Distracted Living: Practical Mindfulness Lesson

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One of the few things I remember from high school Latin class is the phrase “experientia docet.” It means “experience is the best teacher,” but I find that not always to be true. I am more often described by a much more recent proverb attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.”

I had a misfortunate experience yesterday that was also in retrospect incredibly good fortune, and I hope the lessons it was trying to teach me for the umpteenth time, at least, will take this time. Briefly the experience was a car mishap that could have been a much bigger tragedy. I was driving down my driveway yesterday morning on the way to my mechanics to have a problem with my steering checked out when the parts of the front axle I don’t understand gave way and the right front wheel keeled over like a wounded duck. I had been alerted by a warning light on my dash as I was driving home the evening before that indicated a problem with the steering. Since I was planning a 200 mile road trip the next day I immediately called my mechanic, and he said he would check it out the next morning before I left town. Needless to say that trip was postponed.

When the car arrived via flatbed tow truck at his shop he called to inform me that some critical part (sorry I am terrible at mechanics) had somehow become cracked and when it gave way it took several other expensive pieces of the 4-wheel drive mechanism with it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this could have happened while I was driving down the freeway instead of safely in my own driveway, and you can imagine the potential consequences.
The mystery was that my mechanic had no explanation for why this had happened. He said he checks the wheels and axle every time he changes my oil and had not seen any problem a few weeks ago. He said he had never seen anything quite like it. That made me very nervous to trust the car down the road (pun intended). But then in the middle of that night I remembered an incident that suddenly made sense of the whole sequence of events.

Before I share that big revelation I want to set the stage for why it is more important to me than just explaining what happened to my car. For years I have been attracted to the practice of mindfulness meditation. I have made several unsuccessful attempts to establish a meditation practice and to become more mindful and fully present in whatever situation or relationship I’m in. As I get older I find it increasingly more important and more difficult and more necessary to really pay attention to what I’m doing in order to remember things. I do enjoy getting more steps on my Fitbit when I go to the other end of the house and can’t remember why I’m there, but that’s the only benefit I can think of for being more forgetful.

This past winter I took a course that combined my need for mindfulness and my interest in being a peacemaker in a most serendipitous way. The on-line course offered by The Shift Network was entitled “Peace Ambassador Training” and included a strong emphasis throughout the 12-week course on mindfulness as a key to inner peace and therefore a prerequisite to working for outer peace in relationships and communities, local and global.

I am grateful that course gave me the motivation I needed to begin and maintain a daily practice of meditation and increased attention to mindfulness and presence in all that I do. And by that circuitous route I’m back to my discovery of the reason for my broken axle. I remembered in the middle of the night after it happened that about two weeks earlier I had suffered a lapse of mindfulness while driving. We hear a lot about distracted driving these days and cell phones take a well-deserved amount of blame. But there are many other ways to be distracted while behind the wheel. Again on this occasion I was fortunate to be going at a very slow rate of speed on a deserted street when I reached over on the passenger seat to pick something up as I was making a turn from one street onto another. I swung too wide to the right and while not going very fast hit a new and rather high curb hard enough to rattle me physically and emotionally.

I got out of the car to make sure the tire was not damaged, was relieved that it seemed ok, drove home and promptly forgot about it. Until I realized that was undoubtedly when the whatchamacallit under my car was cracked and began to weaken until it gave way two weeks later in my driveway.

The repair bill for my car along with the realization that my lack of mindfulness could well have had fatal consequences for me or others on the highway will ensure that this particular lesson will stay with me. And I share it in hopes that my “experientia” can be a teacher for others about the value of living mindfully and alert and present all the time. Mindfulness in all we do is critical for staying alive, fully alive and not just going through the motions on auto pilot.

Distracted Living

This week I feel like a walking proverb. I keep relearning lessons I should have learned by heart years ago, and almost always the hard way. Yesterday’s lesson was the old English proverb “Haste Makes Waste.” The teachable moment occurred as I was hurrying out to our shed to jump on the lawn tractor and mow some overgrown grass before an approaching rain storm arrived. On my 30 second walk to the shed I realized my new I-phone was still attached to my belt, and my gut instinct was to take it back into the house and not risk having it fall off my belt and get lost.

But to save the few seconds that would have taken I ignored that notion and hurriedly mowed for 30 minutes or so before the rain started. The grass was very heavy due to a lot of recent rain and at one point I knew I mowed over something that I had not seen in the long grass. Thinking it was a stick or a plastic plant container near the garden I hurried on, not realizing I had chopped my new phone into a million pieces until I finished mowing and realized the phone was no longer on my belt.

Bottom line, the minute I “saved” by not taking my phone back into the house cost me several hours to file an insurance claim, a $199 deductible, and another $60-80 to replace the case the phone was in. Later today I will spend more time activating and updating the new phone when it arrives. Very costly lessons learned.
Ironic that the ever-present cell phone that represents so much of the nano-second, 4G driven pace of life today should be the sacrificial lamb to remind me again to slow down and trust my instincts – you know, that nagging little voice that tells you what you should do that we/I so often override with the cultural norm of faster is better. I have learned that I can actually survive without my phone, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reminded of how dependent/addicted to it I am as I reached for it or thought of something I could do if I had it.

A good friend helped put things in perspective when I sent him a picture of my phone’s remains. He said, “Well at least it wasn’t a body part.” Very true, but I must admit sometimes it feel like it is. We hear warnings all the time about distracted driving, and that is a major concern. But it is only a symptom of a much larger problem – distracted living. My minor mishap reminded me that there is much more at risk from distracted living than a shiny new I-phone.

When I am not fully present while driving or when talking with another person, I am risking far greater damage to myself and others than the loss of a marvelous handheld computer. When I am not fully present and appreciative of the beauty of God’s creation and my responsibility as a steward of that creation because I’m too busy or too preoccupied to savor and save it, I am disloyal to the one who has given me life. When I am in too much of a hurry to play with a child or notice a homeless brother or sister or to be sensitive to the needs of my neighbors, I need to be reminded to be still and breathe in the awareness of what really matters in life.

Poorer and wiser, I pray for the sense to remember those lessons long after the new phone restores my life to “normal.”

(Note: Part of that return to normalcy will be to continue my series on Pentecost very soon.)