future's uncertain and the end is always near." He was right. He turned to heroin to ease his pain, and he died after a few years in the spotlight and a slow slide into darkness.
Out on the streets in a cab, you see plenty of suffering. You meet elderly passengers, some of them fading away, some of them already gone. There are sad and hopeless drunks stumbling around, telling their troubles to the cabdriver after the bartender stops listening. There are crackheads out at four in the morning, hoping to score. There are patients going home from the hospital, heading to clinics for treatment, moving from there to the hospital to die. People who know their lives are running out. Some days, living in this world can just break your heart.
Depressed yet? Don't be. There's a road that leads through the suffering. A road that rises above. We're coming to it.
The guys at the Omni are in the limo now, pulling out, headed for the golf course. Maybe it won't rain out there today. Maybe they'll have a great game and cap it off with a perfectly done surf-and-turf dinner in the clubhouse. Maybe their lives will go on this way forever, free of suffering. I really hope so. But I doubt it. Instead of going out to the course today, they could be setting out with us on a journey of self-discovery. They could be learning about their true nature and learning to rise above the sorrows of life. They could all be buddhas someday.
Maybe they'll get started on that tomorrow.
Excerpted from DHARMA ROAD by Brian Haycock. Copyright © 2010 Brian Haycock. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Posted December 3, 2012
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