Living Car Free: Pros and Cons

I have been car free for almost 10 months now, doing everything on my bike (with a very nice little Burley Nomad trailer for heavy items), using the free city buses, and occasionally renting a car for a day or two.   Corvallis is small, so this has worked, much better than I would have imagined.

Recently, however, I’ve started thinking about whether I might be giving up a little too much by limiting my geographical range to the 6 or so miles surrounding my home – all those places I could be hiking, for example, that are just far enough away that I never bike there.   And the buses don’t run on Sundays, so anything I do on Sunday has to be planned with energy expenditure in mind.

So I started keeping a “car free log” – every time I felt constrained, I wrote down why.  And every time I felt really good about living without a car, I wrote that down.  With the idea of maintaining it here, here’s the current draft.

Pain Points of Living Without a Car

  • Much harder to go to hiking spots like Peavy or Fitton so I basically never end up going.
  • While it is possible to get to Portland on public transportation, I’ve still never done it, so I basically never go.   Ditto various other places it would be nice to get to know since I’m new to Oregon.  (I could rent a car, but I don’t seem to end up doing it).
  • Spend less time down at CoHo EcoVillage, where I’m an associate, because it’s 6 miles away.
  • Always being sweaty and having to live in athletic clothing.
  • Having to push through fatigue to get someplace, or get somebody to give me a ride.
  • Harder to buy things like watermelon because it takes up too much space and/or weighs too much.
  • Have to take more showers and do it at odd times.
  • Getting all the weather gear on and off can be a hassle.
  • Having more than one place to be in a short time can be a hassle.
  • Can’t carry my kneeling chair to retreats because I have to get a ride with somebody and they don’t have room in their car.
  • Sometimes feel more vulnerable as an older person with no ready transportation.

Rewards of Living Without a Car

  • I’m in great shape, and exercise is an integral part of my day instead of just something I drive to the gym to do.
  • Getting out in the fresh air is really invigorating.
  • I notice more natural beauty and am more intimate with the natural world.
  • I interact more with people on my routes.
  • Being required to ask for help from people (such as my neighbor helping me take my cats to the vet, or other Zen cronies giving me rides to retreats) leads to greater intimacy with others and works against my tendency to isolate.
  • As a Buddhist, my daily life is in sync with the precept of non-harming through not contributing to environmental pollution.
  • One less complicated life object to worry about: no gas, no maintenance, no insurance, no breakdowns; when you rent, it’s always a new car.
  • Save a lot of money that can then be used for better purposes like retreats and trips to see friends.
  • Supports a simple life focused on spiritual practice, which is what I repeatedly claim to want.
  • I’ve become one of the local spokespeople for car free living through my work with the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition.  I’ve participated in two workshops on how to live without a car.  I’m working on National Car Free Day.  So there’s a community identity I’ve created around not having a car.

There you have it.  No final decision so far!  What do others think?

BTW, if you’re interested in looking into this as a possibility, the best book I’ve seen about this topic is How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, by Chris Balish.  Whenever I’m ready to wimp out, I pick up this book and he convinces me not to give up.

The Meditation Habit

I recently figured out that every time I add a second meditation period in the evening, I feel hugely better the next morning.   By this I mean that I don’t wake up in abject terror, and I don’t have to spend half an hour lying there doing loving-kindness practice for myself just to get out of bed.  IF I meditated the night before.

The fact is, I am still seeing the daily arising of fear and the frequent phenomenon of disorientation.  Now and then, something in the brain just goes “Whoops!  Where are we???? ” and I have to remind it,  “Now dear, you know we retired in April and we live here in this new place, and we’re forging this utterly different new life.  Come on!   Let’s get going…”  It’s almost like the eyes going out of focus, or a sudden hit of jet lag, and having to grab onto the railing to steady yourself.  I would never have imagined this adjustment to be so huge, or to still be going on so many months into it.
Lucky for me I’m a Buddhist.   With 20-plus years of daily meditation practice, plus a number of retreats over those years and lots of study, I have a few tools with which to navigate this life.  Yet it still took a while to catch on that in circumstances like these, 40 minutes every morning just isn’t sufficient to overcome “fight or flight” with peace.  I do love to spend evenings watching a good Netflix movie and eating chocolate muffins, then reading in bed with furry kitties cuddled up next to me.  Nothing wrong with that, you say?  Well, unfortunately, I find I need to cut back on that just a bit in favor of a little more staring reality right in the face and coming back to the breath.

What is it about meditating that promotes inner peace?  I hesitate to even begin to try to summarize the teachings of thousands on this subject since the time of the Buddha, even up to recent discoveries in brain science that corroborate things he said over 2500 years ago to an astonishing degree.  Plus there are so many different systems of contemplative practice out there, each with its own take on things.  So I’ll just say that my current (mostly Zen) practice of coming back to this moment, this breath, this body – seeing whatever arises in the mind and allowing it to pass away – returning again and again – directly demonstrates that whatever arises is impermanent, conditioned, and not the self.  Even when you feel like all you did was keep backing off from your crazy mind for 45 minutes, over and over – still, everything that arose also passed away.  None of this fear, none of this desire for security or company or a chocolate muffin, none of this persists and none of it is who I am.

After all these many years of conditioning, on top of our basic animal nature to seek out (illusory) safety and avoid (perceived) danger, we need to be reminded, directly reminded, over and over, for the brain to let go into the truth.

I don’t feel like I’ve captured this perfectly, but I’ll leave it there for now, perhaps returning tomorrow to revise.  Happy New Year to all beings and may all beings be free in 2014!

 

 

 

The Weather

So I have this new resolve to write something every day even when I can’t think of anything and everything in me cries out to go read a book, eat chocolate muffins and generally “relax, you deserve it.”

Today’s can’t-think-of-anything topic will therefore discuss the weather.

Oregon has weather.  California does not (really) have weather. (When I first moved to California in 1982, I remember telling somebody I thought the weather was basically always the same; but after a few years there, I was noticing winter.  Still – not really.)

Here, it gets cold in the winter, although not my-childhood-home-near-Buffalo cold – in the high 30’s.  With dense, wet, cold fog enveloping everything and only sometimes burning off in the afternoon.   Some find this depressing: our local Italian exchange student told her family about it, and they all flew here to whisk her off to Southern CA for a week at the beach (these folks are not lacking for euros).

People tell me I will no doubt be doing (a cheaper version of) the same before too long; even lifelong locals tell me this.  However, I have (so far) not felt what I expected to feel about it.  Instead, I actually, weirdly like it.   Everything is silent, still, peaceful and cool.  The sky-high evergreens rise into the mist.  When the fog recedes a bit, the bare branches of other trees form graceful, intricate silhouettes against the pale sky.  Tiny birds flit among the trees.  It’s like a visual of a deep meditative state.

I have no car now so I ride my bike everywhere.  It’s cold starting out, but I warm up quickly, and then the cool air is exhilarating, bracing.  It’s not cold enough to hurt your face like it would be in, say, Buffalo.  Just enough to energize.

And about that famous rain: I seem to have arrived in one of the driest seasons on record.  The “rains all the time, you’ll hate it, you’ll move back” prediction has not come true.  Even when it has rained, even hard, I have good bike gear and do not get wet, so I haven’t minded it (plus there’s that  lovely gym half a mile down the street with the hot tubs and sauna, so really, who can complain?).

I think maybe the Pacific Northwest is where I belong.  But check back in a year or so.

 

 

 

Who IS This Person?

Standing waiting for the bus today (late, as usual) in the gray slush from this week’s first-in-20-years snowstorm, I found myself gazing up at the outlines of the trees against the sky and drinking in the loveliness of nature’s symmetry in the fresh, fresh air.

At which point, a little voice piped up “Who ARE you? I don’t even KNOW you.  You’re waiting for a BUS?  Something’s wrong with this picture.”

Somebody’s feeling very threatened.  Suddenly, something is wrong.  Uneasiness washes over me.

Cheri Huber, a wonderful Zen teacher who makes the teachings of the Buddha accessible to absolutely anybody, would say the one feeling threatened is part of “egocentric karmic conditioning”, a kind of virtual persona (or a group of virtual people) created by our lifelong reactivity aimed at self-protection: the animal brain continually scrambling to save itself and the human overlay creating stories, opinions, and self-concepts to reinforce the illusion of protection.  (In case I’m distorting her, check out any of her amazing books; the one I’m currently working with is called “Making a Change for Good: A Guide to Compassionate Self-Discipline”.)

On page 7 she lists some of the things conditioning includes:

What is right wrong, ugly, beautiful, sacred, worldly, important, valuable, worthless; who the right people are, which values are important, which god to believe in, what heaven is, what hell is, how a person should be, how others should be, how the world should be, how people should be punished, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.

Each time you needed to adapt to a perceived threat in your life,  a new persona was born.  Over time, they solidify as you continue to react according to their views of the world.  And since they’re all based on what is essentially a bunch of made-up stories about how things are (usually as seen through the eyes of somebody, say, 3 years old), the result is that you cause suffering for yourself and others.

Just remembering all this, just seeing my reactions in this way, is already a taste of freedom.  Despite myself, I constructed a whole self image around being a Silicon Valley yuppie intellectual with a condo and a good job, driving around in my Subaru.  I then intentionally challenged all that – and living that challenge is proving both a whole lot harder and a whole lot more interesting and freeing than I ever imagined.

Especially giving up the car.  I love so many things about it, yet I still can’t quite get my psyche to let go of the self-hating “pathetic old bird at the bus stop” image.  I suspect this kind of process is a big reason so many people hang onto lifestyles that no longer serve them – it just hurts too much to challenge everything you think you know about yourself that you’ve relied on all these years to keep you safe.

And yet…staying there leads to so much more suffering in the end.  Even Buddha said so.  I can tell he was right.

 

 

 

Disaster and Its Uses

I really have not given up ever posting in this blog, but a couple of months ago something disastrous happened to me.  I knew I’d have to write about it and didn’t want to.  I’m finally ready to see what can be made of this, so here goes.

On September 28th, a very rainy Saturday, I was driving north through McMinnville to pick up a visiting friend in Laurelwood and bring her back down to Corvallis to stay with me, when all of a sudden I found myself in the middle of a really bad car accident…caused, I was later informed, by me (I had no idea what had happened until they told me).  It seems there was a stop sign somewhere, which I somehow failed to see.   Another car T-boned me.

Both cars were totaled.  Both of us were injured.

I was injured in the ribs by the air bag hitting me in the side.  But my fine Subaru protected me from serious damage by giving up its life for mine.  The other person, not so lucky: he had a 20 year old car, no airbags, and worse injuries, which I know nothing about because he also has a lawyer.  It will be months more, they tell me, before we even know what their claim will consist of.

Having never before had a car accident, I was absolutely terrified. I have lots of insurance, so they don’t **think** really bad things are coming my way from this…but I also have lots of anxiety, a lifelong issue.  As a result, I took trips to Hell daily for most of the subsequent month or so.

  • I had visions of homelessness resulting from a devastating lawsuit.  Hanging around the Downtown Transit Center with the drug addicts.  Sleeping in doorways.
  • I had more visions of testifying in some courtroom with some lawyer ripping me to shreds for my terrible sins.  Cruel world attacking and destroying my every shred of self respect. It’s never safe out there, you know.
  • I was afraid to get the mail.  For weeks, I only got it every other weekday morning except not on Fridays, so I could be sure if there was anything scary I could make phone calls and get advice from someone more rational than me rather than losing sleep. (Once I really wanted my Netflix movie and it was a Friday, so I got my friend to get just that out of the mailbox and not tell me what else was in there.)
  • I wallowed in the unspeakable horror of the thought that you can just be going along doing your life and all of a sudden unwittingly cause pain to a stranger.
  • “What if he dies”?
  • “What if I never get over this?”

Oh man…it hurts writing this.  I see why I put it off for 2-plus months.  I probably won’t even proof it.

What is this About? 

As a committed spiritual practitioner, I started right in, even in the midst of all this turmoil and terrible fear, to ask questions.

What is my intention?  I’ve written about this before: I intend to live a simple, spiritually focused life and free myself from whatever obstacles arise so I can contribute something useful to the world.  OK, I didn’t bargain on **this** arising!  But here it is.  How can it be transformed in alignment with my intention?

I couldn’t get over the “I am now ruined and homeless” vision so in meditation, I asked how to use it.  The answer came as this: in the Theravada tradition, people became monks by “going forth into homelessness”.  They gave up owning anything at all and depended on the community for all food, clothing and shelter.   This is still done today in Southeast Asia and I know of monastic groups in California, England and Australia who follow it.  When I gave up my career, my home, and some degree of financial security and moved away to retire early, I had a kind of “going forth” in mind – not something that drastic, of course, but the same basic idea.   Letting go of everything familiar.  Simplifying life.  Devoting more time and energy to spiritual practice and writing.  Doing something for the world.

So I decided this experience would be a tool for my mental and emotional practice of “going forth”.  I will work to use this threatening situation to more deeply relinquish attachment to my old life.  We know that in this life there is really no final safety – we’re all going to leave this life.  The Buddha teaches that true freedom lies in fully knowing this in mind an heart and finding compassion for all suffering beings in the midst of that knowing.  And Jesus says it.  “Whoever would gain his life must lose it”, and “Come, follow Me”.  Are you going to hunker down in your (illusorily) safe little bunker, or are you going to wake up?  I think these life challenges are asking me to wake up.

How to find compassion in the midst of great fear?  I think about all those others who are in similar, or worse, situations at this moment.  Many people have car accidents; many people make mistakes; many people suffer terrible injuries; many people are ruined.  It’s not just a matter of “think how much worse it could be”; it’s more a matter of “you are not alone.”  It’s really easy to isolate myself from people, and a real practice to envision my own difficulties as shared by the great sangha of the rest of the world.  Once I get this orientation into my consciousness, it’s easier to reach out to friends and connect with greater intimacy through the human pain we all share.

On a more mundane level, I decided not to replace my car and am now living car free.  It’s not that hard.  It has many hidden joys: seeing the natural world more fully; meeting interesting neighbors  you’d never meet driving a car; making new friends when people give you rides to events; feeling great from biking or walking whenever you get to whatever errand you’re running, instead of pissed off about parking a car or what some driver did on the way there.  Saving tons of money.  Not contributing to environmental destruction.  You can rent a car or use a car share when you need one, and you find you don’t need to as much as you might think.  (For a really good book on this subject, see  How to Live Well Without Owning a Car by Chris Balish – the “add link” function isn’t working today or I’d give you a link).

So yeah, it’s been tough lately.  But I’m living and I’m learning.

 

Spiritual Practice, #1: Coming Back to Your Intention

This is a “Practice Tip” I wrote for the Insight Meditation South Bay newsletter in July, 2013.  You can subscribe to our newsletter by getting on the mailing list at http://www.imsb.org/about/MailingList.php.

Wise intention is the touchstone for wise decisions in our life and our practice.  I have been very much in touch with this lately as I have been navigating a huge life upheaval in retiring and moving to another state – selling a house, buying a house, leaving behind my job, my routines, all my friends, and most of what is familiar in my daily life.  My intention was, and still is, to make time for deepening my practice and for developing my creativity.  But I couldn’t afford to leave my high tech career  without also leaving the Bay Area, where I’ve lived for over 30 years.

Unexpectedly,  while I was prepared for this experience to be liberating and exciting, it was initially absolutely terrifying.  I was physically ill for the first week in my new home and then emotionally challenged for the next weeks, as I attempted to come to terms with “What just happened?  Where am I? Who am I? ”

Intention saved my sanity.  I reminded myself that I had made the decision to do this carefully, based on repeatedly returning to the koan/question “What is my intention for my life?”  and the answer, “To prioritize my practice and my awakening above all else.”  What that meant for me was that at this point in my spiritual evolution, working in Silicon Valley in my particular job and situation had simply become untenable, and the choice to live a simpler life, focused on the things that really matter to me, is a tradeoff I am willing to make.

I put a  Buddha magnet on my refrigerator with a piece of paper below it that reads: “I know you are afraid – but remember your intention.”  It may seem hokey, but seeing this every morning has been an extremely useful reminder of what I’m doing here.  Although I’m finally settling in and getting more used to this new way of life outside the safety net of corporate America, it’s still scary sometimes.  I still return to “What is my intention?”

Your intentions will change over time as your life evolves in different ways – but discovering what they are and coming back to them is always a good way to begin any decision process you face, as well as a good way to stay the course you set for yourself.

So whatever the choices  you need to make today,  find your own wise intention,  and return to it often as the lodestar to guide your practice and your life.

 

 

That Identity Thing

Over the years, I have often seen references to people retiring and then feeling lost – there’s that cliché story of the husband driving the wife crazy with his restlessness and bad temper.  Then there’s the guy I met at my job who retired and then went back to work because he couldn’t figure out what to do with himself and just felt better with a job.  He could afford to retire!   In luxury!  I could not believe this guy.

I always laughed about it, thinking “that will never happen to me.  I know who I am in life, and it’s definitely not a technical writer in Mountain View, California.”

Well, big surprise: it happened to me.

It is really difficult to abandon your identity in society!  Even if that identity is something you actively disliked and couldn’t wait to let go of.

My first week here, Monday morning arrived and I watched the neighbors driving off to work and all the kids walking down the street to the elementary school a few blocks from here, and along comes a whole tangle of not so pleasant mind states:

I felt guilty.  All these people are going to work, shouldn’t I be doing that too?

I felt afraid.  What will happen now that I’m not earning my keep the world?  Is disaster lurking in the wings now that there’s no paycheck getting deposited at Technology Credit Union in my name?

I felt confused.  I was so sure I knew myself as this certain kind of person,  iconoclastic, spiritually focused, somewhat solitary, creative – yet now I’m feeling envious of “normal, average, family” people I see out my windows.

I felt sad.  Is my “real” life now over?  What’s next – death?

I found myself at the (progressive, co-op, but still…) supermarket, envying the workers who have a place to go and a definite role to play each day.  I found myself biking across the campus of Oregon State and suddenly overcome with an inexplicable, deep grief for my own college days – during which, I might add, I was miserable, suicidal, and addicted to food and bad boyfriends!    My life is orders of magnitude happier today, yet here I am, wanting to be 20 years old again.

So this retirement thing is not one great big vacation, at least not yet.  The day to day is improving as I develop a new daily routine, become a part of a Buddhist sangha,  and make some friends.  Once my house and my days are more established here, I’ll be doing some freelance writing and volunteer work, which will give me more community connections.  A new identity is slowly evolving (and with my meditation practice, I’m slowly letting go of all identities – but that’s a topic for another day.)

And so, guys in TV sitcoms and Paul at Juniper Networks, I want you to know I get it now.

 

What’s New?

Since I left Silicon Valley in April, 2013 and moved here to Corvallis, many things about my life have changed. Here’s my list.

 I’m driving way less.

Switching from a car centered life to a bike-and-bus centered life was a big challenge at first.  I came to Corvallis a swimmer and runner, but not a cyclist, and the body at 61 does not adapt as easily as an athlete might expect.  Plus my general anxiety levels started out high just from the huge transition, and the mind did NOT want to get involved with bus routes, figuring out how to get the bike onto the bus rack, and so forth.  So there were members of the inner committee that had to be told to just be quiet for as long as it took to just try these things out.  My initial experiences were all so positive and encouraging (really friendly bus drivers; great people watching opportunities) that I’ve been keeping it up and increasing my bike and bus time as a new life priority.   I was even filmed putting my bike on the bus downtown for a website promotion on alternative transportation.

I’m living more simply.

Making this work can actually become a kind of hobby, and as with so many “things you need to know”, the Internet is your friend.

Support for a simple lifestyle is rampant on the Internet and I am deeply grateful to have found that. The best so far: www.zenhabits.net. Be careful not to become overwhelmed, though – there is SO much you can do it’s easy to feel like just giving up and doing nothing.

Another great helper: The Dollar Stretcher, www.stretcher.com. They will send you a page of tips regularly.  Also can feel overwhelming so I just take one or two a week to work on.

 I’m remembering my intentions 

I’m doing better at staying focused on my life goals, which in turn counteracts the tendency to freeze in anxiety or depression.

Number One: spiritual practice. This is really blossoming here amid the stunning natural world and with my new Buddhist sangha, Corvallis Zen Circle ( http://corvalliszencircle.com/) I’ve been on a wonderful retreat on an organic farm south of here, and I’ve travelled to my teacher Mushin’s parent monastery, Great Vow, in Clatskanie, northeast of Portland (https://www.zendust.org/greatvow).

We are beginning a fundraising effort here aimed at building a Buddhist center for all the groups in Corvallis, which will also be home to the Insight Meditation community I will be starting in the Fall.  Our center will be called the Sangha Jewel Temple in homage to the great sangha in which all spiritual traditions take part.  (Want to contribute? Just go to the link.  We would love to experience your generous heart!)

Number Two: creativity.  Haven’t been doing so great with this one, hence today’s beginning at daily writing.  It is so easy for life to get away from us, even when we no longer have a nine-to-five job taking up a big chunk.  This is one of the things that has most surprised me about retirement (the other being that identity crisis thing I thought would never happen to me – but I’ll write more about that in the next post.)

Number Three: simple living. This area has exploded into a major interest lately.  At first, it was scary to think about watching my spending as I faced all the fears about running out of money, being destitute, on the street, etc. etc. – all those things that kept me in Silicon Valley for way too many years.  Now it’s begun to feel more like normal life as I incorporate the principles of frugality and (what the Buddhist teachers call) renunciation into my days.  As the Buddha said: renunciation is giving up one thing in order to attain something better.  The “something better” is becoming more and more evident in my life.It includes free time for the things that really matter, the inner strength found through focusing on those things, and the great satisfaction of living the life I really want to live day to day.

Number Four: continuing and expanding my fitness.  This is also evolving into something entirely different from what I expected.  Because I’m riding my bike everywhere, I find I don’t (for the moment) have the extra energy to go for long runs or “train” for races.  Master’s swimming hasn’t worked out for me here (at least, so far) due both to schedule and cost.  So I do things like ride down to the river (or on colder days, the city pool) and swim for a while, then ride back home, or ride to the gym, work out, and grab the bus back; or ride up the hill to the trail and run/hike.  None of the off-the-bike activities are as intense as they used to be when I just hopped in the car to reach them.  But it feels wonderful to be out of the car and out in the fresh air, and the body doesn’t seem to notice it’s doing less of the “training” activity.

I’ll probably get stronger over time. Or maybe not.  In any case, fitness now feels like a much more organic part of life.

I’ll close with a quote from Zen teacher Cheri Huber:

Leads toward depression:

  • Raising your standards until you’re dissatisfied.
  • Not doing what gives your life meaning.
  • Repressing how you are, and with that, depressing the life you know you could be living.

Leads away from depression:

  • Being present.
  • Not trying to change anything.
  • Accepting what is.

May all beings be happy, safe, and free.

Adjusting: Why is This Such a Shock?

I had all sorts of ideas about what my life would be like once I no longer had to spend hours every day doing a job I had lost all interest in doing.

Here’s what I thought I’d be doing about now.

  • I would spend hours meditating and studying Buddhist spiritual writings.
  • In no time, I would be a spiritual teacher and start Insight Meditation of the Willamette Valley, working with my teacher, Shaila Catherine of Insight Meditation South Bay ( http://www.imsb.org)
  • On top of that, I would now have hours to spend running, swimming, and working out, probably doing at least a half marathon within the next few months
  • I would be learning all about how to take care of my house, plant a garden, and fix stuff whenever it breaks
  • And in my spare time after all that, I’d write inspiring articles, possibly even nonfiction books.  Maybe cash in on them and get big bucks, fame, etc.  Who knows?

Well, I’m here to tell you that just because you aren’t going to a job, you do not end up with unlimited free time.  You still have to prioritize and manage said time.  There are still only 24 hours in any given day. You still have to sleep and eat (and now you’re cooking the food because you need to save money on meals).  Also,  because you aren’t getting that paycheck now, there’s housework to be done (no more paying for that).  And you might need to save on gas and car expenses, so  there’s biking and bus riding, which both take twice the time (although both are fun, great for your fitness, and one tenth the stress of driving).

Then there’s the getting older thing: you don’t have the stamina you once had.  I’m very fit, but I find I do get tired a lot more easily than I used to, and my after-lunch siestas have gotten lengthier (I always did squeeze those in, even at work and even if it meant in the back of my Subaru in the parking lot).

And you don’t have the drive you once had, either.   I just don’t feel like pushing through to a goal; I feel like relaxing, kicking back, going for long walks in the woods, meditating, and reading.   Maybe this is just a temporary decompressing after 30 years of full time work; or maybe not.  (Is it OK if it’s not?  I’m not sure yet.  What about all those “Don’t Retire, Break Free” type books?)

So the upshot is, I’m not blazing through the above list.  I am writing this blog, though, off and on!