Thich Nhat Hanh:
In Vietnam, forty years ago, I was the first monk to ride a bicycle. At that time, it was not considered a very “monkish” thing to do. But today, monks ride motorcycles and drive cars. We have to keep our meditation practices up to date and respond to the real situation in the world, so I have written a simple verse you can recite before starting your car. I hope you find it helpful:
Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
Sometimes we don’t really need to use the car, but because we want to get away from ourselves, we go for a drive. We feel that there is a vacuum in us and we don’t want to confront it. We don’t like being so busy, but every time we have a spare moment, we are afraid of being alone with ourselves. We want to escape.
Either we turn on the television, pick up the telephone, read a novel, go out with a friend, or take the car and go somewhere. Our civilization teaches us to act this way and provides us with many things we can use to lose touch with ourselves. If we recite this poem as we are about to turn the ignition key of our car, it can be like a torch, and we may see that we don’t need to go anywhere. Wherever we go, our “self” will be with us; we cannot escape. So it may be better, and more pleasant, to leave the engine off and go out for a walking meditation.
It is said that in the last several years, two million square miles of forest land have been destroyed by acid rain, partly because of our cars. “Before starting the car, I know where I am going,” is a very deep question.
Where shall we go? To our own destruction? If the trees die, we humans are going to die also. If the journey you are making is necessary, please do not hesitate to go. But if you see that it is not really important, you can remove the key from the ignition and go instead for a walk along the riverbank or through a park. You will return to yourself and make friends with the trees again.
“The car and I are one.” We have the impression that we are the boss, and the car is only an instrument, but that is not true. When we use any instrument or machine, we change. A violinist with his violin becomes very beautiful. A man with a gun becomes very dangerous. When we use a car, we are ourselves and the car.
Driving is a daily task in this society. I am not suggesting you stop driving, just that you do so consciously. While we are driving, we think only about arriving. Therefore, every time we see a red light, we are not very happy. The red light is a kind of enemy that prevents us from attaining our goal. But we can also see the red light as a bell of mindfulness, reminding us to return to the present moment. The next time you see a red light, please smile at it and go back to your breathing. “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” It is easy to transform a feeling of irritation into a pleasant feeling. Although it is the same red light, it becomes different. It becomes a friend, helping us remember that it is only in the present moment that we can live our lives.
When I was in Montreal several years ago to lead a retreat, a friend drove me across the city to go to the mountains. I noticed that every time a car stopped in front of me, the sentence “Je me souviens” was on the license plate. It means “I remember.” I was not sure what they wanted to remember, perhaps their French origins, but I told my friend that I had a gift for him. “Every time you see a car with that sentence, ‘Je me souviens,’ remember to breathe and smile. It is a bell of mindfulness. You will have many opportunities to breathe and smile as you drive through Montreal.”
He was delighted, and he shared the practice with his friends. Later, when he visited me in France, he told me that it was more difficult to practice in Paris than in Montreal, because in Paris, there is no “Je me souviens.” I told him, “There are red lights and stop signs everywhere in Paris. Why don’t you practice with them?” After he went back to Montreal, through Paris, he wrote me a very nice letter: “Thây, it was very easy to practice in Paris. Every time a car stopped in front of me, I saw the eyes of the Buddha blinking at me. I had to answer him by breathing and smiling, there was no better answer than that. I had a wonderful time driving in Paris.”
The next time you are caught in a traffic jam, don’t fight. It’s useless to fight. Sit back and smile to yourself, a smile of compassion and loving kindness. Enjoy the present moment, breathing and smiling, and make the other people in your car happy. Happiness is there if you know how to breathe and smile, because happiness can always be found in the present moment.
Practicing meditation is to go back to the present moment in order to encounter the flower, the blue sky, the child. Happiness is available.